Upper Back Pain While Deadlifting: 4 Potential Reasons Explored

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
December 3, 2022

Though the majority of back pain cases from deadlifts occur around the lower part of the back, certain issues in form can cause this sort of pain to occur around the upper portion instead.

Fortunately, unlike deadlift-induced lower back pain, upper back pain is rather easy to identify and remedy - so long as no serious injury has occurred as a result of poor deadlift execution.

Most instances of upper back pain during or after deadlifts are because of poor form in regards to scapular retraction, latissimus dorsi activation or extension of the cervical portion of the spinal column.

Anatomy of the Upper Back Muscles

During the apex of a deadlift repetition, the muscles of the upper back are recruited both dynamically and isometrically to a significant capacity. These muscles consist of the rhomboids, posterior deltoid, trapezius and latissimus dorsi.

upper back muscles

Though it is possible for non-muscular structures to be the cause of upper back pain, it is most likely these aforementioned muscle groups that are being utilized incorrectly or otherwise sustaining damage when performing the deadlift.

What Does Upper Back Pain From Deadlifting Mean?

Lifters experiencing pain around the upper back while performing a repetition of the deadlift is primarily caused by rounding of said upper back. 

This can occur in two directions, wherein the upper back bends forward due to the strain of lifting the barbell, or otherwise hyperextends and rounds too far backwards at the apex of the repetition as the lifter intentionally places their spinal column in a state of hyperextension.

Both culprits are a break from correct deadlift form, and otherwise will result in injury if not corrected.

Furthermore, if rounding of the upper back is not the case, it is possible that the exerciser is failing to execute the chest form cue of the deadlift, wherein they are meant to push their chest upward and forwards throughout the exercise so as to maintain a more natural spinal column curvature.

In the event that none of these reasons are the cause of upper back pain and the lifter is executing their deadlifts with perfect form, there is also the case of muscular weakness resulting in poor upper back stability under load.

Potential Reasons Behind Upper Back Pain from Deadlifting

1. Rounding of the Upper Back

As was previously mentioned, rounding of the upper back in either a forward or backward direction will result in upper back pain due to excessive resistance being placed on the structures therein while they are in a disadvantageous position.

deadlift rounding back

This can often be caused by a variety of errors in form, or simply because of excessive weight being lifted - especially beyond the strength capacity of the upper back musculature.

How to Correct:

To correct the upper back pain experienced from improper rounding, the exerciser must record their form or have a suitably experienced coach inspect their deadlift execution so as to assess the deficit therein.

In cases where the upper back is rounding forward, weakness or damage in the posterior deltoid head or trapezius muscles may be to blame. A good method of testing whether this is the cause is to perform a deadlift repetition with a lower amount of weight. If the issue does not persist, it is likely muscular weakness or a failure to activate said muscle groups.

Otherwise, it is possible that the exerciser is placing the barbell too far ahead of their body, thereby shifting the leverage of their arms into a disadvantageous angle.

For hyperextension of the upper back, the exerciser must simply instill proper muscle memory at the end of their deadlift repetition so as to understand when to stop the concentric phase of the movement. 

This will take repetitive practice, and is best done under the supervision of a coach with sub-maximal amounts of weight.

2. Collapsing Chest

A major form cue in any exercise that stresses the lower back is that of puffing out the chest.

During the concentric phase of the deadlift movement pattern, the exerciser must keep their chest pushed forwards and outwards, ensuring that their spine remains in an advantageous curvature and that their core has the greatest capacity to maintain full contraction throughout the movement.

deadlift chest

While a collapsing chest can also be a sign of other failures elsewhere in deadlift form, it is also considered to be a cue all on its own - meaning that the exerciser must ensure first that they are not lacking in another portion of deadlift execution prior to attempting to reinforce their chest-push cue.

How to Correct:

If the exerciser has found that it is indeed a failure to adhere to their chest-push cue and not an issue elsewhere, they may simply practice scapular retraction through submaximal deadlift repetitions, or more targeted exercises such as lat pulldowns and dumbbell bent-over rows.

Of course, this also requires that the exerciser ensure that they are in fact making an effort to adhere to this particular form cue, as it requires conscious execution.

3. Hyperextension at the Apex of the Deadlift

Hyperextension at the apex of a deadlift repetition means that the lifter is bending their torso too far backwards at the end of the concentric phase, placing far greater stress on the muscles and bones of the back and prematurely fatiguing them in a manner that is not necessarily conducive to further development.

This particular error in deadlift form can lead to quite a number of different symptoms, but nonetheless is also characterized by its capacity to strain the entirety of the back, with a particular area of concern being the middle and upper muscles therein.

How to Correct:

To correct hyperextension at the end of the concentric phase, exercisers should always ensure that their spine remains at a neutral angle. 

Practicing proprioception or making use of a weight belt as a crutch are two of the easiest methods of fine-tuning the lifter’s capacity to maintain this advantageous spinal position.

4. General Muscular Weakness Causing Upper Back Pain

Another possible cause that is primarily unrelated to deadlift form is that of muscular weakness - poor or unbalanced development in the musculature of the upper back can lead to pain when executing the deadlift.

Whether it be due to incorrect training methods or a past injury, one muscle group being forced beyond its limits can easily result in symptoms like pain, reduced mobility and breaks in form that contribute to upper back pain while deadlifting.

How to Correct:

Unfortunately, without direct analysis of a lifter’s muscular weakness by a professional, it can be quite difficult to correct this particular cause of upper back pain.

Any number of muscles located within or near the upper back can be in a bilateral or unilateral state of deficiency, and the severity of said muscular weakness will also dictate the sort of methods that must be employed to rehabilitate them.

In the event that you believe injury or muscular weakness is the cause of your upper back pain while deadlifting, it is best to seek out the advice of a medical professional.

Other Causes of Upper Back Pain While Deadlifting

Though poor form or physiological injury are the main causes of upper back pain while deadlifting, certain other issues relating to the lifter themselves can also be a contributing factor to this particular symptom.

Delayed onset muscle soreness or “DOMS”, certain congenital or chronic disorders like scoliosis and even poorly conditioned core musculature can all lead to pain and weakness of the upper back, especially during very heavy exercises such as the deadlift.

If you have assessed your deadlift form and muscular ability and find that the pain still persists, it may be time to investigate for physiological issues unrelated to the deadlift itself.

In Conclusion

Any sort of pain experienced during heavy lifting should be a point of concern - all the more so when it is near the spinal column, which is quite notorious for becoming injured during improperly executed deadlift repetitions.

Instead of pushing through the pain, a far wiser option would be to cease deadlifting temporarily and instead assess the cause of such pain.

As always, if you are unsure of how to go about doing so, seek out the advice of a qualified professional.

References

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, Samuel C., Darren Q. Calley, and John H. Hollman. "Effect of an Exercise Program That Includes Deadlifts on Low Back Pain", Journal of Sport Rehabilitation 30, 4 (2021): 672-675, accessed Nov 25, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1123/jsr.2020-0324

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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