The Deadlift: The Best Exercise To Prevent And Treat Lower Back Pain

If you have a bulging or herniated disc, you”ve most likely been told to stay away from the deadlift. You may have heard reasons stating it causes too much compression on the spine, that there are better alternatives or that it”s “too dangerous” for the lower back. This article is going to dispel the myth that deadlifts are bad, and that they are in fact one of the best exercises that can be performed to prevent and treat a herniated disc and lower back pain in general. Bundles of nerves, ligaments, tendons, discs and the spinal column rely on the supporting muscles of the low back muscles to protect it. The lower back is meant to be stable and strong and the deadlift is the tool to provide this.

A look at this study will show that patients who had hypertrophied erector spinae muscles following chronic lower back pain had much better results than those who didn”t. Stronger paraspinal muscles were related to an improvement in their chronic lower back pain and it is suggested that strengthening of those muscles is a good idea to prevent future problems. It”s important to note that their lower back pain was chronic and lasted several months – their pain simply wasn”t going away unless they had strengthened spinal muscles. This explains why people can have bulging or herniated discs for years and years without getting better: they purely don”t have the lower back strength necessary to allow their injury to heal. It”s also testament to the fact that athletes with a strong lumbar area tend to recover from these injuries faster, be in less pain and go back to their normal activities sooner whilst others are plagued by chronic lower back pain for years.

Myth: There are better alternatives to train the lower back.

Reality: There aren”t. This study set out to find which exercise was the best at targeting the spinal erectors and included common exercises such as back extensions, bosu ball supine bridges, single-leg deadlifts, lunges and the conventional deadlift. The activity of a muscle was measure using electromyography (EMG), a process used to detect the electrical activity of a muscle. Lo and behold, the deadlift activated the spinal erectors better than any other exercise – hands down. And no other exercise (not even a lower back isolation exercise such as back extensions!) even came close to it.

A deadlift performed correctly with a proper hip-hinge and neutral spine will build more strength and muscle in your lower back than any other exercise. As you progress in weight, your spinal erectors will hypertrophy and will be better able to protect your spine. You will notice the pain from your herniated disc will start to gradually fade away as there is less pressure placed on your intervertebral discs. You may even feel better after the first session, as the abdominal muscles and lumbar erectors tend to hypertrophy faster than other muscle groups. If you have sciatic pain (pain going down one leg), you will notice it will gradually get better and centralize more and more towards the back as the pressure will be taken off the nerve root. e.g. With a herniated disc pressing heavily on the L5 nerve, pain will fade away from the foot, calf and thighs and eventually remain in the lower back until its resolution. Pain that is beginning to centralize towards the disc is an extremely good indication that there is less and less contact with the nerve.

By stu_spivack [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: By stu_spivack [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The deadlift activated the spinal erectors better than any other exercise.

The lower back, hamstrings and gluteal muscles work in unison to provide hip extension and as such, exercises that replicate this tend to activate the spinal erectors better. This explains why deadlifts outperform lower back isolation exercises such as back extensions. The deadlift targets all muscles belonging to the erector spinae group, including:

– iliocostalis lumborum
– iliocostalis thoracis
– iliocostalis cervicis
– longissimus thoracis
– longissimus cervicis
– longissimus capitis
– spinalis thoracis
– spinalis cervicis
– spinalis capitis

The erector spinae are the two thick and dense cable-like muscles that travel down the spine. These muscles run vertically through the cervical, thoracic and lumbar sections of the body. The iliocostal muscles assist with extension, lateral flexion and maintaining an upright posture. The longissimus muscle group is responsible for keeping the head and neck in an upright position, assisting in rotation and assisting in holding the spine in an upright position. The spinalis muscles assist in lateral flexion and extension. These muscles have attachments directly to the spine, ribs and transverse processes and are vitally important.

The erector spinae support the spine and strengthening them is key in preventing injuries and creating a bullet-proof back.

Myth: The deadlift puts too much compression on the spine.

Reality: Any weighted exercise puts compression on the spine. Even standing, sitting and laying down compresses the spine. The important thing to take into account is that performing a deadlift with a neutral spine in a controlled manner will not be ”too much” compression. Compression is temporary and will return to normal after sleeping. Your supporting core muscles, namely your abdominal muscles and erector spinae will contract heavily during the movement and reduce the amount of compression and shear force that is placed on the spine. Deadlifting will increase muscle mass in the supporting muscles of the spine, as well as increase bone strength and connective tissue strength. This study proved that the body does indeed adapt to compressive loads and that resistance training does increases bone strength. Increasing bone mass and muscle mass is key in taking pressure off a disc injury and giving it a chance to heal.

If you feel the need to decompress the spine after performing deadlifts, an inversion table or at-home techniques such as laying over a Swiss ball can be utilized.


