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Deadlifts Don’t Have to be a Pain in the Back

Deadlifts and back pain find their way into the same sentence quite often, but they don’t have to. Deadlifting is good for your back because it makes your back stronger. Why then do so many individuals have back pain with deadlifts?

There’s a few reasons. First, if you don’t have adequate mobility to deadlift, something is going to move in a suboptimal way. Second, endurance and strength are two very different things. Most CrossFitters are perfectly fine when it comes to strength, but they break down when it comes to endurance. Third, folks often think they are hip hinging correctly when they are not.

Let’s dive into all these reasons and more so you can keep deadlifting and avoid the frustrating cycle of deadlift, back pain, deadlift, back pain.

Deadlifts Don’t Go Well When You Lack Mobility

The main factor we look at when it comes to mobility for deadlifts is the hamstrings. To test this, lay down on your back and lift your leg straight in the air. When you can get all the way to 90 degrees (perpendicular with the ground), you’re golden. If you’re 10-20 degrees shy of that, you’re “good enough” and hamstring mobility most likely isn’t the cause of your discomfort.

Mobilize the Hamstrings

If you don’t hit 10-20 shy of perpendicular with the ground, there’s a variety of ways to improve hamstring mobility. Our favorite is using weight. Our go-to mobility exercise for the hamstrings is a single leg deadlift. The weight should be hard enough to challenge you, but not so hard you can’t control it.

Improve Nerve Tension

One factor that most don’t consider when it comes to deadlifting is that the sciatic nerve runs along the entire posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, calf, and bottom of the foot). When this nerve is tight or has difficulty moving, it can appear that your hamstrings (or any other muscle along the posterior chain) is tight. However, it’s actually the nerve that’s causing the issue.

To test the mobility of your sciatic nerve, stand with your feet all the way together and your shoes off. Reach for the floor and see how far you can go. Then, take a lacrosse ball and roll it for one minute under each foot. Afterwards, retest bending forward the exact same way you tested it the first time (this lets you get the best data).

Did you experience a change? If so, you’ve got some nerve tension on board. Our favorite way to loosen up the sciatic nerve is Jefferson curls. Choose a weight that you get a good pull with but not a weight that makes it feel like a strengthening exercise. We often start individuals around 10-15 pounds.

Strength vs. Endurance and How it Impacts Deadlifts

Most folks complain of back pain after deadlifting when deadlifting is done for endurance, not strength. Endurance means anything that is over 12 consecutive reps or 25 total reps. So, if you do the popular WOD Diane, (21-15-9 deadlifts and handstand push ups), you’re deadlifting for endurance. If you do a 5×5 deadlift session with 2-3 minutes rest between sets, you’re working on strength.

CrossFitters and Weightlifters typically know what their 1RM is for a deadlift, which is their true measure of strength. But, it is exceptionally rare to find an athlete who knows their true measure of low back endurance.

Testing Low Back Endurance

To test low back endurance, find a GHD (glute ham developer). Move the pads so the bony part of the front of your hip is supported, but nothing past that. Enter the GHD face down. Test yourself to see how long you can hold your body completely parallel to the floor.

For those who regularly deadlift for endurance (all CrossFitters), we recommend they can hold that position without excessive fatigue for at least two minutes. That means that they aren’t shaking, watching the clock in anticipation, or exceptionally relieved to be done with those two minutes.

If you don’t make it two minutes, you now know what you need to practice. In addition to doing holds on a GHD, you can do back extension, hip extension, and back and hip extension together.

The Fundamental Hip Hinge

A breakdown or lack of awareness of what a true hip hinge is also leads to back pain with deadlifts. The video below demonstrates what a good hip hinge looks like.

It is important to consciously move through suboptimal movement (not under heavy loads) so you know what it feels like. The more you are aware of what less-than-ideal movement feels like, the easier it is to identify when you’re doing it. This is a drill you can practice to improve your awareness of what non-ideal positions for moving heavy loads feel like.

Losing correct hip hinge technique comes into play the most during fatigue. When you’re moving heavy loads quickly, things can break down. The more endurance your low back has, the less things fall apart and the more movement faults your back can tolerate before you experience pain.

The problem is that most folks barely have enough low back endurance to perform heavy deadlifts for reps in the first place. Then, add in movement variations that come with fatigue, and low back pain occurs. The easy fix here is to shore up mechanics and low back endurance. Most times, this resolves folks’ low back pain with deadlifts.

Deadlifts, Belts, and Low Back Pain

We would be remiss if we wrapped this post up and ignored belt use during deadlifts. If you don’t know what a weightlifting belt is or have never used one, this may not apply to you. However, if you use one fairly frequently, this definitely does apply to you.

Weightlifting belts are meant to be used to increase the amount of weight someone can lift by increasing their intra-abdominal pressure. Intra-abdominal pressure is a fancy way of saying how stable your core is. We often compare it to a Coke bottle. There’s more pressure inside the bottle with the cap on. Similarly, there’s more pressure in the abdomen when you’re bracing with a weightlifting belt compared to bracing without one.

These belts are meant to be used at 80% of your 1RM or higher. They are designed to help increase the weight you can lift at max loads, not serve as a device to help you lift more before your back starts hurting. However, that’s what a large chunk of folks use them for.

Belts As a Crutch

Weightlifting belts decrease the amount of force your back muscles exert at any given weight. This makes it possible to lift heavier weights with less or the same amount of back pain as lower weights. Back pain with deadlifts is typically a muscular problem. This means that the more your muscles activate, the more pain you have. Therefore, using a belt to decrease muscle activation decreases back pain.

But, if you’re constantly using a belt to avoid back pain, you’re relying on a crutch. Sure, it will help you lift more in the moment. However, you’ll never solve the true problem of having low back pain with deadlifts. Eventually you’ll hit a plateau where even the belt doesn’t solve your problem and the amount you can lift before you get back pain starts to decrease.

This is when most folks reach out to solve their back pain so they can keep deadlifting. At this point, it often takes a couple months to fix the problem. But, when they reach out when they first have a problem, we’re able to get things squared away for them much faster – sometimes in just 2-3 visits.

In Summary

To wrap things up, deadlifts are not supposed to cause back pain. If they are, something is off. It could be any of the things we discussed above – poor hamstring or nerve mobility, a lack of endurance, or a loss of a neutral spine at fatigue. It could also be due to lifestyle factors – poor sleep, poor nutrition, poor recovery, etc.

There’s many reasons why someone can have low back pain with deadlifts, but this doesn’t have to be your experience. The goal of deadlifts is to strengthen the back (and the human) so that you are stronger, more resilient, and better able to tackle all of life’s challenges. Are you finding that’s not the case? If so, let’s set something up. You can deadlift without low back discomfort.

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