Tony Gentilcore

Because heavy things won't lift themselves

“Deadlifts Are One of the Worst Things You Can Do For Your Spine”

Yep you heard it here first – according to a local exercise physiology TA:

Deadlifts are one of the worst things you can do for your spine.

Last week one of the readers of this blog emailed me and couldn’t believe what he had just heard. He walked into class and overhead the TA talking to another student.

They said “something something deadlifts something something”, and since I love the deadlift like a fat kid loves cake, I asked what they were talking about. At that point they said “its one of the worst things you can do for your spine”. I talked about how a proper deadlift with a good flat back is great for you, and that a shitty deadlift will hurt you (a shitty anything will hurt you). They were un-swayed, and he mentioned how someone had him doing deads off of a 6 inch box and “it destroyed my back…not in a good way.”

Oh where to begin. I don’t quite understand the mentality of some people today. Between squats being too dangerous and making our inner thighs flabby and deadlifts being one of the worst things we can do to our spine, what are we left to do: Easy stuff like Pilates and leg presses? Both of which are the equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off in your spine?

I know many of the political pundits out there like to go on and on about how we’ve fallen into this “wussification of America” mentality (everyone gets a trophy, there are no winners and losers, kickball being banned, can’t say Merry Christmas without offending someone), and after reading stuff like the above, I couldn’t agree more. We ARE a bunch of wussies.

So, lets try set the record straight and see if we can hit this TA over the head with a bucket of idiot sauce.

Point #1: Wolff’s Law and Davis’s Law. You can’t discount physics. The former states that bone in a healthy person or animal will adapt to the loads it is placed under. The latter states the same thing, except with regards to soft tissue.

Deadlifting = strong bones + soft tissue. You need a minimal essential strain (MES) in order for tissue to adapt. Likewise, in order to strengthen tissue, you need to load it. Sorry, but your cute little leg extensions and leg curls aren’t going to get the job done.

Point # 2: If we were to take a peek at the Nachemson Chart, which is a measure of intradiscal pressure (pressure on spinal discs) in response to compressive load, we’d see that PROLONGED sitting in a slouched position (you know, what you’re doing right now as you read this) places almost as much compressive load as a deadlift.

As a matter of fact, my good friend Bret Contreras had these zingers to say on this very topic:

Obviously regular sitting wouldn’t give you more intradiscal pressure than really heavy deadlifts, but I would definitely agree that prolonged sitting is more deleterious on the spine than deadlifting. You’ve got prolonged intradiscal pressure, plus sitting decreases glute activation by several mechanisms : compression on the tissue, neurological reciprocal inhibition of the hip flexors, and mechanical inhibition of end range hip extension due to adaptive shortening of hip flexors.

Point # 3: I’m biased. You’d be hard pressed to convince me otherwise that the deadlift isn’t one of the best overall exercises for hypertrophy, not to mention the best functional exercise you can do with respects to posterior chain strength, core stability, glute activation, power development, and transference of force throughout the entire body. And lets not forget: a heavy set of deadlifts will make any woman within a two-block radius spontaneously conceive. True story.

And if that doesn’t convince you, one of the smartest guys in the industry, Gray Cook, produced an entire dvd on why EVERYONE should include deadlifts in their programming. Are you going to say that lifting a bag of groceries off the ground “is one of the worst things for your spine” too?

Point # 4: I’d agree that deadlifts, when done incorrectly, are horrible for the spine. However, as myself, Eric Cressey, Mike Robertson, Bret Contreas, and countless other coaches have noted: when coached correctly – with a neutral spine and with a proper hip hinge – they’ll do more as far as “bullet proofing” the body than any other exercise. Furthermore, as Bret noted, deadlifts teach the glutes to share the load which spares the spine.

Point # 5: And while we’re at it, there’s this guy who’s kind of a big deal, Dr. Stuart McGill, who’s essentially the world’s ninja when it comes to lower back research. He wrote two books, Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance and Low Back Disorders (you should check them out), and in not so many words noted that the trunk extensor muscles (longissimus, iliocostalis, erector spinae, etc) do a really good job of counteracting shear force on the spine.

Point # 6: Since Bret Contreras is more of a research geek than I am, I asked if he’d send me some words of wisdom/studies that would help debunk this nonsense.