The deadlift is one of the most effective exercises available to treat lower back pain. Not only effective for lower back pain, it will also correct your posture, as it will work almost every muscle in your body – especially the posterior chain – which is crucial in correcting muscle imbalances caused by excessive sitting and having rounded shoulders. Common postural problems such as rounded shoulders, kyphosis and hyperlordosis can be corrected with this exercise gradually over time. Muscles involved in the movement include:

Abdominal and Lumbar Corset:

– Rectus abdominis
– Abdominal external obliques
– Abdominal internal obliques
– Transverse Abdominis
– Erector spinae

The Mid-Back, Upper Back and Neck:
– Trapezius
– Latissimus dorsi
– Rhomboids
– Splenius cervicis
– Levator scapulae

The Legs:
– Quadriceps
– Hamstrings
– Glutes
– Calves

The Arms:
– Biceps
– Triceps
– Shoulders
– Forearms

The deadlift will work almost every muscle in the body and is extremely effective at correcting postural problems.

Several muscles of the posterior chain are heavily involved in the deadlift due to the nature of the movement:

– The spinal erectors are activated and contracted isometrically in order to prevent the lower back from rounding or hyperextending.
– The glute-hamstring complex work in conjunction to provide hip extension.
– The quadriceps are involved from the starting position to provide extension of the knee.


Deadlifts are not dangerous. This misconception probably stems from the fact that people typically associate deadlifts with heavy weights and slow, grinded-out reps involving hitching and a rounded lower back. In the beginning stages of lower back rehabilitation, higher repetitions with lighter weights should be used to learn the hip-hinge and correct motor pattern of the movement. The lighter weights will help avoid stressing the Central Nervous System in the beginning stages as well.

Before considering incorporating this exercise into a routine, try and avoid or reduce any use of anti-inflammatory medication or using ice on the lower back, if you have been using these to reduce symptoms of lower back pain. They will interfere with the natural inflammatory process that takes place to build new muscle. Plus, they are known for harmful side effects and should be avoided in any case. Deadlifts will provide better pain relief than any other method as it is addressing the cause of the issue – which is, in probably 90% of cases, weak spinal erectors and postural/movement deficiencies.


 

Conventional Barbell Deadlift Technique

Note: These are general principles that may vary between individuals due to different factors such as height, limb length and body structure.

    1. Stand with your shins slightly away from the barbell. Maintain a shoulder-width stance. Flat-soled shoes should be worn to provide stability and contact with the ground.

 

    1. Grip the bar without lowering your hips too far down and let your shins move slightly forward to touch the bar. Take a large, deep breath, similar to that if you were about to push a car that won”t start, and contract your core and posterior chain. Take the ”slack” out of the bar by squeezing the bar as hard as possible and contracting the lats.

 

    1. Lift the chest up and bring the shoulders slightly back to create a neutral spine. Begin the lift by driving the weight up with your heels along your shins, which will extend the knee joint.

 

    1. As the weight goes past the knees, extend the hips by thrusting the hips forward. Finish the movement by locking out the knees, hips and pulling the shoulders back tightly. Do not hyper-extend the lower back.

 

    1. Lower the weight by hinging at the hips and reversing the movement.

 

Sample Deadlift Rehabilitation Protocol

For lower back pain prevention and treatment, the following example template should be used following an injury such as a bulging or herniated disc. Each set uses the same weight and several warmup sets of increasing weight should be performed. Aim to increase weight gradually each session, typically from 1lb – 5lbs. Allow at least one to two days of recovery between sessions. Equipment required include a set of kettlebells, Olympic barbell and Olympic weight plates. The weight should be reset after every repetition (dead stop) – that is, the barbell is returned to the floor with a brief pause before continuing on to the next repetition to maintain correct form.

Note
Wearing a weightlifting belt does not protect the lower back during a deadlift.

Beginning Phase

The beginning phase of lower back rehabilitation will focus on learning the hip-hinge and learning the correct movement mechanics of the deadlift. The focus will be on perfecting form and may take several weeks (4 – 12 weeks). The kettlebell is used in this phase as lighter weights can be used.

Kettlebell Deadlift: 3 Sets x 10 Reps

Intermediate Phase

Progress to the intermediate phase when your you can perform a kettlebell deadlift with roughly 135lbs/~62kg. An Olympic barbell with weights can be used in this stage to perform a conventional deadlift. Since the weights are slightly heavier, the rep range is reduced to 5 as the lower back will fatigue quicker.

Conventional Barbell Deadlift: 3 Sets x 5 Reps

Advanced Phase

In this phase you will have good technique from earlier phases and will have the learned the hip-hinge and correct movement mechanics. This is important because as the weights get heavier and heavier, your lower back will fatigue faster and therefore you will not be able to perform multiple sets of the deadlift with the same weight. Not only will your lower back wear out faster from the heavier weights, the exercise will also start to stress your Central Nervous System (CNS) and require more recovery. In this final phase there will be several warmup sets of increasing weight and a final working set. Your erector spinae and abdominal muscles will be strong at this point and most of your lower back pain (such as bulging disc pain) should be gone.

Conventional Barbell Deadlift: 1 Set x 5 Reps


Exercises that strengthen the lower back should be performed at least once per week. This is due to the fact that the lumbar area is a muscle group that atrophies quite fast when it is not used. Deadlifts in conjunction with kettlebell swings and squats will consistently strengthen the spinal erectors, correct muscle imbalances and faulty movement patterns and treat any lower back pain you may have.