You'll hurt your back (not) doing deadlifts

I did.

It was about two years ago, trying to pull up 405 pounds after four years of not doing a single dead lift. Failing to lock out one clean repetition, I dropped lowered the barbell and immediately assumed the hands on knees shameful hurt back posture. Proceeding directly to the medicine cabinet, I heard a mocking chant of "You'll hurt your back," much like the "You'll shoot your eye out" taunting in the old Christmas Story movie.

These days I pull far more weight for a total of at least 20 reps every Tuesday, and my back is definitely less achy now than it was 2 or 4 years ago. I credit that, in part, to dead lifts.

So what gives? Personally, I planned and now try to allow sporadic form checks, better recovery, and respect for the body's inability to make constant, linear gains. There is most definitely an art to progression once you approach a double body weight dead lift.

But the main point of this is to emphasize the value of the less extreme dead lift variations. I mean, dead lifts don't have to look like this...Or this:


Instead, try one of about 10 more sane variations, preferable WITHOUT the singlet:

Dead lifts accomplish what no machine or training device or supplement can: teaching the brain to dial in the correct movement pattern for functional lifting. Picking things up is a part of life, unless you can find a way to hamstring curl your suitcase through the airport or leg press your new TV up to the bed room.

The spine is highly resilient when it comes to compressive loading. Almost every movement we make results in some degree of compression, not just loading the spine vertically (as in the squat exercise or carrying jugs of water on our head).

The bad guy is shear force, the tendency of vertebrae to slide forward or backward or rotate on one another. Approximately one zillion muscles in the back, abdominals, and hips are responsible for stabilizing the spine against shear forces. If those muscles are out of sync or plain weak, the passive structures of the spine take a beating.

That's how dead lifts save, yes SAVE, the vertebrae, discs, and ligaments of the spine! More than just stretching and typical training machines, dead lifts demand controlled mobility, hinging the ankles, knees, and hips, while the trunk muscles brace hard to maintain the back in a neutral position. 

Of course the problem is that some of us see how awesome and miserable and rewarding dead lifts truly are. We experience how they make you look and feel and perform like most people simply cannot look and feel and perform. And so we're ever so eager to up the ante on the risk:reward ratio. We're always asking for more reps, more weight, more awesomeness, iron addicted junkie.

If you're one of those, dead lifts will probably hurt your back. How else are you going to know how much you can pull? Even if you're really smart and careful about progression, you'll be wondering why you didn't add 10 more pounds because you really hammered that final work set. 

On the other hand, sitting at a desk, golfing, driving, falling off things, and ninja kicks in the back will also probably hurt your back.

But again, you don't have to dead lift small vehicles to (literally) get off the treadmill of training mediocrity. If you're working out training anyway, why not include something that's effective, requires little space and gear, and translates to more than just burnt calories?

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