Q: I get persistent back pain when doing stiff-legged deadlifts. My back is otherwise healthy, and I don’t feel pain on any other exercise. Any idea why?
In all likelihood, the issue you’re having is related to form. When done correctly, the stiff-legged deadlift is one of the best exercises for targeting the glutes and hamstrings. The problem is that most people don’t perform the exercise correctly. This not only reduces the effectiveness of the move, but it also can lead to persistent back pain or worse, even cause a debilitating injury of the spine.
The main thing to understand when performing a stiff-legged deadlift is that the movement should take place at your hips, not your spine. During execution, the glutes and hamstrings function as hip extenders, pure and simple. They have no direct influence on spinal function. This means you don’t need to touch your toes to achieve complete a range of motion. In fact, if you’re like most people, flexibility in the hamstrings will not allow you to bring the bar much past the plane of your knees. All too often, I see people stand on a box or bench so they can lower the weight as far as possible when all they’re actually doing to achieve the extra stretch is flexing their spine. Bad idea.
Realize that when the spine is rounded during forward flexion, the musculature in your lumbar region (i.e., the erector spinae group) slacken, and thus are unable to provide proper support to the vertebrae. This results in anterior compression of the spinal disks, causing the fluid-filled center (i.e., the nucleus pupolsis) to bulge out on the posterior portion of the disks. If the pressure on the disks becomes too great, they can rupture, leaving you in a great deal of pain and possibly even necessitating corrective surgery.
So, let’s look at the proper way to perform the stiff-legged deadlift. First, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Grasp a barbell (or alternatively, two dumbbells) and let it hang in front of your body, palms facing your thighs. Keeping your knees straight and core tight, slowly bend forward at the hips and lower the barbell along the line of your body. Make sure that your lower back remains slightly arched at all times. When you feel an intense stretch in your hamstrings and can no longer flex forward at the hips, reverse direction, contracting your glutes as you rise upward to the starting position. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Here are some tips to optimize results: First, maintain a slight upward tilt to your chin throughout the entire movement. When the head drops during hip flexion/extension, there is a reflexive tendency to round at the spine. Only by keeping your head upright will the spine stay in neutral alignment. A good way to ensure that your chin stays elevated is to watch yourself in the mirror as you perform the lift. If you can’t see your reflection at any point in the movement, chances are you’re dropping your head.
Second, concentrate on pushing your butt backward as you lower the weight and then driving up through the hips on the ascent, pushing your pelvis slightly forward on the contraction. This will engage your hip musculature, forcing the glutes and hams to do the work.
Finally, strive to develop a strong mind-to-muscle connection during exercise performance. Focus on the target muscles throughout the move. Feel them work both on the concentric and eccentric portions of the lift, contracting and lengthening on each rep. I can’t emphasize enough how important a mind-to-muscle connection is in developing your body to its fullest, as well as avoiding injury.
That’s it. Follow these tips and you’ll go a long way to maximizing muscle tone in your glutes and hams while keeping your lower back pain-free.