The deadlift is known as the "king of exercises" for a reason: Do the move right and you can work all your major muscle groups in a single rep. "It is the best head-to-toe, total-body strength builder," says Greg Pignataro, a certified strength and conditioning specialist with Grindset Fitness in Scottsdale, Arizona.
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Plus, deadlifts teach you how to safely lift heavy objects off the floor, so that when it comes time to move a couch or pick up a heavy box, you can manage it and still be able to get out of bed the next day.
Unfortunately, for many people, deadlifts create more problems than they solve — mainly, nagging lower back pain and injury. And if you've felt an unpleasant twinge or tightness in your lower back during deadlifts often enough — or worse, experienced a full-blown deadlift-related injury — you've probably sworn off the exercise for good.
But deadlifts shouldn't cause back pain, says board-certified sports physical therapist Brian Schwabe, CSCS. "In fact, with the right individual, [they] can be a preventative measure against back pain," he says.
First: How to Do a Basic Deadlift
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and point your toes out slightly.
- Hinge your hips back and bend forward to grab the barbell below with both hands, using an overhand grip (palms facing your body).
- Sink your hips down, flatten your back and pull the bar off the ground until you're standing straight up.
- Lower it back down with control, maintaining a back flat.
Read more: 6 Deadlift Variations to Add to Leg Day
5 Deadlift Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs
If you can't deadlift without back pain, chances are the problem isn't the exercise itself, it's how you're lifting that weight off the floor. Here are the most common deadlift mistakes that could be wrecking your back. Fix them to reap the full benefits of the exercise.
1. You Don’t Engage Your Lat Muscles
Your lats (aka latissimus dorsi) are large, fan-shaped muscles that extend from your shoulders to your pelvis. You might not think of your lats as important in an exercise like the deadlift, but they're key for getting that weight safely off the floor.
"Without lat engagement, the arms become less fixed, and oftentimes, the lower back does too much work," Schwabe says.
Fix it: To really fire up your lats, imagine you're squeezing a towel under your armpits, and hold that towel in place while you perform the deadlift, Schwabe says. Think about putting your shoulder blades in your back pockets.
If you're not sure how to engage your lats, try this drill: Stand with your back against a wall. Place your palms against the wall and push as hard as possible while breathing out. "This will help you feel the lats," Schwabe says.
Read more: 10 Exercises to Help You Conquer the Pull-Up
2. Your Lower Back Rounds or Arches at the Start of the Pull
There could be any number of reasons why your back arches or rounds at the start of the deadlift, but one common reason is not using the legs enough. When you don't let your legs take part in the exercise, your back muscles kick in to compensate, which can cause your back to arch or round over.
Fix it: Concentrate on pushing into the floor with your feet when you pull the weight off the floor. This will help you engage your legs more.
3. You Arch Your Back at the Top of the Lift
Schwabe sees this happen a lot with people who are new to deadlifts: Arching the lower back or pushing the pelvis into the barbell in an attempt to lock-out at the top of the deadlift. But if you arch your back, you'll unload all that weight onto your lower back muscles, he says. Ouch!
Fix it: Squeeze your glutes instead of arching your lower back to get a nice hip extension at the top of the lift, Schwabe says.
Read more: 10 Popular Exercises That Can Hurt Your Back
4. You Squat Your Deadlift
According to Schwabe, many people who get back pain from deadlifts make the mistake of trying to squat the weight off the floor.
Unlike a squat, the deadlift relies on a hip hinge, where you keep your spine neutral and bend at the hips — not the knees — first to sit your butt back. If you bend your knees first during a deadlift, your hips wind up sitting too low, which is not only inefficient, but it places more stress on your back.
Fix it: When you set up for the deadlift, be sure to bend at the hips first — then the knees — to grip the barbell. Keep your spine neutral and shins vertical.
5. You Pull the Weight Like You’re Trying to Start a Lawn Mower
The deadlift is unique in that, unlike the squat or bench press, you have to build up enough force to overcome gravity so you can lift a stationary — usually heavy — object off the floor. However, many people make the mistake of thinking they have to yank that weight off the floor in order to overcome gravity.
"It's almost like they're trying to start a lawn mower with both hands," Pignataro says. But yanking that weight off the floor can put you in an awkward position, because once you lift the weight a couple of inches, you have to be able to control it. If you can't, you run the risk of pain and injury.
Fix it: Squeeze the bar as hard as you can, engage your lats (squeeze that towel in between your armpits!), take a deep breath, brace your core and slowly lift the barbell an inch off the floor.
"Once it comes off the floor, then you can accelerate and try to stand up as quickly as you can, but it's going to be a lot safer and more effective if, for that first inch off the ground, the barbell comes off the floor in a more controlled manner," Pignataro says.