The Deadlift is with the Squat the most important exercise you could ever do because it works all your muscles with heavy weights. Unfortunately, Deadlifts have a reputation of being a lower back killer: many guys experience pain when Deadlifting, can't add weight, and never reap all the benefits as a result.
But like with all exercises, if you get pain on Deadlifts it almost always means you're doing something wrong. Here are the 5 most common reasons why the Deadlift could be killing your lower back right now, and what to do about it.
1. You're Pulling Instead of Pushing. Deadlifts are technically a pull exercise, but you should think of it as a push. Here's why: Deadlifting by pulling back - without engaging your posterior chain (hips/glutes) - stresses your lower back more. It's also inefficient because you're using less muscles to lift the weight.
So instead of Deadlifting by extending your legs first and then trying to lockout the weight by pulling it back, focus on extending your hips on the way up.
- Start the Deadlift by pushing through your heels
- Push your hips forward once the bar reaches knee level
- Finish the lift by squeezing your glutes as hard as you can
2. Your Hips Are Too High. You can't use your legs if you start the Deadlift with your hips high (like on Stiff-Leg Deadlifts). One, this is less effective for maximum strength. Two, you'll stress your lower back more because it will have to do all the work. Your hips must be lower in order to Deadlift using your legs muscles.
For a guy with long thighs/short torso like me, the hips will be higher than for someone with short thighs/long torso. So it doesn't make sense to try to copy the form of someone with a different bodytype. Better is to focus on the starting position which will always be the same regardless of the length of your limbs.
- Bar above the center of your feet
- Shoulder-blades directly over the bar
- Bar against your shins (wear long pants)
Read this post for more information.
3. You're Rounding Your Lower Back. Everybody knows that lifting a barbell (or any other object) with your lower back rounded stresses your spine. Unless you want to suffer a hernia, you really need to Deadlift with your back straight.
Note that Deadlifting with a round UPPER-back is safe, and that many advanced lifters do this in order to Deadlift heavier weights. But since most guys won't be able to keep their lower back straight when pulling this way, I recommend you to keep your whole upper-back neutral when Deadlifting. Here's how:
- Lift Your Chest - your upper-back can't round if you keep your chest up. Nor can your lower back round if your upper-back stays neutral. So make a big chest at the start of each pull, and keep it so during the lift.
- Keep Your Shoulders Back - do NOT squeeze your shoulder-blades together like on the Squat as this would raise the bar and make the lift harder. Just keep your shoulders back & down and your chest up.
- Improve Hip Mobility - short hamstrings from excess sitting can pull on your pelvis, and make your lower back round. Start by doing 2x8 of Squat-2-stands as part of your Deadlift and Squat warm-ups.
4. You're Hyperextending Your Lower Back. Exaggerating the lockout by leaning back is as bad for your spine as Deadlifting with a round lower back. Your lower spine doesn't like extreme arching nor rounding, especially not when loaded. Repeatedly hyperextending your back at the top can cause hernias.
Keep in mind that powerlifters will sometimes do this to show the judges that they've locked the weight. But this isn't something recreational lifters should do when training. Just lockout the weight by extending your knees, pushing your hips forward and squeezing your glutes - done. No need to lean back on top.
5. The Bar Is Away From Your Body. What's the easiest way to shovel snow? With the blade close to your body? Or with the blade away from you? Obviously keeping the blade close to you is way easier because it gives you much better leverages. Well this same principle applies to Deadlifts: the closer the bar to you, the better the leverage, and thus the lesser the strain on your lower back.
That's why the bar should remain in contact with your legs from start to finish on the way up of Deadlifts. Start with the bar against your shins, roll it upwards, over your knees and thighs, until you've reached the lockout. Wear long pants to protect your shins and legs so you don't keep the bar from you.
Frankly, if you master proper Deadlift technique:
- You will build a stronger back
- You will be less prone to injuries because you'll know how to pickup an object correctly from the floor - with a straight lower back
- You could eliminate nagging back pain, once and for all
As an example, StrongLifts Member Harrison ("Maslow", 24y, USA) had chronic lower back pain for years due to mild scoliosis. Yet 21 months after he started StrongLifts 5x5 he's almost free of back pain. Most important - nothing ever worked to eliminate his back pain, not even expensive chiropractor visits. You can read his story for yourself on page 69 of the 5x5 report.
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