Deadlifts have a reputation for being a dangerous exercise. If you've been part of the weightlifting world, you've probably heard it said that deadlifts are bad for the back. But, is there truth to this statement?
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Deadlifts, like any other type of exercise, can be dangerous if performed incorrectly. Consult a trainer to ensure proper form when adding this exercise to your strength training routine.
The answer to whether deadlifts are bad for your back isn't a simple "yes" or "no." Any exercise, including deadlifts, can be bad for your back if performed improperly.
Read more: What Are the Benefits of Deadlifting?
Use Proper Deadlift Form
The deadlift is a compound exercise, meaning it uses multiple joints throughout the body. The key to avoiding potential dangers of deadlifiting is to use proper deadlift form, as described by ExRx.net. Pay attention to your back position throughout the movement — even before you lift the bar.
- Stand behind your barbell with your feet hip-width apart.
- Hinge forward at the hips, keeping your back flat.
- Once you feel tension in your hamstrings along the back of your thighs, squat down until your hands reach the bar.
- Grip the bar with an overhand or mixed deadlift grip — one side overhand, the other underhand.
- Grasp the bar with a hook grip, tucking your thumb underneath your index and middle fingers.
- Squeeze the bar and rotate your shoulders outward — this will engage your lats to help keep the bar close to your body.
- Tighten your core and begin to stand. Keep the bar close to your body — this will reduce potential strain on your lower back. Do not allow your hips to rise before your chest — this will increase pressure on your lower back muscles. Keep your chest up and shoulders tight.
- Once the bar is just above your knees, squeeze your glutes and stand quickly.
- Keeping your core tight and lats engaged, push your hips back and hinge forward at the hips. Maintain a flat back — it can be tempting to bend over when bringing the bar back to the ground, but doing this offers a prime opportunity for a lower back injury.
- Once you feel tension in your hamstrings, bend your knees and lower the bar back to the ground.
According to a July 2018 article published by BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, a large amount of injuries sustained by power lifters occur during three exercises: squats, bench press and deadlifting. The article reiterates that maintaining proper back position, keeping the bar close to the body and keeping the torso upright helps to reduce risk of injury.
If you have difficulty maintaining proper back alignment with the traditional deadlift, you might be more successful with the sumo version. According to the same article, sumo deadlifts naturally keep the torso more upright, which can help protect your lower back.
When performing a sumo deadlift, stand with your feet spread apart and use a deadlift grip that positions your hands inside your knees. Note that while sumo-style could be less taxing for your lower back, it will place more tension on your inner thigh muscles and quads.
If you find it difficult to perform a deadlift with a barbell, consider the kettlebell deadlift. If you don't have kettlebells, you can substitute with dumbbells. Here's how to do it:
- Stand with one kettlebell on the outside of each foot.
- With your chest up, squat down and grip the kettlebell handles.
- Keeping your low back flat, straighten your knees and hips and stand.
- Lower the kettlebells back down using the reverse motion.
Read more: 6 Deadlift Variations to Add to Leg Day
Consider Deadlifts for Back Pain
Deadlifts can actually be an effective exercise for treating low back pain. According to a review of three case studies published in May 2012 by [Advances in Physiotherapy](https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262823876_Treating_persistent_low_back_pain_with_deadlift_training-Asingle_subject_experimental_design_with_a_15-month_follow-up),_ altered muscle firing from breakdown in the discs that provide cushioning between the bones in your spine can lead to weakness in the muscles that support your spine.
High-intensity deadlifting has been shown to increase strength in the spinal stabilizing muscles and improve lifting technique. This exercise also improves spinal disc nutrition by diffusing fluids through these structures as they are alternately compressed, then decompressed.
In this study, three individuals with a history of low back pain for several years were treated with deadlift training. Two subjects had pain from disc pathology, while the other had back pain from issues in the joints between the vertebrae. Participants performed deadlift training two times per week for eight weeks, under the supervision of a physical therapist with specialized experience in powerlifting.
At the end of the study, both subjects with disc-related back pain reported improvement in their symptoms and functional abilities. The subject with joint pathology did not have the same results. The authors concluded that deadlift training might be an appropriate intervention for disc-related low back pain.
Consult your doctor or physical therapist before attempting deadlifts for back pain. Deadlift disadvantages can out-weigh the benefits — particularly if they are performed incorrectly.
