The Deadlift Might Be Destroying Your Spine

Is the deadlift causing you back pain? You might be destroying your spine with your form. Take these considerations into account when deadlifting!

Warning: The following article may challenge your personal biases and offend those who prefer to view the world through a single lens, often neglecting the very truth which lies in front of them.

However, if you choose to remain open minded, you may enjoy and garner something useful from the following discussion on biomechanics.

For an extensive primer on the topic, consider reading both of these articles (here and here) as the content may be helpful in synthesizing this information.

Contextual Independence

Cueing by nature is both an art and a science. Research has shown that an individual’s focus during movement can drive structural kinetic and kinematic changes.1,2 As such, we must be very attentive with our coaching and not assume a reductionist approach with regards to movement.

Related: Squatting - 3 Things You've Been Doing Wrong All Along

Some cues work for some movements with some people.

In the case of deadlifting, many focus on the lats as they play a role in stabilizing the spine due to their attachment at the base of the thoracolumbar fascia.

Lat graphic

However, keep in mind that the lats can help to stabilize the spine but they also drive spinal extension when fully contracted. If an individual presents with a heavily extended posture (aka most athletes and powerlifters), then cueing the lats could be problematic as this feeds their compensatory pattern.

The same can be said for head and neck position. A few years back I wrote a piece on deadlifts and made a point about neck position. I noted that in some individuals with higher levels of extensor tone, it may be more beneficial to employ a more neutral neck position.

This should help you conceptualize the principle:

Keep in mind, the term “neutral neck” refers to a head position looking straight ahead, which in the case of a deadlift would be 3-5 feet in front of you on the floor. I did not/do not condone looking down at one’s feet during the setup or at lockout. But, needless to say, my points were obviously misconstrued.

I got some heavy backlash from the powerlifting community in which they proceeded to discuss the sheer "stupidity' of my work and some even went as far as creating YouTube content to justify their preconceived notions.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that changes in one spinal segment will alter positioning in other segments. Similarly, one can also surmise that positioning of specific joints affect the activation of surrounding musculature.

Sometimes it takes science a bit of time to catch up to clinicians working in the applied setting. But, in this case, it seems that the science tends to verify what we're already seeing in practice.

"The retracted neck resulted in less lumbar spine flexion and increased lumbar erector spinae, external oblique, and sternocleidomastoid activity. The retracted posture also resulted in decreased activity in the thoracic erector spinae and dorsal neck musculature.

The increased trunk and sternocleidomastoid activity and decreased spine flexion observed in the seven participants of this study when lifting with a retracted neck may have the potential to help lower the risk of spine pain/injury.”3

Maybe the cue works for you, maybe it doesn't. Context is king. However, don't be afraid to step outside your comfort zone, challenge your personal biases, and experience something new. Who knows, you might be surprised...

Try This, Ditch That

Biomechanics is a very nuanced field and as such, it would be inappropriate for me to assume that all postural deviations can be grouped into two simple categories.

However, for the sake of this article, I’m going to simplify the process and provide some personalized coaching based upon the pattern in which one may present. Take some time to digest the information and then consider implementing some of the pieces into your own workout programs.

Extension Bias:

Extension patterns can be tricky to manage and coach as there are a whole multitude of factors driving their existence (environment, psychology, training volume/intensity, noise, inflammation, stress, etc.). As such, we must remember that cueing and correctives can only take us so far. You won’t ever be able to completely eliminate the presence of extensor tone until you properly identify and combat the offending stressor.

Remember, BEING in extension during the session is different than LIVING in extension on a daily basis.

Flexion Bias:

Flexions patterns tend to predominate those who live their lives in the corporate world and don’t train often/at all. In between time spent at desks, in the car, or on a plane, your body tends to accrue some mileage. However, strength training is the easiest and most effective way to offset these deleterious positions and perform some routine “maintenance” on yourself.

Related: The Complete Working Man's Guide to Building a Workout Program

Now, given the wealth of information, I’m sure you may be wondering how exactly all of this fits into a nice, neat little program. Well, that’s the beauty of context – as a coach, I can’t explain all of the intricacies necessary to customize this program to your exact needs. This is a general guideline which will help to suit the needs of some. Individualization is the name of the game but that’s what we get paid for.

A Few Parting Words…

One final caveat, before we go…

If you’re going to deadlift first thing in the morning, please take some time and properly warmup your spine. Ten reps with the bar is about as helpful as slamming your hand in a car door – both will leave you in pain with little to no benefit. As I touched upon in a prior piece,

“Most of the research, which vilifies spinal flexion, is referring to flexion UNDER LOAD.

Consider this for a moment - when you sleep, your discs will reabsorb synovial fluid which is squeezed out of articular cartilage at the point of contact. According to McCutchen’s weeping lubrication theory, this fluid is primarily designed to provide lubrication for articular surfaces during compressive loading.

As such, if you can maximize this lubrication system prior to lifting (hint: actually take time to warm up) then you will hopefully decrease the chance of degenerative joint changes. Remember, your spine is not a solitary structure, it is a system of joints, which are designed to move within space.”

Give yourself an extra 5 minutes to warmup and do this, your spine will thank you tomorrow.