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The deadlift can be often seen as a scary exercise. Often we see large people lifting very heavy loads that you think are unsafe and would only cause harm. It is common to think this as it does not seem natural or intuitive for people to be lifting 100kg+ off the floor repetitively. For those completing deadlifts in their normal programming, it is often the lift that has the largest amount of weight moved per repetition. It is often debated whether the deadlift movement is safe and necessary for rehabilitation or use in a general population trying to simply stay fit. Below we will explore this question further and give insight into what health professionals think of the deadlift movement.

Firstly if you are unsure, the deadlift is an exercise where we see someone lift, typically a bar with weighted plates, off the floor up to hip level, standing tall holding the weight in front of them. Watch an example below.

Now the deadlift is a compound exercise, meaning it uses multiple muscle groups to complete the movement and is known to be one of the most ‘taxing’ movements commonly performed. The main muscle groups involved in the exercise are the erector spinae, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, adductor magnus, and soleus – which forms the posterior chain of the body. Quadriceps and deep core activation is also required for the movement as well as involvement of the latissimus dorsi to hold the position. From the large list of muscles used, including the largest muscle in the body (gluteus maximus) it is no surprise that the deadlift requires a lot of energy and muscle activation to perform the movement. Due to this reason the deadlift requires a large amount of coordination with the muscles and a degree of strength to perform.

Alternatively, due to the large amount of muscles used it creates a powerful efficient movement that can form good habits and patterns of movement for everyday life. Hence, in my professional opinion deadlifts are an awesome exercise for rehabilitation as well as for creating posterior chain strength.

Deadlifts are SAFE, yes I said it, deadlifts are safe. I would advise people who perform the conventional deadlift to first learn the mechanics and body awareness of a ‘hip hinge’. This is a movement as shown below where we push the hips back and into a degree of flexion without moving the knees to lower our trunk. This is important as it forms the foundation of the deadlift motion and is typically done incorrectly. To learn the hip hinge it is often described as pushing the hips back, here I would recommend it to be beneficial to seek professional advice and to progressively build from their strengthening patterns within the deadlift.

Hip Hinge

Where a deadlift can be unsafe. This is often asked and debated however the short answer is as long as the spine, which is incredibly strong, stays in a locked position throughout the motion then there is no sheer force applied to the spine which could cause damage. So there is only risk of injury when the spine moves about in flexion whilst lifting the weight. Essentially the motion is to be coming from the hips, not the spine.

Should you stop deadlifting?

Do you experience any radiculopathy (radiating pain) with the movement? If yes, then reduce the load till no radiating pain, if always present then review the movement and seek professional advice to clear the limiting factors causing the radiculopathy.

If you have a disc herniation (bulging disc)? Deadlifts here are safe. Again as long as the load provided does not exceed tissue demand and cause radiating pain or large amounts of back pain then it is safe to proceed. In general, often I use the deadlift as an effective rehab exercise for this condition once the client has adequate core strength and hip hinge motion. Then it is just about building tolerance to load doing the motion.

Essentially, to summarize the deadlift is safe and can be a great way to build strength of muscles that will help decrease strain on joints that would otherwise be potentially overloaded. It is all about graded exposure and building one’s tolerance to the load assuming there are no major limitations in hip range of motion and or uncleared radicular pain. Due to the taxing nature of the exercise we generally only prescribed the exercise once a week, no more than twice a week. This is simply to ensure the muscles have enough time to recover and ensure they are able to continue to take load.

Happy deadlifting!

Simon Zibellini, Exercise Physiologist