Granhed et al. (1987) found that powerlifters were able to sustain 4,824 lbs of compressive loading during the deadlift. Theoretically this load is too high for the spine to handle. According to the authors, “the study showed that intensive training will increase the bone mineral content (BMC) to an extent that the spine can tolerate extraordinary loads.”

Karlsson et al. (1993) showed that weightlifters possess 10% greater total body bone density and 13% greater lumbar bone density than controls. Studies by Sabo et. al. (1996), Granhed et al. (1987) and Bennell et al. (1997) confirm this research. A study by Karlsson et al. (1995) suggests that these increases in bone density are maintained for many years following cesation of lifting.

Research by Brinckmann et al. (1989) and Granhed et al. (1987) support the notion that the axial compressive strength of the lumbar spine is directly related to bone density. Researchers showed that the greater the annual loads lifted, the greater the lumbar bone density adaptations.

Still think deadlifts are bad for the spine?

Here’s what I think happened. This TA did his 135 lb (HINT: that’s not a lot) deadlifts from a six-inch box (something I would only have ADVANCED lifters do), with atrocious form. He tweaked his back and all of a sudden his n=1 conclusion was that ALL deadlifts are bad. Ehhhhhhhh. Wrong, thanks for playing.

Did I just blow your mind? Make (or ruin) your day? Leave a comment, then share this with EVERYBODY.
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  • Anonymous

    Great piece, thanks for writing it. On a related note, this shows the importance of not necessarily trusting all the information you get from an exercise physiology class (especially when it comes from a teaching assistant.)… they *might* be right, but it’s important to run their statement through the filters of scientific literature and the current evidence-based fitness community!

  • Arrrms

    “can’t say Merry Christmas without offending someone”

    This has never happened to you or anyone else. That said, nice article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=570235000 Jacob Maddocks

    very insightful, i’ve never done deadlifting before for fear of damaging something, but i’ll definitely look to include it now!

    • TonyGentilcore

      Hey Jacob -

      Might not be a bad idea to find someone to show you the ropes on how to do them correctly. But outside of that, you’re going to love them.

      • Eugene

        I really love the article. But I’ve been looking for advice and I injured my lower back by doing heavy deadlifts (385 lbs). And I’ve been looking for a solution for the longest time. It’s been a month since my injury and I can lift things fine like deadlift 225 no problem for reps without pain but I just don’t understand what can I do to stop this stressful feeling deep inside my lower back.

        • Anders

          it is possible, that your back, is not READY, for that extra weight, just yet… many bodybuilders, ends up, BREAKING their biceps muscle, because they overtrain. the biceps, is a VERY very small muscle, and therefore, it and its TENDONS, can’t evolve very quickly.. my suggestion to you, is that you should train, with the same ammount of weights on, at least 3 times, before adding MORE weights…! and you also need to remember that, depending on hOW, hard you train it, it can take more, than just a COUPLE of days,for your muscles to evolve! depending on the ammount of good sleep, that oyur body gets, all in all…:) hope that helped you.

        • TonyGentilcore

          Eugene -

          I’d suggest two things:

          1. Go get see a good manual therapist – preferably one that does ART or Graston or both.

          2. Hire someone to check your technique on the deadlifts. Send me a video if you want, and I’ll take a look.

  • movn_up

    Would love to get some advice on this. I love deadlifts. I believe they are about the best exercise there is, but here’s my problem: 3 years ago I was rear ended by a garbage truck, suffered a herniated disc in my L5 S1 vertabrae and had surgery. Never been the same since. Squats are out. Did some deadlifts about 3 weeks ago with light weight (135 lbs) and strained my lower back. All is good now, but I’m reluctant to start deadlifting again. I’m not sure that deadlifts will work for me, but I hope to return to them sometime.

    • Af

      Just a super quick note because I feel I have to… As a clinician with a bachelors in Ex Phys, doctorate in physical therapy, and 2 years of studying under a biomechaninal engineer re the forces on the Hunan body during ex, I would advise any patient to hold off on deadlift following a disc herniation. Crucify me if you want, but I can promise you the anterior spinal compression created during a deadlift is a BAD thing for a spine with posterior deficit (ie your herniation).

