Deadlifts and Back Injuries


This article is similar to the one on squats and back problems because the issues are similar. So here we go:

Backs are ruined by defective execution of deadlifts, and the deadlifts are blamed instead of the incompetent instruction. In correctly performed deadlifts, the spine keeps its natural curves just as when standing upright, and the pelvis and lower back are like one solid body, with movement occurring mainly in the hip joints (see instruction of the deadlift on the DVD Flexibility Express).

The chief mechanical cause of back injury while doing deadlifts is similar to that causing back injuries in weighted squats, namely flexing (bending forward) of the lifter’s lumbar spine. That flexing happens when the lifter either leans forward beyond the point up to which the pelvis can rotate forward (any further leaning beyond this point can be done only by flexing the spine), or when the lifter begins the lift by posterior rotation of the pelvis (tilting the pelvis backward). In either case, instead of moving the whole trunk as one solid object rotating at the hip joints, the lumbar flexion is combined with posterior tilting of the lifter’s pelvis, the same as in defective squats. Just like in squats, this error can be prevented by correct teaching of the deadlift–that is, beginning with forms in which it is easy to instill the habit of keeping the whole trunk solid. Here is a guide for teaching progression of deadlifts:

–The more elevated the weight, the less one has to lean forward to lift it and the easier it is to keep the trunk straight and solid.

–The lighter the weight, the easier it is to keep the trunk straight and solid.

–The wider the stance, the further one can lean forward without blocking the pelvis from rotating forward.

So here is such a progression:

sumo deadlift => powerlifting (conventional) deadlift => stiff-legged deadlift

Begin with the widest-stance form, the sumo deadlift, with a light weight, lifting it from the stands if needed. Practice forms of the deadlift in the above sequence, the first two forms each until you do it flawlessly, then move on to the stiff-legged deadlift and then to other forms, such as Romanian deadlift and straight-leg deadlift, if they suit your needs. As you get comfortable with each form, first lower the supports (the height you lift the weight from), and then add weight while keeping the natural spinal curves. In each form it is a good idea to add the glute squeeze at the top of the lift, as is done in the American deadlift, demonstrated by coach Bret Contreras in one of the videos embedded at the end of this article.

Each step of the progression is to be done until the habit of keeping the natural lumbar lordosis under the weight is firmly ingrained.

Note: Weights that can be placed between the feet, such as kettlebells or dumbbells, make it easier to keep the trunk straight during deadlifting than weights that must be moved in front of the shins, such as barbells.

Hunching the upper back (increasing thoracic kyphosis) at any point of the deadlift is not a good idea because doing so under load increases the lower back’s backward bend (lumbar lordosis)–and the safest alignment of the spine is when all its curves are just like they are when standing upright in good posture.

Demos of Deadlifts
Sumo deadlift
Powerlifting (conventional) deadlift
Romanian deadlift, American deadlift, stiff-legged deadlift, and straight-leg deadlift
Stiff-legged deadlift and Romanian deadlift
Perfect deadlift technique for powerlifting (over 30 minutes of thorough instruction on powerlifting deadlifts, both conventional and sumo)

There are many forms of deadlifts, just like there are many forms of squats, presses, push-ups, pull-ups, etc. Which forms you should do depend on peculiarities of your physique and demands of the activity you train for. My form of deadlift is described in my article “Advanced Strength Exercises for Lower Back–Your Best Insurance against Back Pain” and shown on Flexibility Express DVD.

Flexibility Express DVD by Thomas Kurz

Explosive Power and Jumping Ability for All Sports: Essential Strength and Jumping Ability Exercises for All Sports

Science of Sports Training, 2nd edition, by Thomas Kurz

The Unbreakable® Umbrella — A peculiar mix of genteel elegance and chilling weaponry...


2 Responses to “Deadlifts and Back Injuries”

  1. Outstanding article. Pretty much verbatim what I coach myself, with one difference: I coach the hip hinge pattern just sliding hands along the thighs to the knees with novices, and then progress to RDL before deadlifting from the floor. Keep them coming, please, Tom.

  2. 2 Michael

    Dear Mr. Kurz how many sets and reps should one do in a workout, if the goal is is deadlift twice bodyweight for a few reps?
    Thank you

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