Research shows that doing proper deadlifts DO NOT lead to lower back injuries.
We have all heard the saying that performing deadlifts is the worst thing you can do for your lower back, or you may know people who have horror stories about deadlifting and how it causes your discs to herniate immediately. This statement is not only an extremely outdated way of thinking but more dangerously, it feeds into the rhetoric that the human body is some weak and fragile thing that can break down at any second. Most exercise (whether performed in the gym or a physical therapy clinic) when performed incorrectly or when inappropriately loaded can lead to a potentially devastating injury. Taking that into consideration, the physical therapy community needs to stop shunning the deadlift as the culprit causing lower back pain and transition to using this movement (hip hinging) as a way to relieve pain and restore function.
What does the research say about deadlifting?
You should never blindly believe something just because it is on the internet, so let us provide you with facts supported by research. (Welch et al 2015.) Published a research study looking at the effects of a four-month free weight resistance training routine on patients with chronic low back pain incorporating deadlifts, squats, and step-ups. Their findings showed statistically significant improvements in fatty infiltrate of the lumbar muscles, a 72% decrease in pain scoring, 76% improves in disability measurements, and increases in quality of life assessments. Another study, Asa 2015, took patients with chronic low back pain. It had one group do deadlift training while the other group did low load exercises to target specific impairments, and both groups saw significant decreases in pain intensity as well as increases in strength and muscle endurance measurements.
The Nachemson Chart, which is a measure of intradiscal pressure (pressure on spinal discs) in response to compressive load, shows that prolonged sitting in a slouched position places almost as much compressive load as a deadlift. However, directly sitting leads us to stop activating our glutes due to constant compression on the soft tissue and reciprocal inhibition of the hip flexors. A proper deadlift builds posterior chain strength, core stability, and allows us to train our glutes to reduce strain on our spine with daily activities.
Overall, the main reason I am an advocate for deadlift training is that it can teach the patients a fundamental movement pattern; a proper hip-hinge (getting our hips to move without our low back flexing or rounding). One of the most important things to address when teaching a proper hip-hinge is the ability of your abdominal musculature to maintain a neutral spine (aka core stability). Educating our patients on how to deadlift incorporates lumbopelvic dissociation, core stability, and glute strengthening, and all 3 of these factors are all essential to any proper treatment of the low back.
Who can perform deadlifts?
I am not advising that a 65-year-old osteoporotic person should be performing deadlifts on day one of physical therapy evaluation. However, with proper treatment, education, and guidance, even this patient should eventually be able to complete an appropriate hip hinge. There are parameters for when a person is ready to begin deadlifting under load, such as patients with lower intensity of the pain (<60mm on the pain VAS) and with better lumbar spine endurance (>60 seconds on the Biering-Sorensen Test). A properly trained physical therapist can help a patient with low back pain progress towards doing deadlifts. The physical therapist should be a biomechanics and movement analysis expert and be able to discern which lower back patients would benefit from deadlift training (a vast majority in my opinion).
As a physical therapist myself, I can personally vouch for deadlifts in terms of treating LBP. I suffered a weight lifting injury in 2018 and was experiencing horrible low back pain and shooting pain down my left leg whenever I tried to get into/ out of my car, put on my shoes/ socks, and sit down for prolonged periods. After reducing my pain levels, my home exercises incorporated a lot of hip hinge training, core stabilization, and glute activation for me to properly learn how to deadlift. With time, patience, and progressively loading my spine via deadlifts and squats, I am now completely pain-free and without question much stronger than I was before my injury.
In conclusion, I think it is time to put to bed the stigma behind that deadlifting (especially heavy weight) is dangerous and should never be done in therapy. On the contrary, I think with proper coaching and progression, this exercise is one that will help strengthen your lower back and reduce the risk of future injury.
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