9 Mistakes You Make During Deadlifts That Can Lead to Back Pain

9 Mistakes You Make During Deadlifts That Can Lead to Back Pain

THE DEADLIFT IS one of the most important exercises you can include in your training plan.

This movement requires work from several muscle groups, making it a staple for any type of trainee looking to build overall size and strength. But its potential benefits for the posterior chain (your back muscles, spine, and legs) also make the deadlift one of the best exercises for real-world results, too—whether you’re a world-class athlete or just a world-class dad, you can benefit from exercise.

Since so many large muscle groups are involved in the deadlift, you have the potential to move big weights. This should be the exercise you’ll be able to use to rack up the highest max number in the gym. Because of that massive potential, however, the deadlift also has the tendency to become a big show-off move—as in, overeager exercisers might be tempted to load up their barbells with more weight than they’re able to pull to show off off in the gym.

But the deadlift is a complicated compound exercise that should never be rushed. The move may look simple—you pull the bar up off the floor—but there are plenty of mistakes to make when you perform this surprisingly technical movement. When you lift irresponsibly (too much weight with incorrect form), pain and even injury becomes a big risk, especially in the low back.

Why Back Pain Can Happen With Poor Deadlift Form

The lumbar spine, or low back, receives the brunt of the pressure of a poorly executed deadlift. And if you’ve ever experienced a low back injury, you know how difficult it is to move through your daily life with the pain.

Back pain when deadlifting might be common, but it shouldn’t be normal, says trainer Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., owner of CORE in Boston, Mass. In fact, it’s usually an indication you’re doing something wrong with your lift.

“It’s fine to feel a little fatigue or tiredness in your back the day after deadlifting,” Gentilcore says. “But if you wake up the next day and it’s affecting your day to day activity, like it’s hard to bend over and it’s hard to twist, or you are apprehensive to sit up and down or to roll over in bed, that would tell me that your technique needs a little work.”

A deadlift is a full-body movement, but if you’re doing it right, you should definitely feel it more on your backside, or more specifically, the posterior chain. So yes, a deadlift will work your back (which is why some people incorporate it on back day instead of leg day), but if you feel pain there, that’s not a good sign.

Most causes of deadlifting back pain occur because of how you’re approaching and executing the lift. There are a variety of factors that go into the lapses in form that that result in back pain from deadlifts, according to performance coach and athlete development expert Curtis Shannon, C.S.C.S. “For starters, it is ego, lack of technical proficiency, baseline strength and stability, as well as force production,” he says. “We all want to lift the heaviest weights to feel like we’ve ‘put the work in’ and reap the benefits of our strength gains. But at what cost?”

Here, we’ll break down some of the most common reasons you’re feeling back pain after deadlifting, and what you can do to lift pain-free. But remember, these are our best suggestions for general scenarios. “If pain persists, speak with a licensed physical therapist, chiropractor or doctor,” says Shannon. Don’t sideline yourself for your future gains by pushing through an injury. Adjust, take the proper measures to address your issues, and live to lift another day.

Deadlift Mistake: Your Back Isn’t Straight

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First and foremost, you should be avoiding any excessive curvature or rounding of your spine, especially in your lower back. This isn’t a bend over and lift up movement, and if you reinforce bad habits with light weight, you’ll wind up paying for it later.

Shannon recommends imagining that you have a straight rod running along your spine, and moving as such. “We want our spine to be as straight and sturdy as that dowel rod,” he says. “In this position, the core muscles work together with the greatest efficiency and protect our spine. In any other position, neuromuscular coordination among our core muscles are impaired. This causes undesirable focused pressure on our vertebrae.”

A surprising key to this technique comes from maintaining a focus on your front. “Do not neglect the activation of your core muscles when deadlifting,” he advises, and adds that you need to keep up the engagement throughout the whole motion. “This applies to the eccentric [lowering] portion of the lift as well. Performing the exercise with technical proficiency means nothing, if you do not approach the eccentric portion of the lift with the same proficiency and care as the concentric.” (We’ll discuss this more below).

Deadlift Mistake: You Don’t Fire Up Your Lats

Your lats are the biggest muscle in your back, pretty much stretching across its entire area, from the humerus in your upper arm to your pelvis.

