Back pain sucks. It affects your training, your mood and most importantly your daily life. Whilst there are several causes of low back pain, some beyond the scope of this document, we can commonly say it is caused by one or several of the points below:
Your Lumbar spine doesn’t have the stability or strength to support the exercise you were doing.
You didn’t have enough strength endurance to withstand what you were repeatedly doing
You lack the flexibility in the surrounding areas, most importantly the hips and thoracic spine.
You lack the necessary core stability to resist excessive spinal movement
Your posture sucks
You were being stupid with the weights
While I can’t address you going HAM on the weights we can address the other issues and build your back from the ground up.
When we look at Gray Cooks joint-by-joint approach we can see different joints have different requirements to function correctly. The lumbar spine (lower back) is meant to be a stable joint whilst the hips and thoracic spine (upper back) are meant to be mobile joints. Based on this approach, the first thing I would advocate is to stop stretching out the lower back! The surrounding musculature is supposed to have a degree of stiffness to stabilise during movement.
We must then look at your posture to help determine a potential intolerance to either low back extension or flexion (arched back or rounded back). Some people may just live in one of these and carry it over into their training, putting the lumbar spine under constant load. One way to help determine this is do you suffer with more pain whilst sitting or standing? If it’s sitting, chances are it’s a flexion intolerance and for standing an extension intolerance. What this means is if your flexion intolerant you should be aiming to restore a more neutral/flat low back so if you can’t achieve that in the bottom of a squat or deadlift then start pulling off blocks and using box squats until optimal function is restored as you are doing more harm in the long run. If it’s extension intolerance you should be looking at owning your rib cage position and not over-arching during your squats and deadlifts. The pvc pipe is your friend and you should aim to have 3 points of contact with the pipe and only a small degree of space between the pipe and your lumbar spine.
Now that you have stopped stretching your low back and are more conscious of your overall posture in training, we can start to address your pain through breathing and alignment. We want the rib cage stacked on top of the pelvis to give us a stable structure from which to move from. If the pelvis is out of whack, this can put the whole system out of alignment and thus cause compensations. I’ve already talked about breathing here but going further, if you live in extension you should carry out your breathing drills with a bit more of a flexion bias such as:
If we are in more of a flexed posture we want to flatten that back out a bit and we can start on the ground
You can simply add these in to the start of your warm-ups for 10 good belly breaths aiming for 360-degree expansion of the mid section and followed by a full exhale whilst driving the ribs down to the pelvis.
Next we can look at mobilising the hips and thoracic spine, which are supposed to have a degree of movement. This means you need adequate flexibility in each to get into the correct positions without compensation at areas such as the lower back. We also need adequate flexibility in these two areas to build the stability we want in our low back and core. If you scored a 1 on your Deep Squat, Inline Lunge, Hurdle Step in your FMS, chances are you need to address this first. Try some of the exercises below, always re-testing to note improvement and ensuring you are on the right track.
Now we’ve worked on breathing and flexibility of the surrounding areas, we can focus on stability of the core and the low back. Remember we need stiffness in these areas to correctly utilise them in stabilising the spine during movement.
To start with you should own the basics:
Once you can manage these without low back pain/tension we can progress onto stability exercises with movement. We want to start on the ground first to give us the most support.
While they may seem simple, you should look to control these as slowly as possible whilst maintaining the posture we have already mentioned. You can also use the banded dead bug if you don’t have access to KBs.
We can then move on to the quadruped stance to challenge stability even further with the following:
Once these feel good progress onto
Again we are looking to own these with control and no tension/pain in the lower back. Once this is achieved we can progress on to the kneeling stance whether it be half kneeling or tall kneeling. With an even smaller base of support we add new stability challenges and lower body flexibility.
Hopefully at this point you should feel comfortable and see a reduction in pain/discomfort. You can then utilise some or all of these exercises as part of your warm-ups in preparation for the big lifts and to re-enforce. Just to re-iterate though, these exercises are useless if correct posture/spinal position is ignored. These exercises are about skill and control not speed and load lifted. Own each exercise before moving on.
The final piece of the puzzle is to build some posterior chain (glutes, erectos and hamstrings) strength and re-enforce core strength with more advanced exercises.
Take things slow and build quality movement before load. Get used to dialling in posture with breathing and rib control when lifting big and keep ion top of flexibility/accessory work.
This is by no means an all encompassing solution to alleviating back pain and I would always recommend consulting with a physio/chiropractor first to ensure you are safe to carry out training of this nature.
The squat may be considered the king of all barbell exercises, but the deadlift could arguably share that throne or at least come close. Just like the squat if you truly want to unlock your true athletic potential, you need to be pulling heavy things from the floor.
