Lifting really heavy things off the ground might be one of the best feelings in the world!
Am I right? Or am I right?
Unfortunately athletes often hurt their back while trying to lift really heavy things off the ground. Hurting your back with the deadlift is extremely common and one of the more common injuries I see within my practice. The deadlift however is not a bad movement! It's essential for daily function and definitely should be trained to some extent within the gym! When you hurt your back deadlifting, it's because you performed the movement poorly, not because the movement is inherently bad.
Different ways you can hurt your back when deadlifting:
1) Excessive Lumbar flexion.
This is the most commonly talked mechanism of injury for hurting your back. This comes when an athlete excessively rounds their lumbar spine, while trying to pull load from the ground. Excessive lumbar spinal flexion is one of the most cue movement fixes in the gym, "Keep your back tight!", "flatten your back!". This cue however send many athletes into a position of excessive lumbar extension.
Which then introduces them to the most common back injury I see in my practice....
2) Excessive Lumbar Extension.
You read that right. Excessive extension of the lumbar spine is the most common mechanism of back injury I see when working with Crossfit and Fitness athletes! Lumbar extension injuries happen when an athlete actively extends their lumbar spine to create stability, then loads it heavily and frequently. When extension is loaded heavily and loaded frequently the spine becomes sensitive to this position, and you may experience pain. You may get away with using an extension stabilization strategy to stabilize your spine for a while, but eventually the body has had enough. Your back "locks up" and you experience stabbing pain when you bend forward and lean backward!
Why does this happen?
Well it all begins with the strategy you use to stabilize your spine. Ideally we want a co-traction of your abdominal muscles (lumbar flexors) and your spinal extensors to stabilize your spine in a relatively neutral position. The contraction of muscles on both sides of the spine help you create a stable lever for your glutes and hamstrings to then transmit force through.
Athletes often default to an extension stabilization strategy. This is because it's simply an easier position to maintain. This is when the athlete excessively arches the low back and uses their back muscles to hold them in that position. Do your numbers significantly drop off when you remove your weightlifting belt? Do you need a weightlifting belt to perform a 50% deadlift during a conditioning segment? (If so this is probably you!)
This extended (arched) position can be spotted by identifying an athlete exhibiting an excessive anterior pelvic tilt and a flared rib cage. In this position there is an over reliance on the lumbar extensors for stability and an under reliance on the anterior core (abs) for stability. Many athletes get away with this strategy for a long time. They may experience "back tightness" after squatting, deadlifting, or lifting overhead but they never experience the crippling back pain that some athletes experience. That is until they do.
Now let's fix your hinge so you can hit now PR's!
1) Kneeling Hinge Tranning
Learning to properly hinge at the hip is difficult for some athletes. For these athletes it works well to decrease the difficulty by decreasing the positional demand AND providing the athlete with a tactile cue. This drill does both! The kneeling position makes it easier to focus on hinging a stable spine at the hip, and the band provides them with a tactile cue at the hip. Back pain is often a Symptom of a hip hinge motor control deficit. If you have back pain that often comes after deadlifts or kettlebell swings, you probably need to fix your hinge.
Major Point of Emphasis here: Keep your ribs down. Feel tension in your abs, and maintain this tension through the entire movement. You should not feel tension in your back.
2) Banded Hinge Training: Reactive Neuromuscular Facilitation (Learn to use those lats!)
Luring the hinge pattern such as when you deadlift, the lats play a huge role as a spinal stabilizer. This is a great drill for learning how to use your lats within the hinge. Strap a band to the rig and wrap the other around your bar or a pvc pipe. Create tension in the band by walking backwards away from the rig. You should be forced to actively pull the bar back into your body throughout the entire drill. In the video I am starting from the top of the deadlift. This is the position I would recommend starting from. You then can progress the drill by moving down below the knee, and again by staring from the ground instead of the hang. You can even perform this drill with a loaded barbell to give yourself a cue to actively pull back on the bar. Bottom line: if you want to move big loads in any movement starting from the floor, learn to use your lats!
Major Point of Emphasis here: Keep your ribs down and the bar should also stay against your body. Feel tension in your abs and lats. Maintain this tension through the entire movement.
3) Tempo Deadlifts from Riser. Performing the deadlift from a riser and not allowing the bar to touch the ground is a great way to build positional strength and to learn how to maintain a stable spine without over extending your back, By performing these on a slow tempo (forcing an increased time under tension), you're able to drill home proper spinal position and build strength/control throughout the entire range of motion.
Major Point of Emphasis here: Keep your ribs down and the bar should also stay against your body. Maintain this tension through the entire movement. You should NOT feel tension in your Lower back. I want you to feel it in your abs, lats, and hamstrings. Keep your slow tempo, use straps to emphasize midline stability instead of grip endurance. If you struggle with extending your back to ascending in the deadlift, try to cue yourself to push the bar (squat the bar) away from the floor (instead of pulling the bar away from the floor).
Do you have lingering back pain? Does your back tend to "go out" a few times a year? Do you fear hurting your back again? Does this fear prevent you from living life fully, and training without limitations? I have good news for you, you don't need to live in fear of back pain.
The solution? Bulletproof your back by fixing your foundational movement patterns and building strength within those movement patterns! Build resilience, lift heavy weight, and live your life without pain or worry.
Questions about the content within this post? Interested in how you could eliminate your back pain and improve your performance?
Send me an email at Tancini@groundtooverheadphysicaltherapy.com .