“It stands to reason they’re going to be providing a lot of stability to the spine and upper back just to keep it in position when you’re deadlifting,” Gentilcore says.

Problem is, if you don’t engage your lats before you lift, you’re not creating the tension across your back. So when you’re transferring force from your lower body to your upper body, your back can start to round. And that can lead to back strain and pain.

The fix is easy: “Pretend like you are trying to squeeze an orange in your armpit or squeeze a sponge in your armpit. When you do that, that’s going to get that area to fire,” Gentilcore says. “I can stand behind my clients and tap their lats, and you can feel them on—they’re not soft.” Maintain the engagement during the setup and execution of the lift.

Deadlift Mistake: You Start with the Bar Too Far Away

The positioning of the bar leads to one of the most common deadlifting mistakes that causes back pain: You start with the barbell too far away from you, says Gentilcore.

“Often I hear people say, ‘Oh, my shins bleed when I deadlift. What am I doing wrong?’ I say, ‘Nothing,’”says Gentilcore. Okay, it’s not that you want to get all banged up, he clarifies, but the fact that you’re keeping the bar close enough to your shins shows that you’re in the right position.

If you start with the barbell too far away from you, you’re giving yourself a poor line of pull, he says. And that puts more of a strain on your lower back. It can also take away from engaging your hamstrings and glutes, which should be the major players in the lift. (These are the best exercises to strengthen your glutes.)

So where should the barbell be when you start? Remember this easy cue: “Start with the barbell like you’re going to cut your feet in half,” Gentilcore says. “So it should be right over mid foot.”

Beginning the lift with the bar closer to you also makes it more efficient—it requires less work to get the bar from Point A to Point B.

As for the bleeding shins? Simply wear high socks or sweatpants to protect your legs, Gentilcore says.

Deadlift Mistake: You’re Not Starting From a Dead Stop

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We know your tricks, people.

The conventional deadlift is meant to start from the floor, at a complete stop, every single rep. But there are people will use a bounce from the floor to make the contraction at the beginning of the move easier.

You’ve probably seen it—and heard it. After the first rep, guys will speed up the eccentric portion of the lift, and drop the bar into the ground quickly. Instead of waiting a second at the floor before beginning their next rep, they’ll utilize the bounce the bumper plates get off the floor to help power up. This is known as a ‘stop-and-go’ rep. If you’re working through low weight reps at the beginning of a set, that’s fine. But if you use this technique to help to power the weight up, you’re taking a risk.

Whether you’re using this crutch consciously or subconsciously, it’s going to put your low back in a tough spot. You’re cheating the initial pull, meaning that your muscles need to catch up once that rebound energy has dissipated—and since you didn’t start the rep with textbook form, you might not be in the best position.

Do yourself a favor and—especially when you’re early on in your training career—make sure you hit that dead stop and brace your body before each rep. You’ll build proper strength through the beginning of your lift, and your back will thank you.

Deadlift Mistake: You Don’t Bend Your Knees Enough

A conventional deadlift requires some knee bend—not as much as a squat, but enough that will allow you to get down to the bar.

Put very simply, without a good knee bend, your deadlift won’t be able to get off the floor.

“The primary reason for good knee bend is providing yourself with the opportunity to be in the best position possible to apply force into the ground,” says Shannon. “If our knees lack sufficient knee bend we may rely on primarily hamstrings and low back.”

“If you don’t bend your knees, you are just going to bend at the waist,” adds Gentilcore. “You’re going to have straight legs, and that can crush your back.”

Plus, if you don’t bend your knees enough, it’ll be really difficult to get yourself into the proper “wedge” position: Your chest should be above your hips, and your hips above your knees.

Not giving yourself enough of a knee bend can throw that alignment out of whack, bringing your hips way too high—above your shoulders.

“It’s going to go right to the lower back,” Gentilcore says. “You are not going to have the proper hamstring tension.”

Deadlift Mistake: You Focus on Pulling the Weight Up

Wait—deadlifting is a pull move, isn’t it? That’s true, but thinking about it as a simple pull can put your body in a dangerous position that can leave your back at risk.

“If they initiate it as a pull, I see their hips come up too fast or their hips come up first,” Gentilcore says. “The hips and shoulder should be moving at the same time.”

Instead, it’s very much a pushing exercise, too—think about putting force in the ground through your feet, pushing yourself away from the ground as you pull the barbell up and back, he says.

Shannon agrees. “The initial lift requires force driven into the ground vertically through activation primarily of the quadriceps muscles,” he says. “Remember to apply and drive as much vertical force into the ground as you can, while letting the bar glide over your shins. Your spine is still neutral with your trunk in a forward leaning position.”

If you think more about pulling, you’re missing out on that tension, which gives your back the opportunity to round. Cue the back pain.

Deadlift Mistake: You Overextend at the Top of the Lift

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When lots of guys get to the top of the lift, they finish it off with almost like a hip thrust—with the belief that extra range of motion will actually work their hamstrings and butt even more.

Problem is, if you’re unable to fire your glutes effectively, you actually end up pushing with your lower back instead to make up for it. As a result, you might end up with your pelvis too far forward.

“There should be a little oomph—you are finishing with your hips at the top—but you shouldn’t overextend to the point where you overarch your back,” Gentilcore says. “When you are overextending, that’s when the lower back comes into play.”

You want to finish your lift completely upright and your knees locked, squeezing the glutes, he says. That’s the complete range of motion for the deadlift—you don’t want to try to extend it any further by bringing your lower back into it.

Deadlift Mistake: You Ignore Your Abs

Actually, most guys do a pretty good job engaging their abs at the beginning of the lift, according to both Gentilcore and Shannon. It’s at the descent where it becomes problematic.

Once you complete your lift, you might be tempted to let gravity take over and just drop it from the top. Bad idea: The uncontrolled dropping of the weight can knock your body out of position as you hunch your shoulders downward, seriously straining your lower back and leading to pain.

Keeping yours abs engaged—as well as your lats—during the controlled lowering of the weight can help. Before your lift, brace your gut as if you were going to take a punch. You can take a breath at the top, but you still need to keep your abs on.

“Then hip hinge back and control the bar on the way down to the floor,” Gentilcore says.

Deadlift Mistake: You’re Loading Up Weight Before You’re Ready

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Just because you think you’ve mastered all the common form mistakes listed above doesn’t mean you’re ready to ramp up the weight to your ultimate limit just yet.

Form mistakes happen even for the most experienced deadlifters when the weight is too heavy. If your muscles can’t handle the load, your back may round out, your knees may straighten, and you might forget your abs exist. This might be a risk you’re willing to take—which is why we generally caution guys with general fitness goals to avoid maxing out to pull the heaviest possible weight.

There’s a threshold to where your body will maintain good form. If you load up the weight past that threshold, things can go south. Moving up in weight gradually will help your hamstrings, glutes, and back muscles all build enough strength to maintain that movement pattern throughout heavier reps.

Responsible lifting is the key to not getting injured. Don’t let your ego be the reason you wind up sore—or worse, injured.

Bottom Line on Deadlifting and Back Pain

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Making the tweaks here should help alleviate back pain you feel when deadlifting, but if the problem persists, you might want to enlist the help of a reputable personal trainer or coach to see what you’re doing, says Gentilcore.

It’s also possible that the conventional deadlift simply isn’t the right lift for you. There are many different variations of the deadlift, and unless you’re a powerlifter or an Olympic lifter, you don’t need to do it with a straight bar off the floor.

Shannon is a big proponent of alternative exercises. He suggests trying a standard barbell deadlift from a higher position: “Maybe deadlifting from the ground does not best cater to your needs,” he says. “Adding boxes or using a rack may help.”

But he has another variation the he prefers even more, especially for athletes: the trap bar deadlift. “The hex bar allows you to step in between the weight with handles on the sides,” he says. “This essentially takes the technical aspect of keeping the barbell close to your body the entire way up and down. Now that they are not subconsciously thinking about those things, this allows them to apply more force, and more importantly have fun with the lift. This is my all time favorite lift, and is great for everyone.”

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Christa Sgobba

For nearly 10 years, Christa has created health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness content that’s steeped in science but engaging enough that people actually want to read it. She’s tuned in to all the latest research that people with an athletic lifestyle need to know, and prides herself on helping her readers apply it to their everyday lives.

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Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.

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