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Hi, I’m Jim Wittstrom. I’m a physiotherapist that works with all types of high-level athletes, including National level powerlifters.
Are you having lower back pain after deadlifting? Here’s how to assess and fix it: Lower back soreness is common after deadlifting, but it could be serious if it persists for more than a week. Don’t lift through the pain; work around it. Analyze your form to find the cause. Stretch the problem area. Use corrective exercises like planks to strengthen problem areas.
That's just the super short answer, and there are many specifics you need to get right to deadlift in a pain-free way.
In this article, I will share with you everything I know about dealing with back pain while deadlifting, from why it might occur in the first place to how you can solve it, both in the short and long term.
Back pain while deadlifting is a common experience. While common, it’s a sign that something is wrong, either because your technique is lacking, your training is incorrectly programmed, or there’s something structurally wrong with your back.
Assuming you want to keep deadlifting and getting stronger, we need to cover a few things to help that process.
Here’s what I’ll discuss today:
- How To Understand The Basics Of Back Pain
- General Soreness vs Serious Pain
- Shifting Your Mentality Through Your Injury
- Optimizing Your Deadlift Technique
- Self Assessments You Can Perform To Understand Back Pain
- Ensuring Superior Hip Mobility & Range of Motion
- Experimenting With Different Deadlift Variations
- Dealing With Disc Issues
- Dealing With Joint issues
- How To Relieve Back Pain from Deadlifts
- Lower Back Pain With Good Form?
Table of Contents
What Causes Lower Back Pain After Deadlifts?
What muscles should be sore after deadlifts? Your upper back, legs, and abs are some good muscles to feel after a properly executed deadlift session. A better question is, “Should my lower back be sore after deadlifts?”
Back pain can arise from several different structures and tissues within the lower back.
Thankfully, when it comes to understanding what's causing your back pain, you can do several different movements and positions to determine which tissues or structures might be causing your pain. This will then allow you to further refine the best possible plan for getting it under control. These movements and positions will be covered in this article.
But before we can answer the question, “What should be sore after deadlifts?” And what specific tests and movements we can utilize to correct low back pain. It's essential to have a basic understanding of lower back pain in a broad context, as it can paint a healthier and more empowering perspective for anyone experiencing it.
Statistics on Lower Back Pain
Approximately 80% of people will have at least one episode of significant back pain within their lifetime.
This is for everyone, not just lifters.
Knowing this stat is incredibly important as it can really help put your mind at ease and help shift your focus on this whole issue or process. This is certainly not to downplay or minimize what you're going through but rather to help turn your mindset away from fear and more towards empowerment.
Chances are that you likely would have had some form of back pain at some point, even if you weren't a lifter, so don't erroneously think that lifting has automatically put you in this situation. More importantly, don't listen to anyone who ignorantly tells you that lifting is what got you here.
Yes, maybe lifting contributed a bit due to technical errors or that of the like, but chances are your back is actually more robust from your lifting than had you not been lifting.
The prognosis of getting over your back pain is quite favorable once it's understood.1 The most important factor of this whole process is getting an accurate diagnosis. Once it's certain what's at fault, the recovery process is often very straightforward.
What Is The Difference Between General Soreness and Serious Pain?
General soreness occurs 1-2 days after a lifting session. With proper hydration, active recovery, and protein intake, general soreness will subside within a week.
Indicators of muscle soreness include training the glutes on one day and having a keen awareness of the glute muscles every time your hips hinge over the next few days. In other words, the muscles you trained will let you know they are there when you go to use them again.
Serious pain is usually, but not always, local, sharp, and almost immediate during a training session. Muscle soreness will creep up on you over a few days. Serious pain strikes quickly. Of course, you can accrue a serious injury and pain several days after a training session.
Talk to your doctor if your pain does not subside within a week.
Shifting Your Mentality Through Your Injury
I know too many lifters who have landed themselves in a lot of back pain simply by thinking it was acceptable to push through it.
Pain, especially sharp pain, is an indicator light to your brain that something isn't right.
Having to scale back or pivot on your training until the pain is rectified may be annoying or inconvenient. Still, it's much easier to deal with and eliminate when it's acute (new) and minor in its intensity.
