Although low back pain, tightness, and soreness after deadlifts is a fairly common experience, deadlifting is among one of the safest and best lifting exercises one can do for their overall health.
Progressing how much weight you are doing over time is the best way to keep making improvements while minimizing injury risk.
I’m a powerlifter and a physical therapist who works with clients with back pain every day. I’ve deadlifted 600 lbs. in competition so I have a bit of experience in speaking on this topic.
What causes lower back pain with deadlifting (and what doesn’t)?
- Too much weight or volume too soon.
Most clients that I work with tend to have tried to push too much weight too soon without enough rest, or without warming up. If you are just starting out with deadlifting, I recommend starting light, focus on developing tightness through your mid and lower back, and lats, and then work on increasing the weight.
I want to reiterate that heavy weight is not bad, in fact, it’s a great thing. We should all strive to be able to lift heavier things as I believe this increases our overall capacity in daily life. It just makes sense to start off a little slower and build your way up, similar to how you would progress running.
It likely wouldn’t be a smart idea to go sprinting around a track at full speed if you haven’t sprinted in a year. The same goes for deadlifting and maxing out, it’s probably not the best idea if you haven’t lifted in a year to max out on day one.
- Fear. If you are afraid to do something, including performing a deadlift. There is a higher chance that you will experience some sort of pain or discomfort. The nocebo effect is a real thing; nocebo being an adverse event, in this case pain, due to a negative belief.
- Poor form. Not really though.
This is actually less of an issue than you might think. Our body is incredibly adaptable and resilient. If we only trained with a flexed forward posture or rounded back, our body would adapt to that and develop the tolerance for this load as it is applied.
Do I teach a certain form for deadlifting? Yes. In the beginning I like to teach a specific form, particularly working on developing full-body tightness prior to initiating the lift, however as time goes on I specifically will work with people on lifting with “bad posture,” as this is more realistic for everyday life.
You won’t be able to get into a perfect posture (whatever the hell that means) at all times when picking things up in your everyday life so you might as well train yourself in the gym to be able to do this too. That’s why I like Jefferson curls so much once my client’s symptoms have subsided down to tolerable levels.
- Muscular imbalances. Again, this is not really an issue.
Most people have less than a 10% difference in limb symmetry when I test them using a force gauge.
If someone has larger than a 10% strength difference between sides and they continuously have symptoms on one side then I may do a further examination to see if this could be playing a role in their symptoms.
What can you do to improve symptoms?
- Decrease the weight. Cut the weight down to 50% of what you usually use. If your symptoms are tolerable with using 50% of your normal weight, then congratulations, you’ve found a great rehab exercise! If it’s still really painful with 50%, I recommend then going down to an empty bar or a light kettlebell and start with some sumo deadlifts to see how those feel.
- Choose different exercises. If it’s still beyond tolerable limits (usually a 0-4 on the pain scale), then scaling down to more basic exercises may be necessary such as goodmornings (with very light weight or unloaded), or bird dogs. As you can see, there is a near-infinite number of ways to modify this.
- Change the tempo. If 50% of your working weight feels good you can do tempo deadlifts to increase the overall intensity and see how that feels. Tempo deadlifts can be done at a wide range of speeds including 3-0-3, 3-1-3, 5-0-5, etc.
- Modify your range of motion. It’s possible it only hurts when at the bottom of the deadlift. If this is the case, you can start from blocks, or start with the bar from a more elevated position. Usually, this is done with either a 4” or 6” lift to start with. You can always increase or decrease the height as symptoms allow.
- Use heat, ice, and NSAIDs. It’s fine to use some basic modalities and medications to help ease symptoms when they are flared up.
This is true for any rehab. Check in with yourself and see how things are feeling during the workout, one hour after, and 24 hours after. If symptoms are the same, better, and not significantly worse (tolerable), then you have found a winning rehab plan. Continue on that path and continue to increase intensity and volume as symptoms allow.
Is it normal to have pain after deadlifting?
It is common to have some pain, stiffness, or soreness after deadlifting, so I suppose it is normal to have this happen on occasion. Keyword, on occasion.
In any given year, i’ll have about one to three episodes of back discomfort after deadlifting, usually if I haven’t warmed up very well and if I haven’t been lifting for a couple weeks. The best antidote to soreness after deadlifting is quite ironically, to do more deadlifting.
If you are having soreness and pain everytime then I would classify this as not normal. Please refer to the above section to see what you might be able to modify. If you’ve done the modifications and still can’t seem to shake your symptoms, I’d love to help. You can contact me by shooting me an email at email@example.com.
Another great article to check out is by Dr. Michael Mash about this topic.
How long does the pain from deadlifting usually last?
Most back pain, related to deadlifts or something else, lasts for 2 to 6 weeks.
As a rule of thumb, it’s best to stay moving and get back to whatever your normal workout routine is, including deadlifting.
Follow the above guidelines and you should be good to go. If you’re not, contact me, or your local physical therapist who knows how to lift.
Can a deadlift cause a slipped disc?
This is a common misunderstanding. Discs don’t slip. Herniations and disc bulges are a real thing, but deadlifting does not increase the risk of this occurring, if anything it likely reduces the likelihood of such an event.
Most of my clients that come work with me who do have symptomatic disc herniations did it while picking up something incredibly light off the ground, or by moving some awkward object like a couch. And guess how many of these people lifted on a regular basis? Close to zero.
So, can a disc bulge or herniation be caused by deadlifting, sure, it can, however it’s likely more protective than anything.
I’d highly recommend checking out this article from Barbell Medicine if you are not convinced.
- Too much weight too soon, fear, and potentially form issues are likely causative factors back pain with deadlifting. Pain is complex and never has only one driving force.
- Most back pain from deadlifts will get better with time
- Deadlifting with reduced weight is a great way to rehab this issue
- Lifting heavy weights is safe. You should progress slowly as you would progress running
- Low back pain usually lasts for 2-6 weeks
- Staying active and getting back to normal activities while minimizing symptoms is the best approach to alleviating back pain.