Millions of people suffer from lower back pain. It can be a debilitating, chronic and disheartening ailment that affects mood, fitness, sex life and overall happiness. Lower back pain can be a mysterious and elusive problem. Generally the problem stems from injuries or ware to or around the vertebral disc columns of the spine. This can include herniated, bulging or cracked discs, spinal stenosis and arthritis, or injuries to the facet joints and ligaments that surround the spine. MRI image work can often uncover underlying causes of back pain, but often times there will be individuals with little of no spinal problems that are in pain, while people with clear spinal irregularities may be pain free? So there is not always a one to one relationship between MRI results and pain. The one overlying theme is that people with strong backs, ones with highly developed musculature around the core and spine, generally suffer less from chronic back pain than people with less developed musculature around the spine. Allowing muscles that surround and support the spine to bear the brunt of the load, limiting the shear and compressive forces on discs may be the key to stopping and avoiding back pain over the long term.

For all the movement the human body can perform, the deadlift serves the greatest efficacy in developing the strength of the back. Not to mention, the tremendous daily utility in being able to have strong capacity in being able to pick things up off the ground. Yet for some crazy reason, this movement to has to ability to save the life of the back, is one that doctors commonly instruct patients with lower back pain to avoid? If it hurts, don’t do it! But where does that leave people over the long term?… Probably, in a situation where the problem only gets worse and unable to rise to the demands of sport and life.

A movement as functional as the deadlift is rehabilitative in nature. People with hurt backs need a return to pain free functionality as a starting point.

This does not mean doing 1 Rep max deadlifts off the bat. It may begin with training basic strength and awareness around the spine, building to the full movement with pain free range of motion and then progressive loading to build strength and musculature. Practicing high rep low weight deadlifts off the bat can speed up the healing process of the back. This training provides 3 major values…

  1. Bringing blood, nutrients, and synovial fluid to the spine to assist in healing discs and tissues
  2. Building musculature (hypertrophy) around the muscles that surround and support the spine
  3. Building strength and awareness of proper positions that will be needed outside the gym

Here is a protocol for athletes rehabbing that back with the deadlift…

Phase 1 (Acute):

  • -3×30 second hip bridge hold
  • -3 x 30 second plank hold
  • 4 x 25 reps PVC deadlifts to the knee

Phase 2:

  • 3×15 active hip bridges (diving hips up off the ground)
  • 3×1 minute plank hold
  • 4x 25 reps of barbell deadlift to below the knee

Phase 3:

  • GHD face down superman hold 3x 30 seconds
  • 4 x 1 minute each of: plank and side plank
  • 4x 25 reps deadlifts @65 lbs

Phase 4:

  • 3x 10 reps GHD Hip Extensions
  • 4×1 minute single leg plank and single leg side planks
  • 4×25 reps 95lb deadlift

Keep in mind this protocol is meant to just get athletes out of “trouble”. One athletes can perform 4×25 reps of a 95lb deadlifts pain free they are mostly “out of the woods” and ready to pursue a more broad training program the should still center around building pain free capacity in the deadlift.