The best lifters out there are those who exhibit great mental strength in resisting the urge to blindly push through lifting-related pain.
It's imperative to know that back pain, or a sore lower back, when addressed properly, is rarely a lifelong issue, nor is it the career-ending injury that many people erroneously believe it to be.
Nothing about your strength or technique will be permanently lost as you work to train around your pain rather than through it.
If you have convinced yourself to avoid training after experiencing lower back pain, your efforts at rehabbing your back pain after deadlifts will be unsuccessful. Training your posterior chain to work correctly will result in massive success and even more strength than before you experienced a sore lower back.
With your mindset now committed to avoiding the temptation to just push through pain or avoid training altogether, it's time to start hunting down what caused that sharp pain.
Optimizing Your Deadlift Technique
A good place to start hunting for the culprit to your back pain after deadlifts is by analyzing your deadlift form. It may or may not be what's caused your back to start acting up, but without an evaluation of your technique, it's impossible to know for sure.
No matter how experienced you are in lifting, you can't afford to forgo evaluating your lifting technique.
Evaluate your technique in person or remotely with a coach if the option is available for you to do so. If you want to speak with one of our coaches for free, fill out our quick questionnaire.
Otherwise, you can film yourself and send it to someone you trust to critique each aspect of your lift.
Either way, this evaluation must be the starting point for gaining as much insight as possible towards learning whether or not any of your back pain has likely come from technical errors.
Regarding the evaluation, it's important to realize that your technique will likely change based on the load you're pulling off the floor.
You don't want to base the evaluation on one load or resistance you're pulling.
Based on how your back is feeling, it's a good idea to film yourself or get evaluated pulling different loads (filmed from various angles), everything from deadlift warm up sets with the bar all the way up to a submaximal load of 3-5 one repetition maximum (1-RM).
Only go up to these loads if your back will tolerate doing so. If your back is too flared up to do so, use any previous lifting footage that you may have.
If anything is revealed to be less than ideal with your technique, make it a priority to start cleaning it up to prevent lower back pain from deadlifts.
In a best-case scenario, it will eliminate the pain-generating stimulus and get you back to deadlifts and lower back pain-free lifting. Cleaning up your technique will help ensure you avoid any future episodes of lower back pain and low back soreness providing you with superior confidence as you lift.
Several articles on this website will be a good starting point for you to learn perfect deadlift form:
- The Best Deadlift Shin Angle
Self Assessments You Can Perform To Understand Back Pain
While this section should be beneficial in helping you to gain further insight as to what may be causing your back pain after deadlifts, please remember that it does not formally diagnose what may be going on.
The following tests and movements have high clinical diagnostic value in predicting which structures may be compromised and generating mechanical pain, but pain can be complex and multifactorial in nature. Seek appropriate evaluation from a qualified healthcare practitioner to confirm any of your findings.
Also, keep in mind that although I will mention the commonly affected lower back structures individually, they are often present together in some fashion, meaning they are not mutually exclusive of one another.
Having a qualified healthcare practitioner whom you trust to guide you through this process can be highly beneficial.
Assessing the Discs
Intervertebral discs (the rubber, hockey puck-like structures) are a common culprit of lower back pain for lifters and non-lifters alike.
They can be compromised in different ways, with the most common being bulging or protruding of the nucleus pulposus. The nucleus pulposus is the jelly-like center of the disc. This jelly-like substance can push on the nerve root exiting from the spine right next to it when bulging outwards.
Discs tend to behave in predictable patterns when irritated. Two of them are their intolerance to sitting and repeated spinal flexion. Both of these tend to be telling signs of whether or not a disc is involved in an individual's back pain.
The repeated spinal flexion test can be a great way to help rule in or rule out any disc involvement.
To do this test:
- Bend forward as if you're touching your toes and then stand back upright.
- Don't overthink this movement – perform it in whichever way feels most natural for you.
- If your pain worsens over ten or so repetitions, it tends to signify disc pathology (injury) to some extent.
