When it comes to a lower back injury, deadlift movements tend to rank fairly high on the list of common Crossfit injuries and weightlifting injuries. When performed with poor form, the conventional deadlift can quickly place too much stress on the lumbar spine, resulting in varying degrees of pain.
Unlike the squat, the deadlift involves a hip hinge movement. This is where a neutral spine and activation of the lats muscles is key to avoid rounding of the back, which often leads to injury. In this article, we’re going to explore all of this in further detail, including the types of injuries caused by the deadlift, how to heal, prevention, and alternatives to deadlifts.
Types of injuries
A deadlift injury isn’t fun nor is it ideal. Whether you’re performing a sumo deadlift, a romanian deadlift, or a conventional deadlift exercise with the bar, injury and pain can happen, especially if you aren’t paying close attention to your form.
So, what are some of the most common types of injuries caused by deadlifts? And what can you expect when it comes to healing and recovery?
1. Lumbar Strain or Sprain
Deadlifts lower back injury is one of the most common of all deadlift injuries. As a weight lifter, this is why it’s crucial to have someone watch you as you lift or to use a mirror as your guide. Maintaining a neutral spine and avoiding rounding the back is essential to avoid straining any muscles in the lumbar (lower spine) area.
When lifting heavy weights and rounding the spine, instead of loading the lat muscles in your mid to upper back and hamstrings, you end up placing a ton of pressure on the lower back area. As you go to stand up straight through the deadlift movement, you may notice a twinge or pull in the low back. This is a sign to set that weight down and take a break. If the pain persists or continues to ache, you may have pulled a muscle in your lower back (a strain) or pulled a ligament (a sprain). This means that the muscle was pulled past its normal limits or limits it wasn’t prepared for.
With proper rest and treatment, a mild strain will heal within a couple of weeks. For more severe strains, it may take 4-6 weeks before you’re able to get back into the gym.
2. Pulled Hamstrings or Glutes
If you love deadlifts, you’ll know how great this exercise is for working the hamstrings and glutes. As you stand up during this movement, you load the hamstrings and glutes. In fact, you’re supposed to squeeze those glutes at the top of the movement. This is truly where deadlifts work their magic. At the same time, you don’t want to squeeze those glutes too hard, forcing your spine into overextension, since this may result in pain as well.
Yet, too much weight too soon or going too hard without adequate recovery may lead to a pulled hamstring or glute. This involves stretching or tearing of the hamstrings (the muscles on the back of the thighs) and the glutes (the muscles that make up your buttocks). For preventing this, it’s important to go slow and gradually add weight or reps when appropriate.
The timeline for healing is similar to a lumbar strain. For mild cases, it may take only a few weeks, and for more severe strains, it can take 4-6 weeks or longer.
3. Wrist Strain
When first getting into deadlifts, you probably noticed your wrists were sore after your sessions. It takes a lot of grip strength to keep your hands on the bar and prevent slippage. And sometimes, the amount we are able to deadlift versus what our wrists can handle is quite different. This can result in wrist strains and even, to many weightlifters embarrassment, dropping a heavy weight in the middle of a gym session for everyone to see.
A wrist strain will have similar signs to any other kind of muscle strain: bruising, tenderness, swelling, pain, and warmth. For mild wrist strains, these symptoms usually improve within days. For more severe wrist strains, it may take weeks or months of adequate rest and treatment to make a full recovery.
How to heal
The good news is that these injuries are entirely treatable. With the right treatment and rest, you can make a full recovery and get back to deadlifting as soon and as safely as possible.
Working in a physiotherapy clinic for many years, back injuries were the most common reason as to why individuals sought out our help. In fact, incorrect lifting techniques was a major cause of this type of pain. A barbell deadlift, and most other deadlift variations, can go really wrong very fast.
So, how can you make a full recovery?
First and foremost, rest! Give your body the time it needs to recover fully before getting back into deadlifting. You’re more likely to cause an even more serious injury to happen if you jump back into it before allowing healing to take place.
The body is an incredibly powerful healing machine. You just have to give it the space to do so. And depending on the severity of your pain and injury, it can take weeks or months. Initially, you may need to rest more than not. As the pain subsides, you may be able perform other movements (which we will talk about more below).
2. Use Ice
At the initial onset of pain, ice the area. Place a cloth in between the ice wrap or pack and your skin. Leave it on for a maximum of 20 minutes, with about 45 minutes in between applications. It’s probably best to ice every few hours during the first few days after injury. This can reduce inflammation and help combat the pain.
3. Recommended Stretches for Mobility & Other Exercises
Stretches, such as child’s pose and hamstring stretching, can help, as long as the pain doesn’t increase when you perform them. If the pain increases, try to only go to the point before pain. If this isn’t possible, rest and allow the pain to subside before trying again.
Once your pain has started to wane (possibly after the first few days or week), you will want to work on strengthening your core muscles. This can be done via glute bridges, dead bugs, and other similar exercises.
