Physical therapist and world-record powerlifter Stefi Cohen is helping her 900,000-plus Instagram followers rethink how they lift—and avoid injury.
Perhaps the most common training tip is to keep your back straight throughout the lift—no matter what exercise you're performing. From squats to deadlifts to accessory movements, this is the single connecting thread. Any spine flexing under load, the thinking has always been, is what causes back pain and injury.
Stefi Cohen, D.P.T., sees the tip as unhelpful at best, dangerous at worst, because by obsessing over straight backs, we neglect the positions we fall into when our form inevitably slips. And that shock to a weak area can lead to an injury, or cause back pain, which 80 percent of Americans will experience in their lifetime. Truth is, your spine is capable of rounding and arching, just as it does during the cat-cow exercise. It's meant to move from more than a neutral position.
Consider, says Cohen, that legendary Latvian powerlifter Konstantīn Konstantinovs deadlifted nearly 1,000 pounds, “and he had a rounded upper and lower back. Bending your back is not what’s dangerous. What’s dangerous is a position that you don’t train.” Need another example? Watch strongmen lift the atlas ball. By default, they round their backs to do this. They've also spent years training with lighter loads to prepare to lift the larger, heavier atlas balls in competition.
Cohen says that “resilience and robustness are built through sound training programs that include movements that take you outside your ‘comfortable movements’ in a safe, nonthreatening way.”
The answer is to slowly add what you’re not doing, especially “exercises that challenge and require control in multiple planes of motion.” That doesn't mean deadlifting with a rounded back today, and it doesn't change the ideal form for a deadlift. But you do want to prepare your spine to be strong in other positions than the perfectly neutral deadlift position. Integrating time doing cat-cow mobility drills can help, teaching you to be aware of the full range of motion that your spine is capable of.
Eccentric and isometric exercises are often overlooked and can also help you build a sturdy spine. Try adding good mornings, kettlebell rack walks, and static sandbag holds and walks to your routine. Do two of these moves three times a week.
Put the Principles to the Test
Heavy Sandbag Carry
Stand over a heavy sandbag (or some other similar implement), your feet wide at the sides of the bag. Push your hips back, bend your knees, and grab the sides. Quickly lift the bag and rest it on your knees. Now wrap your arms around it, like you’re bear-hugging it, and clasp your hands together. Stand tall and begin walking.
As you walk, you should be leaning slightly back to balance the sandbag. Walk for 100 steps. That’s 1 round; do 3. As the exercise becomes easier, increase the load of the bag or the number of steps you walk.
A version of this story originally appears in the March 2021 issue of Men's Health, with the title " IT’S OKAY TO ROUND YOUR BACK (REALLY!)".
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