Back pain with deadlifts is extremely common. Deadlifts are seriously strengthening for your gluts and long spinal muscles - but they are also seriously bad for your back. It's all to do with spinal biomechanics and lifting with the lower back too arched.
When standing normally, the lower two lumbar spinal segments (L5 and to a lesser degree L4) have a tendency to shear because they are sitting on the forward sloping table of the top of the sacrum. Shear is unwanted. Even the tiniest degree of extra shear creates a sickening jolt of pain through the back that can be agonising.
The intervertebral discs are at the front of the spine. They work as tense bags of fluid that spring the vertebrae apart, while also shock absorbing to contain errant movement between the vertebrae. They work best under pressure - the higher the intradiscal pressure, the stronger and more 'whippy' the spine. You can increase the holding pressure of the lumbar discs by pulling the tummy in hard and rounding the lower back.
Arching the lower back takes the pressure off the disc. Depressurising the disc allows errant movement to creep in - and obviously the greater the load the greater the tendency to shear. This is felt as a nasty back-ricking incident, which despite being relatively minor creates a sinister 'Uh-oh' feeling that is somehow deeply troubling. This minor shearing trespass can quite literally hurt the disc by straining the sensitive outer skin of the disc wall.
You can see from the diagram above that nerve filaments (in black) supply sensation only to the very outer layers of the disc (slightly) more at the back. The outer wall of the disc is tensile and sensitive to stretch, just like any other ligament in the body. It is well possible to strain the outer disc wall (annulus) when a spinal segment wobbles under load. The bigger the load the greater the strain.
The facet joints are bone-to-bone junctions at the back of the spine. They are movement controllers, reducing twist through the lower back and acting as a brake on bending. They do this by controlling the forward travel of each upper vertebrae on its lower neighbour.
By lifting with an arched back you reduce the intradiscal pressure and reduce the holding strength of the discs. Not only does this jeopardise the safety of the discs, as discussed above, it harms the facet joints at the back of the spine by subjecting them to excessive loading.
Unlike the intervertebral discs, the facet joints are not built for load. The two opposing joint surface are covered by a protective glistening buffer of hyaline cartilage that cushions the bone-to-bone contact. In normal standing posture their contact is fleeting, bearing only about 16% of load. With a hyper-extended, or excessively arched posture of deadlifts the facets can be savagely and destructively compressed.
Also unlike the discs, the lumbar facet joints have a highly sophisticated nerve supply; they are wired for pain. This means that trauma caused by an over-arched deadlift technique can be easily picked up. Compressive forces are increased by the heightened bowstring action of the long spinal muscles invoked by by the need to compensate for the reduced holding pressures of the disc.
You can go to the page The Biomechanics of Better Deadlifts to Avoid Back Pain to see what you can do in the way of modifying your lifting posture to minimise damage. You can also watch in depth what it is in the back that causes pain. Read more about this video of Sarah's.
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