Mild disc injuries may only create minimal increases in pain, while more moderate to severe disc issues will greatly flare up the pain.
Assessing the Nerves
Nerves (especially the sciatic nerve) are often involved with irritated or bulged discs, so it's essential to determine if any of your pain is nerve-related (likely in conjunction with the disc).
If you've been feeling any pain running into your glute, down through your hamstrings, or even down to your heel, this is known as a radicular pattern of pain.
If you're having leg pain and having difficulty determining whether your leg pain is from muscle tissue (the hamstrings) or an irritated nerve, you can try the slump test.
To perform the slump test:
- Sit on a chair with your arms behind the back.
- Slump forwards and bring your chin to your chest.
- Hold this position while you then take your leg and straighten it outwards as far as you can until you feel the stretch in the back of your leg.
- Hold this position and then look up towards the ceiling. If your pain/the stretch decreases as you look up, it signifies that the nerve is sensitive or irritated (likely coming from the nerve root near the disc).
Getting nerves under control can be a bit of a process; however, your best bet for nerve irritation is to start by ensuring that your discs are healthy and under control.
Assessing the Facet Joints
Facet joints are the joints of the spine that link one vertebra bone to the other.
If these joints become irritated or compromised in any fashion, they can create back pain. They tend to produce pain that is sharper in nature and quite focal.
When irritated, there are positions that these joints tend not to enjoy. Try the following movements to see if they replicate or reduce your pain. These movements work by putting the joint(s) into a rather compacted position or into a less compacted position.
Related Article: Deadlifting With Anterior Pelvic Tilt: Risks & How To Fix
Quadrant Testing for the Facet Joints:
Quadrant testing can be a valuable way to determine if any joints are stuck, irritated or otherwise compromised.
If a joint is irritated, it likely won't enjoy the combined movement of extension with rotation to that particular side of the spine. Conversely, it may be quite pain-relieving to take that joint in the exact opposite couple motion (flexion with rotation to the opposite side).
As a general example:
A painful or irritated facet joint on the left side of your lower back would likely reproduce or worsen the pain with the combined movement of left rotation and extension (which approximates the joint space) but lessen with the combined movement of rightward rotation with flexion (which opens up the joint space).
If your exact pain is replicated or lessened with either of these combined movements, there's a decent probability that one or more of your facet joints are causing at least part (if not all) of your pain.
Assessing the SI Joint
The sacroiliac joint (SI joint) has a notorious reputation for generating pain in the lower back.
This pain tends to result from the joint being slightly shifted (often termed a subluxation) from its ideal position.
Thankfully, there are very strong clinical prediction rules that you can use to figure out whether or not your pain is coming from the SI joint.
If you meet two or more of the following clinical prediction rules, there is very strong evidence to suggest that your SI joint is at least involved with your back pain, if not exclusively. Each of these “tests” is only positive if they refer to your chief complaint of back pain:
- Fortin's finger test (shown below)
- Pain with rolling over in bed
- Pain going from sitting to standing
- Pain with walking
If your pain is coming from your sacroiliac joint, performing mobilizations specific to this joint is your best bet for reducing and eliminating the pain.
Ensuring Superior Hip Mobility & Range of Motion
Once you've run through the above movements, it's then a good idea to try and evaluate your hip range of motion. It's staggering just how many lifters experience lower back pain after deadlifts due to impaired mobility within their hip joint.
Anatomically speaking, the hip joint and the lower back are two separate features, but from a functional standpoint, they are the same since movement from these two distinct features must occur together in order to complete most functional tasks in life.
Think of it this way:
If the lower back is a barbell, the plates are the hip joint – Sure, they're different and distinct entities, but they really need each other if they're going to serve an actual purpose.
Naturally, this leads one to ask if deadlifts are a back or leg exercise?
The main area that lifters run into is inadequate flexion of the ball and socket joint within the hip.
If the ball can't spin enough within the socket, the hip movement stops and the lower back joints are forced to compensate by flexing and moving excessively. This is the common culprit of the infamous “butt wink” lifters get when squatting.
When it comes to deadlifting, however, inadequate hip flexion prevents lifters from getting into an ideal wedge position before initiating their deadlift.
