If your lower back is sore after a deadlift workout, it might be normal delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) from a challenging workout. But depending on how it manifests, experiencing lower back pain after a deadlift can also be a sign of injury.
Lower Back Soreness After Deadlifting
Because the deadlift works all the major muscle groups in your lower body along with your erector spinae, trapezius, rhomboids and abs, a tough lifting session is the perfect recipe to end up with sore muscles in your mid-back.
This "normal" soreness — also called delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS — typically comes on after you try a new type of workout or ramp up the intensity on existing exercises. As noted by the Cleveland Clinic, sore muscles from DOMS can begin up to a couple of days after your workout, and usually fade within three to seven days.
The Cleveland Clinic also notes that staying active may help ease discomfort from DOMS, but you should leave the intense back exercises (such as deadlifts) until your soreness has already eased. Stretching may also help you feel more comfortable while preserving your range of motion, which in turn reduces your risk of injury.
As the Cleveland Clinic explains, soreness that significantly affects your daily activities is a cue to visit your doctor. The same goes for muscle soreness accompanied by noticeable weakness, persists past the usual duration for DOMS, continues when at rest or interrupts your sleep.
If it's not muscle soreness, it might be an injury. As noted in a 2018 issue of the journal BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine, subelite to elite powerlifters experienced 12 to 31 percent of their injuries while deadlifting. Specific data about the injuries it produces is relatively lacking when compared to other powerlifts, but all but one of the cited injuries were to the back or lower extremities.
Two categories of acute back injury to watch out for with exercises like the deadlift include a strain (partial or complete tear of a muscle or tendon) or a sprain (partial or complete tear of a ligament).
As the American Association of Neurological Surgeons notes, symptoms of a lower back sprain or strain can include stiffness, limited range of motion, muscle spasms, persistent pain, and low-back pain that might radiate into your buttocks, but doesn't affect your legs. Any type of sharp pain while lifting also indicates a possible injury.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke adds a few more options to the pile of injuries that can cause low-back pain, including spondylolisthesis (a "slipped vertebrae") and a herniated or ruptured intervertebral disc. Because the deadlift places so much stress on your back, if you experience back pain and aren't sure of its cause, it's always best to see a doctor for proper diagnosis and, if necessary, treatment.
One of the best ways of preventing, or at least minimizing, this type of soreness from deadlifts is increasing your loads gradually as your strength increases. Doing too much, too soon — or using improper technique — greatly increases your risk of injury during any exercise.
Proper Deadlift Technique
As a rule, using proper technique is the key to avoiding injury during demanding exercises like this. The authors of the aforementioned BMJ analysis note that keeping a relatively upright torso to preserve the normal curve in your back may help reduce injuries from deadlifting. They also recommend caution with stiff-legged or straight-legged deadlifts, which place more strain on your hamstrings and lower back.
With that in mind, here's a primer on basic form for the classic deadlift — although it's always well worth your time and money to get some in-person coaching. As prompted by ExRx.net, keep your "hips low, shoulders high, arms and back straight" throughout the lift.
- Position the barbell on the floor or, if necessary, on an elevated platform so it's within your comfortable range of motion.
- Step up to the bar, shins almost against it, feet hip-width apart.
- Bend at the knees and hinge back at the hips, keeping your chest up and shoulders back as you reach down for the bar.
- Grasp the bar in an overhand or mixed grip, hands and arms positioned just outside your knees.
- Tighten all the muscles of your core to stabilize your spine as you push your feet into the floor and lift the bar off the ground, keeping it close to your body throughout the movement. Here's a great cue from trainers with the American Council on Exercise: Imagine pushing your hips forward as you pull your knees back.
- Lift your chest and engage your lats to stabilize the bar in front of your hips; then reverse the previous motion to return it to the starting position.
Read more: Deadlift Machine vs. Deadlift Barbell
Can Breathing Help?
Some trainers liken the abdominal "brace" that helps keep your core (and lower back) stable during a deadlift to tightening your gut for a punch. Competitive powerlifters doing maximal deadlifts also use the valsalva maneuver — essentially, exhaling against a closed airway — to brace their spine for the large loads they lift.
On the flip side of the coin, Harvard Health Publishing notes that the valsalva maneuver increases the spikes in blood pressure that naturally result from weightlifting — so it isn't safe for everybody to do.
The usual advice for submaximal lifts is to exhale as you raise the weight against resistance; then inhale as you lower the weight. However, in a perspective paper released through the University of Waterloo, Dr. Stuart McGill states that to create the best stabilization patterns on submaximal lifts "breathing out should occur continuously" as you weight train, as opposed to being linked to a specific exertion effort.
If you're doing performance training deadlifts — for example, maximal lifts — it's best to consult an in-person coach to evaluate your technique (including your breathing) and the loads you're lifting, and to ensure you're minimizing your risk of injury.
Is This an Emergency?
- BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine: "Narrative Review of Injuries in Powerlifting With Special Reference to Their Association to the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift"
- ExRX.net: "Barbell Deadlift"
- Cleveland Clinic: "When Is It OK to Push Through Pain During Exercise?"
- American Association of Neurological Surgeons: "Low Back Strain and Sprain"
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Low Back Pain Fact Sheet"
- American Council on Exercise: "Technique Series: How to Deadlift"
- University of Waterloo: "Enhancing Low Back Health Through Stabilization Exercise"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "My Blood Pressure Was Once Very High But Is Now Under Control. Is It Safe for Me to Take Up Weight Training?"