Stop Demonizing the Deadlift – 6 Physio Tips to Keep You Strong and Safe

Deadlifts are a commonly feared exercise for those suffering with back pain, but lifting objects off the floor is something we all do every day.

Avoiding this natural human movement is not the answer to back pain. Instead, we should be training it. Let’s try to change the narrative from ‘I avoid deadlifts because of my back pain’ to ‘I deadlift to strengthen my back’.

Here are some useful tips to help you conquer the deadlift!

1: Don’t skip the warm-up

There are hundreds of great warm-up exercises for the deadlift. Here are some of the ones we like to use:

  • Cat-Camels: To help to limber up the lumbar spine.
  • Banded Glute Bridges: To activate the glutes and posterior chain.
  • Romanian Deadlifts: To activate the posterior chain, to practice hip hinging and to expose the hamstrings to loading at end of range.

Always remember to start light with the deadlifts and build the weight GRADUALLY to your working sets.

2: Master the set up

Everyone is built differently, so there is always going to be some variability with this. Give these cues a try to help you to get into an optimal deadlift position.

  • Set up with the barbell over the midfoot.
  • Drive the hips back, keep the back straight to build tension through the hamstrings, then bend the knees to get down to the bar.
  • The barbell should now be in contact with your shins (without needing to roll it) and your shoulders should be in front of the bar.

3: Push don’t pull

  • With your weight distributed over the midfoot, try to think about pushing through the floor with your legs, building tension through the legs, glutes, back, lats and shoulders until you hear the weights ‘clink’ as the slack is taken out of the bar.
  • Then begin the lift by continuing to push through the floor with the feet, maintaining tension and keeping the bar close along the shins (shin guards optional!).

4: Keep the hips down

  • At the start of the lift, your hips and shoulders should rise together with your back and core tight.
  • If the hips rise too high too early in the lift, your weight will rock to the heels, removing the mechanical advantage of the quads for the rest of the lift, leaving more work for your back extensors, glutes and hamstrings. This will look more like a stiff leg/Romanian deadlift, which is a much weaker movement. This issue is a common cause of excessive spinal rounding during the deadlift.

5: Work on weaknesses

  • Practice set ups and building tension with lighter loads.
  • Try to video yourself lifting to get some feedback on your own technique and position.
  • Weakness in the bottom of the deadlift is common and ‘pause deadlifts’ are a great way to combat this. Practice pausing for 2-3 seconds with the weight about 2-3 inches off the floor before finishing the lift. This will help you to get more comfortable in this position, build isometric strength throughout the posterior chain and build resilience in your back at the bottom of the lift.
  • Use exercises like ‘Romanian deadlifts’ and ‘good mornings’ to practice hip hinging and to build strength into the back and posterior chain with lighter loads.

6: Finally, leave your ego at the door!

Remember, no one really cares how much you lift! Your focus should be to maintain good form and build strength and resilience gradually. It does not always need to be about maximal lifts.

Happy lifting!

Photo by Anastase Maragos on Unsplash