An inadequate wedge position due to lack of hip mobility forces the lower back joints (the facet joints) to flex a bit as a result. Even with just minimal amounts of this lumbar flexion, it can be extremely demanding and taxing on these joints in order to sustain this position as the weight is lifted off the floor. This inadequacy to maintain a solid wedge position will cause low back soreness.
This is why it’s important to keep your back straight while deadlifting.
To counteract this restriction, it's likely best to go after the joint capsule itself.
This is a sort of leather-like bag that wraps around the joint. When it gets stiff and restricted, it will drastically limit hip mobility, especially hip flexion.
Sure, muscles that cross the hip can also become tight, but in my clinical experience, most lifters have more of their hip joint restriction coming from the capsule itself rather than any of the nearby muscles.
If you're unsure whether your hip capsule needs some work, try the following stretch.
If you feel a tight, “jamming” sensation in the front of your hip when you do it, then your hip capsule is telling you that it likely needs some work to prevent lower back sore after deadlifts.
The Hip Capsule Stretch
To perform this stretch:
- Assume the quadruped position on the floor.
- From there, rock back like you're doing to do the child's pose in yoga, but there's one caveat: you can only rock backwards as far as you can without letting your lower back flex or round even in the slightest.
- You'll notice that you won't be able to rock too far back before you can't move any further back unless you were to allow your spine to round (flex). Hold this position and continue to push back without any movement of your spine.
- If done correctly, and if your capsule is tight, you'll feel a sensation in the front of your hip, which is the capsule being challenged for its mobility.
- Hold this position for at least thirty seconds or longer, then relax. Repeat as often as desired.
Tips To Train Around Back Pain While Deadlifting
Now that you're hopefully a bit more familiar with understanding the cause and nature of your pain, it's worth reviewing some training activities to help you find ways to continue to train (if possible) without further irritating or compromising your back.
The goal with this section is to provide you with information that will help keep you lifting pain-free, even if you’re currently experiencing some back pain while deadlifting.
The more versatile you can be in your training pursuits, either with or without a healthy back, the better off you're likely to be when it comes to your training longevity.
Here are my top training tips for how to train around back pain in the deadlift:
Tip #1: Try Sumo Stance for More Hip Torque and Less Low Back Torque
If you still feel that you can pull some weight or need to keep lifting, you may want to pull from the sumo position if you haven't already been doing so.
Unlike the conventional deadlift, the sumo deadlift requires much less lumbar flexion throughout the movement.
Since irritated and bulged discs do not enjoy flexion-based patterns, you may have good success with switching to this technique since there will be much less flexion to that section of the spine.
For further sumo deadlift resources, check out:
Tip #2: Try Experimenting With Variations in Range of Motion
If switching to pulling from the sumo stance doesn't work for you, you can consider shortening the range of motion required to pull the weight from the starting position.
This is most often achieved by lifting the barbell plates off of blocks, although you can also set up a squat rack so that you pull the weight off of the safety pins.
By shortening the range of motion that you pull the weight from, you put less flexion into the hip joint and thus less torque through the lumbar spine as you move into a full upright position (the lockout portion of the lift).
Tip #3: Try Experimenting With Variations in Equipment
If you've been doing your training exclusively with a barbell, you may find it worthwhile to experiment with the trap bar (sometimes referred to as a hex bar).
The trap bar has the unique ability to alter the biomechanics of force running through your lower back in a favorable manner.
By standing within the bar rather than in front of it, the trap bar deadlift alters the amount of force required by your lower back muscles to produce extension (standing completely upright) when performing the lift.
Tip #4: Try Experimenting With Variations in Tempo & Load
Perhaps the most important factor to correctly dial in as you attempt to get your back healthy again is to ensure that you dial in the appropriate levels of resistance to work through (both for your deadlifts as well as with all other lower body lifts).
Thankfully, there's plenty of ways to strengthen your muscles without heavy loading. This is especially true when it comes to rehabilitation and return-to-sport progressions.