The deadlift is one of the truest full body movements there is. Having strong and powerful glutes and hamstrings are crucial for running faster, jumping higher and being a general ninja. On top of that having strong lower back muscles to help the spine remain stable can help reduce lower back pain. The deadlift has you covered on all fronts.
Again like the squat you can develop huge amounts of muscle with this full body movement as well as a host of other benefits:
– Develop strong glutes
– Get insanely strong
– Reduce injury risk through glute and hamstring development and thus increasing stability at the knee joint
– Huge amounts of growth hormone release when deadlifting heavy = gainz
– Deadlifts build strength and stability in the lumbar spine muscle
– Deadlifts improve rotator cuff and scapula stability and their ability to withstand distraction forces
– You can develop huge lats and strong upper back
– Deadlifts will develop a core to rival Jean-Claude Van Damme!
There you have it, the deadlift really is a great exercise. Anyone who thinks the deadlift is bad for your back, stop. Just like any exercise, if it’s performed incorrectly then yes, you could suffer lower back issues. If you do it right you will develop a lower back of iron.
Before You Start
If you look back at the article on the squat, you will remember that there are some basic skills you should develop before squatting heavy. These same principles apply to the deadlift, work on bracing, neutral posture and hip hinging. Missed the article? Click here before moving on.
Can We Deadlift Yet?
Once you have mastered the basic principles above, we can look at deadlifting. However due to everyone’s different limb and torso length, hip/hamstring mobility and even upper back strength/mobility, you may need to look at the various types of deadlift. Not everyone will be able to do conventional deadlift straight away and your priority should be correct setup and positioning whilst working on your mobility and stability to earn the conventional deadlift.
However before we look at the variations let’s assume you are ready to do the conventional deadlift and look at the setup/execution of the movement.
Foot Position – We want our feet ideally below the hips i.e. jumping stance, but some may be able to get in a better position with a slightly wider stance up to shoulder width. From there feet should be placed so the bar is over the mid foot to allow for a more vertical shin and keep the knees out of the way of the bar. Toes should be pointing forwards throughout. This should also mean that the shins are relatively close to the bar but not touching.
Hip Hinge – At this point we want to load up the glutes and hamstrings correctly. We do this by hinging at the hips (push hips back) to get into the correct position and from there we can then bend the knees to get down to the bar.
Grip – Grip the bar with a neutral (overhand) grip with both hands on the outside of the knees as to not interfere with them. We’ll go through grip variations later.
Tension – We want to build tension in our upper body as well as our lower extremities and we can do this by bending the bar around the shins. This will help engage the lats and set the back which must be slightly arched. We can also pull the chest up and set the shoulders back to maintain this good position. The key thing is to keep that tension throughout the movement. We also want to take the slack out of the bar i.e. gently pull the bar into the shins so that the collars of the bar sit into the top of the plates. This will prevent you from ‘jerking’ the bar off the floor and excessively loading the lower back.
Big Breath – Once tension on the bar has been sufficiently built and the position has been set, take in a big breath and hold. Think about pushing your belly out as if to brace for a punch to the stomach.
Press the Weight – To initiate the deadlift, we should drive the weight through our heels and press the weight from the floor with the legs whilst simultaneously lifting the shoulder and chest.
Drive Hips Forward – Once the bar passes the knees make a conscious effort to push the hips forward and squeeze the glutes to assist in finishing the lift at the top. Hips should be locked out and a straight line from head all the way down to ankle. Do not over-extend!
Hip Hinge – As above hips go back to lower the bar towards the knees, all the while tension is maintained and upper back and chest engaged.
Bend the Knees – Once the bar has moved past the knees and back angle is correct, bend the knees to allow the hips and shoulder to descend to the floor at the same time. The end position should be EXACTLY the same as the start position, with the bar set down in the exact same place.
Sumo Deadlift – Is a great alternative for those who may have just recently had a lower back injury but want to get back into pulling heavy weight. The sumo deadlift puts less shear force on the lower back than the conventional deadlift.
You can also develop more hip strength through the sumo due to its set up position, however you will need some good hip mobility to get into a good starting position due to the wider starting stance.
Finally if you have shorter limbs and a longer torso, you may find the sumo position more comfortable and allows you to move more weight.
Trap Bar Deadlift – This is a great option for those who don’t have the mobility to maintain a neutral spine during conventional deadlift from the floor. However I would say that you should only use this for a short period of time with beginners lifting a moderate amount of weight and get them working towards the conventional or sumo deadlift. This is because some people allow too much movement to happen with the trap bar due its centre of gravity being slightly further out from the body and the extra stability required to keep the bar path straight up and down. However it is a useful tool and can really help beginners get into deadlifts as there is no undue stress on the lower back. Just ensure the setup is the same as the conventional deadlift as people tend to run the trap bar deadlift into more of a squat.
