The title of this post may seem unintentionally ambiguous, but I assure you it’s not. Over the past decade, the deadlift has become both my favorite and simultaneously most hated strength training exercise. Why? Back pain…both for causing and relieving it.

Disclaimer: Hopefully it goes without saying that there are a variety of different causes of back pain, and you should consult with a physician before undertaking any exercise program, much less doing something monumentally stupid like deadlifting. 

My back has been less than stable for the better part of 20 years. You know when your Mom, the Doctor, or the fitness guru on television told you to lift with your legs, control the weight, don’t use momentum? Yeah, I didn’t listen too well. Hay bales, DJ equipment, multimedia production equipment, remodeling work, and several house/office moves have taken their toll on my back. 

60 pound speakers? I’ll take 2. 

Push the equipment trailer out of the mud because the truck will get stuck if I drive it off the pavement? I still need to thank the neighbor for helping me make it the last 50 feet out of the mud. 

75 pound bales of hay? Throwing seems easier than carrying, doesn’t it?

It’s been so bad at times that I couldn’t stand up without the kind of pain that takes your breath away. 

After I stumbled and struggled through my last house move a decade ago, I decided it was time to get back in shape. I was over 200 pounds and climbing quickly toward the worst physical shape of my life. During that same time, I was struggling with dietary issues with my body reacting poorly to almost anything I ate. The combination of issues brought me back to Fasting, a nutritional tool I hadn’t used in a long time. 

During my research into Fasting, I found the person many consider the originator of Intermittent Fasting. I can’t remember the exact timing, but I believe Martin Berkhan started experimenting with IF around the same time I did. Of course, he stuck with it, did the research, and devised a fairly simple approach that doesn’t interfere significantly with daily life. I originally started Fasting after reading a blog post by Dr. Eades of Protein Power fame, and even though it worked well for me, I was doing 24 hour fasts 3 times a week which wasn’t sustainable for me at the time. 

When I found Berkhan’s method several years later, everything clicked. Skipping breakfast and narrowing my eating window didn’t interfere with family life the way 24 hours fasts did, and the focus on lifting heavy was appealing to me (even if I do still like to do bicep curls in the power rack). Believe it or not, I had never deadlifted before finding Berkhan’s site, I’ve been lifting on and off since I was 14 years old, and for some reason, deadlifting was never on my radar. But Berkhan said deadlift and had been right about most things (other than cheesecake, not sure how the guy went so sideways with that one), so I very cautiously began to deadlift. 

Believe it or not, I started deadlifting *just the bar*. I had balance and range of motion problems due to my bad ankle and its internal hardware, and my core strength was non-existent. To this day, I still have to use the sumo variation for safety and balance. Lifting only the bar felt silly, not unlike grabbing the 5 pound dumbbells when you normally work out with 50’s. I had the strength to lift a lot more, but it probably would have ended poorly. 

It took about 6 months, but I slowly and very carefully worked from the 45 pound bar up to around 260 pounds. I realize those aren’t numbers to brag about for a 6’ tall 180 pound (at the time) guy, but it was a significant improvement in both strength and back health for me. I was still horribly inflexible, but I had the strength to withstand activities that might have sent me to the floor previously.

The challenge with the deadlift is that form is extremely important, and a combination of ego and fatigue can easily lead to poor form. I’ve experienced form breaks repeatedly over the past decade that have forced me to take time off from my deadlift training and a couple that have put me on the floor for days.

Is it possible for deadlifting to improve back pain? In my experience, absolutely, but you have to be extremely careful. Here are some of the things I’ve done to try to increase the odds of success and mitigate the dangers:

  • Avoid the stiff or straight-legged variety at all costs. I’m sure hard-core trainers would give me an earful, but I don’t think the cost-benefit ratio works out for this variant.
  • Favor the Sumo variant if you find any back discomfort with the standard deadlift. You can also look into an alternative bar to keep the weight aligned with your center of gravity.
  • Consider reducing the range of motion by pulling the bar from a higher position to reduce the odds of a form break at the bottom of the motion. Look into the rack pull as an alternative to build strength for a full deadlift.
  • End the session on any form break, even if you didn’t feel pain. Missing half of your workout is better than taking 2 weeks off for injury. I’ve experienced several fatigue-related form breaks that didn’t hurt at the time but left me with debilitating pain later.
  • Stretch your hamstrings. Stiff hamstrings are no good for back pain, and it’s fairly easy to keep them loose so make it a habit (he says to himself, knowing he never follows his own advice).