Practically any lifter has heard horror stories about slipped spinal discs due to a heavy deadlift repetition - but are these cases simply one-off, or are you actually at risk of seriously hurting yourself when you pull that barbell off the floor?
In actuality, it is more of a matter of execution, rather than the deadlift itself.
Like all exercises, performing the deadlift incorrectly can cause the back to become injured or otherwise strained, while individuals who perform the deadlift with proper form will in fact see improvements in their back, especially regarding susceptibility to injury therein.
So - are deadlifts bad for your back? Only if you’re bad to them, so to speak.
To avoid any damage to the spinal column, lower back or any other structure along the posterior side of your body; perform deadlifts with the correct form, at the correct frequency, and with the correct preparatory methods.
The conventional barbell deadlift will recruit practically every muscle group in the body to a certain extent, but is known for activating the erector spinae, trapezius, rhomboids and latissimus dorsi to great effect throughout the entirety of its movement pattern.
In particular, the muscles that one wishes to pay attention to within the context of injury risk is the erector spinae, as well as the various muscles connected to the lumbar portion of the spine - it is these muscles that are under the greatest risk of damage if the deadlift is performed improperly, both due to their positioning as well as their relatively thin density in comparison to other muscles.
As was touched upon earlier, performing the deadlift is only as dangerous as your execution of it makes it - meaning that certain mistakes made relating to deadlift form can cause the back to become injured or otherwise result in poor progression due to altered training stimulus.
Fortunately, the majority of deadlift form issues are easy to correct, and it is entirely possible to fix some of the more common errors entirely on your own - though we do indeed suggest hiring a professional coach, as it is possible to be making mistakes that you are not even aware of.
The greatest error a lifter can make during the deadlift is to round the lower back at any point during the repetition - thereby taking the spinal column out of its natural or “neutral” curvature and greatly increasing the risk of serious injury.
Fortunately, this is particularly easy to correct, and is immediately obvious to anyone observing the individual deadlifting.
To correctly maintain lower back neutrality, the lifter must master bracing and core contraction, as well as become consciously aware of the state of extension or flexion of their lower back.
This may be achieved by performing the deadlift with an empty barbell and consciously maintaining these exercise mechanics in front of a mirror.
Some lifters may make the mistake of performing the deadlift with the buttocks and pelvis raised upwards as they pull the barbell from the floor - thereby placing undue pressure on the lumbar and thoracic portions of the back, as well as greatly reducing posterior chain muscle recruitment and lowering the amount of weight they can move.
To correct this issue, the lifter must work on their pelvic and hamstring mobility thorough dynamic stretching exercises, as well as ensure that they are properly lowering the pelvis to a near-parallel point with the knees as they pull the barbell from the floor.
Certain exercises may help with executing this particular biomechanic, such as box squats and barbell hack squats.
Just as raising the pelvis too high during the initial pull can hurt the back, so too can bending it downwards before the knees are also bent.
This can place undue stress on the hip flexors and portions of the lumbar section of the back, resulting in injury and pain unless otherwise corrected.
Fortunately, this particular error is only made by mistake, and is almost immediately correctable with conscious awareness of it.
To correct this particular issue, the lifter simply needs to practice bending at the hips and knees simultaneously during the starting stance of the deadlift. This can be done with an empty bar while facing sideways towards a mirror.
During the set-up to the deadlift, the lifter can occasionally pull the barbell from too far away, meaning that their physical leverage is reduced and the body is drawn into a disadvantageous position as the lifter is forced to bend further forward in order to move the barbell closer to their center of gravity.
This can directly cause all of the aforementioned form mistakes, as well as place undue stress on the knees, hips, shoulders and lower back due to shear force being applied therein.
Much like other errors mentioned in this article, this particular mistake can be corrected almost instantly, and will generally require only a small change in lifting habits in order to perform unconsciously.
To fix this issue, simply draw the barbell closer prior to beginning the repetition. It should be close enough that the arms can remain fully extended during the initial pull, without the need to bend forward at the waist in excess.
Even with perfect deadlift form, there are still some additional steps a lifter may take so as to better prepare their back for the stress of the exercise.
Not only will this further reduce the risk of anything going wrong, but also greatly improve the performance of the lifter themselves - increasing total strength output and even reducing any soreness they may experience the next day.
Performing an appropriate number of warm-up sets is especially important for individuals planning to perform the deadlift, as its high intensity and heavy weight used is particularly dangerous to individuals whose body is as of yet unprepared for the rigors of exercise.
Proper warm-up sets should follow a specified loading scheme and allow the body to ready itself in stages, but also avoid prematurely fatuiging the musculature prior to actually training with a working load.
Just as how warm-up sets are important for readying the musculature of the body for the deadlift, so too are mobility exercises for readying the connective tissue and circulatory system.
Performing a proper mobility drill prior to beginning a deadlift set will mean not only an improvement in stability and strength output, but also a general reduction in injury risk - especially for the lower back, of which is often stiff in otherwise sedentary individuals.
Practice makes perfect, and the deadlift is no exception to this.
Perfecting the beginning stance prior to a repetition even beginning is not only a good deadlift habit but also essential for making sure that the exercise does not damage the back, as a poor starting stance can easily place the back in a disadvangtageous position.
Ensure that the core is tightly braced, the lower back at a neutral curve and the bar at an appropriate distance prior to even initiating the first pull of the deadlift movement pattern.
In the event that you have sustained pain from a deadlift set, seeing a physician is likely a good idea - all the more so if it is accompanied by tingling or numbness of the back or discoloration around the afflicted area.
During the time before your physician appointment, compressing and protecting the afflicted area will aid in speeding your recovery, as well as reducing inflammation and swelling through the application of ice or other sources of cold.
Do not attempt physical rehabilitation without prior approval of a medical professional, as it is entierly possible that you will worsen the injury through improper physical rehabilitation practices.
So - are deadlifts bad for your back? Only as much as you let them be.
Like anything else in life, being prepared and understanding the underlying mechanics of the deadlift will greatly aid in reducing any risk therein, allowing you to take full advantage of this otherwise excellent training tool.
1. Bengtsson V, Berglund L, Aasa U. Narrative review of injuries in powerlifting with special reference to their association to the squat, bench press and deadlift. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2018 Jul 17;4(1):e000382. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2018-000382. PMID: 30057777; PMCID: PMC6059276.
2. Fischer, S. C., Calley, D. Q., & Hollman, J. H. (2021). Effect of an Exercise Program That Includes Deadlifts on Low Back Pain, Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 30(4), 672-675. Retrieved Dec 18, 2022, from https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/jsr/30/4/article-p672.xml