You have all seen the epic gym fails. The deadlifts where people going for PRs look like angry cats on the attack with hugely rounded spines. Deadlifts get a bad rap! They are seen as the number one exercise that causes back pain and so, often times, people just avoid doing them. As a physiotherapist, I use deadlifts as rehabilitation. When properly taught, prescribed and progressed, they can be a powerful tool to get your back stronger and pain-free!
Any exercise if done incorrectly can lead to pain at your joints. When an exercise is performed wrong, the wrong muscles get loaded in the improper sequence and it increases your risk for injury. The deadlift is no different. From a strength development perspective however, the deadlift has been shown to activate more of your back stabilizers than other core exercises when compared by EMG (1). If this is the case then why not use it for rehabilitative training?
A paper released in February 2015 in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physiotherapy (JOSPT), showed a randomized controlled trial that compared deadlift training to low load motor control training (think retraining how you move in different patterns)(2). What the paper showed is that BOTH groups improved in strength.
In the deadlift training group, over two-thirds of people showed a significant decrease in pain with deadlift training (2).
It is important to point out that this was done in a small group setting and supervised by a physiotherapist with a strength training background. They had a coach who knew what they were doing to teach form properly
So is deadlifting for everyone? Maybe? We don’t really know
The same group then tried to break down which people would deadlift training be most effective for. This study used statistical tests to try to find cut off points for using deadlift training. The number one predictor was called the Sorenson test which measures how long you can hold your body up before you have to drop (like a Superman pose). Over 60 seconds? Deadlift training will likely work for you (3).
Form is the key when performing any type of movement, not the amount of weight you have on the bar. A lot of work has gone into what causes back pain. They have shown that for the low back, flexing your spine and then extending or picking up a weight with a twist or side bend, can both be no good for pain. That will put you into a physiotherapy clinic, not keep you out of one!
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1. Nuzzo JL, McCaully GO, Cormie P, Cavill MJ, McBride JM. Trunk muscle activity during stability ball and free weight exercises. J Str Cond Res. 2008. 22(1): 95-102.
2. Aasa B, Berglund L, Michaelson P, Aasa U. Individualized low-load motor control exercises and education versus a high-load lifting exercise and education to improve activity, pain intensity, and physical performance in patients with low back pain: a randomized controlled trial. JOSPT. 2015. 45(2): 77-85.
3. Berglund L, Aasa B, Hellqvist J, Michaelson P, Aasa U. Which patients with low back pain benefit from deadlift training? J Str Cond Res. 2015. [pub ahead of print]. Accessed 2015 Feb 1.