Know Pain, Get Gainz: Deadlifts and The Low Back

Welcome to the 2nd installment of Know Pain, Get Gainz!  In this series, I'll be covering different topics that will help you bulletproof your body and keep you injury free.  First up is the low back since it is a frequent topic for those who spend their day doing epic things...from a desk. Since this can be a broad topic, I want to start by answering a question I get frequently as a therapist:

“My low back feels stiff and sore after deadlifts, is that okay?”

Like anything...it depends.Deadlifts

Stiffness or soreness in your lower back muscles may occur from training hip hinge patterns (think deadlifts, kettlebell swings, Romanian Deadlifts, etc.).  This can seem like a normal response to exercise, as the muscles are responding to overload and adapting to get grow stronger.  If the same thing happens to my biceps after curls, than this should be good, right?  Not quite; when it comes to the low back, this is generally not a desired sensation from training.

If we apply one of the concepts I outlined in Part 1, we can answer this question logically:

Location of Pain + Exercise Selection

When we select exercises at AMP Fitness, we are typically targeting a specific movement.  This movement is produced by a muscle or muscle group called the “prime movers”, and supported by other muscles called “stabilizers”.  We can expect the “prime movers” to get sore after exercise because they are doing most of the work.  The “stabilizers” will typically feel fine because they were just simply not as taxed.  In most cases, the low back muscles are stabilizing during strength movements and should not experience soreness after exercise.  We will use the deadlift as an example:

To deadlift a kettlebell or barbell, you must stabilize your trunk and use your hips to produce an opposing force through the ground to lift the weight up.  The gluteus maximus (aka your butt), the strongest hip extensor in the body, is producing most of the force and acquiring most of the stimulus during this exercise to extend your hips (eg stand straight up).   Therefore, the glutes in this case are the “prime mover”.

Because deadlifts are typically trained in low repetitions, and there are many stabilizing muscles assisting during the movement, your glutes may never feel sore after deadlifts.*  This does not mean your low back should get sore though.  During the movement, your spinal extensor muscles are working hard to prevent your low back from rounding, providing a stabilization force through the spine.  This is great, because a rounded spine during deadlifting can get us into trouble over time.

*Trainer Note: Soreness in a muscle group is not always a reliable indicator that you had an effective training session.  Muscle adaptation can occur at many levels, and change over time depending on your training experience.

Using the Wrong Prime Mover....

However, when we change the role of the spinal extensors from a “stabilizer” to a “prime mover”, we can start experiencing stiffness or soreness in the low back.  The spinal extensors will never be as efficient as the glutes at producing an extension force, purely based on muscle shape/size and joint mechanics.screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-3-43-32-pm

This role reversal can occur during deadlifting due to decreased abdominal contraction that is needed to offset the extension forces occurring at the low back (why we use the cue: “ribs down”, “squeeze your abs”) and/or pulling from the back and not pushing with your legs (why we use the cue: “squeeze your butt”, “push through the floor with your feet”).  When these imbalances are corrected, you’ll be working your butt off instead of your back.  Pun intended.

 

Exceptions!

There are some scenarios where low back soreness can be unavoidable from deadlifting, but it’s typically short term.

Beginners

Beginners may experience a stiff low back the first time after performing a deadlift session, based on the fact that the stabilization force produced by the spinal extensors was enough to cause an overload effect on the muscle.  However, as the glutes gets stronger, and the low back adapts, this should go away after a few sessions.

Occasional #BeastMode

Typical training occurs at sub-max effort, allowing for good technique, skill acquisition and healthy adaptation, a.k.a. getting strong.  However, every once in a while we might push ourselves beyond our limits, either on purpose to test our maxes, or from feeling a little to adventurous with weight and reps.

When we’re working towards a true heavy maximum, technique can get a little shaky and the shear amount of load can provide a brand new stimulus.  The same holds true if you start to push the amount of weight and/or reps of an exercise without proper progression, causing fatigue and poor technique to set in.  The good news is that we can control most of this through good programming, but every once in a while (read: about 1-2x/year) it’s okay to test our maxes and allow some rest to recover.

Bottom Line

The role of your low back muscles are to stabilize your low back from rounding during a hip hinge movement.  Stabilizers typically do not get sore, unless they are relatively new to training, have been pushed beyond their limit, or are being used as movers.  Don’t fret though, we’re here to help you with this!  Movement can be optimized through hard work, consistency, and a little coaching.

Knowledge is power, so don’t hesitate to ask any questions!  Keep getting after it, and keeping living your best life!