How to deadlift after back pain or injury (without hurting yourself, again)

This article was originally published in The Raider Patch: Magazine of the U.S. Marine Raider Association

You might have been here before: A sharp pinch, a stabbing pain, an audible “POP”… you’ve thrown your back out!

While getting hurt can squash your entire workout routine, back pain can be incredibly disruptive to even the most thoughtfully crafted program. 

Regaining a restful night’s sleep is usually a top priority in the immediate aftermath of a back injury. But sooner or later, you know that you’ll need to make an agreement with your spine to trust loading again. And when that loading involves the deadlift, even the most experienced weightlifter may dread the conversation between brain and body. 

Luckily, a simple process can get you back into deadlifting with safety and confidence. If you do it correctly, you can get back on track with your workouts without hurting your back. 

“Can I deadlift?”

If you ask me this question, my first response is, “Can you touch your toes?”

The ability to touch your toes is essential for deadlifting and not just for flexible people! Before someone learns to deadlift, or after someone has recovered from a back injury, one of the first things to look for is the ability and quality of the toe touch. This movement provides a quick screening tool for qualities of safe and effective deadlifting, including:

  • Range of motion and flexibility of the spine, hips, and legs to reach the floor
  • Core stability to sequence body structures from top to bottom
  • Balance and coordination to shift bodyweight forward and backward
  • Potential compensations due to unhealed injury or muscle imbalances

Sometimes, genetics is why some people can’t touch their toes – they may naturally have long legs or short arms. However, something has often gone wrong, and the natural ability to toe touch is lost. It’s like the body is putting on the brakes despite the brain’s intent.

How do you know you’re ready to deadlift again? Test, don’t guess!

If you can touch your toes ten times in a row – effortlessly and without pain – it’s more likely that you are ready to resume a progressive load deadlifting program. If your method of choice is the standard barbell deadlift, brush up on your technique by watching some of the excellent videos on YouTube with Coach Mark Rippetoe.

If you experience pain with bending forward or touching your toes, this strongly signals that a problem still exists. It would be wise to stick with other lower body exercises that naturally keep the spine in better alignment, such as lunges or split squats. 

If you can’t easily touch your toes but you don’t experience pain after completing ten reps, you shouldn’t start with the standard deadlift. Improper mechanics here can increase your risk of re-injuring your back. Instead, enter elevated or sumo deadlifts – both options allow you to load heavy while being more forgiving of mobility or movement deficiencies that compromise spine alignment. Search YouTube for sumo deadlift tutorials by Coach Bret Contreras.

Use this sequence to guide decision-making when getting back into deadlifting: 

  1. Touch your toes ten times – Pain? Inability? Both? 
  2. Choose a deadlift style based on the test results – standard or sumo/elevated.
  3. Learn your chosen deadlift technique and practice twice a week for no more than five sets of 5-8 reps (this is not the stage where fatigued reps provide good instruction!)
  4. Progress from sumo to elevated to standard deadlifts as your form improves

Why not just do toe touch stretches every day? Won’t that fix the problem?

Remember that touching your toes demonstrates several qualities, including flexibility, coordination, and balanced muscle action. After a back injury, muscles in the back and legs (hamstrings) may feel tight, even if they weren’t the injured structures. That tightness is there for a reason, and we must know why. If the muscle tightness is a protective mechanism to avoid further injury (for something that isn’t working correctly), toe touch stretching may worsen the problem.

I can do elevated deadlifts, but I am having trouble getting back into standard deadlifts. Now what?

Standard deadlifts are a great way to increase lower body strength. However, they are not without risks, especially for people who have recently experienced a back injury. Several important risk factors include:

  • Inability to get your hips low enough to assume the starting position at the bar
  • Rounding your spine at the beginning of the lift
  • Overarching your spine at the end of the lift 

Sumo deadlifts shine in this situation. They are an excellent option to pull heavy weight while limiting the risks of standard deadlifts. If you haven’t done sumo deadlifts before, now is the time to try them! 

Putting it all together

If you are new to deadlifting or are returning after a back injury, be sure you can pass the toe touch test. If you can’t pass, don’t pull weight from the ground in a standard style deadlift, as you increase your risk of re-injury. Instead, bring the bar to meet you where you are with another deadlift style. 

For example, after several weeks of training with the elevated deadlift, begin to lower the platform by one plate every one to two weeks. If you have difficulty eliminating the final plate, switch to sumo deadlifts for at least three weeks (six workouts). Of course, you can stay with sumo deadlifts as long as you’d like – they can remain your method of choice instead of the standard deadlift.

Still in pain or not making gains? Ask a Pro! If you aren’t making deadlift progress, find a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) to help troubleshoot the problem. If you have pain with any of these tests or exercises, seek out a physical therapist (PT) or athletic trainer (ATC) who regularly works with weightlifters.

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