To release muscle tension, you may also want to use myofascial release tools, such as a foam roller, massage ball, or percussion massage gun. The muscles around the site of injury may become tense as they try to compensate for the pain. However, avoid using these tools directly on the affected area. This can actually cause more harm than good.
4. Fuel Your Body
Reducing inflammation throughout the body can help with the healing process. This means turning to whole and easy-to-digest foods that provide you with a good amount of carbs, proteins, and fats. Additionally, ensure you’re providing your body with enough energy. While you might not be currently training due to your injury, your body still needs fuel to full heal and recover.
Overall, the best advice I can offer is to listen to your body. Pain is a tell-tale sign that something is wrong. Avoid pushing it. Don’t return to the gym until you’ve fully healed. Don’t do any heavy lifting. Rest. Ice. Take some time to allow your body to heal. A month off from the gym likely won’t offer too many setbacks. Yes, you will have to re-introduce weights at a lower level and go slowly back into it, but within a month or two, you’ll be right back in it that is - if you don’t rush recovery.
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How to prevent
Undeniably, prevention is best. No one wants to sit on the sidelines or put their goals on hold. The most obvious part of prevention is ensuring your body is properly warmed up before any exercise. This may mean performing dynamic stretches and doing a few deadlifts without weight. Afterward, you’ll want to stretch or ice sore muscles (if necessary).
Additionally, you may want to invest in wrist straps, wraps, gloves, or knee sleeves and a weight belt. These all can aid you in maintaining proper bracing of the core, keeping your grip on the bar, and maintaining your form during your deadlift training.
If you’re open to a deadlift variation, you may also want to introduce the trap bar into your deadlift routine. Trap bars (also called hex bars) are similar to a barbell, except they have an opening in between two parts of the bar that you stand in. This trap bar deadlift allows you to develop the glutes and hamstrings, with less fear of injury or stress placed on the lumbar spine. It can also help you find a better position if you struggle to stay close to the bar during your deadlift sets.
If at any point you feel any pain, pulls, or aches, stop and assess. This could be a sign of a potential injury or an incoming injury. At this stage, it may be best to leave the deadlifting for the day or reduce your weight.
Alternatives to deadlifts
During the deadlift, you use your hamstrings, glutes, supporting postural muscles, your core, your biceps, your forearm muscles (for grip), and your lats. These big muscles all work together so that you can execute the perfect deadlift. Further, you also build total body strength by doing so.
So, while you’re in recovery, what other exercises can you do in the meantime?
Forewarning: Don’t do any of these if you have pain. Remember, pain is a sign something is wrong and your body needs rest.
However, if pain has subsided but you aren’t full recovered, you can try these to maintain strength:
1. Glute Bridge
The glute bridge is really simple. Lay face up on a comfortable surface. Plant your feet flat and bend your knees. Slowly squeeze your glutes and lift your buttocks and hips up and off the ground. Pause, then slowly lower. Repeat for 8-15 repetitions and 2-3 sets. This one will help activate your glutes and hamstrings, major players in the deadlift.
You can also do single leg glute bridges once the two-legged version gets easy.
2. Dead Bugs
The dead bug targets your abdominals, which stabilize your body and protect your back during the deadlift movement. To perform this exercise, lay face up. Bend your knees to 90 degrees and position your knees over top of your hips (your feet will come up off the ground and your calves will be parallel to the ground). Extend your arms straight up. Then, extend your left leg straight out and extend your right arm behind your head. Pause, then bring them back to center and switch sides. Do this for 8-15 repetitions and 2-3 sets.
3. Core Activation
This is helpful if you aren’t used to contracting or bracing your core. It can help you prepare before performing a deadlift and get used to activating these muscles more consciously.
Lay face up, with your knees bent and your feet flat. Feel in between your hip bones with your finger tips. While keeping your low back on the ground and breathing normally, tighten in between your hip bones. Think of it like a tightrope between those two bones. Hold for 5-10 seconds, and do 8-15 reps for 2-3 sets.
4. Hamstring Curls
This exercise will require ankle weights or a band. Lying on your stomach, attach the band or weight to your ankle. Slowly bend your knee, bringing your foot toward your buttocks. Lower, then perform 8-15 repetitions per leg. Do 2-3 sets.
Rows work your lats and upper back, helping you gain the strength to activate them property during the deadlift. Using a loop band, wrap it around a stable object. Hold each end of the band in each hand. Standing or sitting, start with your arms extended and tension in the band. Slowly bend your elbows, squeezing your shoulder blades down and back, bringing your arms alongside the body. Slowly return to the start and repeat for 8-15 repetitions and 2-3 sets.
When it comes to a lower back injury, deadlifts can quickly become your worst enemy. But they don’t have to! When you take the right actions, you can make a full recovery and get back to lifting heavy. The goal is to do so as safely as possible and without risk of a recurring or worse injury. Overall, the deadlift is an excellent exercise to build strength. As with any exercise, it all comes down to ensuring you’re performing this movement properly so that you build strength and avoid injury.