Deadlift Back Pain: Causes, Solutions and How to Keep Training
When you're training hard, very few things suck as much as back pain. And for heavy spinal loading exercises like the deadlift, it can put a real dampener on your progress. This article breaks down everything you need to know about deadlift back pain...
These are the strategies that I've used as a professional strength & conditioning both for myself and for my athletes. If you want to get back to peak performance after deadlift back pain, pay attention...
Back Pain After Deadlifting - What to Do
First Up - Don't Panic
As a coach who frequently works with strength sport athletes like weightlifters and powerlifters, I often hear things like...
"sharp lower back pain after deadlifts"
"twinge in lower back after deadlift"
To some degree, it comes with the territory. If you're working your ass off trying to get bigger, stronger and more powerful sometimes you push it a little too far.
So my answer is almost always this...
"Your back is most likely completely fine, it's not the end of the world, and it will heal on it's own surprisingly quickly"
Research (Van Tulder 2006) even shows that for most people, your back will be able to fully heal within 6 weeks, even if you don't do the best rehab. If you follow my guide you'll likely be much faster.
Red Flags to Look Out For (The Small Minority of Cases)
Blurred vision or loss of vision
Difficulty controlling bowel or bladder
Numbness or shooting pain down both legs
Changes in sensation around the genital region
If any of those apply to you, get yourself in to see a doctor ASAP.
If they don't apply to you - good news - keep on reading.
Next Up - The First 2-3 Days After Deadlift Back Pain
Your back will be quite sore and swollen, with a limited range of motion. It can be a good idea to use cool packs to reduce inflammation, as well as to take anti-inflammatory pain medication.
Third - Lower Back After Sore Deadlifts - Try These Movements
I've learnt from experience (and now from reading a tonne of research papers) that one of the worst things you can do for your back during healing is to completely rest it. Not only does this limit blood flow, which would promote healing, it also teaches your brain to avoid those movements because they're dangerous, and can actually cause your brain to associate the movements with pain, even when there's no physical injury!
Instead, we want to move through as much range of motion as possible, whilst keeping pain levels for each movement to no more than a 3/10. Try these movements...
It's a simple way to raise your body temperature, increase blood flow to tissues and get some really low impact movement through your hips. I recommend doing this at least 3 times per day for around 10 minutes. It works incredibly well, you just have to be diligent and stick to it.
2) Cat Camels
These are a really simple way to create movement through your spine in a safe, non-loaded way. You simply move gently from flexion into extension and back again. You're not pushing hard into either position, you're simply moving the back.
3) Hip Hinges
Essentially unweighted deadlifts. You might find at first that you can only go halfway down whilst sticking to 3/10 pain rule, that's completely fine. Just aim to increase the range of motion over time.
Deadlift With Back Pain
Should you deadlift with lower back pain?
If you're anything like me or my athletes, you probably hate it when doctors say things like say...
"don't do anything for the next 12 weeks"
"Just stop training" Great, thanks doc!
Luckily, you absolutely can keep deadlifting with lower back pain, you just have to make some adjustments.
Here's how to keep training, and do so in a way that works WITH your recovery.
The Deadlift Back Stress Ladder
Here's a progression of exercises from least (top) to most (bottom) stressful on your back. Your goal is to work through the phases without making your pain worse.
Unweighted Hip Hinges
KB Deadlifts From Block
KB Deadlifts From Floor
Light Trap Bar
Heavy Trap Bar Deadlifts
So if you can do unweighted hip hinges with little to no pain during, and no pain afterwards, then you can progress onto KB Deadlifts From Block. And so on, all the way down the list until you're doing deadlifts with little to no pain during, and no pain afterwards.
Other Exercises After Back Injury
I also realise that back pain can impact other exercises. So you might have to modify those temporarily as well using the same ladder principles.
Snatches, Cleans & Jerks might have to be temporarily removed, or modified to high block power variations if you can tolerate them.
Push Presses can be turned into strict presses or seated DB presses
And back squats might have to become front squats or goblet squats for a while, depending on how they feel.
Train HARD Even With Back Pain
Just because you're injured doesn't mean you can't still train hard and improve. If you can only do KB deadlifts from a block, can you do 5x10 with perfect form, breathing and bracing? If you can only goblet squat, can you do multiple sets of 15-20 perfect reps whilst holding a 30-40kg Dumbbell? This is your chance to build a huge base of strength endurance and hypertrophy. Don't waste it.
