How to Modify Deadlifts for Lower Back Pain

By djpope

March 10, 2017

Lower back pain is an enormous obstacle you’ll undoubtedly encounter as a coach.  Many athletes have trouble with lower back pain when they deadlift.  It makes sense, deadlifting really stresses the low back right?  Of course.  Most coaches deal with this on a regular basis.

The trouble comes when this happens in a group setting and you’ve got to come up with some sort of modification on the fly.  You need to simultaneously manage the class, coach the exercises, set up the room, manage time, answer any questions and all of the sudden now you’ve got someone with lower back pain when they deadlift.  You were already a bit overwhelmed and this throws a new wrench in the system.

What do you do?  Skip the deadlift?  Squat instead?  Lower the weight? Go home?

Pain while training is a huge source of frustration for both athletes and coaches.  As coaches modifying workouts for athletes in pain is an essential skill that isn’t taught anywhere.  However, having some sort of system in place to make decisions on the fly based on science is paramount.

Lucky for us there are some biomechanical factors that influence the amount of stress that falls on the lower back while deadlifting.  This helps us with our decision making process when we encounter this athlete in pain.  We can systematically modify a given exercise to optimize the athlete’s progress and not get sidelined by pain.  In the video below Dr. Ryan Debell and myself go over some of the stresses on the spine during deadlifting and how we’d go about starting to modify the deadlift for the athlete with lower back pain

The major take-away from this video is that altering torso angle can greatly affect the stress on the spine and pain.  Some modification ideas with this concept in mind:

  • Try sumo over conventional deadlifts
  • Substitute trap bar for straight bar
  • Elevate the starting point of the deadlift

Also keep in mind that increasing the reps and slowing down the reps can often decrease the stress on the spine but allow a training effect:

  • Attempt tempo lifts (3 second lower)
  • Try sets with a rep range of 8-12 as opposed to the traditional 3-5 reps

Lastly, moving to single leg exercises is a great way to continue to load the lower body without the same stress on the spine

  • Substitute 2 leg deadlift variations with single leg deadlift variations

Armed with this knowledge you won’t get caught with your pants down when an athlete puts you on the spot about pain.  You can easily modify the exercise to gain pain free movement.  The athlete is happy, you look like a genius and the problem is quickly resolved.

Dr. Ryan Debell and myself have created an entire online course devoted towards learning how to modify workouts for athletes in pain just like we showed above.  The pre-sale starts this upcoming Wednesday.  In honor of the sale we’ve created a 5 part video series of how to modify the most common movements for athletes in pain.  If you want to be notified of each video as it comes out and get an exclusive discount when the product launches then sign up for the form below:

Super Pumped for This Thing,

Daniel Pope, DPT, OCS, CSCS