As my personal back pain journey has evolved, I’ve figure out many things to do and not to do. One of the many things that I’ve continued to perfect as I age is my ability to lift weights safely to strengthen my back, legs and core to such a degree that moves such as the dead lift and RDL are an important part of my strength and fitness routine. Of course, this personal journey has helped me with my back pain and I’ve used my training and subsequent knowledge and clinical experience to help thousands of patients suffering from chronic back problems. As my patient’s pain improves, they often wonder when it is ok to start engaging in their usual exercise classes, weight training routines and normal activities of daily living. My answer is typically this: when you can understand how to move properly while in lordosis, utilize hip hinging instead of lumbar flexing, using a proper core brace and understanding what stretches and exercises are “back breakers” a cautious re-engagement in exercise is warranted. I spend a lot of time clinically with my patients helping them to understand they have to advocate for themselves about what is safe to do in an exercise class, a yoga session or with their personal trainer simply because the fitness industry in general is woefully uninformed of the science on what harms and protects the back.
Once my patients have a good grasp of back safety, I typically will take them into my little clinic gym/rehab room to teach them back safety techniques in order to help them engage in strength training once again with back protection being foremost in mind. For some patients who are avid weight lifters such as myself, squatting, deadlifting and stiff legged dead lifts (Romanian Dead lifts or RDLs for short) are some of the most beneficial lifts for building strength as well as functional movements as these lifts mimic movements in our every day lives. Patients who can squat, deadlift and RDL properly are very well equipped to move through every day life with back safety because these moves utilize strong glute, hamstring and quad contraction while hinging through the hips while in a neutral/lordosis of the lumbar spine. That being said I would never recommend doing these lifts immediately post back injury with a lot of weight with less than perfect form! What I’m saying is, once the individual understands true spine sparing movement and has a good understanding of core contraction and core control, introduction of these moves with light weight is a great way to train that individual’s system to once again function in a bio-mechanically sound pattern to strength the muscles of the prime movers of the hips as well as train the core to stabilize the spine in a dynamic environment that mimics every day life.
When I suggest to patients that are healing and dealing with less pain that it is actually safe and effective to dead lift and do RDLs, if performed properly, the reaction is typically that of disbelief! “Really Dr. Rob? I thought deadlifting was terrible for the lower back”! Well, the answer is absolutely yes, dead lifting can be terrible for the lower back if performed improperly! Unfortunately, I see this quite frequently in younger athletes. However, if performed properly, the deadlift is one of the best lifts one can do for overall strength!
So, if you are relatively pain-free, you have good core control, you understand how to move through your hips in a spine sparing way and you truly understand how to avoid lumbar flexion with movement you too may be ready to try dead-lifting and RDLs. Just remember, fatigue with these movements will impair your ability to keep form and keep your back protected. So, keep the weight light, keep your reps low and move slowly through the movement until you build up your strength. Watch these videos intently and never take these moves lightly! If performed properly the dead lift and RDL are great posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings and lumbar paraspinals) and core strengtheners. With a sound rehab routine, a smart flexibility routine and smart core training the dead lift and RDLs are great ways to strengthen your system and most importantly they will help you PROTECT YOUR BACK!