Rack Deadlift (raised bar) – Finally the other common variation is the rack pull deadlift. Personally I prefer this deadlift over the trap bar for those who are just starting out or don’t have the mobility to get into a good position from the floor. The deadlift is exactly the same as the conventional but the bar is just raised off the floor through the use of racks, plates or even mats. It could be raised by just a few inches, it may need to be raised up to mid shin level, remember position is priority and you can work on getting down to the floor concurrently.
There are a few different ways you can grip the bar during any deadlift starting out first with the overhand or neutral grip. You should always start out with this grip as it promotes the development of grip strength while lifting. Only once your grip becomes the limiting factor should you then look at other variations listed below.
Next we have the mixed grip in which one hand grips the bar so the palm is facing towards you and the other hand grips the bar so the palm is facing away. This allows for a stronger grip on the bar and will allow you to potential pull some extra weight over the neutral grip. Try and get comfortable with mixed grip on both sides as to avoid imbalances.
Finally you have the option of a hook grip in which you wrap your thumb around the bar first and then clamp as many fingers as you can on top of the thumb. This allows for a strong grip but can be painful on the thumbs. Ease into this one if you haven’t used it before and if you are already quite comfortable with mixed grip, it may be worth sticking with it unless you also do Olympic Weightlifting in which hook grip is essential.
Rounded Back – Obviously this is the error most commonly associated with the deadlift and lower back injuries. What you will see is either the hips shoot up too quickly without the chest and shoulders following or people lifting the bar with their lower back as they are strongest there. In any case you will be putting an excessive amount of stress on the lower back. To fix this first of all eliminate the fact that it may be load related i.e. your ego is in need of a check and you are lifting beyond your ability. If the weight isn’t causing the issue then focus on cues such as keeping the chest up and shoulders pulled back and down to maintain upper back position.
If this isn’t helping then you may want to look at upper back strength and mobility to allow your thoracic spine to extend correctly to aid in maintaining correct lower back position.
You may also want to look at lower back strength as this could be the limiting factor. Movements such as good mornings are great for this.
Weight shifting forward – When the weight gets heavy you may see some people allowing the bar to come away from the legs and hang out in front of the body. Again this is potentially bad for the lower back but also it is massively inefficient and will limit your pulling strength. Focus on good setup position with relation to feet under the bar and shin position in relation to the bar. Finally focus on pulling the bar back into the body as you lift by engaging the lats and pulling the shoulders back and down.
Miscellaneous – A lot of the other common faults can be corrected by ensuring you adopt a good setup position as detailed earlier. Issues such as jerking the bar from the floor, pulling with the arms and losing the neutral spine can be down to incorrect starting position including the building of tension on the bar. Film yourself and look back to see where you may be going wrong.
You may need to address strength deficits in a certain area of the deadlift or bring a lagging muscle group up to strength with the rest of the body such as the lower back. We have already looked at developing upper and lower back strength above so let’s look at some other assistance work.
If you find that you are struggling to get the heavier weights off the floor it may be worth incorporating some Romanian Deadlifts into your training to build up your glute and hamstring strength.
If you find that you fail your deadlifts around the midpoint then it would be worth incorporating some rack pulls into your training.
Also look at the snatch grip deadlift which will help you focus on pulling the bar back and loading up the hamstrings more.
Finally if you find you struggle with the lockout of the deadlift or explosive hip drive to finish the rep then look at incorporating some barbell hip thrusts into your training.
Shoes – While you see many different shoes out there especially in the powerlifting world, you basically want a shoe with a flat sole to give you as solid contact with the ground as possible. Better yet you could do the deadlifts barefoot! However if you do find you have an excessive tendency to shift your weight forward, you may want to explore using shoes with a toe lift. This will help you shift the weight back a little better and keep the bar close to the body – the only problem is that they don’t exist! You would have to customise your own flat soled shoes with a slight toe lift.
Belts – Exactly the same principle as the shoes, they are really useful. They allow better use of intra-abdominal pressure to support movements such as squats and deadlifts and they also give you a physical cue to show you are bracing correctly. Again though we don’t want to rely on the belt, you should still be able to know how to brace without a physical cue and also be able to support sub-maximal weights without a belt. Utilise it on those really heavy training sets (85%+) or in a competition.
Chalk – Chalk will help improve your connection with the bar, thus allowing you to improve on your lift and may even help you maintain a neutral grip longer. Just like the belt, don’t over use it and save it for those heavy sets!