This article is for lifters who fall into two camps.
Firstly, the people for whom any reasonable volume of deadlifting gives them either a back pump or pain/spasm. Secondly, people for whom their lockout is especially laborious and slow.
If you don’t have the BASICs down, have a look at this video from my friend John Paul Cauchi (who is so lovely his Mum named him twice).
Just to contradict JP a little bit, I find that for many lifters starting out trying to re-extend the back once they have grabbed the bar is difficult, and that many will simultaneously bring their knees forward/squat to the bar as they bring their chest up. For teaching purposes I prefer to set the lower back position and hinge my hips back, reaching my arms to the bar (you can then let the shins come to meet the bar once you’ve grabbed it). This necessitates pointing the chest to the floor at least somewhat, rather than thinking “chest up”, but we end up achieving the same thing.
To recap some setup basics – the bar should be over your midfoot (think shoelace knot for most people) – your feet should be under your shoulders – your arms should hang straight down to the bar. If doing this cramps your knees (more likely for bigger folk) then they might need to go wider – an “ideal” setup, once you are ready to pull, has your armpit, kneecap, the bar, and your midfoot all oriented vertically to each other (ie – if you started at your armpit and dropped a plumbline, it would pass through all of those points).
Now, the premise of the article is THIS – if you are getting a lower back pump deadlifting, it’s likely because your erectors aren’t performing their (proper) largely isometric role and are instead active movers. Pulling inefficiently in other ways that add back stress is often the cause of back pain. – lifters often have to re-extend their back at lockout due to having lost position. Some lifters also just don’t use their hips properly to lock out their pulls. – because the issues late in the deadlift can arise from mistakes early in the movement, you should take a bottom-up approach in “fixing” your deadlift, starting with addressing bracing and positioning and then moving to the execution of the lift.
The setup – getting nitpicky
Once you are assuming a vaguely correct start position, there’s still plenty you can do to optimise your pull. When people start to lose their shape as they begin pulling, it can either be due to a lack of tightness or simply that their start position doesn’t place them in an optimal spot to produce the force necessary to move the bar.
One simple way to improve your start position leverages is to actively LENGTHEN the arms. We do this by protracting the scapulae. Stand in your deadlift start position and actively reach down to the floor with your arms as far as you can. Now squeeze your shoulder blades together (like you’re trying to crush a nut between them). See how far up your legs your arms move? If you’re anything like me, the answer is a pretty long way.
Having shortened arms necessitates a “squattier” deadlift start position and worsens your leverages off the floor (where, contrary to most people’s intuition, having slightly higher hips actually helps).
Furthermore, most people can’t maintain retracted shoulders with a remotely heavy weight in their hands. Unless you can pendlay row your deadlift max, you probably fall in this camp. So you’re not only in an inefficient start position, you’re in one you are going to be unable to hold.
One of the key tenets of effective bracing is to create tightness in the position you will actually be in in your pull, so transitioning to a new position entails a loss of tightness, and in this instance will result in your hips rising and your (upper) back losing some shape before the bar leaves the ground, which is less than ideal.
Related to, and compounding, this, is effective use of the lats. While protraction keeps the arms long and the hips high, the lats are used to keep the bar close through scapular depression (bringing your shoulder blades towards your waist) and humeral extension (pulling your arm towards your waist). Keeping the bar close to you reduces the amount of force you need to produce to extend the hips, as the lever between the bar and your hip (the fulcrum) is shortened. That lever is your back, and so reducing that lever length also reduces the amount of work you have to do to keep your back extended.
Combined, these two tweaks leave you less likely to round your lower back. Rounding the back brings the hips higher and closer to the bar – the same positions achieved by lengthening the arms and pulling the bar close. At absolutely maximal loads, even having done these things to improve your leverages, it may be that your back rounds a little bit, but in practice having assumed these positions and trained being tighter in them should reduce the degree to which this occurs and allow you to maintain more tightness.
Next cab off the rank is foot pressure. While we often cue “weight back” or teach people to drive through their heels (especially later in the pull), a lack of forefoot pressure as you go to break the bar off the floor can actually be problematic.
Lifters who are overbalanced backwards often tip forward onto the toes. The hips rise early, the knees extend, and the bar moves forward of their centre of balance. This leaves them in a position that compromises their back and makes extending the hips harder.
Ideally when you intitate the pull, your weight will be evenly distributed across your foot (meaning the toes are still in contact with the ground). Being able to shift your weight back without falling over backwards should help you put your shoulders, knees and hips in the appropriate position while still allowing you to use leg drive off of the floor.
Some people like to use cues like “push the floor away” to begin the deadlift, or divide the lift into two segments (a “push” off of the floor followed by a “pull” after the knee), but these cues are only maximally effective if your weight is in the right place to begin with.
So that’s vaguely where your body ought to, and vaguely where your weight should sit, so that you’re not falling about yourself simply redistributing your body to actually get pulling.
Now a bit more about actually getting tight.
If you don’t know how to use your diaphragm to breathe, or how to go about bracing properly, then that is a skill you need to learn before you can really develop maximal strength.
