“The hinge motion of deadlifts is a foundational component of human movement,” says HSS exercise physiologist Chelsea Long, MS, CSCS. This type of lift should work the glutes, quads, hamstrings and core. Unfortunately, what often happens is that improper technique forces other muscles to compensate and overwork, Long says. And that can lead to an aching back and a few days on the couch.
First, it’s important to differentiate between soreness and pain that might signal an injury. Since deadlifts put significant stress on the area between your ribs and your hips (your lumbar spine), it’s normal for your back to be a little sore after lifting, particularly when you start out or after you increase your weights. You also may feel discomfort in your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, which is likely just delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. DOMS is temporary and comes from inflammation in the muscle after you’ve worked it hard.
But understand, that’s different from pain. “If you feel any pain during lifting, you should stop the movement, re-align, and make sure your technique is correct,” says Long. Lower the weights, or just use body weight and see if that helps, she suggests.
After your lift, if you feel any pain that’s acute, sharp, or burning, see a doctor for an evaluation. Some red flags for pain that should also be checked out: a sharp pain coming from a single spot; pain that comes on suddenly and doesn’t improve after about 72 hours; pain that affects the way you walk or your balance; and pain that wakes you up at night, radiates to your legs or causes weakness, numbness or tingling.
If you’ve determined what you’re feeling is run-of-the-mill soreness, refocus on your workout prep. Always do a dynamic total body warm up, focusing on activating and contracting the areas you’re going to use. Glute bridges and core exercises such as planks and side planks will help turn on the glutes, core and sides of the body, which you want to use in your lifts. (The core is crucial for lower body movement; properly activating your abdominals helps with stability and proper energy transfer, says Long.)
An exercise called a good morning — essentially the hip-hinge portion of a deadlift — can also help activate the entire posterior chain (the muscles along the back of the body).
Next, try a warm-up set of deadlifts using light weights (or even just your body weight) to help you focus on form and technique. Once you know your muscles are contracting properly, you can move on to something heavier, says Long.
The final step is to make sure you’re using proper technique, no matter which movement you’re making.
If you’re trying a Romanian deadlift, your overall form should be similar. The main difference between these two moves is that in a Romanian deadlift, you begin by holding the weight in your hands. These work slightly different muscles; standard deadlifts are easier for people with more limited hamstring flexibility.
Always end your weightlifting session with a post-workout stretch to help keep your hips and surrounding areas mobile, says Long.
Overall, the more you exercise in every plane of motion, the stronger your deadlifts will be (and the less likely you’ll be to injure or strain your back), says Long. Some good moves to try include: