When you’re going through a movement pattern in the gym, pain is never a good thing—at least the type of pain that indicates excessive stress or injury. While muscle pain in the hamstrings and glutes after deadlifts is normal, low back pain is not and indicates an issue with your technique.
But hitting the rack for some heavy deadlifts doesn’t have to result in low back pain. In fact, strengthening the muscles in the kinetic chain is actually one of the best ways to prevent it.
If you’re someone who’s constantly dealing with low back pain after deadlifts, we’re breaking down what you need to know about executing deadlifts with proper form and how you can prevent injury.
Why Does Back Pain Happen After A Deadlift?
The deadlift is quite possibly one of the best compound movements you can do for full-body strength and power. It engages nearly every muscle in the lower body, along with the upper back, arms, and core.
But a lot of people shy away from deadlifts for fear of lower back injuries, which, if you’re not executing them with proper form, is a big possibility.
Deadlifting can result in low back pain because it places substantial amounts of mechanical stress on the lumbar spine—your “low back”.
Even for experienced lifters, improper technique can quickly lead to lower back issues due to excessive stress on the spinal extensor muscles (lumbar paraspinal), which are recruited to stabilize the spine during a deadlift.
But the problem is that they’re “stabilizer’ muscles, not prime movers; they’re not intended to pull all the weight. Larger muscles like the glutes and hamstrings should take the majority of the workload.
Deadlifts are one of the most functional movements around because they mimic movements we perform daily—we’re constantly bending down and standing back up.
The weight and reps of a deadlift cement this movement pattern into our neurology, but if the movement pattern is inefficient, the low back muscles overwork while the glutes and hamstrings underwork, causing significant imbalances. This is the root of poor movement patterns.
If your low back is sore after deadlifts instead of your glutes and hamstrings, that’s the biggest indication you’re dealing with an inefficient movement pattern. Although improper form is a contributor, sitting for an extended period is a massive reason for inefficient patterns.
Sitting neurologically inhibits the glutes from activating, which results in compensatory overactivity of the lumbar spine muscles. This can still happen even with proper form.
Gluteal amnesia is another biggie, whereby the brain decreases neural drive and inhibits the glutes from firing appropriately because of pain. As a result, you’ll feel a sore lower back instead of sore glutes after deadlifts.
Common Deadlift Mistakes
Low back pain is one of the most common problems resulting from improper execution and faulty movement patterns. Some of the most common mistakes that can lead to injury when executing a deadlift include:
- Round flexed low back
- Excessive kyphosis of the thoracic spine
- Pulling the bar against the thighs
- Excessive extension of the lumbar spine at the top of the movement
- Not maintaining the recommended amount of knee flexion throughout the movement
- Poor movement synchronization (extension of the knees before hip extension)
But when you can nail the technique, you can avoid all of these.
Proper Form: The Romanian Deadlift
Nailing form for a deadlift isn’t an easy task. While the movement may seem relatively simple, you have to get it right to perform it effectively and prevent injuring your back.
But before you can master the conventional deadlift movement, establishing the proper technique for the Romanian deadlift is key. Nailing the form of the RDL helps to establish the correct body positioning (stance and posture) by activating all the muscles in the posterior chain—hips, buttocks, and hamstrings (i.e., the low back-hip hinge), which is essential to maintain optimal body alignment 1.
The RDL may also be one of the most challenging lifts to perform correctly, even more so for anyone dealing with posterior chain dysfunction.
One of the most common errors when performing a deadly is pulling with the lower back, which initiates the movement without engaging the posterior chain. As a result, you’re left with extreme low back pain due to excessive strain.
Here’s how to properly execute a Romanian deadlift.
Setup: Get into a stance similar to a conventional deadlift with a double overhand grip roughly shoulder-width apart. Retract the scapulas and maintain a relaxed spine (the spine should maintain its natural S-shaped curve) throughout the lift.
Execution: Knees should be flexed about 15 degrees to achieve the proper hip flexion during the eccentric phase while extending the cervical and lumbar spines. Slowly lower the bar, keeping it close to the thighs rather than under your shoulders while sitting back with the glutes to hinge at the hips (not squat).
Doing so reduces torque on the lumbar spine by keeping the load closer to the axis of rotation and above the base of support. Lower the bar until it reaches just under the knee joint or to the point where you feel you need to flex the back, knees, or have reached a maximum range of motion without compromising your form.
During the entire movement, focus on engaging the hips, buttocks, and hamstrings while maintaining knee flexion. When lifting the bar (ascending), hip and knee extension should happen simultaneously while still retracting the shoulder blades. Through ascension, squeeze the glutes, hamstring, and low back to return to starting position.
Other Tips To Prevent Injury When Deadlifting
- Don’t look forward or up: Looking forward into the mirror takes your spine out of alignment and increases strain on your neck. Look down at the floor and keep your chin tucked. The back of your head should be aligned with your back—straight and flat.
- Keep your knees aligned: Knees should be aligned with the middle of your feet, and your shoulders should be over the bar.
- Breathe: A full exhale before you start your lift ensures the ribcage drops and your obliques and abdominal muscles are engaged for support and stabilization.
- Master the hip hinge: The deadlift is based around the hip hinge movement, which means if you’re not executing the hinge properly, it’s going through throw off your entire lift. Learning how to do a proper hip hinge reduces stress on your lower back and fires up your glutes, hamstrings, and calves, as the movement is designed to do.
Executing compound movements with proper technique can be a challenge, but it’s important if you want to avoid pain and injury.
The deadlift functions as one of the foundational moves for many compound exercises. Once you can master it, you’re well on your way to impeccable execution for other movements and significantly less risk of back injury.
- Baird, S, Barrington-Higgs, B. Exploring the Deadlift. Strength Cond J. 2010;32(2):46-51.