Has lower back pain become a part of your deadlift training? While some soreness after weight training is to be expected, lower back pain simply is not a normal after-effect of an effective workout. Keep on reading to find out why you hurt and how you can eliminate that ache in your lower back.
Lower back pain after deadlifting is not healthy.
Yes, I realize that injuries do occur in the ordinary course of training, but lower back pain after deadlifting is the consequence of performing the movement incorrectly and not the sign of a productive workout.
Done properly; the deadlift is one of the key exercises for strengthening all the major muscle groups.
Deadlifts are a Hinge Movement
The deadlift is a hinge movement; a proper hip hinge consists of folding over from the hips while maintaining a neutral spine. A correctly performed hinge movement will stimulate the entire posterior chain.
The hip hinge is an important component in many exercises.
The squat, lunge, stiff-legged deadlift, and “good morning” all require a properly executed hip hinge to be performed both safely and effectively.
A good hip hinge is like the fence on a cliff-edge; its there to keep you from going the wrong way!
Are you suffering low back pain after deadlifting? If the answer is yes, then the next question is: how good is your hip hinge?
Deadlifts Target Major Muscle Groups
The deadlift is an exercise that stimulates muscles  in both the upper and lower body. Back, glutes and legs are forcefully contracted throughout the movement. The deadlift is one of the most effective movements for all-around physical conditioning.
But, the deadlift must be performed with proper form to reap the greatest benefits and prevent lower back injury.
Lower back pain after deadlifts is almost always the result of poor form.
Benefits of Deadlifting
Some excellent benefits of deadlifting:
- Deadlifts are efficient: they target more muscles than any other movement, making it an extraordinary all-in-one exercise for full body development
- Weight-loss: deadlifts require a significant expenditure of energy that will encourage fat loss
- Improved hormone profile: deadlifts have been shown to increase growth hormone and testosterone production resulting in faster healing and enhanced muscle growth
After reading this, you can’t be blamed for thinking that the deadlift is a “must do” exercise; but you would be wrong.
The deadlift is a “must do properly” exercise.
Correctly performed ; you will reap all the benefits of this extraordinary exercise, without paying for it with endless bouts of lumbar agony.
End Lower Back Pain from Deadlifting – Now!
There are 3 main reasons that you could have pain after deadlifting;
Figure A This is the performance pyramid. We need to have a good foundation for movement, which means that your body is properly aligned, the tissues are balanced and you are using the correct muscle activation pattern. (MAP)
Here are three practical ways to fix lower back pain from deadlifting, follow these steps and I promise that you’ll soon forget what it was like to suffer deadlift induced back pain.
1. Establish a Good Foundation for Movement
Restore proper muscle balance and strength around the hip
I cannot emphasize this enough; the hip hinge is the single most important factor in performing an efficient and injury-free deadlift. Master the hip hinge first and base your deadlift training around it.
The hip hinge is a fundamental movement that you must master, not just for the deadlift – but for a host of other movements.
A proper hip hinge will focus tension where it belongs, and prevent injury when training the posterior chain.
Check out this technique, to learn how to build a solid and clean hip hinge pattern:
Simply stated; the hip hinge is moving your hips from flexion (closing) to extension (opening) while limiting other joint movements. If you want to deadlift safely; mastering the hinge is mandatory.
There are generally 3 issues that prevent a good foundation for movement when you are trying to perform a hip hinge, tight posterior hip capsule, tight hamstrings (due to weak glutes), and a weak, inactive psoas muscle.
It is important that you prepare your body before you do a deadlift, so as a warm up establish your foundation for movement by doing the following:
Restore Proper Hip Centration
Getting your hip to sit back in “the pocket”. If you try and perform a hip hinge and you feel a lot of tightness in your buttock, this may be preventing you from keeping your hip properly centered and as a result you compensate by rounding your spine.
Here's an exercise that will help you release the posterior capsule and small hip rotators:
Improve Hamstring Range of Motion
A hamstring is a group of three muscles that flex your knee and extend your hips. Someone with tight hamstrings  will always have a tendency to curve their back during deadlifts and be at greater risk for lower back pain.
