For every person that says the deadlift healed their low back pain, there’s 2 people that got hurt doing it. From a movement pattern perspective, the Deadlift is considered a hinge pattern. If you’ve never heard of a hinge pattern, that’s okay, it’s def heard of you. In a given day, you probably hinge hundreds of times a day when you sit down or try to pick something up from the ground.
A hinge is simply leaning forward and shifting your weight so you don’t fall over. Feet on the ground and hamstring tension is what prevents you from falling forward. The “hinge” is at the hips, but you’ll have some degree of the knees bending as well.
Powerlifting purists will poo-poo this info, but let’s be honest – you’re probably aren’t doing a powerlifter’s program. And their low backs probably hurt.
On a side note, back injuries with deadlifting can be serious, here’s how to know if you should go to the emergency room.
How to Avoid Low Back Pain Deadlifting
- Trunk Stiffness
- Pull the Bar Close
- Use Your Legs
- Make your body stronger
#1 Trunk Stiffness
The first thing to reduce back pain with deadlifting is to know how to make your trunk stiff.
That starts with breathing.
With a big inhale, the trunk needs to get WIDER. You should FEEL the air get the low back.
If you have trouble with this a weight belt is a good teaching tool. Wrap it tight around you and be sure to feel your trunk expand into the belt in ALL directions. Then learn how to BREATH and maintain that pressure.
I have no strong views if you should use the belt for heavy sets or not, but you should know HOW to use it.
This gets a bad rap but its misunderstood. Usually its just thought of as holding your breath. To help, don’t even give it a name. Just do the following
- Take in a big belly breath
- Perform the lift
- Exhale when you know you will successfully complete the rep
The only change you make to your breathing is to WAIT longer before you EXHALE. In general you’d exhale
- to initiate the lift
- when you know you will be successful
#2 Pull The Bar Close when Deadlifting
The lats control the ENTIRE shoulder girdle. Use them to pull the bar close in the deadlift and reduce low back pain.
There are a lot of cues for this – bend the bar, break the bar apart, etc etc, the end result is to FEEL the lats engage. You should feel this same tension when you are leaning over, after you grab the bar.
To FEEL the lats:
- Put your arms out in front of you
- Get the shoulders towards the ears
- Get the shoulders AWAY from the ears
That’s scapular depression. You will feel your lats. Most people try to squeeze the shoulder blades together. You may feel low back pain when you deadlift doing this because the excessive arch in the back.
#3 Use your Legs to Protect the Low Back
Your legs PUSH the ground away to initiate the deadlift. People that miss this part end up “peeling” the weight off the ground. I’ve witness many people using this strategy to deadlift and complaining about low back pain during AND after.
The clue is you’ll see the hips rising FASTER than the shoulders (stripper back), or a completely vertical shin (despite this setup being taught in some circles).
I see this fault more with people that do “touch and go” reps, instead of resetting every rep. The bounce seems to force the stripper back.
#4 Stop back pain by making your Body Stronger
So above is all the technique and tension things, but if you keep hurting your low back deadlifting, you may have deeper, less obvious structural issues.
By structure, I am referring to the “S” Pyramid (LINK) from StrongFit. If you haven’t heard of them, I recommend checking them out, but only if you like rabbit holes.
Simply put your BODY parts aren’t strong enough to tolerate the forces the barbell is imposing on your. This means your low back will do more of the work with the deadlift.
At a certain weight, the deadlift is less a training exercise and more of a performance lift. Your individual body parts have to be stronger to PERFORM it.
The deadlift is a movement, so the movement will get stronger, but only to the extent of the individual pieces.
Heres how to think about this. Anal retentive engineers, feel free to critique my drawing:
A 135# deadlift is a COMPLETELY different movement than a 405# (and UP) deadlift.
What’s this mean? As the bar gets heavier, it also gets LONGER. The distance from 1 to 2 is 26 inches, and 2 to 3 is 16 inches. So, 1 plate versus ALL the plates is 40% more length added to the bar, PLUS the bar in bending.
The deadlift is literally trying to rip you (low back and all) apart.
Your structure HAS to be able to withstand this.
Based on that, I’m a fan of StrongFit’s structural strength recommendations, which are:
- 50m sandbag carry 50% of 1rm
- 20m farmers carry 100% of 1rm split between each hand
- 5x BB/DB row 50%/30% of 1rm
This starts to get into the realm of specialization for the deadlift, so basically you deadlift because you compete. Competing means you accept the risk of back pain.
Not meeting these doesn’t mean don’t deadlift, but working towards these is a great way to decrease the risk of experiencing low back pain with the deadlift.
Hurting your low back while deadlifting is totally unnecessary if you are just a casual strength trainee focused on general fitness. And these tips will definitely help you out. At the end of the day, a good training program is the most protective against injury.