Try Other Back-Strengthening Exercises
If you aren't keen on deadlifts, there are many other exercises that can be substituted that effectively strengthen your back extensors and glute muscles, as demonstrated by Princeton University Athletic Medicine. Perform each exercise 10 times, working up to three sets in a row.
Move 1: Cobra
- Lie face-down on the ground with your arms resting by your sides.
- Lift your head and chest off the ground while contracting your shoulder blade muscles, low back and buttocks.
- Hold for a few seconds, then slowly lower back down.
Move 2: Supermans
- Lie face-down on the ground.
- Extend your arms out straight overhead.
- Lift your left arm and right leg off the ground by tightening muscles in your shoulder blades, low back and buttocks.
- Hold for three to five seconds and relax.
- Repeat with the right arm and left leg.
Progress this exercise by lifting all four extremities off the ground at the same time.
Move 3: Quadruped Lifts
- Begin on your hands and knees — hands in line with your shoulders and knees in line with your hips.
- Maintain a neutral neck position by looking at the ground between your hands.
- Lift your right arm out in front of you. At the same time, lift your left leg straight out behind you. Keep your back flat throughout the movement.
- Hold for three to five seconds, then slowly lower back down.
- Repeat with the opposite arm and leg.
If this exercise is too difficult, begin by lifting one arm or one leg at a time.
Move 4: Bridges
- Lie on your back with your hands resting by your sides.
- Bend your knees and plant your feet on the floor.
- Push down through your heels, squeeze your buttocks and lift your hips off the ground.
- Hold for three to five seconds, then slowly lower back down.
Progress this exercise as strength improves:
- Lift one foot off the ground, then perform a one-legged bridge.
- Bridge up, then bring one knee toward your chest until your shin is parallel to the ground. Return to the starting position and perform the same movement on the other side. Keep the hips lifted throughout the exercise.
- Prop your feet up on a large exercise ball, then bridge.
Move 5: Reverse Hyper-Extension Machine
- Lie down with your stomach on the machine pad.
- Grasp the handles with both hands.
- Keeping your knees straight, tighten your buttocks and low back muscles and lift your legs off the ground.
- Raise your legs up until they are parallel to the ground. Hold for two to three seconds.
- Lower your legs back to the starting position.
Make this exercise easier by bending your knees. Make it harder by holding a dumbbell, sandbag or medicine ball between your ankles.
If you don't have access to this exercise machine, perform reverse hyper-extensions using a flat weight bench and large exercise ball:
- Place the ball on top of the weight bench.
- Lie over the ball on your stomach and grab the edge of the weight bench with your hands. Lift both legs off the ground, then slowly lower back down.
Move 6: Prone Plank on Elbows
- Lie on your stomach.
- Bend your elbows and rest your forearms on the ground with your hands positioned underneath your shoulders.
- Press down through your forearms and lift your chest off the ground.
- Squeeze your glutes and lift your trunk and legs off the ground, supporting yourself on the balls of your feet.
- Tighten your abs and hold this position for 10 seconds.
As strength improves, increase the amount of time that you hold your plank position, working up to one minute.
Make this exercise harder: In a plank position, lift one leg off the ground, raising your heel up toward the ceiling. Hold for two to three seconds, then lower back down. Repeat on the opposite side.
Move 7: Side Plank
- Lie on your side with your bottom elbow bent underneath you and legs stacked on top of each other.
- Push down through your elbow and the side of your bottom foot. Lift your torso off the ground.
- Hold for 10 seconds, working up to 30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side.
Make this exercise harder: In a side plank position, lift your top leg up toward the ceiling. Hold for two to three seconds, then lower your leg back down.
Move 8: Kettlebell Swing
- Grip the kettlebell with each hand on the handle.
- Keeping your back straight, hinge forward at your hips. Bend your knees slightly. Keep your elbows straight throughout this exercise.
- Thrust your hips as you extend through the knees and hips. This momentum will cause the kettlebell to swing out in front of you.
- As the kettlebell swings back toward you, hinge forward at the hips and bend your knees slightly to return to the starting position.
- ExRx.net: "Barbell Deadlift"
- BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine: "Narrative Review of Injuries in Powerlifting With Special Reference to Their Association to the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift"
- ExRx.net: "Sumo Deadlift"
- Advances in Physiotherapy: "Treating Persistent Low Back Pain with Deadlift Training – A Single Subject Experimental Design with a 15-Month Follow-Up"
- Princeton University Athletic Medicine: "Lumbar/Core Strength and Stability Exercises"
- ExRx.net: "Kettlebell Deadlift"