Stay Active with TJ: Fixing the Deadlift

Is your back sore after deadlifts?

Any number of things can cause back pain with deadlifts. In the time I have spent at 12 Labours CrossFit, I've found some similarities between the athletes.

The biggest issue I've found is: low hamstring mobility relative to high low-back mobility during deadlifts.

We're going to look at a couple tests you can do on yourself to see if this applies to you. I'll break down some techniques to help you fix this lift in the short and long term.

Test: Hamstring Mobility

Try this test to find out if this applies to you:

1. Stand in front of a barbell (with weights so it’s the right height).

2. Extend your low back from the bottom up (imagine you have a bunny tail and stick it out).

3. Hold that low back position and bend mostly your hips and slightly at the knees towards the barbell and your starting position for a deadlift.

4. Do you have to stop before reaching the bar because of a stretch in the back or your legs?

dugan deadlift 1.jpg
Dugan deadlift 2.jpg

What the hamstring test looks like

This athlete could get this far before he felt a stretch. Not able to reach the bar means the hamstrings are too short.

Compare this to the position of his low back when he reaches the bar, see how rounded it is? Lifting from the rounded position puts more pressure on the discs and actually weakens the extensors of the low back because they are too long to be work properly.

If yes -Your hamstrings will not allow you to reach a deadlift position without putting your back at risk.

Now what?

Short Term Solution: Deadlift from blocks

It’s not worth putting your low back at risk for that extra few inches. If you’re not sure how to set up the blocks, ask a coach.

Long Term Solution: Address your hamstring mobility

Stretch your hamstrings every WOD.

This can be frustrating for some people as they stretch and stretch and feel like nothing changes. Often times it is because they are stretching the low back and hamstrings at the same time. If the hamstrings are already tight, then the looser area stretches.

For most people, the looser area is the low back. This actually makes things worse because not only are you not lengthening the hamstrings, but you’re making the low back more mobile and do more of the work in the deadlift.

SOLUTION: Isolate the hamstrings with the stretch by using an abmat to brace your spine, then using a band to stretch the hamstrings. It will feel completely different.

deadlift stretch.png

Remember: Check yourself

If you’ve spent time with me then you’ve heard me preach the importance of monitoring your own progress. When it comes to your body, make sure you’re getting your money’s worth. Don’t just take my word (or anyone else’s) and do something blindly expecting it to fix the problem. Do the test in front of the barbell again and see if you are closer to the bar. You should be, if not then you need to tweek your stretching technique. Maybe add a contract-relax or try it standing up. There are many ways and I’m always available to work through it with you.

If this test doesn't apply to you:

If your low back is sore after deadlifts and hamstring flexibility is not the issue, we will need to address something different.

*This is the start of a series of blogs that will look at specific issues and will provide specific solutions. For a comprehensive Injury Prevention Evaluation and Movement Analysis at 12 Labours locations contact me at Thomas.bellama@hotmail.com.


About TJ Bellama

TJ Bellama, PT, DPT is a physical therapist specializing musculoskeletal injury prevention and movement analysis. He is a former tennis player who trained and competed at an elite level until a shoulder injury ended his career. Since then he has immersed himself in research, clinical practice at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Stay on Court, LLC, and developing individual and group programs to keep athletes healthy.