November 17, 2023

Low Back Pain From Deadlifts

Getting low back pain after performing a deadlift is becoming more common.

Low Back Pain From Deadlifts

Are deadlifts bad for your back?

I often refer to deadlifts as a double-edged sword. For certain conditions and situations, deadlifts can be detrimental to the spine. However, when used appropriately, they can be a great strength training exercise to increase muscle strength in the posterior chain (back, glute, hamstring, lower leg) and make the spine more resilient. 

Do deadlifts cause disc bulges?

Deadlifts are unlikely to cause a disc bulge in a normal or healthy spine. However, they do exert large forces on the lumbar spine. Therefore, if someone has a recent or unknown disc injury, deadlifts could exacerbate the herniated disc and worsen it, especially if they have an improper technique or lift too heavy of a weight.

Genetic inheritance is the most significant determining factor related to disc bulges. Other major contributors to the development of disc damage are smoking, poor nutrition, dehydration, and inadequate sleep or recovery. The most detrimental mechanical influence on disc damage is repetitive bending of the spine over the course of years. I mention this to highlight that disc bulges do not occur by one single event. They happen over time as the collagen fibers' outer layer slowly unravels. 

Are deadlifts safe?

A normal healthy disc is strong and capable of withstanding large forces. Deadlifts are safe and a great exercise when done correctly and in the correct situation. However, if there is an underlying, current, or recent injury, healing therapies should be considered first. The best treatments for managing lower back pain are spinal decompression, rehabilitation, and using a chiropractor.

Deadlifts are not recommended for people with a recent or severe episode of low back pain. Deadlifts are usually safe in the later phases of physical therapy after more low-tech exercises have been used to strengthen the back and hip muscles. If you have had a back injury, I recommend working with a movement specialist such as a qualified chiropractor, personal trainer, or physical therapist to help with proper technique and planning an appropriate progression.

Are deadlifts good for your back?

Deadlift training can be an excellent option for increasing the resiliency of the spine when performed properly. Most chronic and recurring back pain is accompanied by atrophy of the deep musculature along the spine. Because deadlifts produce the highest muscle activation along the spine, they can be a great exercise to strengthen those muscles. This is why they are a mainstay in athlete exercise programs.

There is also the concept of adaptability. Body tissues get stronger and adapt when they are progressively stressed. I like to think of the phrase "use it or lose it." Bending over to pick things up is a task most of us do every day. The deadlift exercise is bending over and picking up a weight. Therefore, frequent deadlifts can help preserve the ability to pick up things off the ground safely.

A final consideration is that deadlifts strengthen a chain of muscles in the back and lower body using a hip hinge pattern, which is essential for two reasons. First, using groups of muscles with coordination is better than isolation exercises for improving how well you move. Second, the hip hinge movement protects the spine by moving through the hips while the spine maintains a neutral position. Keeping a neutral spine during a deadlift also helps to engage all core muscles simultaneously, making it an excellent exercise for core stability.

Considerations for making deadlifts safer

The most significant risk factor regarding form with deadlifts is if the spine rounds while under load. For example, if you start with good form, get halfway up, and then allow the spine to bend. This is especially detrimental when using heavy weight. If the spine must round (flex forward), it's better to start in that position and maintain that same spine posture throughout the entire lift. Keep in mind that hip mobility can also play a role in maintaining proper form.

Using too heavy of weights can also lead to a back injury. As mentioned previously, it's essential to keep the spine neutral. If the weight is too heavy, keeping the spine neutral is too challenging, and the spine might buckle. Heavier weights also increase the magnitude of the force on the spine. When it comes to deadlifts for spine health, heavy weight is not necessary. A good rule of thumb for your exercise program is to keep the weight and repetitions to about 70%. As lifters become more experienced, increasing to heavier weight becomes less risky.

Sudden jerky movements when beginning a deadlift can also cause injury. When low back muscles go from very loose and relaxed to heavily engaged too quickly, it can increase the risk for muscle strains and puts unnecessary additional stress on the back. To reduce this risk, it's recommended to remove slack and create tension just before beginning the lift. 

Just before the lift, it's also essential to create intra-abdominal pressure by fully engaging the core muscles. A few cues to help with this are:

  • take a deep breath in,
  • tighten the abdominal muscles as if pressing them outward,
  • keep the shoulders pulled back (squeeze shoulder blades together)
  • squeeze the lat muscles, and
  • push the heels into the floor.

Keeping the weight close to the body reduces forces on the low back. To do this, keep the weight as close to you as possible. A common saying is, "drag the bar up your shins, " emphasizing keeping the weight close to your center of gravity. Performing a trap bar deadlift (aka hex bar) is sometimes preferred over a conventional deadlift with a barbell for some people because the weight can easily be kept over the center of gravity instead of in front of the body.

Finally, if you are going to lift heavy, make sure to get adequate rest in between sets. Doing heavy deadlifts while physically exhausted from other exercises or during a HIIT (high intensity interval training) session can be dangerous. When the body is fatigued or energy is low, it’s much more challenging to fully engage the core muscles which increases the risk of a low back injury.

Best treatment for low back pain from a deadlift

Low back pain from deadlifts can happen if you have a pre-existing back injury, lift too much weight, or have improper technique. For acute low back pain (less than two weeks) after deadlifts, it's advised to take it easy. Bed rest and avoidance of all activities are not recommended. However, keeping stress off the spine while it heals is necessary. Home remedies include ice, NSAIDs, and gentle therapeutic stretches and exercises. 

The best therapy for low back pain caused by deadlifts will depend on which tissues are injured. Common injuries after deadlifts include facet joint sprains and lumbar muscle strains. As mentioned previously, deadlifts alone do not cause disc bulges. However, if there was a pre-existing bulge, heavy deadlifts could exacerbate it.

Often, a combination of treatments will help most for pain relief and to speed up the healing response. The following are excellent therapies to help with low back pain.

  • Spinal decompression
  • chiropractic adjustments
  • myofascial release
  • acupuncture
  • stretching
  • rehabilitation and therapeutic exercises

Our sports chiropractor in St. Louis office is available to answer questions or get you started with a treatment office today.



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