Are Deadlifts Really Bad for Your Back?

One of the most beneficial, yet challenging compound exercises is the deadlift. This exercise may be one of the most important exercises to develop lagging muscles. It trains just about every major muscle group: legs, back, shoulders, posterior chain, and arms. With all of the benefits, this exercise is one of the most neglected because many believe the myth that it is bad for the back.


So why do people believe that this is very bad for your lower back? Is it because you’re pulling hundreds of pounds from the floor? Looking from the outside it does seem as though all this lifting is stressing your back muscles, especially the erector spinae muscles. But why do so many powerlifters and bodybuilders swear by this one exercise?



So what do you think: Are deadlifts good or bad for the back?

The Research


In 2011, researchers at the University of Valencia wanted to study the most effective exercises to train the paraspinal muscles. These are the muscles that run down both sides of the spine which helps in the prevention of back injuries. In their study they selected a group of people with no prior lower-back injuries or pain and placed them into two groups. One group would be doing bodyweight exercises (lumbar extensions, single-leg deadlifts) that target this area, while the other would be doing weighted exercises (deadlifts & lunges).


Using a device called an electromyograph, they recorded the electrical activity produced by the muscles. So as the study concluded, guess what they found? Deadlifts activated the paraspinal muscles almost two times more than any other exercises. The average muscle activity produced by the deadlift was 88% and it peaked to 113%, whereas the lunge produced about 55%. The rest of the exercises ranged around 35%. According to this study, the deadlift is a very effective way to strengthen the lower back and paraspinal muscles.



Maybe that study wasn’t enough evidence for you. So how about this one from the University of Waterloo. They wanted to see how much strain deadlifting put on the vertebrae and lumbar ligaments. With the used of flouroscopy, they created real-time videos of powerlifters while they flexed their spines without any weights and then they watched their spines flex while deadlifting over 400 pounds. At the end of the study all of the athletes completed the workout with the normal range of motion that was displayed with the bodyweight movement.

This study helped to support the claim that proper deadlifting not only strengthens the posterior chain muscles and reduces the risk of lower back injuries, but also does not cause any unnatural movements.



So now that you see why deadlifting is beneficial for your muscle building goals, here are a few major deadlifting mistakes.

Major Deadlifting Mistakes


Think about a typical powerlifting competition, the strongest guys are pulling from a stop, they are not jerking the weight. The majority of beginners and even more experienced lifters tend to jerk the weight off the floor. While this may help you lift more weight, it can also lead to many serious injuries. Instead of jerking the weight, decrease the load and practice proper form. When you reach the bottom let the bar come to a full stop and the pull up again.



Deadlifting Heavy All the Time

Many people don’t realize how much of an effect deadlifting has on the body. Since it recruits many muscles, it takes a longer time to recovery than it would with barbell curls for example. If deadlifts are an integral part of your routine have 1 day that will be focused on heavy pulls, with another workout where you will be working similar muscles such as leg day with a focus on box squats. Another tip may be to alternate between weeks of heavy deadlifts and light deadlifts.



Rounding the Lower Back

Many people make the mistake of rounding their lower back. This is even seen in more experienced lifters. Some many have a weak lower back and still want to lift heavy weights, so they rather compensate their form to lift the bar. With a rounded back, the bar is only going to move away from your legs, putting more stress on your lower back. Now this will also go against the leverage you should have which will force you to have a sticking point below your knees.  The point is to keep your  shoulders rounded which will  keep your lower back tight with a small arch when you pull.

If your lower back is weak, there are many exercises that can strengthen it. Here are a few good ones: Good Mornings, Hyperextensions, Hip Extensions.



Improper Breathing

Breathing technique should be the first thing you learn when you are introduced to weight training. You can do a quick test to see if you’re breathing properly. Stand in front of the mirror and take a deep breath. If you noticed your shoulders rising, you’re breathing wrong! Proper deep breathing should come from the diaphragm.  You need to pull as much air as possible into your stomach. As you begin the movement try to hold in the air. Believe it or not, if you watch a someone deadlifting with proper technique who also knows how to breath, you’ll notice their stomach expand as they get ready to pull.  As you’re going through the motion, slowly release the air in small bursts. If you exhale all the air at once, your torso won’t be as engaged and you may end up losing your grip and dropping the weight.



Thinking Squats are Just as Effective

Many believe that the conventional deadlift and back squat work the same exact muscles the same exact way. This is probably because they heard other so-called “experts” tell them this. Luckily researchers at the Kennesaw State University did a study where they concluded  “that no direct or specific cross-over effect exists between the individual lifts.” Guess you guys were wrong!

In the End

So the take home message is to know that deadlifts are not bad for your back, they can help reduce the risk of injury, and help improve the strength of other muscles. Try to incorporate them in your routine and see the progress you make over the next few weeks.  Remember to avoid making the mistakes listed above and practice proper form. Now next time someone tell you that deadlifts are bad for your back you can show them this!


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