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The deadlift is a ruthlessly effective exercise—for most guys. For a select few men the lift can be just plain ruthless.
Some guys just simply can’t deadlift without pain no matter how spot on their form is, says Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist from Edmonton, Alberta Canada.
“I used to think everyone should deadlift,” he says. “But as I worked with more and more people, I realized that it’s misguided to think that every single person is able to do every single movement.”
Some people Somerset trains just couldn’t deadlift without feeling immediate pain, or pain the next day. “They weren’t injured, everything was right with their form and no other exercises were hurting them,” he says.
He even moved these clients into extremely light, far less technical variations of the exercise. Even that didn’t help quell their discomfort. With none of the typical pain-causing culprits to point at, he says the phenomenon—which he saw among about 10 percent of his clients—was a bit flummoxing.
Then, something occurred to him: Deadlifting puts sheer forces on your spine. And Somerset’s theory is that a select few people’s spines are less tolerant to sheer forces than others’.
Sheer force is a sliding, horizontal force. Think of it like wiping a table with a cloth—sliding the cloth over the table is sheer, while pressing down on the cloth is compressive.
“If your spine has a lot of side-to-side slipping around between discs, that’s sheer force,” says Somerset. “Not all people’s spinal discs are designed the exact same way. It could be that these people have spinal discs that are shaped in a way that sheer force causes pain, or they’re just overly sensitive to the forces.”
Somerset has every client at least try to deadlift using a variation appropriate for his fitness level. If he finds that deadlifts put a client in pain no matter what, he has a host of great exercises that also train the hip-hinge movement.
“I have people do a squat, or hip thrust, or even a trap bar deadlift to get the same effect without any problems,” he says.
Are you one of the small subset of lifters who might want to avoid the deadlift? If the deadlift consistently hurts your back, then yes, perhaps.
First make sure you’re using correct form by hiring a coach. If your form is spot on and you have no underlying injury that might cause pain, it could just be that the deadlift isn’t for you, says Somerset.
“No one exercise is magical—there’s no sense in trying to push through the pain just so you can deadlift,” says Somerset. “You’ll just hurt yourself and you won’t be able to exercise at all, and you could cause long term damage or at best just continuously get frustrated.”