      Somewhere along the line people decided even though there are bachelors, masters, and PhD’s in exercise science, anyone can be an expert if they read enough articles. I wish it were true, but unfortunately it isn’t. It’s my passion to teach and keep my patients/clients/anyone else safe but the Internet education people receive sure makes that difficult

      • TonyGentilcore

        I respect your advice doc, but you do realize that there are A LOT of people out there who walk around with disc herniations who are asymptomatic, pain free, and can perform deadifts just fine right?

        If you took an MRI of most people’s backs the likelihood you’d see a disc herniation at one level is something like 52%, and 38% at two levels.

        And plenty of people are pain free.

        Likewise, just because someone IS pain free, doesn’t mean I’m going to walk them in day one and perform max effort deadlifts.

        As I told another recent commenter…..it’s about taking them through a thorough assessment and properly progressing people.

        I think deadlifts are a fantastic exercise, but I certainly know enough to know when they’re appropriate.

        In the meantime I can have them perform single leg work, pull-throughs, deadbugs, birddlogs, etc…..with the end game coaching them to eventually perform a pain free deadlift.

        Besides, who says we HAVE to load the deadlift heavy. In the grand scheme of things, if someone is coming off a chronic back injury, I WANT to teach them how to properly hip hinge and protect their spine. Coaching a proper hip hinge and keeping people out of flexion will go a long ways in terms of long-term health, right?

        I’ve been coaching people for over ten years, and have coached thousands of people. How many people have you coached?

        I certainly don’t walk into your office and tell you how to read MRIs and treat your patients? I wish you’d offer the strength and conditioning community the same courtesy.

      • movn_up

        I really appreciate your comments and fully respect your experience and credentials. Do you feel that deadlifts should not be done by anyone? If so, what other exercises do you recommend?

  • Steph1

    Pilates is easy?? Please I’d rather do deadlifts any day( yes I do them) You obviously have never done pilates a day in your life if you think it’s easy and wrote it off. Granted I do the hardest form of it but thats rude of you to assume. Just like those guys at the gym that assumed that spin class was easy and for girls. When we invited him to join in it turns out he couldn’t even complete the class because he was too top heavy to do stands. Try it before you knock it!

    • TonyGentilcore

      I’m not one to gloat, Steph, but I actually HAVE taken a pilates class. BOOM: http://www.tonygentilcore.com/blog/tony-takes-a-pilates-class/

      And, I have also taken a yoga class, spin class, and pretty much everything else I have an opinion on.

      Maybe you should take the time to read more of my stuff before you try to rip me a new one….;o)

    • TonyGentilcore

      Also, if you DO read more of my stuff, you’ll understand that I often take a “tongue in cheek” approach to a lot of what I write. Don’t take things so literally.

      • Mark Ryan

        This guy thinks because deadlifts suit him they must suit most people. Welcome to the real world where most people sit in office chairs and it may not be good to do deadlifts. I do deadlifts with perfect form (well as perfect form as my tight hamstrings will allow) and mark my words it is not good for me. Type in ‘deadlift back pain’ and the internet will light up with results. Are you saying that all these people with back pain are doing the deadlift incorrectly or overloading the weight? Rubbish. I have probably watched more vids on deadlifts and read more articles on glutes than you have ever and I can guarantee you if you are not physically suited to deadlifts do not try them. You happen to be physically well suited to deadlifts, lucky you. If you are, I do not advise not doing them if they wuit you because they are an excellent compound movement, one of man’s most basic movements. Other posters, if you are not physically suited to them and they are damaging your lower back in spite of good form, stay away from them. Do not follow this guys advice of carrying on with them regardless.

        And as for Bret Contreras, just because he reads a lot into glutes etc doen’t make him intelligent. Stay away from his advice. He nit picks the bits out of articles that suits his theories. Well done to him.

        • TonyGentilcore

          Mark -

          I appreciate your insight and experiences…..which is why, if you read more of my stuff, I ALWAYS state that not everyone is meant to deadlift from the floor on day one, or squat deep, or, well, think of any other exercise we want to throw into the mix.

          When someone walks into my facility with chronic back pain, I assure you I’m NOT having them deadlift. I’ll take them through a proper assessment, find out what their weaknesses are, watch them move, and then ascertain what the best approach will be moving forward.

          Most people move like shit – yes. Some people aren’t suited to deadlift. I get it.

          But that wasn’t necessarily the point of the article. It was really to counterpoint the blanket statement that deadlifts are bad for EVERYONE.

