The deadlift is a compound exercise. We love compound movements because they work multiple muscle groups at the same time. In fact, there are few exercises that work as many muscle groups simultaneously as the deadlift. When you do this exercise properly, you activate your hamstrings, gastrocnemius muscles, soleus, but also the muscles in your core and back. Even your shoulders get in on the action! Plus, there are a number of deadlift variations you can do that work just as many muscle groups. One of the most popular is the sumo deadlift.
But, what if you have back pain or a history of chronic back pain? There’s a common perception that deadlifts are bad for your back and you should avoid this exercise if you’re prone toward back issues. Are you really putting your back at risk by deadlifting if you have a history of back pain?
Whether you do deadlifts or not ultimately depends on the nature of your back problems and that’s something you should discuss with your physician. However, assuming you don’t have serious back problems, deadlifts can actually help strengthen your back and make it more resistant to back pain if you do them correctly. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Deadlifts work the entire posterior chain, including the muscles that support your lumbar spine, your glutes, and hamstrings. When these muscles are strong, you’re less likely to develop a back injury or suffer from back pain.
Types of Deadlifts
The two primary forms of deadlifts are conventional deadlifts and sumo deadlifts. A conventional deadlift is when your legs are close together and your hands are wider than your legs, but with sumo deadlifts, your feet are placed wider and your hands are placed between your legs. With the sumo deadlift, your feet are usually 3 or so feet apart and your toes point outward to around 45 degrees. How about the grip? It’s common to use a mixed grip with a sumo deadlift. To do this, place your hands shoulder-length apart with one palm up and one palm down. Both types of deadlifts are popular and both have benefits.
Which version is safer for your lower back? If you have a history of lower back pain, the sumo deadlift is, arguably, a safer choice, although this isn’t universally agreed upon. Some experts believe the safest form of deadlift depends on your hip anatomy. So, you can’t generalize that one is safer than the other without knowing how an individual’s hip is constructed. However, the sumo deadlift shifts some of the stress of the exercise onto the quads and away from the back. This has been confirmed by EMG readings. This helps make the exercise a bit safer for the lower back. Plus, conventional deadlifts place more stress on the spinal erector muscles than does the sumo deadlift. Your body doesn’t descend as low when you do a sumo deadlift and the difference in descent relative to conventional deadlifts is around 25%.
Deadlift Mistakes That Can Harm Your Back
Regardless of the deadlift type, it’s not uncommon for people to experience back pain after a deadlifting session and it’s usually because they didn’t use proper form. With back problems being so prevalent, one thing we all need to do is protect our back against injury. What are some of the biggest deadlift mistakes that make this exercise less back friendly?
One mistake that places extra strain on your back is not holding the barbell close enough to your body when performing the exercise. When you do the movement, avoid letting the barbell move away from your body once it clears your knees. Keep the barbell as close as possible and raise it up as if it’s sliding up your thighs until it reaches hip level. Doing this reduces stress on the lower back and also improves mechanical leverage.
Another major mistake people make is rounding their back when they deadlift. Your spine should remain neutral at all times. Any rounding of the back places extra pressure on the spinal discs and can place enough stress on the spine to herniate a disc. It’s particularly risky to not maintain a neutral spine when you’re using a heavy barbell. Likewise, don’t force your back to do all the work when you do the exercise. Get your legs in on the action. Keep your weight back on to your heels as you raise the barbell. Feel the movement in your legs, not just your upper body.
That brings us to the third big mistake people make when deadlifting – using too much resistance. Choosing a heavy barbell before you’ve mastered good form is the fastest way to injure your back, and an injured back will make it hard to do other strength-training exercises as well. Take it slow when advancing the weight on deadlifts. When you first begin, use an empty bar until you master the movement of the exercise. Get the movement pattern ingrained in your brain first!
Finally, avoid twisting your body when you deadlift. The most common reason people do this is that they don’t grip the bar evenly or they lean to one side when they do the exercise.
Can Deadlifts Actually Reduce Back Pain?
Strong back muscles help to prevent lower back pain, but can doing deadlifts, using good form, actually improves lower back function and reduce back spasms and discomfort? In one study, researchers asked subjects with lower back pain of at least 3 months in duration to take part in a 16-weeks resistance training program. The group did a variety of weight training exercises, including squats, lunges, step-ups, and, of course, deadlifts. The participants enjoyed significant improvements in pain and disability scores as well as improvements in life quality. Those results speak for themselves.
The Bottom Line
Deadlifts aren’t a back destroyer if you use proper form. They’re one of the most effective exercises for strengthening your back and trunk. That matters if you’re trying to prevent back pain! But, make sure you’re doing them properly.
StrongerbyScience.com. “Should you Deadlift Conventional or Sumo?”
Sport Exerc Med 2015;1:000050. doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2015-000050.
J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2015 Feb;45(2):77-85, B1-4. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2015.5021.
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