Have a look at the following couple of videos for a guide
Many lifters raise their hips and then drop/pull themselves into position before initiating their deadlift. While the hips are raised is a good time to get that big breath in and create some circumferential pressure.
I like to think of “compressing” as I pull myself down into the bar before each pull – achieved by simultaneously bracing my core, tensioning my lats and applying the first bits of leg drive to take some slack out of the bar.
Taking slack out of the bar is crucial for a good pull. Again, it prevents the sudden application of tension pulling your body out of position or off balance. My colleague Alex Hayes uses the cue “no noise” to lifters beginning their pulls to teach this, which is a nice idea. Alternatively, you can think of creating JUST too little tension to actually break the bar from the floor before you actually commence your “push”.
For MANY lifters, the temptation is to drop the hips HARD while initiating the pull, but my preference for most lifters is to be a little more gradual at least initially to practice generating this tightness (and to avoid knocking the bar ahead of them with their shins, as often happens). Once you’re proficient, you can more rapidly brace/create tension and take the slack out of the bar.
Just as many lifters are concerned with trying to yank the bar off of the floor, too many are concerned with the initial speed of the pull. When your focus is on speed off of the floor, it becomes easy to make positional errors that need to be overcome later in the pull (such as rounding the back and excessive knee break).
Similarly, many lifters inititate the pull with their back by trying to “drag” the bar off the floor, or lead with their shoulders, as opposed to leaving the shoulders over the bar and pushing the floor away.
To improve your shape off of the ground, assume and focus on holding the correct position, then deliberately accelerate through the pull as opposed to trying to pull fast from the get go.
Finishing with your hips
One of the most pernicious and common errors when deadlifting is finishing with a large amount of back extension as opposed to hip extension. As the bar passes the knee, the shin should be vertical and the shoulders should still be directly above the bar. At this point the lifter should snap their heels down and bring their hips to meet the bar.
Instead, many do a mixture of leaning backwards (this is not the same as snapping the heels down and bringing the hips forward – try it) or throwing the shoulders back (likewise).
If your knee never fully extends when you deadlift, you’re probably doing a lot of the former. If your knees do extend but your lockout is super-long and arduous, good chance you’re doing the latter.
This compromises back position and relies on the smaller/weaker erector muscles to finish the movement as opposed to the large/strong glutes and hamstrings. It also lengthens your pull (sit into your deadlift position with your hands at your knee and arch your back all the way to the end of your pull – note where your hands are on your thigh. Now repeat this but bring your hips through correctly and check again. It will be lower).
Another couple of patented Alex Hayes-isms (that might be corrupted Robert Wilks-isms) for improving your lockout are “stand tall” (as opposed to leaning back) and “finish long” or “hands low” to teach maintaining a correct shoulder position. Some lifters like to elevate their shoulders at lockout for whatever reason, which simply compounds the problems detailed above.
With very heavy weights I expect there will be some lumbar extension near lockout, although in most instances I think this is simply re-extending after some shape was lost earlier in the pull. Finishing with overextension of the back, on the other hand, is a no-no, and if all of your reps look like that in training then I’m not surprised deadlifts hurt your back.
Putting it all together
1 – Get into the RIGHT position when you deadlift and create even pressure in your feet. If you’re in the wrong position, either you’re going to fall all over yourself and lose tightness, or you’ll pull in an inefficient manner that puts extra stress through your back.
2 – Once you’re in the right position, get TIGHT. Brace effectively, create some lat tension and take the slack out of the bar. Failing to do this increases the risk you’ll fall out of position and have to re-extend your back later.
3 – Hold shape as you push the floor away. Leave your shoulders over the bar.
4 – As you pass the knee, bring your hips to the bar. Squeeze your glutes and put your hips underneath you. This shouldn’t require you to throw your head/shoulders back.
Presto – if you start in the right place, perform the movement correctly, and finish it correctly, then chances are your back won’t hurt from deadlifting.
A less trite conclusion – Your back shouldn’t be doing a huge amount of active work in the deadlift. Correct positioning and weight distribution prior to pulling, bracing effectively and creating tightness will limit the degree to which heavy weights pull you out of position, and reduce your risk of injury. Not having to re-extend your back each rep should spare you some pain and a nasty pump.
Executing the lift correctly (using your legs off the floor and your hips at lockout) will also spare your back – this comes down to a mixture of cueing, strength in the relevant muscles, and having placed yourself in the correct position in the prior steps in the lift.
It is tempting to isolate the area in a lift that you are having trouble (eg the lockout) as being in itself the problem with a given lift. However, and this is the case for the other two powerlifts also, addressing positioning before to this point is often the solution. Mistakes you make early in the lift in the deadlift are compounded as you move down the line, culminating in the back extension at the top of the pull that is often the cause of people’s problems.
If you are unsure of what’s going wrong in a lift, or why you are persistently struggling in a certain place, film your sets and analyse the lift as a whole, or speak to a coach who can assess you more thoroughly.