          • Mark Ryan

            We appear to be batting somewhat in the same ball park. Both you and I appear to agree that deadlifts can be good or bad for the back depending upon the physical attributes of the person’s body? However, I did not get that from your article. It appeared from my reading of it that deadlifts, if done well, are good for your back. I would disagree with this. They are good for your back if done correctly AND you have the physical attributes AND range of motion to allow for a sound deadlift (i.e. pelvic region/back/core are all in good order). Otherwise, you are wasting your time and adding unnecessary shear forces/stress on your back muscles.
            I also disagree with the comments directly above that some people are not suited to the deadlift. MANY people unfortunately are not suited to this compound movement. They quite simply don’t have the correct neural patterns and/or mobility given the sedentary lifestyles we live nowadays. If after training various techniques using good form with the deadlift, it continues to worry your back, GIVE IT UP.
            I am also unsure as to why compression to the spine is discussed at length in this article and why compression on the spine in a deadlift versus compression sitting down is compared. I wouldn’t be worried about compression when undertaking deadlifts, shear stress on the back is the concern. Likewise, I wouldn’t be concerned about shear stress on the spine when sitting down, I would be more concerned about compression over long periods of sitting down. You won’t get any shear stress sitting down and the potential for a ALOT of shear stress on deadlifts.

            This comparison of compression on the spine sitting versus deadlift is like comparing the acidity in vodka and the acidity in apples and concluding that because the acidity in apples may be stronger than that of vodka, than that is a sound basis for drinking lots of vodka instead of apple juice! The comparison is that weak. I not a fan of nit picking the theories that support one’s argument as appears to be the case when compression on the spine is compared on a deadlift versus sitting down, as above.

          • TonyGentilcore

            Everyone can deadlift. Depending on what’s found in the assessment, not doesn’t mean everyone should deadlift. Can we hug and make up now?….;o)

            Remember: that original post was written just to counter the point that someone else made that deadlifts were just bad for everyone in general. Which is absurd.

  • Dave

    Well written article. I’d change the title though. Sends kind of the wrong message when you just look at it in a set of google results.

    • TonyGentilcore

      True, true – fair point. I guess I’m keeping my fingers crossed that most will get the sarcasm…..;o)

    • http://www.liftlaughlive.com/ David

      Lol. super true. When I first saw the title, I thought he was serious.
      But article proved otherwise. Anyways great job on the article. I think
      with good form, the exercise is safe to do.

      • TonyGentilcore

        Thanks David. Kind of weird that three years after the fact, this post has gained some interest.

  • nogoodnews

    I used to avoid the deadlift for two reasons: (1) They looked boring – I mean, nothing really exciting about bending down to pick something and (2) I heard it was dangerous. Then, after reading about how to do them CORRECTLY, I have since fall in love with the DL and it is one of my most FAVORED moves. In fact, about twice a month, I’ll do a strictly DL day: DL with a barbell / dumbbell / Olympic bar / even body weight. It is a KICK BUTT move for the ENTIRE body and it is one of the moves that has me sweating harder than many other “fancy” weight moves.

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  • expert

    Increased bone density, great. Don’t think the vertebrae increase their density though. They just smush together and herniate.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Well, when we deadlift, we’re not JUST stressing the vertebrae, right? The whole body comes into play.

  • Colubrious

    Don’t forget the psychological side to this. I have been doing deadlifts with my trainer, slowly increasing the weight and staying comfortable for about 6 months. I was not lifting really heavy stuff, I had progressed slowly from 80lbs to 90 to 100 etc. I was up at about 140 and felt this was enough at this stage. My trainer advised that I should go to 160lbs and I agreed to try it. Inwardly felt nervous as I thought this was too much but alas I said nothing. The nervousness turned itself into tenseness and guess what. The combined nerves and tenseness made me screw up my technique and now my back is screwed and I can’t work out at all for weeks. So it is not all physical guys. If your mind is not on the case. Deadlifts are dangerous.

  • Clark Kronowski

    Thank you so much for this article. I love dead lifts and was getting nervous because of some of the articles that I had been reading otherwise.

  • David Stuart Purkiss

    I am 68yr have a arthritic lumber region and currently lift 379lbs x5 aiming for 400lbs by end of month

    • michael

      Mr. Purkiss, good job and thanks for the inspiration. I am 67yrs. Two years ago I suffered a herniated disk at work. After resting for a year and a half, I began weight training about 5 months ago. I have been deadlifting 1 day a week for the past 2 months and am currently 2 weeks from pulling my target single of 315 (2x body weight).

