Horse & carriage, wine & cheese, Simon & Garfunkel….these things go together. Deadlifts & back pain DO NOT go together. However, more often than not, when I get a Crossfit athlete presenting to me complaining of back pain the movement they were most likely performing when they felt their pain was DEADLIFTS.

Why is this the case?

There can be a million different reasons why you are experiencing back pain with deadlifts. I don’t have all day and would probably get carpal tunnel from trying to delve into all of them so we’ll just examine a few reasons why.

1. You are not using the right muscles: a deadlift is a functional hip extension movement that involves the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes and lumbar erector spinae plus latissimus dorsi). The glutes and hamstrings are the primary hip extensors and if they are not activating correctly – the load will shift to the muscles of the lower back. I always tell people they should be sore in their glutes & hammies after deadlifts, if not, they aren’t using the right muscles.

2. You aren’t engaging your lats: your lats assist with maintaining lumbar extension and shoulder extension. Activating your lats before and during the lift will help keep your back in a good position and also keep the bar close to the body.

3. The bar is too far away from your body: the bar path in a deadlift should be a straight line off the floor. The further away the bar is from your body, the “heavier” it is. Keep the bar against the legs for the duration of the lift.

4. You are rounding your back: you need to maintain a flat thoracic spine during a deadlift. When the weight gets too heavy, we have a tendancy to round the upper back. If you find yourself rounding your back, drop the weight.

5. Your hamstrings are too tight: your hamstrings attach to the bottom of your pelvis and if they are too tight, will pull your pelvis into posterior rotation (butt wink) which is an effective position to be deadlifting in. Also, tight muscles are WEAK muscles.

6. Fatigue: workouts with multiple rounds/reps that have deadlifts and other hip extension movements (think kettlebell swings, running, etc). Once you get tired, you probably are no longer thinking about which muscles should switch on a what point. You just want to get the bloody workout over with already! If you have a tendancy to get back pain with these types of workouts, think about reducing the rounds/reps/weight and focus on your technique. Your back will thank you for it.

Try getting your coach to video you while you are doing your deadlift (Coach’s Eye) and watch it frame by frame to see where you may be going wrong. The deadlift should  be a basic movement to perform but it is often done poorly. Get the foundation/technique correct before loading excessive weight on the bar.