Ask any trainer, and they'll say deadlifts are one of the best compound movements you can do to do gain full-body strength. But at the same time, you may have heard a fair share of folks arguing that deadlifts are bad for your back.
Here's the thing: Deadlifts, like any other type of exercise, can be dangerous and lead to pain if performed incorrectly. If you're not sure about how to perform a deadlift the right way, ask a trainer at your gym to demonstrate for you before 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. But doing deadlifts with proper form can even be good for your back.
Why People Think Deadlifts Are Bad for the Lower Back
Deadlifts get a mixed reputation because, when done wrong, they can lead to back pain.
In fact, deadlifts are one of three exercises that lead to a large number of injuries for powerlifters, according to a July 2018 article in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine. (The other two exercises are squats and bench presses.)
When you perform deadlifts incorrectly, you might get sprains and strains from the lower back's muscle fibers being overly stretched or torn, says Meg Takacs, CPT. But there are a few form-related tweaks you can make to help prevent this. "Maintaining proper back position, keeping the bar close to the body and keeping the torso upright all help to reduce risk of injury," Takacs says.
When to Visit a Doctor
"Any kind of pain that interrupts daily movement, restricts you from completing a movement or lingers should be addressed by a doctor," Takacs says. According to the Hospital for Special Surgery, that includes any pain that’s acute, sharp or burning.
Deadlifts Are Good for Your Back — But Only When Performed Correctly
When done correctly, deadlifts can be a great tool for strengthening the low back (erector spinae), Takacs tells us.
"Deadlifts require grip strength, so as you pick something up from the ground, they effectively create stress on the vertebrae, back muscles and tendons, which results in strengthening those muscles," she says.
Deadlifts also work the glutes and hamstrings — and the stronger these muscles are, the less lower back pain you may experience as you won't be compensating for weak posterior chain muscles, Takacs says. Weak hamstrings can cause increased stress and movement compensation in the lower back while strong glute muscles support your low back and reduce compression and pain in the lumbar spine.
"When your hips extend at the top of the movement, deadlifts also activate your deep abdominal muscles, which can also help prevent low back pain," she says. And any type of core work is going to help prevent lower back pain because a strong core is what stabilizes your posture.
In a May 2012 review of three case studies in [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)_, three people with a history of low back pain for several years began deadlift training. Two people had pain from disc pathology, while the other had back pain from issues in the joints between the vertebrae. They all 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 people with disc-related back pain reported improvement in their symptoms and functional abilities while the person with joint pathology didn't.
The takeaway: Deadlift training might help with disc-related low back pain.
Another study found that exercise programs that included deadlifts improved pain and function with people with lower back pain, per February 2021 research in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation.
How to Deadlift the Right Way
Before adding deadlifts to your lifting routine, make sure you have your form down. Proper form will help reduce your risk of injury and pain, and get you reaping the benefits of deadlifting faster.
Here's a step-by-step breakdown of how to perform a barbell deadlift properly:
- Stand behind a 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) and 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, lifting the weight. Make sure the bar is as close to your shins as possible. 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 down and back.
- 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 presents 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.
Deadlifts are a hinge movement because you're bending to lift something off the floor, and hinging correctly is one of the best ways to guarantee you're doing your deadlifts right.
"Learning how to properly hinge (without rounding the back) is also a great tool for activating hip joints, glutes and hamstrings, which, in turn, creates less stress on the spine and back," Takacs says.
When you pick up the weight from the ground, be sure to press your heels down into the ground, Takacs recommends. And keep the bar close to your body — this will help reduce potential strain on your lower back. You also want to engage your lats (the muscle of your mid-back) to ensure you aren't accidentally pulling from the shoulders or arms at all.
Another important tip from Takacs: "Make sure your knees don't extend before your hips — this should happen simultaneously in your extension," she says.
Not using a barbell? Make sure you start at the bottom with your heels glued to the floor with the kettlebell or dumbbells close to your body. You want the weights' movement path as close to your shins as possible, Takacs says.
Sumo Deadlifts: A Safe Alternative
If you have difficulty maintaining proper back alignment with the traditional deadlift, try the sumo version. According to the July 2018 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.
Don't let naysayers prevent you from adding deadlifts to your routine — just make sure to nail down your form before starting.
"Deadlifts are a great way to improve lower back strength," Takacs says. "When done correctly, they are a great tool for strengthening core, hip hinging, hamstrings, back muscles and glutes."
And don't let muscle soreness hold you back, either. According to the Hospital for Special Surgery, deadlifts put significant stress on the area between your ribs and your hips (your lumbar spine). It's normal and expected for the muscles in your back to be sore after lifting, especially if you're just starting out or after you increase your weights. Soreness is different from acute pain.
Just like with any other resistance exercise, proper form is key to reaping the benefits. And because deadlifting activates so many muscles, maintaining good form can help you avoid — and potentially prevent — lower back pain.
- BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine: "Narrative Review of Injuries in Powerlifting With Special Reference to Their Association to the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift"
- Advances in Physiotherapy: "Treating Persistent Low Back Pain with Deadlift Training – A Single Subject Experimental Design with a 15-Month Follow-Up"