This simple form fix can help you avoid back pain during the deadlift

Deadlifts are a fantastic full-body exercise that really strengthens the posterior chain (and pops those glutes!). But a big mistake many lifters make with deadlifts is using their lower back to lift the weight, which can lead to pain and injury. If you experience lower back pain after deadlifts, this story is for you.

The movement incorporates a zipper at the waist with a bend in the knees, second Lauren Wentz, PT, DPT, CSCS. The main muscle players, he notes, are yours buttockshamstrings, quadriceps and abdominal muscles (particularly if you are lifting heavy loads and need it even more for stabilization). Read: You should not rely on the lower back to lift that weight.

That said, it’s an easy mistake to make. There are many situations where you could end up using your lower back to lift the weight, like if you’re going too fast, you’re lifting too heavy, your legs are fatigued, or you’re just not recruiting the right muscles, says Wentz.

Meet the experts: Lauren Wentz, PT, DPT, CSCSis a physical therapist, RRCA and USATF certified running coach, and certified strength and conditioning coach based in Pittsburgh.

Here, Wentz answers all your questions about the back pain experience after deadlifting, from what the different types of pain indicate to treatments you can self-administer (and, of course, when you should see a doctor!).

Why does my back hurt after a deadlift?

You may suffer from DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). For the uninitiated, here’s what that means: When you exercise, you create micro tears in your muscles, Wentz explains. As your body heals, you can become sore. Timing of DOMS can vary from person to person, she adds, noting that while some people experience it the next day, she tends to notice it two days later.

DOMS feels like a muscle ache all over (think: pain and stiffness) rather than localized pain, Wentz says, adding that it isn’t felt in the joints. It also doesn’t feel gripped, like your back is stiffening really fast, notes Wentz. Eventually, if you stretch a little bit, move around, it should relieve itself, he says.

After the deadlift, any DOMS you experience should be in the hamstrings, Quadand glutes not your back, according to Wentz. If you feel that pain in your lower back, she explains, it’s probably the result of a form error like rounding or extending (rather than keeping it flat) and not engaging your core, which makes your back muscles fire like crazy. (Don’t worry, you’ll find form suggestions ahead of time!)

If you feel joint pain or sharp lower back pain after deadlifts, it’s more likely due to an injury, according to Wentz. Disc bulges and muscle strains are commonly associated with deadlifts, he says, adding that the former usually sends symptoms up the leg (think: pain, numbness, tingling), while the latter feels more like general low back pain characterized by tightness and tight sensations.

Know this, too: Sometimes hurts are felt right now, Wentz says, but not always. When you exercise, your muscles have more blood flow to the area, so they’re more relaxed, they’re looser, they’re more flexible, he explains.

When everything starts to stiffen up later in the day, you might take note of an injured area. Or you might notice it the next morning after eight hours of sleep in a supported position, he adds. The takeaway here: Don’t assume you’re not injured just because your pain came on later instead of during the deadlift.

How to warm up for a deadlift to avoid back pain

To prepare your body for a deadlift, Wentz recommends activating your glutes and hamstringssince your goal is to use your glutes, quads, and hamstrings for movement (you don’t really need to wake up your quads, she explains, because people tend to be pretty dominant).

Simple glute activations can be sidebands, bandaged monster walks, even some bandaged squats, she says. To get hamstrings ready, she recommends good days, adding that some people even like to do some Romanian deadlifts with a very light weight.

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Good morning warm up exercise

As for how many exercises to do and how long to do them, there is no single answer. Everyone’s body is so different how quickly it fires, notes Wentz.

As you enter the deadlift, be sure to add weight slowly and check with your body to make sure your glutes, hamstrings, and quads are working (rather than using your back to lift the weight).

If you are ever tempted to skip your heatingRemember this: You won’t have the correct muscles activated and you may end up using your lower back for movement. It may not be until your tenth [or] 15th rep that the glutes finally kick in, says Wentz. But by then, you’ve already done a ton of reps with your lower back.

