DOMS or Injury: Why Am I Experiencing Lower Back Pain after Deadlifts?

The revered deadlift is a foundational exercise in strength training routines because it engages various muscle groups.

However, at times it can result in an unwelcome side effect – sharp lower back pain. Sometimes the culprit is something simple and the pain fades quickly. But occasionally it can indicate a more serious issue.

In this article, we will dive into understanding the difference between lower back pain and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), common deadlift mistakes, and how to prevent any sharp pain from occurring when performing this exercise.

Is it normal to feel lower back pain after a deadlift?

While Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is a common and often beneficial sign of muscle strengthening, it typically presents as a dull ache that surfaces 24 to 48 hours post-exercise and gradually diminishes over several days – this is a normal part of the deadlifting experience1. However, if you're experiencing sharp, persistent lower back pain, or discomfort that progressively worsens, possibly accompanied by numbness or a tingling sensation, it may indicate an injury.

If you experience sudden, sharp pain in your lower back during or after your workout, check in with your personal trainer or physical therapist to check your form and possibly correct your technique. Prioritize correct technique rather than pushing through your sets with excessive force. Not only will this protect you from injury but you'll experience greater results.

Common deadlift form mistakes

The principle that technique is paramount is especially true for deadlifts. An incorrect setup can compromise your entire lift, placing unnecessary stress on your lower back and reducing the benefit of the exercise.

Proper form involves standing with your feet under the barbell, lifting with a straight back, and positioning your shoulders over the weight. Try to keep your back in a neutral position without curving your spine or rounding your shoulders too much, but avoid being rigid.

How to protect your lower back when deadlifting

Be strict with your starting position

To properly initiate a deadlift:

  1. Position your feet at a width equivalent to your shoulders.
  2. Align the barbell over the middle of your feet and just touching your shins – this is the sweet spot for balance, reducing the likelihood of lower back issues.
  3. Make sure you have a stable foundation.
  4. Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder distance, either with palms facing down or one hand over, one under for heavier loads. This grip technique aids in controlling the lift throughout its duration.
  5. Inhale, engage your core, and root your heels to the floor. With the bar close and your back straight, puff out your chest to assume the ideal posture for a successful lift.
  6. Start the lift with your knees and hips.
  7. Keep the bar close to your body to reduce unnecessary strain on your back and shoulders.
  8. The final key move is to drive your hips forward. Avoid the temptation to lean or tip backward as you complete the lift.

Should you brace your core?

Your core muscles act as a natural brace for your spine, much like a back support belt.

Engaging your core muscles can provide support to your lower back during strenuous activities like heavy lifting. And strengthening these muscles in some cases can help you maintain better form so that you get the most out of your exercise, and avoid lower back pain during deadlifts.

But you don't need to constantly brace your muscles or hold them excessively tight. And relax them each time you finish a repetition.

Is it okay to round your back when deadlifting?

A recent systematic meta-analysis, which incorporated findings from 12 distinct studies, concluded that there is no significant link between the practice of rounding the lower back while lifting and the development or persistence of lower back pain.

These insights challenge the long-standing guidance to maintain a straight back during such activities. The implication is that such advice might inadvertently lead to an increased fear of movement and a subsequent reduction in overall physical activity, which is counterproductive2.

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How to treat lower back pain from deadlifting

In the first 72 hours after sustaining an injury, it's normal to feel quite a bit of discomfort. This pain should gradually lessen over time. You might want to use cold packs to reduce any inflammation and heat packs to relax tense muscles.

Strengthen your body

To aid your recovery and get back to exercise, you can start working with body weight and low weight exercises. These could include bridges, planks, and dead bugs.

Take this as a chance to focus on your rehabilitation. If you see a physiotherapist, you'll probably be given specific exercises aimed at rebuilding strength and stability. These will help you navigate through the recovery process and prepare you to get back to deadlifts successfully.

Stretching & mobility work

Adding stretching and mobility exercises is a great way to aid your recovery. The Child’s pose is a gentle stretch that helps ease tension in your lower back, which might be sore from deadlifts. This pose targets the hips, glutes, and lower back – areas that often tighten up with heavy lifting.

Here’s how to do the Child’s pose:

  1. Begin by kneeling.
  2. Sit back onto your heels.
  3. Bend forward, reaching your arms out in front.
  4. Let the stretch work its magic.

Regular stretching helps muscles to unwind and become more flexible. It's an important part of recovery, increasing blood flow and reducing inflammation in tired muscles. By making stretches and mobility a habit, you're not just fixing the current issue, you're building a stronger body that moves better. This means your deadlifts will feel smoother and you're setting yourself up for a longer, healthier lifting career.

When & how to seek professional help

When you're lifting weights, particularly during deadlifts, it's important to know when to seek professional advice. Medical attention is warranted if you experience:

  • continuous, intense lower back pain
  • numbness
  • difficulty walking
  • pain that travels down your leg past the knee.

Consult a physical therapist

When your journey with deadlifting is interrupted by the sharp discomfort of back pain, consulting a physical therapist can be a wise step. Physical therapy integrates hands-on care, tailored exercises, and stretching to address your pain effectively. These professionals possess the knowledge to devise personalized treatment plans that alleviate your pain, improve your flexibility, and significantly diminish the risk of future injuries.

How long does it take to recover from a lower back injury caused by deadlifting?

Typically, strains and sprains in the lower back should heal within 2 weeks3. A full recovery is expected for over 90% of individuals within one month, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS)4.

You might need to reduce the intensity of your exercises while you recover, and then build up slowly. But don't avoid exercise completely – some movement it healthy and will support your recovery.

How do I know when I'm ready to start deadlifting again after an injury?

When you can do your everyday activities without pain, move freely, and your normal movement patterns are back, it's a sign you might be ready to start deadlifting again after an injury. But, not having pain isn't the only thing to check for. If you can squat and hinge at the hips smoothly, without needing to change your form to avoid pain, then you might consider getting back to deadlifts. Think of it as being cautious – you want to make sure you can do the exercise safely and keep doing it for a long time. It's a good idea to talk to an experienced trainer or coach when you're thinking about deadlifting again.

How to prevent lower back pain from deadlifts

Begin by engaging in stretches that gently prepare your muscles for the task ahead, and start with a weight that you know you can comfortably manage.

Consider incorporating exercises like the single-leg deadlift and other functional movements into your routine. These exercises can provide excellent workouts while placing less strain on your lower back. Remember to keep the bar close to your body during lifts to minimize strain, and relax your shoulders to avoid unnecessary tension.

Warm up with purpose

Warming up is an essential step, not a mere inconvenience, and should be done with purpose. Think of it as priming your muscles for the exercise ahead. Warm-up exercises like the bird dog and pelvic tilts are more than just stretches; they are preparations that activate your hamstring, glute, and core muscles while also fortifying your back for the heavy lifting to come.

By incorporating these specific movements into your routine, you are essentially preparing your body for the physical demands of deadlifting, thereby reducing the risk of injury and instilling the confidence needed to perform the lift successfully.

Progressively overload, don't ego-lift

Gradually increasing the challenge, increment by increment, cultivates muscle strength while reducing the risk of excessive strain. Starting with lighter weights builds a foundation, preparing your body for more demanding loads.

Consider this approach a strategic investment in your future capabilities. Developing a plan with gradual weight increases over 4-6 weeks keeps your training effective and minimizes injury risk, preventing stagnation.