The deadlift is one of the most important exercises you can do because it teaches you to safely lift things off the ground—something we all must do at one time or another. Unfortunately, many trainees and coaches shy away from the deadlift due to the fear that training it will hurt the lower back.
It is true that you need to be cautious to protect the lower back when deadlifting or lifting anything off the ground. But shunning the deadlift is not the answer. This article will discuss proper technique for the deadlift and provide cueing tips for protecting the lower back.
What is the goal for the lower back during the deadlift?
Anytime you are performing exercises that engage the lower back you want to maintain a neutral spine to prevent excessive stress on the interlocking vertebra that make up the spinal column. The lower part of the spine is made up of the lumbar vertebra, which need to be stabilized for proper function and to allow the joints of your lower body to move effectively. Proper alignment of the lumbar spine is known as “neutral posture” and it occurs when you have a slight arch to the lower back.
When performing exercises such as squat or deadlift, you want to maintain a neutral spine, with the slight lumbar arch present. This requires strong, coordinated muscles of the lower back, which are known as the spinal erectors.
There is some confusion about how to best cue someone who is learning to maintain a neutral spine. For example, some people think you should have a flat back when deadlifting. It is true that compared to if you rounded the spine downwards as you would when you bend over to touch your toes, the neutral spine position is “flatter.” The upper back is tight and “flat” with the chest open, and the lower back is stabilized, maintaining the natural concave curve. You want to avoid pressing your lower back outwards and flattening it.
To achieve the neutral spine and correct back position, here are some useful cues and exercises that can help:
#1: Rather than focusing on arching your back, focus on throwing your chest out.
#2: Lie face down and place your hands behind your head, lifting your head and shoulders up. This movement gives you the feeling of “locking in” your lower back.
#3: When standing, bend your knees slightly and place your hands on the lower thighs, just above the knees. Think of it as if you are pretending to referee a football game. From here, push out your gut and lift your chest up and pull your shoulders back. Try doing it in front of a mirror so you can see the natural arch in the lower back.
#4: When beginning to learn to deadlift, start with the hex bar (also known as a trap bar). Because your hands are at your sides rather than in front of the body, it’s easier to achieve the natural arch of the lower back.
#5: Set up for deadlifts with a frog stance, which has the heels together and feet out. Then look slightly up. It is easier to arch the back in this position.
#6: Never set up for the deadlift by bending over and rounding the spine. Instead, start in a standing position, achieving the proper back position. Squat down, maintaining a neutral spine, until you have achieved the proper depth to be able to grasp the bar with both hands.
#7: Keep the bar close to you during the deadlift movement. Start with the bar touching your shins and keep it in contact with your body as you pull up to maintain the weight closer to your center of mass.
#8: The hip hinge motion of the deadlift can be tricky. Imagine your pelvis is a bucket of water. As you hinge the hips back when you are lowering yourself into the deadlift start position, keep from tipping the water out of the “bucket” by maintaining the pelvis in neutral.
#9: When lifting the bar, raise your hips, shoulders and the bar in unison. Novices often jerk the bar with shoulders first, but the motion should be smooth and coordinated.
#10: Avoid pressing your hips forward at the top of the deadlift. It is important to complete the full-range of motion of the deadlift, but pressing your hips and pelvis forward will hyperextend the lower back and put unnecessary pressure in the spine. Instead, squeeze the glutes at the top position.