Deadlifts for Low Back Pain: Good, Bad, or the Perfect Match?

Deadlifts for Low Back Pain: Good, Bad, or the Perfect Match?

Zach Friedenreich, PT, DPT

Physical Therapist, New York, NY

Low Back Pain Facts

Low back pain is an extremely common injury throughout the world, impacting approximately 540 million people in 2015. Low back pain is currently the leading cause of disability worldwide. For this reason, it is extremely important to remind yourself that you are not alone if you are experiencing low back pain yourself!

Contrary to popular belief, in the majority of cases the specific cause of a bout of low back pain is not known. In fact, low back pain in currently considered to be multifactorial in nature. Biological, psychological, and social/lifestyle factors can all contribute to the pain that an individual is experiencing.

Although low back pain is highly prevalent in today’s society, there is some positive news! Current research shows that a large percentage of low back pain episodes undergo significant improvement within the first 6 weeks of onset. the question to be answered in this blog post is: can this improvement in symptoms be made greater and more sustainable by including deadlifts in the game plan? My answer is a resounding YES.

What is a Deadlift?

A deadlift is a weightlifting movement in which a weight, or object, is lifted from the floor to hip or waist level via a “hip hinge” pattern. Traditionally, this movement is performed with a barbell, but there are numerous variations involving different stances and types of weights. We’ll discuss some of these variations below as they pertain to scaling and modifying on an individual basis. Deadlifts are typically used to target and build strength in the posterior muscles of the body. This includes the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles.

In addition to the being one of the “big 3” exercises in powerlifting, a deadlift can also be seen as being a functional movement pattern that mimics many activities of daily life. Think lifting a bag of groceries from the floor, picking up your child from the floor, or even bending over to tie your shoelaces. Deadlifts not only build general lower body and back strength, but they are a movement pattern that’s present in our daily lives more than one would think.

Benefits of Deadlifting for Low Back Pain

As previously stated, deadlifts are a foundational movement pattern that we frequently encounter as human beings. Training the deadlift exposes the body (including your lower back) to stresses that it will inevitably encounter in daily life. Exposure to such stress leads to positive adaptations in our body. Including improved overall low back and leg strength, endurance, and overall resilient to reduce the chances of pain from returning in the future.

Recent research has also concluded that including deadlifts in a treatment plan for individuals with low back pain reduces pain and overall disability post-exercise and significantly improves quality of life. Sounds like a pretty good bargain for simply including one exercises variation into a plan of care, right?

How can I use the deadlift to suit me and my physical abilities?

There are a few different considerations to keep in mind when it comes to deadlift modifications and variations. First, the severity (how intense your symptoms currently are) and irritability (how much activity it takes for your symptoms to increase) of your current low back pain has to be taken into account. You likely won’t want to deadlift a 300 lb barbell if you are in severe pain when putting your socks on.

Second, we must consider your previous weight training experience and competency with the movement pattern. Just as you start with training wheels when learning to ride a bike, it is important to utilize different feedback tools to assist in learning the foundational hip hinge pattern when you are a novice.

Therefore, we can adjust the load, implement, and movement variation to suit you current presentation. This may mean using a lighter kettle bell rather than a heavier barbell, raising the height from which the weight if being lifted, or using a different stance like the wider “sumo” stance to keep a more upright position. There are nearly endless variations and modifications that can be made to suit the individual. This is where a Physical Therapist comes in!

Check out the videos below to see how we may introduce and teach the hip hinge movement at PhysioRX.

Conclusion

In summary, low back pain in a very common injury that is multifactorial in nature. One of the most effective means of reducing pain and disability and improving quality of life is through building lower back and leg strength and endurance. Incorporating various deadlift and hip hinge movements that are scaled to your individual needs is an effective means of accomplishing this improvement in strength and overall robustness.

 

References:

  1. Hartvigsen, J., Hancock, M. Kongsted, A., Louw, Q., Ferreira, M. L., Genevay, S., Underwood, M., (2018) What low back pain is and why we need to pay attention. www.thelancet.com, 391.
  2. Welch, N., Moran, K., Antony, J., Richter, C., Marhsall, B., Coyle, J., (2015). The effects of a free-weight based resistance training intervention on pain, squat mechanics and MRI defined lumbar fat infiltration and functional cross-sectional area in those with chronic low back pain. BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine, 1(1).

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