You work out to feel good and to be a healthier version of yourself, however, you can get injured if you’re not cautious. If not executed properly, deadlifting can cause you to strain your back leading to back pain. Here are some ways to protect your back while deadlifting.
The deadlift is one of the most important exercises you can include in your training plan.
This movement requires work from several muscle groups, making it a staple for any type of trainee looking to build overall size and strength. But its potential benefits for the posterior chain (your back muscles, spine, and legs) also make the deadlift one of the best exercises for real-world results, too—whether you’re a world-class athlete or just a world-class dad, you can benefit from exercise.
Since so many large muscle groups are involved in the deadlift, you have the potential to move big weights. This should be the exercise you’ll be able to use to rack up the highest max number in the gym. Because of that massive potential, however, the deadlift also has the tendency to become a big show-off move—as in, overeager exercisers might be tempted to load up their barbells with more weight than they’re able to pull to show off off in the gym.
But the deadlift is a complicated compound exercise that should never be rushed. The move may look simple—you pull the bar up off the floor—but there are plenty of mistakes to make when you perform this surprisingly technical movement. When you lift irresponsibly (too much weight with incorrect form), pain and even injury becomes a big risk, especially in the low back.
Why Back Pain Can Happen With Poor Deadlift Form
The lumbar spine, or low back, receives the brunt of the pressure of a poorly executed deadlift. And if you’ve ever experienced a low back injury, you know how difficult it is to move through your daily life with the pain.
Back pain when deadlifting might be common, but it shouldn’t be normal, says trainer Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., owner of CORE in Boston, Mass. In fact, it’s usually an indication you’re doing something wrong with your lift.
“It’s fine to feel a little fatigue or tiredness in your back the day after deadlifting,” Gentilcore says. “But if you wake up the next day and it’s affecting your day to day activity, like it’s hard to bend over and it’s hard to twist, or you are apprehensive to sit up and down or to roll over in bed, that would tell me that your technique needs a little work.”
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. There are a variety of factors that go into the lapses in form that that result in back pain from deadlifts, according to performance coach and athlete development expert Curtis Shannon, C.S.C.S. “For starters, it is ego, lack of technical proficiency, baseline strength and stability, as well as force production,” he says. “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?”
Here, we’ll break down some of the most common reasons you’re feeling back pain after deadlifting, and what you can do to lift pain-free. But remember, these are our best suggestions for general scenarios. “If pain persists, speak with a licensed physical therapist, chiropractor or doctor,” says Shannon. Don’t sideline yourself for your future gains by pushing through an injury. Adjust, take the proper measures to address your issues, and live to lift another day.
Deadlift Mistake: Your Back Isn’t Straight
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.
Shannon recommends imagining that you have a straight rod running along your spine, and moving as such. “We want our spine to be as straight and sturdy as that dowel rod,” he says. “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,” he advises, and adds that you need to keep up the engagement throughout the whole motion. “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.” (We’ll discuss this more below).
Deadlift Mistake: 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.
“It stands to reason they’re going to be providing a lot of stability to the spine and upper back just to keep it in position when you’re deadlifting,” Gentilcore says.
Problem is, 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 is easy: “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,” Gentilcore says. “I can stand behind my clients and tap their lats, and you can feel them on—they’re not soft.” Maintain the engagement during the setup and execution of the lift.
Deadlift Mistake: You Start with the Bar Too Far Away
The positioning of the bar leads to one of the most common deadlifting mistakes that causes back pain: You start with the barbell too far away from you, says Gentilcore.
“Often I hear people say, ‘Oh, my shins bleed when I deadlift. What am I doing wrong?’ I say, ‘Nothing,’”says Gentilcore. Okay, it’s not that you want to get all banged up, he clarifies, but the fact that you’re keeping the bar close enough to your shins shows that you’re in the right position.
If you start with the barbell too far away from you, you’re giving yourself a poor line of pull, he says. 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. (These are the best exercises to strengthen your glutes.)
So where should the barbell be when you start? Remember this easy cue: “Start with the barbell like you’re going to cut your feet in half,” Gentilcore says. “So it should be right over mid foot.”
Beginning the lift with the bar closer to you also makes it more efficient—it requires less work to get the bar from Point A to Point B.
As for the bleeding shins? Simply wear high socks or sweatpants to protect your legs, Gentilcore says.