Often times those that experience this soreness (and maybe even pain) may think it's normal. "Oh everyone's low back is sore after deadlifts...right?" To understand muscle soreness involved with the deadlift we must look at a few factors:
Where Are You Sore?
Have you ever been sore the day following deadlifts? Was your back sore? – Hamstrings? Glutes? Low back? Upper back? What if I were to tell you that if you’re excessively sore anywhere else other than your upper back the day after deadlifts...you may not performing them correctly. Most importantly, the deadlift should NOT cause excessive low back soreness the following day.
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Low back soreness following deadlifts may be an indication of incorrect technique. Upon breaking down the form of the deadlift, we can see why: That crippling soreness you feel 24-72 hours after your workout is better known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). It is a result of muscular damage due primarily to eccentrically loading a muscle in a stretched position.
An eccentric movement means you are putting tension on the muscle as it lengthens (think “lowering” phase of a biceps curl). Muscle soreness can also result from repetitive concentric motion as well, in other words, creating tension in a muscle as it shortens (think “lifting” phase of a biceps curl).
Furthermore, an isometric contraction means tension is being applied to a muscle but no movement occurs (think pushing/pulling against an immovable object). While both concentric and eccentric motion can lead to muscle soreness, performing isometric work alone produces very little soreness. This is where the role of the low back comes into play.
The Role of the Low Back Musculature
If you’re performing the deadlift correctly, your low back should fight to maintain an isometric contraction the entire rep. In essence, picking the bar off the ground requires multiple muscle activation, but little eccentric activation.
During the lift, concentric hip extension occurs while the lumbar spine stays neutral, firing isometrically. Granted, as the weight gets heavy, and you approach your 1RM, or you’re performing higher reps, you will most likely flex at the thoracic spine and achieve some eccentric activation in the upper back. This rounding can contribute to DOMS in the upper back the following days.
While thoracic rounding can be advantageous to pull heavier weight, you should not have excessive lower back rounding or significant eccentric activation of the low back; therefore, you shouldn’t experience much low back soreness in the days following deadlifts.
What if I'm New to Training?
I should note, that if you are new to training, or are returning to training after a period of de-training, it is normal the first few workouts to have SOME soreness in your low back during deadlifts. Your body should, however, quickly adapt and you shouldn't experience much low back soreness after this initial phase.
Ensure to Keep a Neutral Lumbar Spine
There are a number of tactics you can use to practice neutral spine but the easiest solution is this…deadlift correctly. Lower the weight and practice on maintaining a neutral lumbar spine. To aid in the process, incorporate accessory exercises such as RDLs to further emphasize the hip-hinge pattern.
Remember, although some might consider soreness as an indicator of a good workout, if you are limping for 3 days due to low back pain or excessive soreness after deadlifts you're not doing them right! Practice good form to save your low back and increase performance!