The 3 Best Dead Lift Variations for Low Back Pain

Low back pain can be one of the most frustrating injuries in the gym. With so many strength movements relying on a healthy low back to perform comfortably, LBP can easily push a lifter to give up on their training altogether.

I hate seeing this.

Having been through a bad bout of LBP myself that brought my training to a near standstill. Followed by months of building up dead lift confidence. I will always try to help others dodge much of the frustration I felt during that time.

I’m going to cover the 3 dead lift variations I used in my own training, and still prescribe today to lifters going through back pain. These aren’t “rehab” exercises. These are real deal dead lift variations that hopefully through trial and error can have you back up and running to get some training done in the gym.

(For squat variations for LBP check out this video!)

BEFORE WE BEGIN:

I understand how much pain you may be in. I understand dead lifts sound like the complete opposite of what you logically should be doing right now.

“I  already hurt my back, why would I want to possibly hurt it more?”- Concerned Gym Bro

But the truth is waiting out your back pain with “bed rest” so it heals is likely to make your situation even worse.

Basic physical activity, moving the low back around, and getting some blood flow to the area however, that’s what we are looking for. Continued physical activity of an afflicted area is the basis behind many physical therapy treatments, and in the case of LBP it’s no different.

For those of you worried that you are severely injured and shouldn’t be moving around at all here’s the good new’s. Only 1% of LBP is from a serious cause (examples: cancer, spinal infection, abdominal aneurysm). For information on red flags for LBP click here.

This doesn’t downplay the severity of “non-serious” cases of LBP (They simply aren’t life threatening). The pain experienced can still be severe, even to a point of ruining someones quality of life.

I want you to understand that the pain in a LBP situation is often the worst part. Meaning it is not always indicative of genuine structural damage to your body. A person can be experiencing extreme pain and be deemed “physically healthy”. At the same time a person can be in little pain, but fall under a red flag for being in the 1% of serious cases. Rating how “injured” you are by how much pain you are experiencing is an unreliable metric.

I’m giving you these variations so that those of you that fall into the “non-serious” category of LBP can get to moving around and training in a pain free manner. Hopefully, so that the increased physical activity helps in managing your pain. For those of you that love the gym like myself, just the act of being in the gym and doing something is going to be great for your mental health as well (As opposed to sitting on the couch and stressing that you aren’t training).

I’m not giving you these variations so you can immediately jump back into maxing out again.

Understand that your entire goal here is getting in pain free movement. You will only progress the variation or the weight on the variation you are using when you can comfortably do so. Some uncomfiness and tightness is to be expected. But, we want to avoid outright pain. A solid indicator you’re on a good path for a training session is your back starts out tight, but feels a bit better the further you get into training. Basic tightness after training is also not out of the ordinary.

Feel free to employ any or all of these variations as you see fit, they are in no particular order. You’re going to be shooting for a balancing act of choosing the variation that works for you as well as a proper load on the bar that allows you to lift pain free. Don’t be afraid to lift an empty barbell if that’s what it takes!

TRAP BAR BLOCK PULLS:

Trap bar dead lifts are commonly employed when it comes to low back pain.

Very simply, the more upright torso position of a trap bar dead lift tends to feel more comfortable for a lifter with LBP than the standard bar bell dead lift position.

Taking this one step further, you can put the trap bar up on blocks or some spare bumper plates to create a trap bar block pull. This is a great starting point for anyone in severe pain who may be skeptical about training at all.

Trap bar block pulls limit how far the lifter has to bend down to lift and as a result can be a good entry option to just get moving again. It gets rid of some of the fear that may be associated with the more bent over position of even a normal barbell block pull, and is a stepping stone to building up confidence in your back.

As a bonus this is just an easy movement to learn. There’s no complicated technique or skill requirement for this movement. Just line up to the center of the bar, get yourself into a nice tight “flat back” position, and drive up with your legs keeping your knees out like you would in a squat. Nothing much to it.

To improve confidence overtime, you can slowly lower the height of the blocks so the lifter gets used to and feels safe in a more bent over position. Eventually working down to a normal trap bar dead lift. If you build enough confidence you can even flip the trap bar and use the low handles as opposed to the usual high handles.

BARBELL BLOCK PULLS:

Obviously barbell block pulls are the same idea as trap bar block pulls. Go figure.

By increasing the height off the floor you are pulling from you’re going to decrease how much an individual has to bend over to reach the barbell. Generally speaking this leads to a more comfortable lifting session.

Likewise, as someone starts to feel better, and starts to feel more confident with dead lifts again you can begin to slowly lower the blocks. Potentially this will be how you get back to a normal dead lift from the ground again.

Barbell block pulls are great to employ for someone who is gaining some of their confidence back or if you are a power lifter at heart and want to stay as close to normal dead lifts as you can.

Because this is a barbell and not a trap bar, however, you will have to bend forward more to get into position. This usually makes it feel like there’s more pressure on your back compared to a trap bar block pull. Simply adjust the height of the blocks and the weight on the bar until you find a combination that allows you to train pain free.

Barbell block pulls utilize exactly the same technique as you would use for normal dead lifts, don’t change anything. If you find yourself shifting into a position you don’t normally use to avoid pain, either change the height of the blocks or the weight on the bar. Never compromise your technique to get rid of pain. Simply adjust your variation and load management.

SUMO DEAD LIFTS: 

Sumo dead lifts are something I don’t think too many people think about when it comes to lifting with LBP.

Could just be the general stigma around sumo.

“I’ll die before you catch me pulling sumo” – Common Gym Bro

But sumo deads genuinely make for a great LBP option.

The back position of a sumo dead lift is rather upright (so long as you are doing them properly) and this can make them feel just about as comfy as trap bar dead lifts. Much more of the stress of this lift is being placed on your quads and hips than your low back. It’s basically the squat of the dead lift family.

Just like trap bar block pulls this can be a good confidence builder to get someone into normal dead lifts again. You may even be surprised by how much you can comfortably lift pulling sumo without aggravating your back.

The only caveat I’d give to sumo is that unlike trap bar, which is easy to learn, sumo does take some technical proficiency to work for LBP. Take your time with learning the movement.

In addition to this, if you’ve never done a sumo dead lift it places some stress on your hips that you may not be used to. Take things light and slow and build yourself up from there.

I don’t want to help you with your low back pain but now all the sudden you have hip pain…

I also claim no responsibility if through this process you end up really liking sumo and now your conventional pulling bros won’t stop cracking jokes at you.

(Check out the video that inspired this article here!)

 

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.

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