In our most recent article, we explored whether or not squatting harms or helps your knees (short answer: it’s the latter). Now let’s turn our attention to answering another question that we hear all the time from clients at TD Athletes Edge, namely, “Will deadlifting hurt my back?”
First, let’s look at a few of the reasons that someone would ask this question. It could be that they’ve recently suffered an acute injury and are being cautious about their recovery. Or perhaps they have a long-standing chronic condition that involves low-back pain. Then there’s the possibility that a coach or trainer demonstrated incorrect form and they hurt themselves as a result, so there’s an ongoing trust issue. Finally, they might have tried deadlifting heavy too soon without a firm technique foundation and caused a problem that way.
In any of these cases, context is key. This is why our intake process is more comprehensive than most: to establish context, evaluate training age, and discover any current limitations related to injury history. Where you start with a program largely dictates where you’ll end up, so we need to know what we’re dealing with before coming up with an action plan to get a client where they want to go.
To Hinge or Not to Hinge?
Another thing I try to do when I have a common deadlifting conversation with a new client is to reframe the topic. A deadlift is merely one possible expression of the hinging movement pattern. Other examples include Good Mornings, kettlebell swings, hip thrusts, RDLs, and so on. And when people say “deadlift” they are usually referring to a barbell with plates on either side, when there are many other variations with other tools. Kettlebells, dumbbells, and trap/hex bar deadlifts are just three of many other possible iterations. Keep in mind that a true deadlift means you are lifting a weight from a dead stop on the ground. You can absolutely train the hinge and get strong in that pattern without ever doing a true deadlift.
The body doesn’t understand exercises per se, but rather motor programs which the brain loads like software and your body executes like hardware. So if someone is new to deadlifting or is coming back to the exercise for the first time in a while, we need to get them comfortable with hinging before we decide how we’re going to layer on added intensity, volume, and other factors that will challenge the fluency and integrity of the hinge movement.
This is why I’m not interested (at least initially) in what someone’s one rep deadlift max was back when they played college football or how many plates they can handle on each side of a bar. I want to back things up a bit and see how well they can do an unloaded hinge. Our movement assessment here at TD Athletes Edge and subjective assessments around training age and injury history can reveal whether someone has any red flags that will impact their ability to hinge. Then it’s useful to add in the “eyeball test” and see how well they can actually perform the movement.
Depending on what insights this combination of evaluations yields, we can either progress or regress the pattern as required. For example, someone might need to rebuild their hinge from the very building blocks of this archetype. In which case, I’ll ask them to do some Tall Kneel Hip Hinges or Wall Hip Hinges. Once they’ve got this down, we can add resistance using a band, so they get more comfortable with both creating and resisting force as they fold forward at the hips. Many people have never been taught how to properly hinge to bend over and pick something up, but instead squat. This is a big error because to squat and pick something up from the ground is a much less efficient way to organize your body to lift something heavy from the ground. The squat to pick something from the ground can be very taxing on the low back as well. Meanwhile, a proper hinge is very back-friendly and promotes back strength and health.
What’s a “Real” Deadlift?
From there, we can get the client on their feet and have them do a standing hinge. This can be done with no equipment or with a band or TRX Suspension Trainer. Once they demonstrate competence, then it can be a good time to add some extra load into the equation. There are several ways to do this, but I’ve found that holding a light dumbbell in each hand and cueing the client to pin their arms to their sides is particularly effective. This teaches them to engage their lats, the big muscles that give a well-proportioned upper that V shape. Doing so will help them also engage other core muscles that will preserve a stable and neutral spine (i.e., not excessively bending in any segment) throughout the hinge. Another great way to groove the hinge pattern is to perform an upper body exercise like the Band Standing Skier Pull-Down which requires the endurance of the hinging action while you do work with your arms:
The next progression involves using a kettlebell to perform a light deadlift. Some clients don’t have the mobility to do this from the floor, so we’ll use a low box to reduce the range of motion demands. If you’re training at home, you could pull a few thick books off your shelves instead for the same purpose. A big factor that’s often overlooked in training the hinge is the length of people’s legs and arms. When combined with a low training age, a lot of the gangly teenage athletes I work with struggle to maintain sound technique if I ask them to deadlift from the ground. Reducing the distance that they have to move the weight by only a few inches can make all the difference. Even stronger, more advanced athletes can continue to benefit from heavier elevated deadlifts.
A skeptic might chime in here and say something like, “That’s not a full deadlift.” OK, I get your point. But not everyone needs to be able to deadlift double their body weight from the floor. The goal here is actually to create a safe, strong, and sustainable hinging pattern that can be practiced regularly. If someone can do this, they’re actually going to strengthen their lower back (as well as their glutes, hamstrings, and the rest of their posterior chain) rather than hurt it.
A study published in The BMJ followed people struggling with chronic back pain for three months. The group that did three short training sessions per week had better outcomes across the board, registering a significant decrease in fatty tissue and an increase in muscle mass while also having a 72 percent reduction in low back pain and a 76 percent improvement in disability measures1. Even older people who might not usually consider hinging under load can benefit from deadlifting. It was one of the exercises included in an eight-month trial of people with advanced osteoporosis. At the end of the intervention, participants who strength trained twice a week had greater bone density and muscle strength2.
To wrap this all up, I do want to highlight why the hinge and hinge variations that may include true deadlifts are a key component of a comprehensive training program. The hinge pattern and movement itself is a key movement pattern to achieve and maintain for safe and effective lifting strategies in the weight room and in life. Additionally, the hinge will help you to develop low back, glute, and hamstring endurance and strength. These areas are key to functioning in all activities of life, the weight room, or sport.
Need help to start hinging or get back into deadlifting? Try this exercise progression:
I’m Hinging – Now What?
If you’re wondering which other movement patterns to include in your workouts, check out our recent article on why you should regularly squat, jump, and sprint.
Catch up on part one and part two of this series.
 N Welch et al, “The Effects of a Free-Weight-Based Resistance Training Intervention on Pain, Squat Biomechanics and MRI-Defined Lumbar Fat Infiltration and Functional Cross-Sectional Area in Those With Chronic Low Back,” The BMJ, November 9, 2015, available online at https://bmjopensem.bmj.com/content/bmjosem/1/1/e000050.full.pdf.
 S Watson et al, “High‐Intensity Resistance and Impact Training Improves Bone Mineral Density and Physical Function in Postmenopausal Women With Osteopenia and Osteoporosis: The LIFTMOR Randomized Controlled Trial,” Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, October 2017, available online at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320198087.
Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT spent 6 seasons as the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and is the founder of TD Athletes Edge. He is nationally renowned for his evidence-based and scientific approach to fitness, training, nutrition, and recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.