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by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC

Setting your back is lifting the bar. Lifting the bar is setting your back.

Setting the deadlift back is a continuous process.
There's a subtle, hidden message here.

Let’s do a thought experiment, or, as it is more elegantly and classically known, a gedankenexperiment. Let’s have you go over to the leg press machine and start titrating up to a heavy set of five. How much can you leg press?

If you’re like most people, you can leg press more than you can squat, so the answer is “I can leg press a LOT.”

That’s not the experiment, that’s just the setup. Hold on.

Let’s examine the equipment. The leg press machine consists of a seat with a rigid back, a foot plate welded to plate posts to serve as the load, and an incline along which the load is pushed. It’s precisely because you are moving the load up an incline, and not vertically, that you can leg press so much more than you can squat. And that is why the incline plane is one of the classical six simple machines—you have to do the same total work, but with lower force production over a longer distance. Less force means you just don’t have to be as strong.

But I digress, and I’m not in the mood for force vectors and trigonometry at the moment. Our gedankenexperiment has to do not with the incline plane, but rather with the seat. Having determined your max leg press weight, here’s what we’re going to do:

Remove the back of the seat, and do your max leg press without any back support. Ready? Go.

Try harder next time.

Now, this unpleasant experimental protocol, clearly a violation of the Helsinki Declaration, is not dissimilar to the atrocities committed daily in gyms all over the world by squatters and deadlifters who do not attend to their backs. In fact, the situation with squats and deads is perhaps even worse, because in the case of barbell training the ground, not the load, is stationary, and force must be transmitted through the back.

We’ve talked a lot about setting your back for the deadlift, but in many if not most cases it’s not an outright failure to set the back that I see. (I do see such failures, of course, and when I do, my wrath is terrible and swift.)

Instead, I see the Set-It-And-Forget-It mentality.

Here’s how that works: to placate his coach, the athlete puts on a very good show, approaching the bar in a systematic, methodical, 5-step process, checking all the boxes: Stance. Grip. Shins on the bar. Breathe and raise the chest, extending the spine.

All is in readiness for step 5: Drag the bar up the legs.

The athlete "begins" the lift, and the set-it-n'-ferget-it back reveals that it's more "forget" than "set," and rounds up into a curvaceous kitty-cat back. The tight straight spine goes soft as the bar leaves the floor, when the lift "begins."

That’s the problem. The athlete has not internalized the deep and transcendent truth that the lift began from the moment he put hands on the bar in step 2, that the lift continued when he dropped his shins to the bar, that the lift intensified when he took a breath, and intensified again when he raised his chest, setting his back against the weight of the bar.

Lifting the bar, dragging it up the legs, does not begin at step 5. It began at step 2 with the grip. Dragging the bar up the legs is a continuation of the lift that began in step 2, not the beginning.

Conversely, the lift is not the step that comes after setting the back….it is the continuation of setting the back, because you never stop setting the back.

Let me say all that again, albeit more tersely:

The lift and the back setup start at step 2, and both continue until the end of the rep.

From the moment you put your hands on the bar, you are taking the weight in your hands, stretching out your arms and wrists between the bar and floor. From the moment you raise your chest, you are setting your back against the weight of the bar, and setting your back transmits force to the bar through your arms and your tight grip, beginning the process of lifting it.

Setting your back is lifting the bar. Lifting the bar is setting your back.

Your back setup is never complete. It continues throughout the entire pull. At every moment, you are continuing to set your back, so that force can be efficiently transmitted from the hip chassis to the bar—which is what it is to lift the bar. At lockout, you continue to be in spinal extension, chest up, rigid and tight. As you lower the bar, you continue to maintain your back setup, because you can hurt yourself putting the bar down as easily as pulling it up.

An equivalent, nerdy, Newtonian perspective is to regard the setting of the back as an integration of infinitely many back setups—setting the back at every infinitesmal point as it travels up the legs. With the bar on the floor you are setting your back. With the bar an inch off the floor you are setting your back. With the bar 1.87659761 feet off the floor you are setting your back. With the bar at lockout you are setting your back. Putting the bar down you are setting your back.

And let’s be clear: you are continuously and aggressively setting your back not primarily to avoid injury (although it does help you avoid injury), but to effectively transmit force to the bar in your hands, because your spine is literally the force transduction element between the hips and the load.

Failure to actively set your back throughout the lift is like allowing somebody to pull out the seat back in the middle of a leg press. It doesn’t just make the lift uglier and a bit less safe. It makes the lift more difficult, because it allows your spine to degenerate from a force transmitter to a force absorber, allowing energy to be dissipated into the deformation of a body rather than transmitted to the load.

But what about those strongmen and powerlifting champions you see pulling loads with a rounded back? That objection opens up a discussion of moment arms, brings in consideration of tradeoffs between back extension and the distance between the hip and the load, and proceeds on the entirely incorrect assumption that these athletes are not actually setting their back. In fact they are, but in a way that allows them to handle ungodly and ungainly loads.

But here’s the critical question relevant to this issue: are you an elite strongman or champion powerlifter? Do you want to be?

Right. I didn’t think so.

In our system of training for general health and fitness, we use a straight, extended, rigid back for the deadlift (and squat, and press), because this configuration is the safest and most mechanically efficient way to move the loads we'll be using. Setting the back into this configuration is not just a box to be checked off during the setup. It is an integral component of the movement and must be constantly and dynamically maintained at every point in that movement.

The back setup is the lift, and the back setup is continued throughout the entire movement.

Never stop setting your back.

Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.

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