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Overcome Your Back Injury and Start Deadlifting Again

Returning to the gym after a back injury can have a high degree of uncertainity. Am I doing too much too soon? Can I start deadlifting or do I need to wait? How will I know when I can start to push things? Will I be able to push things again? (The thought spiral can continue, but we’ll stop it here. If you’ve been in these shoes, you know what it’s like!)

In short, it’s hard to know when you are ready to progress or even what that next step should be. We help individuals navigate the transition back to the gym after an injury on a daily basis. In this article, we’ll take you through a progression we use with our clients to help them get comfortable deadlifting after a back injury.

Step 1: Retraining the Back Injury

The first step is to find a PVC, dowel, or something similar. Essentially, you want a long, skinny piece of something that isn’t bendy or stretchy and won’t break. A household broom typically works well.

From here, position the PVC along your back making three different points of contact – your sacrum (tailbone), mid back, and back of your head. With the PVC in place, hinge forward at the hips (your knees will not move and neither should your spine), and see if you can complete a hip hinge without causing pain.

If you cannot complete this motion without pain, only go through the part of the motion that does not cause discomfort. As you complete subsequent repetitions, you may find that you can go further before you get pain. If this is the case, awesome! Go further!

If you find you can’t go further, stay right where you are. And, if you have to decrease the distance you’re traveling due to pain OR pain steadily increases, you’re not ready for this yet. Instead, we suggest setting up an appointment for some hands on treatment to calm your symptoms down.

Once you can comfortably complete around 15-20 hip hinges (at full motion) without any increases in discomfort, you’re ready for the next step!

returning to deadlifts after a back injury

Step 2: Get the Back Moving

Next, the goal is to get your back muscles working pain-free. You can start with bird dogs, but ultimately you’ll want to get to a reverse hyper. To begin, lie on a surface that is approximately hip height (a box, table, bed, etc.) and lift your legs straight up, then lower them back down.

The principles that applied in the hip hinge we discussed above apply here as well. If there is pain, stay within the motion that is pain-free. Over time, your pain-free motion should increase. Once you can perform at least 20 reverse hypers at full range of motion with mild or less discomfort, you are ready for the next step.

 

Step 3: Deadlift Initiation

To get back to deadlifting without reaggravating a back injury, start with modifications. The easiest (and most effective) modifications are –

  1. Substitute a kettlebell
  2. Raising the starting point

A kettlebell is utilized instead of a barbell in order to keep the load closer to your body. Keeping the load closer to your body decreases the amount of force your back must generate to lift the load. Decreasing the effort lowers your chance of re-aggravating your back injury. Place the kettlebell between your feet to take full advantage of this modification. (If it’s way in front of you, the load isn’t actually any closer to your body).

Raising the starting point takes the most difficult part of the movement out. At the bottom of the deadlift, the forces on the lower back are the highest. Decreasing the height of the deadlift removes the point of the deadlift where a back injury flare-up is most likely to occur.

 

Once you are comfortably deadlifting moderately heavy weight (or the heaviest kettlebell your gym has), it is time to lower your starting position. If you initially chose a high starting position (higher = easier), gradually decrease the height instead of moving directly to the floor.

Sometimes when you increase the distance the kettlebell moves, it may be helpful to decrease the weight. This helps neutralizes the increased distance and keeps the total strain on the back muscles about the same.

Step 4: Back to the Barbell

You’ve made it! The bar is finally back in your hands and it feels so good! The same principles that we discussed earlier to avoid a flare-up apply here: start with an elevated surface and decrease the weight you were lifting.

However, you may not need to start with a higher surface or lower weight. You may be doing well and be able to go straight to the barbell without modifications. If so, awesome! Go for it!

But, don’t go crazy. When people progress movements, we typically recommend around 25 reps the first time to assess how things go. If it feels good, then do more (like 10-25 more, not 200 more – that will get you in trouble!)

What Happens if the Back Injury Comes Back?

There can be a few things that may trip you up along the way. The most common roadblock is a back injury flaring up. If this happens, do some light cardio activity (Zone 2 is ideal), gentle stretching, and continue to workout – just keep discomfort to mild or less.

From there, slowly build back up to where you were. It doesn’t feel like it in the moment, but you’ll get there. Flare-ups are a normal part of the healing process. Only about 5% of individuals we see make continued forward progress while recovering from an injury. In reality, there are ups and downs, but the overall trajectory is upwards.

Back Injury Tips

Sometimes individuals struggle to work through this progression due to improper technique. No matter how strong you are, if you are deadlifting wrong, there is an increased chance of developing a back injury. If you want to know how your deadlift technique stacks up against the ideal, check out our free ebook here.

Finally, if you are struggling, let us know. Deadlifting is healthy for your back. Getting back to where you can regularly strengthen your back not only feels good (who doesn’t love the dopamine rush from slamming down some heavy weights?) but it does wonders for your long term health.

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