Here’s what you can do to prevent pain. Start by checking your ego at the door.
While the deadlift may look simple, it’s an incredibly technical exercise. One wrong move and you might end up hurt. That’s why it’s so common for people to associate low back pain with deadlifting—but if you know what you’re doing, you can pull more safely.
It’s one of the few exercises that requires output from almost every muscle in your body—making it a great compound movement to work into your strength training routine. It’s a standard lift for building strength and size in several muscle groups throughout the body.
Its complexity leaves plenty of room for error, though. It’s a movement that demands attention to every minute detail, especially if you’re trying to pull big weight. It requires a ton of muscle coordination to move safely and fluidly through each rep—that requires just as much output from the brain as it does from the body. Rush through the exercise with little thought process, and the pressure of the load may fall on the lumbar spine instead of your muscles. One of the best tips to a better deadlift is to build awareness of what each muscle group feels like during the exercise. Before you load up the weight, take some time to really experience what the tension through your muscles feels like in each rep.
Deadlifts are so injury prone because the origin of power generation is often misconstrued. It may look like a back exercise to the untrained eye, considering you’re bending down to pick something up off the floor. However, the bend comes from the hips rather than the spine, in order to harness the strength from the glutes and hamstrings to power the movement. The muscles in your back are working, but they’re not the main mover of the exercise.
A deadlift is a full-body movement, but if you’re doing it right, you should definitely feel it more on your backside, or more specifically, the posterior chain. So yes, a deadlift will work your back (which is why some people incorporate it on back day instead of leg day), but if you feel pain there, that’s not a good sign.
Most causes of deadlifting back pain occur because of how you’re approaching and executing the lift. We all want to lift the heaviest weights to feel like we’ve ‘put the work in’ and reap the benefits of our strength gains. But at what cost?
If you struggle with low back pain while deadlifting, check out this expert-compiled list of common deadlift mistakes and take the time to evaluate your form to prevent further injury.
1) You’re Rounding Your Back
First and foremost, you should be avoiding any excessive curvature or rounding of your spine, especially in your lower back. This isn’t a bend over and lift up movement, and if you reinforce bad habits with light weight, you’ll wind up paying for it later.
We want our spine to be as straight and sturdy as that dowel rod. In this position, the core muscles work together with the greatest efficiency and protect our spine. In any other position, neuromuscular coordination among our core muscles are impaired. This causes undesirable focused pressure on our vertebrae.
A surprising key to this technique comes from maintaining a focus on your front. Do not neglect the activation of your core muscles when deadlifting. This applies to the eccentric [lowering] portion of the lift as well. Performing the exercise with technical proficiency means nothing, if you do not approach the eccentric portion of the lift with the same proficiency and care as the concentric.
2) You’re Hyperextending Your Back
Maintaining a flat back is the first criteria of a quality deadlift. However, you may be so worried about your back rounding that you overcompensate by extending too far in the opposite direction. You may be overextending, creating a C-like shape in your lower back. When this happens, your pelvis tilts a bit too far forward, exaggerating the natural inward curvature of your lumbar spine. When that happens, the core muscles can’t engage properly (try popping your butt out and squeezing your belly button back into your spine at the same time—you won’t get as strong of a contraction as you would if your hips were stacked under your shoulders). This will translate pressure into the low back, which can spark that nagging pain.
To avoid this, think about tilting your hips so that they sit right underneath your shoulders before you hinge. Keep the ribs down, too—no need to buff out your chest. As you begin to hinge down, remember that the movement of pushing the butt back occurs in your hips, not your low back. Gliding through the hips rather than popping your butt out backwards.
3) You Don’t Fire Up Your Lats
Your lats are the biggest muscle in your back, pretty much stretching across its entire area, from the humerus in your upper arm to your pelvis. If you don’t engage your lats before you lift, you’re not creating the tension across your back. So when you’re transferring force from your lower body to your upper body, your back can start to round. And that can lead to back strain and pain.
The fix: Pretend like you are trying to squeeze an orange in your armpit or squeeze a sponge in your armpit. When you do that, that’s going to get that area to fire. Maintain the engagement during the setup and execution of the lift.
4) You Start with the Weight Too Far Away
If you start with the weight too far away from you, you’re giving yourself a poor line of pull. And that puts more of a strain on your lower back. It can also take away from engaging your hamstrings and glutes, which should be the major players in the lift.
Remember this easy cue: Start with the weight like you’re going to cut your feet in half, so it should be right over mid foot.
5) You Don’t Bend Your Knees Enough
A conventional deadlift requires some knee bend—not as much as a squat, but enough that will allow you to get down to the bar.
Put very simply, without a good knee bend, your deadlift won’t be able to get off the floor. The primary reason for good knee bend is providing yourself with the opportunity to be in the best position possible to apply force into the ground. If our knees lack sufficient knee bend we may rely on primarily hamstrings and low back.
If you don’t bend your knees, you are just going to bend at the waist. You’re going to have straight legs, and that can crush your back. Your chest should be above your hips, and your hips above your knees.
6) You Focus on Pulling the Weight Up
Wait—deadlifting is a pull move, isn’t it? That’s true, but thinking about it as a simple pull can put your body in a dangerous position that can leave your back at risk.
Instead, it’s very much a pushing exercise, too—think about putting force in the ground through your feet, pushing yourself away from the ground as you pull the barbell up and back.
Remember to apply and drive as much vertical force into the ground as you can, while letting the bar glide over your shins. Your spine is still neutral with your trunk in a forward leaning position.
7) You Overextend at the Top of the Lift
When lots of guys get to the top of the lift, they finish it off with almost like a hip thrust—with the belief that extra range of motion will actually work their hamstrings and butt even more. Problem is, if you’re unable to fire your glutes effectively, you actually end up pushing with your lower back instead to make up for it. As a result, you might end up with your pelvis too far forward.
You want to finish your lift completely upright and your knees locked, squeezing the glutes.
8) You Ignore Your Abs
Tightening up the abs helps protect the lower back. Most people do a pretty good job engaging their abs at the beginning of the lift, it’s at the descent where it becomes problematic.
Once you complete your lift, you might be tempted to let gravity take over and just drop it from the top. Bad idea: The uncontrolled dropping of the weight can knock your body out of position as you hunch your shoulders downward, seriously straining your lower back and leading to pain.
Keeping yours abs engaged—as well as your lats—during the controlled lowering of the weight can help. Before your lift, brace your gut as if you were going to take a punch. You can take a breath at the top, but you still need to keep your abs on. Then hip hinge back and control the bar on the way down to the floor.
9) You’re Loading Up Weight Before You’re Ready
Just because you think you’ve mastered all the common form mistakes listed above doesn’t mean you’re ready to ramp up the weight to your ultimate limit just yet.
Form mistakes happen even for the most experienced deadlifters when the weight is too heavy. If your muscles can’t handle the load, your back may round out, your knees may straighten, and you might forget your abs exist.
There’s a threshold to where your body will maintain good form. If you load up the weight past that threshold, things can go south. Moving up in weight gradually will help your hamstrings, glutes, and back muscles all build enough strength to maintain that movement pattern throughout heavier reps. Responsible lifting is the key to not getting injured. Don’t let your ego be the reason you wind up sore—or worse, injured.
The Bottom Line
Making the tweaks here should help alleviate back pain you feel when deadlifting, but if the problem persists, you might want to enlist the help of a reputable personal trainer or coach to see what you’re doing.