6 Mistakes You Make When Deadlifting That Are Screwing Up Your Back
It’s one of the most common reasons you want to skip deadlifting day: excruciating lower back pain that rears its ugly head a day or two after your lift—or sometimes, even while you’re still working out. Back pain when deadlifting is super common, but it’s not normal, says trainer Tony Gentilcore, owner of CORE in Boston, USA. In fact, it’s usually an indication you’re doing something wrong with your lift.
“It’s fine to feel a little fatigue or tiredness in your back the day after deadlifting,” Gentilcore says. “But if you wake up the next day and it’s affecting your day to day activity, like it’s hard to bend over and it’s hard to twist, or you are apprehensive to sit up and down or to roll over in bed, that would tell me that your technique needs a little work.” A deadlift is a full-body movement, but if you’re doing it right, you should definitely feel it more on your backside—think hamstrings, glutes, the erector muscles along your spine, and your back muscles. So yes, a deadlift will work your back (which is why some people incorporate it on back day instead of leg day), but if you feel pain there, that’s not a good sign.
Most causes of deadlifting back pain occur because of how you’re approaching and executing the lift. Here, 6 of the most common reasons you’re feeling back pain after deadlifting—and what you can do to lift pain-free.
Deadlift mistake: you don’t fire up your lats
Your lats are the biggest muscle in your back, pretty much stretching across its entire area, from the humerus in your upper arm to your pelvis. “It stands to reason they’re going to be providing a lot of stability to the spine and upper back just to keep it in position when you’re deadlifting,” Gentilcore says.
Problem is, if you don’t engage your lats before you lift, you’re not creating the tension across your back. So when you’re transferring force from your lower body to your upper body, your back can start to round. And that can lead to back strain and pain.
The fix is easy: “Pretend like you are trying to squeeze an orange in your armpit or squeeze a sponge in your armpit. When you do that, that’s going to get that area to fire,” Gentilcore says. “I can stand behind my clients and tap their lats, and you can feel them on—they’re not soft.” Maintain the engagement during the setup and execution of the lift.
Deadlift mistake: you start with the bar too far away
The positioning of the bar leads to one of the most common deadlifting mistakes that causes back pain: You start with the barbell too far away from you, says Gentilcore. “Often I hear people say, ‘Oh, my shins bleed when I deadlift. What am I doing wrong?’ I say, ‘Nothing,’”says Gentilcore. Okay, it’s not that you want to get all banged up, he clarifies, but the fact that you’re keeping the bar close enough to your shins shows that you’re in the right position.
If you start with the barbell too far away from you, you’re giving yourself a poor line of pull, he says. And that puts more of a strain on your lower back. It can also take away from engaging your hamstrings and glutes, which should be the major players in the lift. So where should the barbell be when you start? Remember this easy cue: “Start with the barbell like you’re going to cut your feet in half,” Gentilcore says. “So it should be right over mid foot.”
Beginning the lift with the bar closer to you also makes it more efficient–it requires less work to get the bar from Point A to Point B. As for the bleeding shins? Simply wear high socks or sweatpants to protect your legs, Gentilcore says.
Deadlift mistake: you don’t bend your knees enough
A conventional deadlift requires some knee bend–not as much as a squat, but enough that will allow you to get down to the bar. “If you don’t bend your knees, you are just going to bend at the waist,” says Gentilcore. “You’re going to have straight legs, and that can crush your back.”
Plus, if you don’t bend your knees enough, it’ll be really difficult to get yourself into the proper “wedge” position: Your chest should be above your hips, and your hips above your knees.
Not giving yourself enough of a knee bend can throw that alignment out of whack, bringing your hips way too high–above your shoulders. “It’s going to go right to the lower back,” Gentilcore says. “You are not going to have the proper hamstring tension.”
Deadlift mistake: you focus on pulling the weight up
Wait–deadlifting is a pull move, isn’t it? That’s true, but thinking about it as a simple pull can put your body in a dangerous position that can leave your back at risk. “If they initiate it as a pull, I see their hips come up too fast or their hips come up first,” Gentilcore says. “The hips and shoulder should be moving at the same time.”
Instead, it’s very much a pushing exercise, too—think about putting force in the ground through your feet, pushing yourself away from the ground as you pull the barbell up and back, he says.
If you think more about pulling, you’re missing out on that tension, which gives your back the opportunity to round. Cue the back pain.
Deadlift mistake: you overextend at the top of the lift
When lots of guys get to the top of the lift, they finish it off with almost like a hip thrust—with the belief that extra range of motion will actually work their hamstrings and butt even more.
Problem is, if you’re unable to fire your glutes effectively, you actually end up pushing with your lower back instead to make up for it. As a result, you might end up with your pelvis too far forward.
“There should be a little oomph—you are finishing with your hips at the top—but you shouldn’t overextend to the point where you overarch your back,” Gentilcore says. “When you are overextending, that’s when the lower back comes into play.”
You want to finish your lift completely upright and your knees locked, squeezing the glutes, he says. That’s the complete range of motion for the deadlift—you don’t want to try to extend it any further by bringing your lower back into it.
Deadlift mistake: you ignore your abs
Actually, most guys do a pretty good job engaging their abs at the beginning of the lift, Gentilcore says. It’s at the descent where it becomes problematic. Once you complete your lift, you might be tempted to let gravity take over and just drop it from the top. Bad idea: The uncontrolled dropping of the weight can knock your body out of position as you hunch your shoulders downward, seriously straining your lower back and leading to pain.
Keeping yours abs engaged—as well as your lats—during the controlled lowering of the weight can help. Before your lift, brace your gut as if you were going to take a punch. You can take a breath at the top, but you still need to keep your abs on.
“Then hip hinge back and control the bar on the way down to the floor,” Gentilcore says.
Bottom line on deadlifting and back pain
Making the tweaks here should help alleviate back pain you feel when deadlifting, but if the problem persists, you might want to enlist the help of a reputable personal trainer or coach to see what you’re doing, says Gentilcore.
It’s also possible that the conventional deadlift simply isn’t the right lift for you. There are many different variations of the deadlift, and unless you’re a powerlifter or an Olympic lifter, you don’t need to do it with a straight bar off the floor.
“The beauty of the deadlift is that it can be catered or modified to fit the mobility and stance of the lifter,” Gentilcore says. “We don’t have to do a square peg, round hole scenario.”
So play around with some variations, especially if you’re a beginner. Some options? Elevating the bar, using a trap bar or a kettlebell, or using a sumo stance instead.
Originally published on menshealth.com