Deadlifts are one of the most foundational exercises in the gym, for good reason. The movement that hits the entire posterior chain (lower back muscles, glutes, and hamstrings), and serves as one of the big three powerlifting events. But some lifters stay away from the exercise as a point of principle, and claim it’s a one-way ticket to back pain. If you’re one of those people who experience back pain while deadlifting, Built with Science creator Jeremy Ethier wants you to listen up. He took the time to create a new video breaking down common deadlift issues—and fixes—with insight from spine expert Dr. Stuart McGill, PhD, who created the McGill Big 3.
“If you’ve ever hurt your back deadlifting or are afraid to do deadlifts in fear that you will end up hurting yourself, you’re not alone,” says Ethier. “There are five reasons why so many people injure themselves with this exercise. I’ll share what these are, how to find the right deadlift for your body, and how to perform it for a safer, stronger deadlift.”
But first, it helps to understand the exercise. Ethier explains that while rounding the back during deadlifts is a popular method among elite bodybuilders to lift more weight, for average, less-experienced lifters, the safest way to deadlift is with a neutral spine. While rounding the spine can help make deadlifting easier, the heavy load and lack of back and core strength to support your spine can lead to back injury.
Then he and McGill break down the five reasons you might feel back pain when you deadlift—and how you can solve them.
Reason 1: Hip Structure
“Some individuals are born with deep hip sockets. These individuals have the most struggle getting into and pulling from the bottom position of the deadlift,” says Ethier.
According to McGill, that happens because “when descending into the deadlift, if the foot stance is too narrow, you will get a mechanical collision between the top of the hip socket and the leg bone, and that creates FAI (femoroacetabular impingement).”
So if you try to get deeper than your hip anatomy allows, you’ll feel a pinching sensation in the hips that stops you from getting any deeper without rounding at the lower back.
In contrast, some people are born with more shallow hip sockets, which make getting into and coming out from the bottom of a deadlift or squat much easier. According to McGill, “the solution would be to widen out the stance, and you can descend much deeper into the lifter’s wedge setting up the deadlift pull.”
To find the perfect foot stance for you and your hips, McGill uses a simple two-part test.
Test Part 1: Pelvic Rock Back (to find the Right Foot Width)
“I’m going to sit my knees on the floor fairly narrow, and then I’m going to adopt an all-fours position, and I’m checking in the mirror to see the curve of my back,” says McGill. “I’m going to have my feet the same width as my knees, and as I rock back, I can now feel the collision in my hip, and if I go further I can see that I’m stressing my back. The solution: I’m going to try to find a more stress-free position. I’ve widened out my knees and feet, and I find my spine neutral, and there all of a sudden I’m matching my anatomy and finding a much lower descent possible in the deadlift.”
Test Part 2: Foot Position
The next part of the test is to play around with turning your feet in or out and seeing what is most comfortable as you get into the most bottom position, and what enables your knees to remain in line with your toes.
“In general, those with deeper hip sockets find the most comfort with a fairly wider stance, and the feet turned out. Sumo deadlifts also tend to be a good option here as well,” says Ethier.
Reason 2: You Exceed Your Range of Motion
Ethier explains that a standard bar with 45 pound weights on each side of the bar sits 8.75 inches above the floor, a manufacturing design that was implemented to protect Olympic weightlifters from crushing their skulls if an overhead lift goes wrong. While countless skulls might’ve been saved, that arbitrary height it forces you to possess a specific range of motion, dictated by your body structure, to be able to safely deadlift directly off the floor. And if you’re using smaller weight plates, the required range of motion increases even further.
The fix is simple: just raise your work setup. “So rather than forcing your body to pull from the ground, elevate the bar. You can use blocks, a power rack, or weight plates to shorten the range of motion to a level where you can now perform the deadlift comfortably with perfect form,” says Ethier. “After a month or so, try lowering it slightly and see how that feels. If that goes well, great, and continue lowering. If that lowering causes back pain or breaks down your form, then go back to the higher plates. Only powerlifters are required to pull from the floor, so don’t risk forcing yourself to do the same if you’re just not built for that.”
Reason 3: The Lifter’s Wedge
This is a fool-proof way to protect your back throughout the lift and unlock the power of your hips, popularized by Dr. McGill,. Here’s how to do it in his words:
“I’m setting the knee and foot width determined by the Rock Back test, and I’ve got my foot turnout matched to my particular hip and knee hinge. I’m going to go down into what we call a ‘short stop position’ (hands on knees) to set up alignment, and then I’m going to descend out of that with my hands outside my knees (hands can be inside knees for sumo deadlifts), and I push my hands into the bar to establish the grip, and I start to lock in my low back. I do that by creating a bending force into the bar, activating my back, lifting my chest just a tiny bit, locking it in, and then as I add the squeeze. And then with my back locked, I can unleash full power out of the hips and pull through.”
Reason 4: You Need to Earn the Right to Use More Weight
Ethier explains that perfecting your deadlift technique and strengthening your protective back and core muscles takes time and repetition. During this process, many let their ego get in the way and try to lift loads that exceed their ability to maintain a neutral spine and proper stiffness throughout the pull.
“If we follow the Russian philosophy, you start by lifting a broomstick. Don’t let ego get in the way,” says McGill. “If you can lift the broomstick with perfect form, you now are allowed to have an Olympic bar. If you lift that with perfect form, you’re now allowed to put a small weight on either side. And as long as you keep good form, you earn the right to have more weight.”
Reason 5: You’re Adapting
If you’re still feeling pain, but not its not sharp, your lower back muscles may just be adapting to the exercise.
“Even though your back isn’t actively moving, it is heavily involved in stabilizing your body as you lift. And considering that most of the population sits at a desk or hunched over for the majority of the day, being put into a neutral spine position and lifting weight with good form will turn these muscles on and work them like never before,” says Ethier.
He notes that you should pay attention to the level of soreness you feel after your first few sessions, which should decrease more and more over time. If it doesn’t, or if one day you feel a lot more back soreness than usual, that’s a good indication that you’re breaking that neutral spine position and you need to focus on perfecting your form.
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