Deadlifting with Lower Back Problems

Light Deadlifts FinishI’m writing this article from an extremely personal perspective as I’ve had lower back issues since my early years of weight training. Strange, but I don’t recall hurting my back lifting heavy weights. More than often it was with using light or moderate weight. Perhaps my lower back was strained due to me being lazy on one of my reps or not using proper form (just a split second of bad or lazy form is sometimes all it takes). I also tend to believe some people, myself included, are just more vulnerable to having lower back problems throughout their life. For that reason, I had always shied away from doing deadlifts in my younger years in fear that deads may cause even more damage to my lower back.

Anyone who does powerlifting, strength training, or whose goal is just to achieve thick dense muscle mass realizes the importance of performing deadlifts. It’s indisputable that this compound exercise will build slabs of muscle and will also enhance overall mass and strength. The benefits make it difficult to ignore the deadlift altogether. There’s no doubt that deadlifts will help you build the foundation for a strong and muscular physique. The good news is you can still make deadlifts a part of your workout routine even if you’re prone to lower back pain. But there are a few concepts of deads for those of us with vulnerable lower backs that will help prevent injury.

Proper Form with Deadlifts

It’s imperative to use proper form when doing deadlifts even if you don’t have lower back pain (if you use bad form, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll hurt your lower back at some point). Keep your entire body tight throughout the lift. In other words, no lazy reps allowed. Pick a stance that’s comfortable to you. I say this because we’re all built differently and a wider or more narrow stance may work better for you. Look straight ahead and never, ever round your back.

You’ll push off initially with your quads but then you’ll begin to pull the weight with your hamstrings and back muscles. Again, do not round your back. Let your hamstrings and lats do the pulling, keeping your lower back slightly arched. Also, don’t lean back (don’t hyper-extend) at the heightened point of the deadlift. I see some folks doing this and it puts more strain on your lower back.

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Mental Focus with Deadlifts

If I don’t feel 100% I won’t even think about doing deadlifts that day. If you’re feeling stressed or tired, don’t bother with deads. If you’re focus is off in any aspect, you’re more prone to lower back injury. It’s important to be well-rested and to also have been eating plenty of quality foods. I’m not saying deadlift on a full stomach. But make sure you’ve been feeding your body high quality nutrients. The food you eat can make a tremendous impact on your performance.

Another thing is I always use wrist wraps when I deadlift even if I know I can grip the weight without them. This takes focus off of my grip and allows me to concentrate on my form and the lift. Some folks use a one-over-one-under powerlifting grip as well. If you feel more comfortable doing that, by all means do it. On a side-note, pre workout drinks can help with mental focus so taking a pre workout supplement isn’t a bad idea either.

Moderate Weight with Deadlifts 

I’m a firm believer in lifting heavy weights to build a solid foundation of muscle and strength, especially in your younger years. However, this is one exception to the rule if you have lower back problems. With having a history of lower back pain, I’ve learned that going super heavy on deads kills my lower back and I’m walking funny for several days afterwards (of course some say I walk funny anyway). I’ve only hurt my lower back once or twice doing deadlifts but that was usually because my lower back was already sore from something else, and I tried deadlifting too heavy, which was dumb on my part. But even on your best days you should still do deadlifts with moderate weights rather than maxing out with heavy weights.

Keep in mind that you’re not going super light here. You’re still pulling a decent amount of weight, enough to stimulate the muscle. What I’m suggesting is just don’t take it to the maximum limits. For example, if you can deadlift 315 for a couple of reps, do something like 275 for eight reps instead. You’ll still get the benefits of building muscle and strength from doing deadlifts using this method. And you’ll be able to train your other muscle groups the rest of the week too as you won’t be hunched over with lower back pain.

Moderate Intensity with Deadlifts

This is a tough one for many because most of us train hard and heavy, and with all-out intensity. But if you have lower back pain I don’t recommend going to failure on deadlifts. If you can normally perform eight to ten reps with a certain weight, stop at about six or seven reps instead (or lower the weight some). I don’t suggest super high reps either if you have lower back problems. Higher reps usually equate to faster reps, which makes it easier to get lazy on your form. And if you have back issues, you’re probably fully aware that you can hurt your lower back with light weight just as easy as using heavy weights. It’s all about proper form and being focused, not just moving the weight.

Conclusion of Deadlifts and Lower Back Pain

Using proper form, being focused, lifting moderate weights, and not training until muscle failure will keep your lower back from reaching it’s most vulnerable point (being completely fatigued). But don’t lose heart! We can still include deadlifts in our workouts, and we can still reap the benefits of doing deads. And just because you can’t go super heavy or train with extreme intensity on deadlifts doesn’t mean you can’t progressively go up in weight here and there.

One last note I didn’t mention earlier is make sure you’re thoroughly warmed up before doing deadlifts, and it’s also a good idea to stretch you’re lower back region. In fact, it’s good to stretch your lower back daily if you have lower back problems. Just because you suffer from lower back pain doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise. Your core needs to be strengthened and deadlifts are one of the best core exercises you can do. Of course, consult with your physician or physical therapist to determine if you should make deadlifts a part of your workout program.

Train with Passion,

Jason Stallworth

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