Deadlifts; Why does my back hurt? How do I prevent it?

Major Muscles For Deadlifts

To begin talking about why your back might hurt after deadlifting and how to prevent it, it is first important to understand what is occurring when performing them.

It is safe to say that doing a single deadlift uses almost every muscle in the body, but there are some major ones that stand out that get specific attention. These are: hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, and your abdominals (rectus and transverse). When beginning a deadlift, in your set up you should be feeling major engagement in these muscles, and even the quads to an extent. Stand tall, keep your back flat, and at the top be sure to keep your spine neutral, not arched in an attempt push the hips through. This hinging movement pattern uses those muscles as the major movers.

What Caused The Pain?

It seems like an obvious cause right? “I rounded my back and tweaked it as I stood up”. Yes, that is a reason, but there is actually another cause for injury when deadlifting. Once you have stood up, if you do not keep your spine neutral, you will relax your core and lose tension. Losing core tension and then returning the bar to the floor is another common cause of low back injury in the deadlift because it causes the spinal erectors to over fire and strain. Of course there will always be random instances of low back injury even when keeping tension, but more often than not it is one of the two things discussed above.

Prevention, Not Rehabilitation.

Technique and controlling intensity will always be the king when it comes to prevention. Never go heavier than you should, always focus on proper movement, keep these two things together and the risk of injury goes way down. This can even be applied to maxing out, it is possible to keep your technique and keep from going too heavy when attempting maximal weight because the threshold of “too heavy” becomes when your technique breaks down to levels that can increase risk of injury, i.e, your low back rounds too much.

Outside of technique and controlling intensity, the next step to prevention is proper warm up, followed by more specific things like prehab exercises. A warm up should get your core engaged, low back engaged, glutes firing, and the hamstrings warm by being stretched and contracted. This stretch and contraction of the hamstrings should be in the form of dynamic stretching, not static stretching. Once the body temp sup and the muscles are moving, begin practicing your technique with an empty bar, then move to light weight and so on.

Third step is some specified prehab exercises. Below is just a handful, but there are plenty others.

  • Core: planks and dead bugs.
  • Hamstrings: death march, single leg RDLs, and banded hamstring curls.
  • Glutes: RDLs, glute bridges, banded walks (monster walks/X-Walks).

Some things that can be done post workout, or after injury:

  • Hip stretching, specifically couch stretch (the hip flexors/psoas attach into the low back at the spinal erectors and tend to get very tight in the event of a low back tweak. Hold for at least 1:00 per side, up to 2:00)
  • Planks, specifically on the elbows, however if that hurts then drop the knees down as well. To perform, think about pulling your elbows and knees toward each other. This will engage the abdominals and pin down your rib cage putting your spine in a neutral position.
  • Prone Press Up. This one is a life saver. Start by laying on your stomach and then post up on just your elbows with them being directly under the shoulders. In this position just try to relax and breath. Hold until your low back relaxes and then place your palms flat on the floor in front of you making a 90 degree angle in the elbow. Begin to slowly and gently press up until you feel a small amount of pain (like a 3/10). Hold for 2-3 seconds and relax back down then repeat. The goal should be that each rep, or every couple, you can push slightly further. Accumulate 20 reps, up to 30.