      Related: http://forum.bodybuilding.com/showthread.php?t=132410823

  • Blanco

    You really scared me there with the title, I love deadlifts, so I was very relieved after reading the the article.

  • pickle

    I will be honest I used to skip leg day, yeah i know i know. Anyways I wanted to get moving in the right direction so I got a trainer. started dead lifting, squatting, overhead squatting, lunges,box jumps,leg pressing. My Dead lift started at 135×5 for max, and 2 months later its 365×5 max. long story short I can bench more, jump higher, do more pull ups, my ass has grown and i don’t do crunches but my abs have become shredded. Dead lifts are the shit and when i become swoll the ladies get wet. don’t be a pussy. I understand if your old, or fat as fuck. but no pain no gain.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Nice! That just made my day!

  • MissStatement

    I have a history of chronic low back pain and herniated lumbar disks. Babying my back got me nowhere. I began deadlifting a couple of months ago, and in conjunction with a full body workout consisting of compound free weight exercises done to failure or near failure, my back and core have never been stronger and I am free of the pain that was almost a daily thing. Not to mention I can already see changes in my physique that I never got with any other form of exercise. As a middle aged woman I have many good reasons to do them.

  • Ben

    I pretty much agree, with one exception: far more often I see people get offended by “Happy Holidays” than “Merry Christmas” ;)

    • TonyGentilcore

      LOL – dually noted Ben.

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  • Nathan Clay Rogers

    A very good piece. We will have to share with the guys who are utterly convinced that deadlifts will ruin their spine due to previous advice they have been given by “some professional”.

  • Bob Gorinski

    AMEN Tony!

    This…coming from a physical therapist who made a (local) name for himself by regularly working with average joes and athletes coming to rehab for back pain. Don’t get me wrong – we’re not jumping right to dead lifts when people are in acute pain or have significant peripheral (leg pain, numbness, etc). The resistance may be minimal. We may do a suitcase lift or some other variation. But make no mistake, in the final phases of rehab I’m teaching them to dead lift in order to spare the spine.

    In my experience, the problem comes when us iron addicted junkies 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. In reasonable doses dead lifts are great. It’s not just dead lifts…it’s human nature to push the limits.

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  • poop

    ruined

  • Meggen Lowry

    1) Your attitude and arrogance makes for an unpleasant reading experience.

    2) Pilates uses limb loading, and can create significant loads through your spine but tends to be done in better postures and positions that support the spine and reduce downwards strain on the pelvic floor. Try it. You might find it isn’t for wussies.

    3) Osteogenesis (bone adaptation by means of increased bone laydown) in response to loading is not a phenomenon unknown to researchers and physical therapists.

    4) The problem with ‘educators’ like yourself is that you use the collective terms “spine” and “back” when talking about individual components of those structures. Deadlifts do not strengthen your whole spine. They are not good for your back.

    The erector spinae will be strengthened (and possibly injured) with a dead lift, nobody is denying that.
    The vertebral bodies themselves will experience adaptation and increase in density also. The intervertebral discs, however, will suffer. Under such huge compressive forces the nucleus pulposis will be ‘squished’ backwards and the annular fibres of the posterior portion of the disc will tear under strain. Those discs are not replaceable….

    5) Intra-abdominal pressure is far far greater with a deadlift than any other exercise you mentioned, and increases even more if the person holds their breath. Intra-abdominal pressures of that magnitude cause significant detrimental strain to the abdominal wall, predisposing it to herniation. Even worse, it causes even greater strain to the pelvic floor, stretching and weakening the pelvic floor muscles and predisposing them to urinary incontinence and prolapse.

    Until you show me some research (preferably not 20-30 year old research) demonstrating intervertebral disc and pelvic floor adaptations to dead lifts, proving that the annular fibres of the discs are not broken under strain and the pelvic floor is not weakened and lowered, I’m still going to advise my clients against them.

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  • https://www.gripped.com.au/ David

    Smart articles like this are the reason I frequently visit this site while I
    have forgot about even thinking visiting others.The biggest danger is allowing your back to bow forward this is the biggest disadvantage.Good work Tony.