Deadlifts are pretty much the best exercise ever. I actually think that exercise physiology books write that.
…or at least they should.
I love performing deadlifts, prescribing deadlifts, and working on deadlift supremacy with clients.
That being said I often hear something regarding deadlifts and back pain.
Sometimes it’s someone who believes that deadlifts will lead to back pain, and other times it is someone who has a bad back and cannot deadlift.
I would like to go out on a limb and blame history for some of this misinformation.
In some circles deadlifts were just lean over and pick up the bar. That still happens to this day.
I literally cringe every time a client walks over to a bar and just picks it up with a shrimp back.
If that is how we are going to deadlift, then we are just counting down to a back injury.
Deadlifts are not just an arbitrary lift of the bar by any means necessary.
The knees are bent, the hips lower to the bar, the back gets tight, and the chest rises at the same time as the hips.
Sounds simple, but just watch me with a group of young hockey players that have no clue how to hinge their hips and see how difficult it can get.
You will probably find me forcefully moving people into positions they are unfamiliar with.
Anyway, deadlifts done right are a great exercise for developing the glutes, hamstrings, upper back, and core stability. The real key is to resist turning into a fishing rod with a fish on the line.
Doing them right is a great way to prevent back injuries. Strong glutes and a stable core are always going to be the best defense from back pain.
On the other hand, heavy deadlifts can put a lot of stress on the spine.
The bar is out in front of the body which creates a long lever for the back to stabilize. A spine that is not stabilized by the core and glutes is subject to a great deal of stress.
The first key to deadlifting pain free is to hammer on technique. Make sure the lift is proficient before adding too much weight to the bar.
This is not a bench press where too much weight will trap you under the bar until a friend can save you (before endlessly making fun of you). Too much load can put training on hold for a while.
The second key to deadlifting while protecting the back is to use variation.
Performing an exercise with high load for a long period of time can result in overuse and the body will eventually break down from it.
Louis Simmons, who trains the best powerlifters in the country, says that an exercise performed for more than 3 weeks without a deload can cause an injury.
That is coming from a guy who coaches athletes that have the job of deadlifting, benching, and squatting. Even he uses tons of variation to protect his lifters.
A conventional deadlift can be changed to sumo, narrow sumo, snatch (wide grip), elevated, thick bar, and more.
If you are good at deadlifts be ready to change the variation after a hard cycle.
The third key to deadlifting without back pain is to use different equipment.
Hex bars, kettlebells, and dumbbells can all be used as an accessory to deadlifting.
Using them will help develop different qualities which will reduce loading and strengthen weak areas.
The last key to deadlifting to avoid a back injury is to use different training techniques.
Going heavy all of the time only works for a short period.
One of my favorite ways to change loading is through speed deadlifts.
The idea of speed work is to reduce loading, work on technique, and move the bar as fast as possible (in good form) to help train the nervous system.
Specifically for the deadlift, speed work will help your pull off of the floor.
Try this 4 week cycle of speed deadlifts:
Week 1- 8 sets of 2 reps at 50% and 45s rest between sets
Week 2- 8×2@55%, 45s rest
Week 3- 10×2@60%, 45s rest
Week 4- 6×2 @62%, 45s rest
I like this method for reducing loading and reinforcing good technique.
I get a lot of resistance when someone does this for the first time because they do not think they are working that hard.
When I add heavy strength work back in and they see what they can now lift, all of the sudden they love speed work.
Deadlifting is not bad for the back when it is done correctly.
Remember to maximize technique, use variation, incorporate different equipment, and change up the method for deadlifting success.