How to Deadlift After Back Pain or Injury

Are you an experienced weightlifter? Have you ever suffered a back injury? Admit it –  this is the face you make when it’s time to get back in the gym for that first deadlifting workout: 

The ability to touch your toes is essential for deadlifting…and is not just for flexible people!

Before someone learns to deadlift, or after someone has recovered from a back injury, one of the first things we look for is their ability to touch their toes. Toe touch helps us to identify some essential qualities necessary for deadlifting safety and performance, including:

  • Range of motion and flexibility to reach the floor
  • Balance and coordination to shift bodyweight forward and backward
  • Potential compensations due to pain or muscle imbalances

Sometimes, genetics are the reason that some people can’t touch their toes –  they may have naturally long legs or short arms. Most often, however, something has gone wrong, and the natural ability to reach their toes was lost. And, if you experience pain with bending forward or touching your toes, this is a strong signal that a problem exists.

How do you know when you’re ready to deadlift again after back pain or injury?

If you can touch your toes ten times in a row – effortlessly and without pain – it’s more likely that you are ready to try deadlifting. If you would like to learn the standard deadlift, which involves pulling a barbell from the ground to a standing position, go here to learn how to perform the standard deadlift from Coach Mark Rippetoe.

If you can’t easily touch your toes (or experience pain), you shouldn’t add load to movements that involve the hips bending forward and backward, such as the standard deadlift. Improper mechanics here can increase your risk of re-injuring your back. 

A step-by-step system to start deadlifting

We start with a simple test that we call Fist to Foot to help determine if someone is ready to begin deadlifting after recovering from a back injury. This test uses the concept of being able to touch your toes. It helps guide the decision on which type of deadlift will work best to increase strength while minimizing the risk of re-injury. 

Try this sequence to guide your decision-making when getting back into deadlifting: 

  • Take the Fist to Foot Test 
  • Choose a deadlift style based on the test results – standard or elevated
  • Learn the deadlift technique and practice twice a week
  • Progress from elevated to standard deadlifts as your form improves

In this video, we teach the Fist to Foot Test and the elevated deadlift to help you get started with your workouts:

Why not just do toe touch stretches every day? Won’t that fix the problem?

Remember that the ability to touch your toes demonstrates several different qualities, including flexibility, coordination, and balanced muscle action. After a back injury, muscles in the back and legs (hamstrings) may feel tight, even if they weren’t the injured structures. That tightness is there for a reason, and we have to know why. If the muscle tightness is serving as a protective mechanism to avoid further injury (for something that isn’t working correctly), toe touch stretching may worsen the problem.  

I can do elevated deadlifts, but I am having trouble getting back into standard deadlifts. Now what?

Standard deadlifts are a great way to increase lower body strength. However, they are not without risks, especially for people who have recently experienced a back injury. Several important risk factors include:

  • Inability to get your hips low enough to assume the starting position at the bar
  • Rounding your spine at the beginning of the lift
  • Overarching your spine at the end of the lift 

Enter the sumo deadlift – an excellent option to pull heavy weight while limiting the risks of standard deadlifts. Sumo style is more forgiving of lower body mobility problems and helps you maintain spine alignment. Go here to learn how to perform the sumo deadlift from Coach Bret Contreras.

Putting it all together

If you are new to deadlifting or are returning to this exercise after a back injury, be sure you can pass the Fist to Foot Test. If you can’t pass the test, don’t pull weight from the ground, as you increase your risk of re-injury. Instead, bring the bar up to meet you where you are, by using an elevated deadlift exercise variation. 

After several weeks of training with the elevated deadlift, begin to lower the platform by one plate every one to two weeks. If you have difficulty eliminating the final plate, switch to sumo deadlifts for at least three weeks (six workouts). You can stay with sumo deadlifts as long as you’d like – they can remain your method of choice in place of the Standard deadlift.

When you should seek professional help

If you aren’t noticing any improvements in your deadlift form and want to return to standard deadlifts, find a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) to help troubleshoot the problem. If you have pain with any of these tests or exercises, seek out a physical therapist (PT) who regularly works with weightlifters. 

Do you have back pain that was caused by deadlifting, or that is keeping you from lifting again? Muscle imbalances, stiff joints, or improper lifting techniques could be causing the problem. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us at team@alphapnr.com.