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Deadlifting and Back Pain

The deadlift is a great exercise. Perhaps it gets a bad reputation because of the word, “dead.” Other people dislike or completely avoid the deadlift because it can cause low back pain or at least a robust case of delayed onset muscle soreness at the low back.

Deadlift as Rehabilitation

You may be surprised to read that I often prescribe deadlifting in order to rehabilitate a back or hip pain problem. Performed correctly with the correct pattern of muscle activation, a deadlift engages the glutes and hamstrings to perform the work, while the back and shoulders maintain an efficient stiffness.

A deadlift basically means lifting a weight from a “dead” position on the ground, as opposed to lifting a weight that you are already holding or from a weight rack. It’s a very functional exercise, because it mimics what we do all day long anyway– stooping to pick something up and put it back down. The weight and repetitions of the deadlift exercise serve as the glue that cements a movement pattern into our neurology.  Yet if the pattern is inefficient, the low back muscles overwork while the potentially stronger butt and hamstrings underwork.

Low Back Soreness After Deadlifting Indicates an Inefficient Pattern

Soreness at the low back as opposed to the glutes and hamstrings after deadlifting is a major indicator of an inefficient pattern of movement. This altered pattern is very common and results in episodic back and/or hip pain.

Gluteal Amnesia Causes Improper Deadlift Performance

One of the many reasons an inefficient pattern can occur is prolonged sitting. Sitting neurologically inhibits the glutes for the long term, resulting in a compensatory overactivity of the lumbar spine muscles. This can still be the case, even when a barbell deadlift is performed with “proper” form as validated by a trainer or coach. Those with sitting induced gluteal amnesia are usually sore at the low back, not at the glutes, following a deadlift workout.

A Movement Solution for a Movement Problem

Sitting is only one reason for an inefficient motor pattern.  I strongly recommend that anyone who suspects a movement inefficiency consult a movement specialist for a functional evaluation. An evaluation looking for disease via blood tests, orthopedic test, imaging tests, etc. will not reveal a functional problem. In the absence of a disease process, pain is because of a functional problem.  Functional problems respond to functional solutions, thus a customized strategy of corrective exercises and manual treatments would best address the inefficient movement pattern.  Ultimately, efficient movement over time improves durability and performance.

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