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A holistic approach for lower back pain with deadlifts

Deadlifts are a great exercise that have been around for years and are part of the functional triad along with bench press and squats. However, as the name assumes, you may be ‘dead’ if they are performed with poor technique and muscle activation.

Deadlifts are generally divided into two specific techniques being the wider stance sumo deadlift and the closer conventional deadlift. In these instances, we are referring to deadlifts off the floor and not Romanian or stiff-legged deadlifts.

It is common for deadlifts to be thought of as a ‘pulling’ movement, as many muscles are pulling the bar off the floor and to lock-out. However, the other scenario is to perceive them as a ‘pushing’ movement pattern, where you are locking the bar in and pushing your legs through the floor, almost like a leg-press. The former emphasizes more of the back muscles including the lumbar erectors in pulling the bar off the floor and to lock-out at top. The latter emphasizes more on driving the bar initially with the legs muscles and locking out with our glutes and lower back at the top.

The reason this is important is because how we perceived and conceive a movement in our head dictates how we perform the deadlift, including the form, timing and activation of certain muscle groups. Technique above all, is of primary importance when addressing lower back pain with deadlifts.

What we notice between our two scenarios above is the latter has the addition of ‘leg drive,’ which means (for those of us who are mathematically driven) is the total load on the bar is dispersed or produced by a wider array of muscle groups including the big muscles of the legs. The initial scenario emphasizes just the lower back and back muscles, which put a tremendous amount of total load on just a couple of back muscle groups.

For this reason, it is important to firstly correct technique and emphasize the importance of ‘leg drive’ through the bottom portion of the movement, which is widely underutilized. The other important factor to highlight is the importance of strengthening the surrounding musculature including the core, glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps, as well as the lower back. No doubt as we deadlift heavier, we want to strengthen our lower back, lumbar erectors and quadratus to support the heavier load. However, we should also strengthen up the surrounding muscles in order to ensure all the work is not done solely by the lower back muscles.

In summary, a holistic approach in required when addressing lower back pain with deadlfits. The holistic approach should entail a thorough assessment of deadlift technique, including timing and order of muscle activation, as well as addressing lower back muscle strength and surrounding musculature strength.

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