The deadlift has received more bad press than any other exercise in modern fitness. This bad rap has tainted what many consider to be one of the best exercises known to man.
While it is undoubtedly impressive to see a powerlifter deadlift three times their body weight, this movement is about much more than just pulling impressive poundages from the floor.
The essence of a deadlift boils down to a fundamental human movement which not only protects but also strengthens and stabilizes the entire spine. I have used the deadlift, disguised as a “rehab” exercise, to help patients with disc herniations, instabilities, “bad backs” and sciatica; not only to resolve these injuries but to allow them to return stronger than they were before.
Don’t get me wrong; the stereotype does carry some merit. While the movement itself is very basic, it is also very easy to get wrong. Especially so when ego steps in and encourages us to lift more weight than we should.
Done with incorrect form, a deadlift is practically guaranteed to injure your back.
It may not happen on the first repetition – or the 50th – but with enough repetition or weight, it will eventually happen. So, how can something so potentially dangerous possibly be good for you?
Well, for the same reason that the exercise can hurt you, if done correctly, it will “bulletproof” your back. Think of the vertebrae in your spine as wooden blocks; Standing up in neutral, they are quite stable. Now, imagine that you put additional weight on your shoulders and have to bend over to pick something up.
If you can maintain the same neutral block position as you bend down, the spine remains stable. But, if you lose that neutral position and allow the blocks to hinge, all the stability is gone, and the blocks fall apart.
So, the deadlift movement does two crucial things. First, it trains us to sit, stand up, bend, and pick things up in a safe manner that won’t lead to back injuries. Secondly, it strengthens the muscles which hold the “blocks” together and stabilizes our spine.
When done correctly, the deadlift is a coordinated movement which uses more muscle groups than any other exercise.
A proper deadlift reminds us how to move in a manner that preserves our spine. It’s a skill that is fading from our culture as we trend toward sitting more often – and becoming more sedentary.
I would encourage anyone with a back/spine/sciatica problem to seek the care of a primary spine practitioner, chiropractor, or physical therapist who can assess this movement and train them back to wellness with it.
Mastering the deadlift movement will lead to greater confidence in your spine, and a life with less back pain.
-Dr. Timothy Kennedy
Dr. Kennedy is a Florida Chiropractor & University of Pittsburgh certified Primary Spine Practitioner.