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Feeling Deadlifts in Your Back?

HOT TAKE: It’s okay to feel deadlifts in your back! I can remember when I first started deadlifting and my back would get SUPER sore. I would think I needed to take a few days off and baby my back to let the muscles rest. Then I would read an post on social media titled, “Feeling deadlifts in your back” with a big red “X” or someone shaking their finger at the camera telling me how to adjust my deadlifts so as NOT to feel them in my back. And then I’d add a few more days to my rest time, to make sure that my back wasn’t injured. 

But in the above scenario, my back “pain” wasn’t a problem or something to be feared. Rather, it was more of a soreness in my back that was a sensation I’d never felt before. But I equated it to back PAIN and became fearful that doing these deadlifts were hurting my back. I know I’m not alone in this, as the health and fitness industry often demonize feeling any sort of sensation in our backs - which makes everyone think that they are doing something wrong if they “feel it in their back” when deadlifting.

And while this back soreness post deadlifting wasn’t necessarily a comfortable sensation, it was simply a new one because I’d never loaded my back in that position or given it this stimulus of moving a heavy barbell from the floor up to my hips. I may have gone too heavy first few times deadlifting, as I tried to keep up with others in my workout class. So maybe I overloaded my back a touch. BUT, my back wasn’t injured; my muscles were just responding to a new challenge that had been placed on them. My body wasn’t broken, it just needed time and smart loading to acclimate, adjust, and adapt to the exercise we love so dearly at Made 2 Move: the deadlift. 

“If I feel deadlifts in my back, am I doing something wrong?” 

For starters, NO! Nothing is wrong. As physical therapists, we get asked this all the time and people are usually quite surprised when we tell them the answer:

  • Feeling deadlifts in your back is TOTALLY normal! In fact, it’s usually the point! A little bit of back pump? A-okay and even something we should strive for when trying to up the resiliency of the back. Now if this back pain is excessive, sharp, or hinders you from going about other tasks throughout the day, this is where we may start to think about the system being a touch overloaded. 

Deadlifts are a type of hinge - hinging movements target our posterior chain (posterior chain = the muscles on the back side of our body). When we perform a hip hinge, the muscles in our legs are working, but the muscles in the back are working just as hard as they lengthen when we lower, and shorten (contract) when we go to stand up.

There are a TON of muscles that make up what we refer to as as simply our back. We will refrain from giving you a full anatomy lesson here, so let’s suffice it to say these muscles range from the multifidi, deep muscles that attach to each individual vertebrae, all the way up to the erector spinae and lats, the superficial back muscles that you can palpate right under the surface of your skin. 

It would be absolutely crazy to think that all of these muscles aren’t working during a deadlift. That’s the whole point of a deadlift - to strengthen your posterior chain… 

If you’re deadlifting and hoping to target your hamstrings more, we can always make tweaks to the movement (#biomechanics), but it’s NOT because “feeling it in your back” is a bad thing .

So yes, deadlifts are a glute and hamstrings exercise, but deadlifts work the entire posterior chain, and this, by default, includes your back. 

Deadlifts in Rehab

At Made 2 Move, we use deadlifts a lot to strengthen our client’s backs. Just like you feel your legs working during squats, you’ll feel your back working during deadlifts, and that doesn’t mean anything is wrong.

A 2015 study looked at differences in outcomes between those with back pain who performed low load motor control (LMC) exercises as part of their rehab vs. those who performed high load lifting (HLL) exercises (think deadlifts) as part of their rehab. 

Researchers followed up with the subjects at the 2 month, 1 year, and 2 year marks noting, “Both the  HLL  and  LMC  exercises  combined  with  pain  education resulted in decreased pain intensity, disability and increased health-related  quality  of  life  at  the  2-month  follow-up”  (Michaelson et al. 2016).

What’s even better? “The positive result was still apparent at the 12- and 24-month follow-ups (Michaelson et al. 2016),” demonstrating the long term effect of both interventions on back pain. It’s important to note that, “Due to the study design, it is not possible to elucidate whether the observed effect is a result of the exercises, the pain education, or a combination of both” (Michaelson et al. 2016). 

While not a perfectly designed study, the results were a little disappointing for us at Made 2 Move, as we love to lift heavy things and wanted to think lifting heavy was superior to low load exercises when it comes to treating back pain. But this study was also encouraging as it re-emphasizes 2 key points: 

  1. There are many ways to accomplish the same goals (reducing back pain in this study) 

  2. There are many factors that contribute to pain and the reduction of it. 

Some of our clients with low back pain won’t want to lift heavy things. Thus, this study suggests that we can accomplish the same goal by utilizng lower loads. Many  of our clients will want to lift heavy things but have been told that that heavy lifting will “damage” their  back. This study suggests that heavy lifting can actually be the exact opposite: an effective rehab tool for building resiliency through the back, NOT a damaging exercise to avoid at all costs. 

The Approach to Deadlifting with Made 2 Move

It often may feel like a game of 20 questions sometimes when you talk to your Made 2 Move therapist about your pain. We’re  getting curious about that pain- trying to discover and uncover a little more about the nature of the pain, aggravating factors, easing factors, time it lasts, etc. 

This can give us what we call  a “road map for rehab.” This road map may include some detours and missed turns, but will include a hell of a lot of green lights too. This road map will ultimately be what helps us improve the tolerance and capacity of your back- which can help get you back to whatever it is your back pain is limiting you in.

The reality is - our back muscles are just like every other muscle in our body. Our back muscles are designed to produce force, to contract, to lengthen, and to be loaded and stressed. The same basic principles for rehabbing low back pain apply: calm it down then build it back up. 

We know this may differ from what social media often says - but the truth is, when we are doing movements that target your back, we want you to feel it in your back. That sensation doesn’t mean anything is wrong - that sensation is the feeling of fatigue, the feeling of muscles contracting and lengthening, the feeling of your muscles producing force and doing their job. 

Here’s what this means for you: 

  • Feeling sensation in your back is totally normal, just like feeling your biceps working during a bicep curl.

  • It is perfectly SAFE to load our back muscles! 

  • When we’re told to fear back sensation and avoid movements that load our backs, it can actually make our backs weaker, more sensitive to stimuli and load, and more susceptible to injury from being underprepared. 

  • Deadlifts CAN be part of your rehab. 

  • Prepare, don’t avoid. #antifragile 

Interested in working with a PT that will encourage movement not avoid it? Reach out to today to set up an initial evaluation with one of our therapists!


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