How to do a dumbbell deadlift with proper form

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  1. Start with your feet hip-width apart, a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing your thighs. (Tip: If you feel discomfort or pain when you lift the dumbbells off the floor to return to the starting position, place the dumbbells on an elevated surface during preparation to maintain proper shoulder and hip alignment as you grip them.)
  2. Push your hips back into a hinge to lower the dumbbells to the floor. Once the DBs have cleared the knees check that the back is still flat and that the spine and neck are long, not hunched forward and rounded.
  3. Stop when the DBs reach your shins, or as far as you can go without rounding your spine and shoulders forward. Your shoulders should be pulled down and back, locking into your lats, at the bottom of the lift.
  4. Pause, then drive onto your heels to stand up. The dumbbells stay close to your shins as you reverse the movement. Keep your back braced and abs engaged like a cinder block. Hips and shoulders rise together.
  5. Pause at the top. This is 1 repetition.

How to deadlift with a barbell

The motion of the hinge is the same, but the configuration is different.

  1. Set the barbell and weights down on the floor. The bar should be mid-shin, with your hands placed on the bar just outside your shins, for your starting position.
  2. The shoulders should be higher than the hips and the hips should be higher than the knees.
  3. The angle of your torso will vary depending on your height, but you generally want to hinge so that your lower body and torso create an angle of between 15 and 45 degrees.
  4. Back and neck are in a neutral position.
  5. Keep your shoulders down and back, locking your lats.
  6. Drive your heels into the ground to begin the lift. The bar stays close to your body as you lift it off the ground.
  7. Drag the bar along your shins, keeping your back braced and abs engaged like a cinder block. Hips and shoulders rise together. The knees come back (or extend) to allow for slack on the bar and the chest rises.
  8. Pull the bar on your quadriceps in a standing position. Do not hyperextend in the back.
  9. Retrace the same route downhill. This is 1 repetition.

Trainer tip: If you’re lifting heavy loads, you might consider wearing a lifting belt to protect your lower back, particularly if you lack abdominal strength, says Wentz.

How to relieve back pain after a deadlift

If you are experiencing DOMS and you are Not with so much pain that you can’t function normally, take a walk to loosen up the muscles and get blood flowing to the area, advises Wentz. (Also, hydrate!)

You can stretch also, observe, but do it carefully; It can be difficult to know exactly how to stretch your back when you’re in pain, and doing the wrong stretches can make you flare up more. Listen to your body: If a child’s pose feels good, do it! If not, try another stretch.

As for meds, it’s generally fine to turn to anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen, says Wentz (unless your doctor has directed you to avoid certain over-the-counter pain relievers for whatever reason).

You may also be asked to use ice against the heat. The good news? You can’t really hurt yourself with either, says Wentz, so choose what feels good on your muscles. The benefit of ice is that it helps with inflammation, while the heat helps muscles relax.

If you think you’ve strained a muscle and are tolerating it, try anti-inflammatories and neutral spine exercises like pelvic tilts and leg walks while flat on your back, eventually building up to dead insects AND axessuggests Wentz.

When is it safe to return to the deadlift after soreness or pain?

If you’re dealing with DOMS after a mistake you know you made, like lifting too fast or too heavy, you can return to deadlifting once the pain subsides, advises Wentz.

But if your pain persists for a few days and feels more intense than typical workout pain, call your doctor. Other times you need to see your doctor: if your pain is so severe that you cannot tolerate your daily activities (for example, you are trying to sit down to go to the bathroom and have to get up immediately because of the pain), if you feel a shooting pain/numbness/tingling in your legs, or if you are in severe pain.

It’s also worth working with a healthcare professional to come up with a personalized recovery and safety plan if you experience one-sided pain related to deadlifts (or any other physical activity). Why? The root cause could be quite complex, for example your glute may not activate well on that side and cause you to pull more with your lower back. And it’s important to deal with your pain as well Why is emerging, according to Wentz.

Then there are some (rare!) red flags that constitute a trip to the emergency room, namely incontinence, inability to walk/saggy knees, or numbness, pain, or tingling in the saddle area (the groin), Wentz says.

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Erin Warwood is a writer, runner, and sparkling water enthusiast living in San Francisco. She holds a BBA from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. In her spare time, you can find her watching Survivor, trying out new Peloton workouts, and reading Emily Giffin novels. Her ultimate goal: to become a morning person.

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