The best approach here is to get rather familiar with tempo-based training, which often involves challenging lifting sessions but with much lighter loads. This is a great way to spare excessively heavy physical loads to your back, which can greatly reduce or even eliminate your back pain if it's only present at heavier loads.
Plenty of great training programs exist that revolve around tempo-based training using lighter loads. Many of them have proven track records for helping lifters continue to stay strong without pushing heavy loads.
To learn more about tempo training, check out our other resources:
Dealing with Disc Issues
If it's been determined that your pain is discogenic (arising from the disc) in nature, the following are steps that you can experiment with in order to begin to get your disc issues and pain under control.
Your best bet is to likely use all of them, as the more therapeutic movement and healthier environments you can throw at your disc, the better it will respond.
Incorporate Regular Aerobic Activity (Discs Need Oxygen)
Discs of the spine require high levels of oxygen as part of the healing process, especially when getting rid of chemical-based pain resulting from tissue inflammation.
Discs only get their blood supply through the vertebrae's top and bottom portions (known as the vertebral endplate) between them.
In order to increase this oxygenation to appreciable levels, steady-state aerobic activity needs to be performed at an intensity strong enough to elevate circulation throughout the entire body.
Don't worry; doing twenty minutes of steady-state cardio at moderate activity won't cause you to go catabolic and lose all of your hard-fought strength and muscle gains.
Simply pick an exercise method of choice and get into the routine of doing this at least four or five times per week. The goal isn't to get you aerobically fit but rather to give your discs the required elevated oxygen levels.
Check out our other article on The XX Best Cardio For Powerlifters for more ideas.
Consider Performing McKenzie Extensions
The McKenzie extension (sometimes called “the sloppy pushup”) is a commonly prescribed exercise as part of the McKenzie Method.
It has a proven track record in the rehabilitative world for helping disc issues to resolve. How this does so exactly is beyond the scope of this article.
There are different ways to perform the Mckenzie extension, but the standard method involves laying on your stomach with your hands in a pushup position.
To perform the movement:
- Push your upper body off of the surface you're laying on while keeping your hips on the ground.
- Push yourself upwards as far as comfortable.
- Hold this position for a second or two, then lower yourself down and repeat.
Doing this three or four times daily, while inconvenient, can greatly help your disc issue.
Avoiding Sitting as Much as You Possibly Can
Discs irritated or bulging outward tend to despise sitting due to the mechanical compression they subsequently experience.
So, as best as possible, try to avoid sitting, or at least for extended periods of time. This can be annoying to deal with but will help ensure that you avoid continually irritating the disc as you work on helping it heal by avoiding positions and activities that may keep setting it back.
Dealing with Joint Issues
For most lifters in their thirties or younger, joint issues of the spine tend to be more acute (newly acquired) in nature.
This means that longstanding issues such as osteoarthritis (arthritis of the joints) aren't typically the culprit.
Instead, these painful joint issues tend to result from the joints getting “jammed” or “stuck” slightly out of a position they should be in.
This is often referred to as a subluxation or malalignment.
It's important to know that we're not talking massive amounts of positional shift here, just enough to alter the ideal movement of the joint, thus creating some pain and irritation.
Lifters in their forties and above can have this same type of joint issue within their spine, but they're also more likely to start incurring arthritic-based pain.
Arthritis of the spine often sounds scary, but it's essentially “grey hair of the spine.” It happens to all of us, and as long as you keep yourself moving properly, lift properly and keep pain under control, you'll still have plenty of solid years of lifting ahead.
Dealing with Jammed or Stuck Joints
If a joint is hypomobile (meaning it's not moving enough), your best bet is to give it some mobilizations.
In an ideal world, you could have a qualified healthcare practitioner do this for you as often as you need, but we don't live in an ideal world.
If you're someone who is looking to effectively mobilize their lower spine joints, give the following mobilization a try:
Performing the Brettzel Stretch
The Brettzel stretch is an ideal self-mobilization to try on yourself since it targets a larger portion of the mid & lower back joints while also challenging a bit of hip mobility as well.
It's a great one to incorporate when you feel that you have multiple joints that aren't moving all that ideally or are not quite certain which exact levels of the spine joint(s) may be causing the pain.
