How to Deadlift After Back Injury: Your Comprehensive Guide

by Jordan Syatt August 21, 2013

Craig, a member of my free VIP program, recently shot me an e-mail asking for help coming up with a strategy regarding how to deadlift after back injury.

To quote Craig directly:

Craig’s Question on How to Deadlift After Back Injury

Hey man! Hope things are going well!

I was wondering if you might have any leads on deadlift progressions? I’ve jacked up my lower back a bit and want to start back into deadlifts slowly and with proper positioning all the way along. I was thinking the guys who are all about single leg deads, hip hinge, blah blah blah all the stuff I thought was for girls until now! LOL

Lemme know if you have any ideas, I appreciate it a lot!

~ Craig

My Response…

Hey Craig,

Deadlifting after back injury can be a difficult process but with the right approach – and lot’s of patience – we’ll have you Deadlifting heavy in no time.

Rather than throw a bunch of Deadlift progressions at you and send you on your way, I think it would be of greater benefit to start from the very beginning and show you exactly how I remedy this situation with my online coaching clients.

It’s a relatively simple process and one that you can do all on your own. Just follow each individual step and, by the end of it, you should be well on your way to hitting new personal records with a strong and healthy back.

How to Deadlift After Back Injury

Step 1: Learn to Use Your Glutes

how to deadlift after back injury

For a variety of reasons, most of us simply don’t know how to use our glutes. While this definitely holds true in the general population, I’ve seen many “experienced” trainees who think they know how to use their glutes but, in reality, have no clue.

But why is using your glutes so important?

Well, aside from the fact that they’re the largest muscle group in the entire body, the glute complex is an extraordinarily powerful hip extensor and, when used correctly, can spare the lower back.

To illustrate, look at the picture below and take special notice of the relationship between the lower back and glutes.

how to deadlift after back injury

See how his lower back is arched excessively inward (i.e. lumbar hyperextension) while the glutes are lagging behind?

Instead of squeezing his glutes to extend the hips, this guy is hyperextending his lower back to finish the lift. While this may not cause pain with lighter weights, as the load gets heavier it will create more shear force on the spine and – more than likely – result in pain/injury. By squeezing the glutes, though, you’ll be able to maintain a neutral spine while extending the hips and subsequently spare the lower back.

Not to mention, learning to use the glutes will help you get that donk you’ve always wanted….

Just saying.

So how can we learn to use the glutes?


Below I’ve provided several glute activation drills that will aid in teaching you to use your butt properly. These drills can be performed as part of your dynamic warm-up or on rest days as a means of active recovery.

Glute Bridge

Single-Leg Glute Bridge

Side-Lying Clam

Side-Lying Straight-Leg Abduction

How to Deadlift After Back Injury

Step 2: Start with Single-Leg Training

Often mocked as a “wussy” form of strength training, single-leg drills provide numerous benefits. In addition to improving performance in a variety of sports and activities of daily living, single-leg training can reduce stability and mobility discrepancies between both legs. In doing so, we can reduce our risk of injury while simultaneously improving strength and performance.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Well, unfortunately, many strength enthusiasts view single-leg training as a waste of time. They don’t believe it translates into bi-lateral strength nor do they understand that it can decrease injury risk.

That’s their loss; not ours.

Used properly, single-training may not only help maintain but actually gain strength while recovering from a lower back injury.

So what single-leg exercises should you use?

Below I’ve provided a few of my favorite single-leg exercises to use specifically when recovering from a lower-back injury.

Dumbbell Reverse Lunge

Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

Front Loaded Dumbbell Reverse Lunge

Front Loaded Barbell Step-Up

Sled/Prowler Pushing and Pulling

How to Deadlift After Back Injury

Step 3: Maintain an Upright Posture

When training through a lower back injury it’s important to choose exercises that allow you to maintain an upright posture throughout the entire range of motion (ROM). In doing so we can significantly reduce the amount of shear force placed upon the spine and consequently limit the risk of pain and injury.

To illustrate, each of the single-leg drills shown in the previous section can be performed while keeping the chest up high and torso perpendicular to the ground. These exercises, also known as Knee Dominant exercises, are my go-to options at the beginning of any rehabilitation-based program for lower back pain.

On the other hand, Hip Dominant exercises (such as RDL’s, SLDL’s, Goodmornings, etc) cause the torso to lean over and become closer to parallel with the ground. Consequently, more stress is placed on the spine and risk of injury/pain is significantly increased.

Other well suited exercises include:

Dumbbell Forward Lunge

Goblet Squat

Bulgarian Split Squat

How to Deadlift After Back Injury

Step 4: Use a Reduced Range of Motion (ROM)

When transitioning into bi-lateral lifting, and specifically Deadlifting, it’s important to begin by using a reduced ROM. In doing so we can maintain more of an upright posture, stay away from a painful ROM, and progressively work our way back to a standard pull from the floor. Through using this type of progression we’ll still be able to handle heavy loads (and gain strength) without placing ourselves in a compromising position and risking re-injury.

There are many ways to reduce the ROM of a Deadlift but below I’ve provided a few of my personal favorites:

Rack Pull

Deadlift from Blocks/Mats

Deadlift from Benches

face pull

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Step 5: Sumo Before Conventional

The Sumo Deadlift facilitates an upright posture and subsequently places far less stress on the lower back than Conventional Deadlifts. That being the case, when progressing lifters back into Deadlifting following a back injury, I always start with Sumo variations.

Below I’ve provided two of my most comprehensive videos discussing exactly how to perform the Sumo Deadlift:

The Sumo Deadlift

A New Perspective on the Sumo Deadlift

How to Deadlifter After Back Injury

Step 6: Technique BEFORE Weight

The final step in the process is using a full ROM with absolutely PERFECT technique. Too often lifters (especially, and ironically, coaches) allow their form to slip through the cracks in order to handle heavier loads. While this is sometimes O.K. (such as when performing a true 1 repetition-maximum), the vast majority of training should be accomplished with absolutely perfect technique.

If the weight causes you to break form…IT’S TOO HEAVY!

Especially in a rehabilitation setting, the importance of maintaining perfect form cannot be overstated. For review, below I’ve provided an instructional video detailing exactly how to perform the Conventional Deadlift.

The Conventional Deadlift

Wrapping Up How to Deadlift After Back Injury

Returning from a back injury can be extraordinarily challenging mentally, physically, and emotionally.  Through using the information provided above, though, you’ll not only return to the iron as quickly as possible but you’ll be healthier and stronger in the long-run.

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