To Deadlift or Not to Deadlift if My Back Hurts??

November 12, 2022 By Dr. Sarah Martinez, PT, DPT

The deadlift is a somewhat controversial total body movement of literally just picking an object off the ground and putting back down again.  Some claim it is the best back exercise there is because it hits a lot of major muscle groups and it is a functional movement.

A deadlift is performed by picking up a barbell off the ground by extending the hips and the knees.  When done with heavy weights this exercise can also be considered a cardiovascular exercise, as the heart rate will increase depending on how many reps and sets. The muscles involved with this movement pattern: Quadriceps, Glutes, Adductor Magnus (inner thigh), Hamstrings, Spinal Erectors, Latissimus Dorsi, Trapezius, Rhomboids, and Abdominals and Obliques. Hand grip is also challenged with this exercise since you are gripping a bar.

This exercise has been shown to be one of the best activators of the paraspinal muscles in the back for lifters that do not have back pain. The paraspinals are muscles that are on either side of the spine and help extend the spinal segments and help us stand up straight with our posture.  Many people with low back pain have lost muscle mass in their lumbar paraspinals, which means less support for your core.

Everything sounds wonderful about this exercise for our muscles, and heart. But what about herniated discs?  Bending over with a weight in your hand does increase the load on your discs significantly. Especially if you try to lift heavier than you are able and you lose your form.  But let's say your form is perfect.  Should you still deadlift if you have back pain??

Research has shown that deadlifts can be a useful part of rehabilitation.  Studies show that deadlifts did reduce peoples back pain and improvement their personal functional ability (Fisher SC, 2021).  But the people that most benefitted from the deadlifts, were those with lower pain levels and with higher lumbar extension strength from the beginning. So be careful if you are super weak or really hurting.

Ways to keep doing deadlifts if you are having pain:

-avoid the part of the movement that hurts (for example stop at the knees on the way back down)

-place weights on blocks or bins so you do not have to do all the way down to the floor

-change your tempo...go slower, or adjust hold times (holds may be a place for you to build muscle with less chance of injury)

-go lighter with weight, where you do not have pain. If you have pain at 100#, try 90#

-try a single leg/single arm deadlift to reduce tension

-work on your core before you lift, getting your muscle fired up will help you during and after the exercise

So if you are hurting and need a movement specialist to assess your movement patterns, call us today. We are the musculoskeletal experts, and can help you learn how to lift correctly, as well as we can retrain your muscles to fire in the correct order to protect your joints and soft tissues from future injury. Call (281) 941-8477 to talk to a therapist today!