Think of it a bit as a nuclear bomb that just gets everything rather than one precise missile strike.
To perform this movement:
- Lay on your side and bring your top leg up towards your chest. Bend the knee of your bottom leg, and then try to pull it as far behind you as possible.
- Take your bottom arm and grab just above your knee, hooking your hand around the hamstring. Use this grip to now pull your top leg even closer towards your chest.
- Take your top arm and grab the foot on your bottom leg, pulling it closer. If you can't grab it, just get your arm as close to it as possible.
- Next, as you hold onto your legs, rotate your head and neck as if trying to look over your shoulder. Rotate as much as possible. You should feel the mid and lower portions of your back getting “wound up.”
- Release yourself from the wound-up position (but don't let go of your legs) and then repeat a few more times. Be sure to then lay on your other side and target your spine in the opposite direction.
Dealing with Arthritic Joints
Arthritic joints also require movement, but for a slightly different reason than non-arthritic joints that are simply jammed up a bit. In order for joints to stay healthy, they require movement.
The movement of joint surfaces allows the fluid within the joint (known as synovial fluid) to move between the joint surfaces (cartilage).
This movement of fluid across the cartilage surfaces keeps it healthy and provides better nutrition to the joint. When joints sit still, the fluid movement becomes stagnant, and the joint surfaces don't get the continual lubrication that they require.
When it comes to getting movements to the facet joints of the lumbar spine, continual, low-grade aerobic movement is the way to go.
No, this doesn't mean that your goal is to perform traditional cardio for hours on end with the goal of burning massive amounts of calories. Rather, it simply means that you need to incorporate continual, low-grade movement into your daily pursuits.
As long as the movement doesn't bother your joints, you should be good to go. Simple 20 or 30-minute walks four or five times per week are a great starting point.
The overall goal with this movement-based approach is to create a healthier environment for the joint surfaces and to slow the rate of further degeneration to the joint, which is entirely possible with the aforementioned steps.
And don't discount how profound it can be for getting people back to their lifting pursuits – I've seen massive changes with this approach for those whom I treat in the clinic.
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How to Relieve Lower Back Pain After A Deadlift
Using good form and technique is the best way to relieve lower back pain after a deadlift. If you had a bad day and are beyond this point, taking yourself through these self-assessments and exercises is your next best bet.
Here’s an easy way to remember what to do: Assess, Stretch, Correct. Assess yourself and see if you can locate the problem area. Stretch out the problem area. Finally, use corrective exercises, like clams, side planks, and bird dogs, to strengthen those problem areas. Going through this process will keep you lifting heavy and safe for a long time.
Common faults that can contribute to low back pain:
- Bar is too far away
- Looking up
- Reaching too far forward
- Going too far down
- Lifting too heavy
- Yanking the bar
- Grip is uneven (hands should be equal distance from legs)
- Lifting too fast
- Rounding your back
- Breathe evenly, deeply, and slowly throughout your lift
- Lift with your hamstrings and gluts, not your lower back
What If I Have Lower Back Pain After Deadlifts With Good Form?
It's normal to feel soreness in your lower back after deadlifts, especially if you're new to the exercise or recently increased weight. However, if you're experiencing sharp, shooting pain or pain that doesn't go away after a few days, it's important to see a doctor to rule out any underlying injuries.
You may have something as minor as a muscular imbalance that needs addressing, or it could indicate something more serious. At any rate, it’s best to cover all your angles.
Back pain with deadlifting is not an ideal scenario to be in, but it's by no means a death sentence.
The odds are good that you'll be able to eliminate the pain and return to your regular lifting routine once you understand the underlying pain-generating mechanism(s) and take the appropriate actions to rectify them.
Be smart. Take the time and energy to determine which structures are at fault, and be patient as you work to correct them. Doing so will only be a drop in the bucket when it comes to any training setbacks and will prolong your lifting pursuits for years to come.
About The Author
Jim is a physical therapist, strength & conditioning specialist and former competitive powerlifter. He loves treating lifters and other active individuals in the clinic and working with them in the gym in order to help them move better, feel better and maximize their training potential.