Deadlifting For Back Pain
It was September of 2019 when I found myself lying face down on the bedroom floor, writhing in pain. I was about five feet from the bathroom and about five feet from my bed, which I had stumbled out of minutes earlier in just as much pain. It had been about a year since my initial injury and I was at my breaking point where I decided I needed to change something.
If I had to say when my back injury most likely occurred, It was when I performed a partner deadlift during a CrossFit competition. Way Way Back In November of 2018!!! It was the first event of a 1-day competition. The workout had rowing, burpees, and partner deadlifts. I remember warming up, feeling good, feeling strong, and having no issues. Up until that point, I had no back injury history whatsoever and minimal injury history in my entire life.
When we got to the last set of partner deadlifts, we had nine reps to do and around rep 6 I felt the smallest little pop in my lower left back. It wasn't very painful at the time, so I finished the workout. The rest of the day my back was super tight, however, it wasn't super painful. In the following weeks, I felt regular tightness, stiffness, and soreness but I never felt true pain. I was able to modify my workouts and continue on with my life during PT school. I felt like I had a good grasp of the injury and that I would be back to my normal self in no time.
About five weeks after that little pop in my back, I was back squatting over 300 pounds, I was power cleaning over 200 lb and I wasn't having any issues with any movements, pain, or stiffness. Everything was fine. I was healed...or so I thought!
Wait a second Patrick? I thought this blog was about how you can heal back pain by deadlifting not about how you can hurt your back by deadlifting. Well, my friend, the answer is yes to both.
You can both heal and damage your back by deadlifting.
In fact, I was able to do both, I was able to injure my back by deadlifting, albeit a partner deadlift, and I was also able to use deadlifts to help rehabilitate my back injury.
Yes, there were stops along the way.
Yes, there was Physical Therapy involved.
Yes, there were ups and downs.
Overall, utilizing the deadlift exercise and progressive overload principles, I was able to return to competitive CrossFit to the same level as I was prior to the initial injury in 2018!
ALL BACK INJURIES ARE NOT THE SAME
So let's talk for a second about different types of back injuries. Don’t fall asleep on me just yet! My specific back injury is an acute recurrent lumbar disc injury. This means that the initial injury had occurred on that partner deadlift almost a year ago. Even though I was briefly able to return to functional fitness activities, my back was not completely healed. Hence, the turn for the worst. At this point, the disc was so irritated that it was causing nerve irritation down my leg anytime I bent forward. This is called a flexion-based recurring disc injury with radiculopathy.
Other types of back injuries that may occur are disc degeneration injuries, lumbar facet injuries, lumbar fracture injuries, as well as many others.
HOW STRENGTH TRAINING HELPED
Following that fateful morning that I laid on the ground, I had to wear a weight belt to my job! I decided to reach out for help and talk to a physical therapist. In about 6 weeks I was pretty much out of pain. I still had some aggravating factors such as higher-level exercises like toes to bar or rowing sprints but overall the pain was gone!
It was at this point that the deadlift became an integral part of my rehabilitation. It just so happened that the entire world fell into a pandemic at this same point! Going to see people in person for physical therapy was not the same option that it was before. I was fortunate to have good relationships with physical therapists that helped me continue my journey to pain-free in daily living activities. I knew that I wanted to return to higher-level CrossFit and functional fitness as well as golf, running, jogging, kayaking, riding in long car trips, you know, the fun stuff.
I began my simple deadlifting program to help strengthen my lower back to eliminate low back pain. It was pretty straightforward, two days per week, Monday and Friday, I would deadlift starting at a very, very light weight and increase just a little each week. I was able to get weights in my garage so I didn't even have to leave the house. They were a little bit tough to get a hold of due to the pandemic but I made it work. On Monday I did 5 sets of 5 reps resting about 2 minutes in between each set. On Friday I did one set of 5 at a slightly heavier weight than what I did on Monday. In between days, I would focus on all of my physical therapy work for focusing on the days in between!
This process continued for 12 straight weeks, in which I was able to progress from lifting 45 pounds in the first week to 315 pounds by the 12th week. Seems too good to be true? Understand, I had a solid base of training for about 10 years prior to my injury. Five years of functional fitness training were under my belt as well. The baseline was there. But that doesn't mean that this would not work for someone that has never performed deadlifts. The learning curve might look a little different but the principles are the same.
PRIMAL MOVEMENT PROFICIENCY
The deadlift exercise is a primal movement pattern, the hip hinge. This means that we keep our back in a straight position and get the primary motion out of our hips shifting backward with our knees in a fixed position. Imagine you were going to pick up an odd object such as a bag of fertilizer, a baby (your baby isn't odd, but it's not shaped like a square thankfully), or even something as small as a dropped pencil. This primal movement pattern requires stability in the spine, mobility in the hips, and muscular control throughout the entire lower extremity and trunk. If you can stabilize your spine, move your hips in a controlled manner under load, you can increase your ability to move functionally in the world!
Long story short, deadlifts were a huge part of my return to a normal life. Will deadlifts be a requirement for every person with a back injury? Absolutely not! Will deadlifts be important for the active person looking to remain healthy throughout their lifetime? Absolutely!
If you are having back pain and you want to remain active and healthy throughout your life, deadlifts should be a part of your routine. Does that mean that you should grab as much weight as you can, fly to the gym and start lifting as heavy as possible? NO.
Find a professional, get a diagnosis, get a plan and then progressively build up in your weight training journey to improve your Primal Movement proficiency, improve your trunk stability, and improve your hip mobility to improve the way you move through life!
NEED SOME HELP?
If an injury from deadlifting or weight training is keeping you out of the gym and preventing you from living the physical life you want to live, you can schedule a time to talk with me by clicking the “Inquire Now” button in the top right corner of this page, calling us at (913)396-9726, or emailing me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blog: Why We Train, by Dr. Tim Cummings
Blog: The Training Template, by Dr. Tim Cummings
Podcast: Episode #12 with Dennis Dolan
YouTube: Deadlift Technique
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Patrick Chandler brings a diverse skill set to the Restore/Thrive team.
In addition to his training as a doctor of physical therapy, Patrick is the former head strength and conditioning coach for Rockhurst University, is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and a CrossFit Level 1 certified coach.
Patrick sees clients in our satellite location, inside the Kansas Athletic Club in south Overland Park, Kansas.
Patrick and his wife, Sadie, along with their dogs Wilbur and Goose, live in Overland Park.