Let me preface what I'm going to talk about by saying that I've injured myself deadlifting. I herniated a disc between my L5 and S1 vertebrae many years ago and it took me a year to rehab it.
It was an extremely painful and slow process and one that tested my patience.
Despite that experience, I can say that without a doubt, deadlifting is not only not "bad" for your back, but can actually help make it stronger. The exercise takes the blame when the blame should generally fall on the person performing them, (myself included).
It's important to actually understand the mechanism of lower back injuries and why they occur in the first place. If your tissues are subjected to forces that go beyond their capabilities, injury will occur. This means that even if your form is perfect on every single repetition, you can still get hurt.
I don't say this to scare anyone from exercise; I say it to emphasize the importance of listening to your body. If something doesn't feel right, don't do it.
On the other hand, if you're loading up heavy weight and performing your deadlifts improperly, you're going to injure your lower back. But keep in mind that this obviously applies to any exercise. You can hurt your knees squatting and your shoulders by doing pushups. Again, it's not to scare you away from exercise. Anything done improperly has the chance to injure.
Naturally, I was doing deadlifts improperly for a while when one of my spinal discs finally rebelled.
But the great part about deadlifting (and any exercise really), is that it has the potential to make your lower back stronger and more injury-proof than ever.
The mechanics of a proper deadlift are beyond the scope of this particular article, but if you learn how to properly "hinge" from the hips and lift with your legs with a neutral spine, you'll never deal with lower back issues again.
Coming off of a disc herniation, I can now deadlift over 400lbs pain-free and my lower back is stronger than ever. I say that not to brag but to make a point that deadlifting isn't to be feared.
Too many people do them incorrectly and give deadlifting a bad name. It's not the poor exercise's fault. Deadlifting can be an excellent tool to teach you how to lift properly. The difference between someone that injures themselves and someone that doesn't is knowledge of proper mechanics. This typically comes from a qualified coach or a good lifting buddy.
Again I will reiterate, deadlifting is not bad for your back. Any exercise has the potential to injure if done improperly but also has the potential to make you stronger.
Good coaching, proper technique, and listening to your body all shift the risk-to-benefit ratio in your favour.
To your good health,
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