If your hamstrings are “tight,” you’re going to have to loosen them up  to keep your lower back pain-free.
You may have already tried to stretch those tight hamstrings, and had very little long term success.
This is because static stretching just does not work, and this is because the hamstrings are usually tight because they are compensating for weak glutes.
So one good thing, is that performing a proper deadlift will help to strengthen your posterior chain and alleviate tight hamstrings.
However, when you first start it is a bit of a catch 22, you have to have loose hamstrings in order to do a proper deadlift and strengthen your glutes, yet you cannot do a proper deadlift because your hammies are too tight.
Click here to learn what you can do instead of static stretching. Use these moves to relax your hamstrings and turn on your glutes so that the correct muscles are ready to work when you deadlift.
Another back-safe and helpful exercise to do this is the seated hamstring stretch.
First, sit down on a firm surface and while keeping your back straight, bring your knees up to your chest. Firmly press your stomach against your thighs.
Next, hold your feet with both hands. Finally, while maintaining a straight back, slowly straighten your legs while keeping your stomach against your thighs. This movement will keep a safe lumbar and pelvic curve while stretching your hamstrings.
Once you’ve mastered the seated hamstring stretch, you can try the movement from a standing position.
Simply begin with feet on the floor, hands holding feet, stomach against thighs and slowly extend the legs, while keeping the belly in contact with your thighs.
Improve Psoas Strength When the Hip is Flexed
The psoas muscles are two thick bands of tissue that connect the lower spine to the tops of your thigh bones. The psoas muscles are part of a muscle group known as the hip-flexors. Their primary function is to lift the thighs toward the torso; allowing us to run, walk uphill, and climb stairs.
In movements requiring hip flexion (like the deadlift), strong psoas muscles help stabilize your spine.
If your psoas is not working well when you try and hip hinge, your back will round, and this is what we want to avoid.
So, how do you activate and strengthen the psoas?
If you want even more detail on how the psoas works and what you can do to turn them on and strengthen them check out this psoas live video.
I recommend that you perform your favorite psoas activation exercise from these videos prior to performing your deadlift.
Let’s begin with the alternating leg lift. Lie on your back, hands under your rear. Keeping your legs straight, lift one about 12 inches up from the floor and put it down again. 12 to 15 repetitions on each side should do it, and you can use ankle weights for progressive strength training.
Next, we’ll do hanging knee lifts. Grasp a chinning bar, bring your knees to chest level and back down again, 15 to 20 reps is a good rep range to shoot for.
Finally, you can do V sits, which will work your psoas isometrically and develop hip stability. From a seated position on the floor, straighten your arms in front of you and lift your knees up.
You should be balanced on your rear, hold the position for 10-15 seconds. As you advance in strength, try straightening your legs to create a true “V” sit position.
2. Proper technique for Deadlift
Now that you have a foundation for movement, how do we incorporate it into a properly executed deadlift?
- 1Take hold of the bar: use a straight-arm, shoulder-width grip. Your mid-foot is under the bar and feet are shoulder-width apart
- 2Bend the knees: lower yourself until your shins contact the bar
- 3Assume a neutral back position - and get ready to hip hinge
- 4Tighten your lats and shoulders: tense the back and shoulders preparatory to the next step
- 5Pull: keeping the bar against your legs, pull the weight up through a complete hip hinge until you are erect
- 6Lower it: lower the weight to the floor while maintaining a neutral back and a proper hip hinge
Activate the Lats Before You Pull
This is a point about proper deadlifting technique that bears repeating; you must tense the lats and shoulders before beginning to pull the weight up. This will prevent the rounding that will strain and inevitably damage your lower back.
From the start position, you must pull the “slack” on the bar until you hear the click that means you’ve closed the gap between the bar and the plates. Once you’ve taken up the slack, tense those lats before pushing up with your legs.
3. You have great technique but still have back pain
Here are three things to modify or adjust when you are performing deadlifts so that you can give your body a chance to adjust and adapt to your new workout.
Try Raising the Bar
We always hear about raising the bar for our performance, but in the deadlift, it takes on a whole new meaning.
The height of an Olympic bar from the floor is not the ideal configuration for many body types. If you’re suffering from low back pain after deadlift; it could be a question of biomechanics and not necessarily bad form.
Having a short torso and long arms will make deadlifting easier for you; your long arms will reduce the distance you have to move the bar.
Conversely, if you’re all torso with short arms, you’ll start the movement from a disadvantaged position. Raising the bar or changing your deadlifting style can help overcome this problem.
Using bumper plates under the weight to raise the height of the bar, can make the movement more comfortable for your body type, and possibly eliminate your lower back pain.
Or try experimenting with sumo-style deadlifts  to change the range of motion and mechanics of the lift; it could be the way to make deadlifts work for you.
Use the Trap Bar
It looks like something you’d find in a garage, but the trap bar can be a back-saving piece of equipment.
It was patented in 1985 by a powerlifter named Al Gerard , who was looking for a way to train around his recurrent lower back pain. The trap bar has since become a viable alternative to conventional deadlifts and an excellent way to lift while recuperating from lower back problems.
The trap bar acts to relieve the stress conventional deadlifting places on the back extensors, bringing the weight closer to your axis of rotation and putting the strain more on the hips (where it’s safer).
A study conducted by Swinton et al.  regarding the biomechanics of the trap bar deadlift compared to a straight bar deadlift demonstrated that using the trap bar created lower peak moments on the lumbar spine and hips. In other words; the trap bar created far less stress on the spine, reducing the risk of injury.
If you experience lower back pain after doing deadlifts, consider using a trap bar to relieve the stress on your spine and help you focus on producing maximum force with your hips and legs; the real dynamos behind a powerful and safe deadlift.
Check Your Ego at the Door
Don’t let your ego write checks your body can’t cash. While it can be tempting to go for a personal best every time you approach the bar, it’s neither smart nor sustainable.
The human body has inherent limits, and we train to expand our capabilities beyond them, but your body can only respond to training according to your innate recuperative abilities.
Continually stressing your body with maximum efforts is just like revving your car engine to the redline every time you drive; eventually, something is going to blow.
“Balls to the wall” is not a productive way  to approach every workout.
Your lower back pain could be the result of too much, too often.
There are other ways to get an effective workout without always trying for a heavier one-rep max. Instead of focusing on weight, how about dedicating a deadlifting session to perfecting your form using lighter weights?
Consistent practice will keep your technique spot on; preventing back damaging mistakes when you do go all out.
Try going light. Bring your deadlift poundage down until you can perform 10-12 repetitions. Use lighter weight/higher reps to focus on conditioning the muscles of the posterior chain to longer periods of effort. You’ll increase the metabolic load and reap the benefits of improved conditioning.
It bears mentioning that injury is a good indicator that you should rest.
Try taking some time off from the gym and give your back a chance to heal. If your back is in enough pain that it affects your quality of life your first step should be to take a break.
There are other ways to stimulate greater gains without using maximal weights; one of these is cluster training.
Cluster training consists of breaking up your usual set into several smaller mini-sets so that you can perform more reps with a given weight than you’d ordinarily be able to.
An example of a cluster set would be:
- loading the bar with your 6 rep max
- instead of doing all 6 reps in a row- you’ll do 2 reps
- rest 10-15 seconds before performing another 2 reps
The idea is to use the rest periods to perform more than 6 reps in total before ending the set and resting a full 2-3 minutes before starting the next cluster training set.
Using cluster training; you can immediately increase your maximum reps for a given weight.
With cluster training, you can ramp up the intensity without loading up the bar.
When You’ve got Pain but Need to Train
The bottom line is that low back pain doesn’t have to limit your training, and doesn’t have to be a factor at all if you’re willing to reevaluate your training methodology and try some new things.
Use what you’ve learned in this article as a springboard to both resolving your deadlift induced back pain and improving your performance.
From correcting your technique, to establishing your foundation for movement by strengthening your hip flexors, and lengthening your hamstrings to using the trap bar or changing your rep/set scheme; there are a many ways to keep your back healthy while reaping the benefits of deadlifts.
This article was reviewed and updated on October 14, 2020 by our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Erin Boynton, MD, FRCS to include new research and information on latest surgical developments. Read more about Dr. B here.