Deadlift FOR Back Pain?
You might have heard rumours or seen around the internet that deadlifting can have a role to play in helping with back pain.
As an iron addict, this sounds perfect, because you get to do what you want to do, AND you get to improve your back. Win-win, right? Well, it's not quite so simple.
A 2015 study looking at which patients benefit from deadlift training found that whilst deadlifting significantly benefited some patients, it also failed to help and sometimes hindered others. So what's the difference? And is deadlifting good for back pain or not?
Turns out, it's all about muscle endurance in the back extensor and core muscle groups.
Patients who already had good endurance in these regions were FAR more likely to benefit from deadlifts.
How to Build Endurance in These Regions (Core and Extensors)
I recommend the McGill Big 3. These are the 3 exercises recommended by Stuart Mcgill, Professor of Spinal biomechanics. Essentially, they allow for the most muscle activation with the least spinal compression, so you can train them often. (For more info from McGill, I highly recommend his book, Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance)
Back Pain From Deadlift - Common Causes and Solutions
Alright so you're building your core and back extensor endurance, and you're working through the deadlift ladder. Great steps to be taking. But you probably want to minimize the chances of it happening again, right?
To do that, you need to address the two most common causes and work through the solutions I show you.
Potential Back Pain Cause 1: Lifting with Improper Form
Look, no one likes to hear this, and everyone likes to think that they lift with the right form. But it's time to put your ego to the side and accept that maybe there's something you need to dial in and improve.
Potential form issues include...
Excessive flexion of the spine (rounding)
This increases the shear forces on your spine by a lot, so it's something you need to address. Keep a close eye, because your rounding may be more subtle / less pronounced than the example.
Excessive extension of the spine (arching)
This takes work away from your hamstrings and glutes, and places it onto your erectors and lower back, which will eventually get way too fatigued and get injured. (This is exactly what happened to me)
Deadlift Tips to Address These Errors
Both of the above errors (flexion and extension) are errors of body awareness, and so both can be solved in the same way...
1) Use a mirror, or have a friend look at you, and adjust your start position until your back looks flat. Only then are you allowed to turn your head to face forwards and lift the weight.
2) To achieve and maintain this neutral back position, think about 'protecting your armpits' with your arms (which engages your lats) and about bracing throughout your entire mid-section as if you're about to be punched.
3) Use more sets of fewer reps, and stay further from failure. So instead of 3 sets of 10, you might do 6 sets of 5 at the same weight.
The idea is to groove these new, correct movement patterns on every single rep of every set, in every session. Hold yourself to the highest possible standard.
You might also want to revisit a longer guide on deadlift form.
"but I have lower back pain after deadlifts with good form"
Potential Back Pain Cause 2: Your Programming Is Wrong
If you've gone through the steps above, assessed your form and it looks good, but you're still getting lower back pain, then chances are your training programme is to blame.
Common Deadlift Programming Errors include...
1) Deadlifting Too Often
Keep your frequency to 1-2 times per week. I've seen people try 3-4 times per week and it almost always ends in burnout.
2) Too Much Deadlift Volume
You don't need to do as many sets and reps for deadlift as you do for squats or bench. Instead of 5x5 try 3x5. Instead of 4x8 try 2x8. You can always add volume over time if needed.
3) Deadlifting Too Heavy
You don't need to be maxing out or going super heavy all the time. Select your deadlift weights a little more conservatively. So instead of 3x5 @ RPE 9, try 3x5 @ RPE 7. Or get slightly more work done at a lighter weight.
Remember, it's FAR better to make small amounts of consistent progress without getting injured than it is to make massive progress for a month and then trash your back again.
Alright, that's enough reading for today, time for some action...
1) Start putting what you've learnt here into practice:
Walking 3 times per day for 10+ minutes, and regularly doing your cat-camels
Building core and extensor endurance with the 'McGill Big 3'
Progressing through the deadlift exercise ladder
Adjusting Your deadlift form
Changing your programming
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
'Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex's experience includes 7+ years within strength & conditioning, including supporting 2 major universities, 2 national talent pathways and a selection of international level athletes.
He is also a tutor and educator for British Weightlifting