Deadlifts are without a doubt the best exercise that you can perform in the gym, they work multiple muscles, have real-world applicability (they teach you how to pick up heavy items in a safe manner), and they are great for burning fat or building muscle. Rows are beloved of bodybuilders, powerlifters, and regular gym goers.
They are an excellent upper back exercise, and also help strengthen the rear deltoid muscles and the biceps.
Performing either exercise properly is essential if you want a strong, healthy upper back (and lower back), but many people find that they cannot perform either exercise due to extreme lower back pain throughout the movement. (We have alternatives for extreme cases)
What could be the cause of this? In this article we will examine some common causes of lower back pain during these exercises and try to come up with solutions that will prevent lower back pain from ruining your gains.
Cause of Back Pain #1 Bad Technique
This cause is the most common of all the causes we are going to mention. Both deadlifts and rows require similar positions.
A neutral spine, chest pushed out, and shoulders back. This causes your back to align in a safe and strong position which will prevent you from getting injured.
If you have not learned how to perform either exercise properly then you won’t be in a good position during the movement. This can lead to back pain as this is the area that is most at risk during either exercise.
Solution: Get a fitness coach, personal trainer, or anyone with a lot of experience to assess your technique. If they find an issue look at how to address it. If your back is rounding too much then maybe find a regression that you can do (seated row rather than bent over row for example).
Check out: How to deadlift
Cause of Back Pain #2 Bad Posture
We touched on this in the previous cause, but bad posture is a big issue all on its own. If you spend a lot of your day sitting down at a desk or driving, then you may find that your posture has suffered.
Long term bad posture can lead to rounding of the shoulders. Once this happens it can be very difficult to push your chest out and pull your shoulders back. This leads to a curved back rather than the desired flat back, which leads to lots of pressure on your lower back – hence back pain.
Solution: Add in exercises that improve your upper back mobility and your rear delt muscles. Cable Face Pulls are a perfect exercise for this. Foam rolling may also be of some use. You could also consider hiring a physiotherapist who can assess your posture and set you some specific exercises to combat your unique issues.
Cause of Back Pain #3 Tight Hamstrings
Again, if you spend a lot of time sitting down you may find that deadlifts and rows hurt. Another reason (other than posture – though it is related) is tight hamstrings. Bad flexibility, a lack of strength, and general lack of use can lead to very tight hamstrings.
This can impact on your technique while rowing or deadlifting as the hamstrings are stretched a lot during both exercises.
Solution: Warm up for every session with some seated hamstring curls, look to add more complex hamstring exercises as you progress.
Nordic curls, Romanian deadlifts, and good mornings are all perfect for improving hamstring mobility.
In the meantime, you can regress the deadlift to a platform deadlift (shorter range of motion = less hamstring reliability) and switch bent over rows for seated rows or low rows.
Cause of Back Pain #4 Too Much Weight
A very common cause of back pain while deadlifting or rowing is your own damn ego!
You’ll see it all the time in gyms. A guy walks up to a bar so loaded with plates you think it will fall through the floor. But instead of shaking his head, laughing at his own hubris, and reducing the weight, the guy grabs hold of the bar and begins to pull as if his life depends on it.
The bar travels slowly up the floor as the guys back bends like a contortionist and he utilises some severe jerks to get the bar to the top of the movement, then he drops the bar on the floor, removes his belt, and leaves.
Next morning the guy can’t get out of bed and his physio informs him that he has severely damaged his back. For the rest of his days the guy tells anyone who will listen that deadlifts are a dangerous exercise.
They’re not, the guy just wasn’t showing them respect. We’re not sure why, but many guys (because this is almost purely a male issue) seem to believe that more weight = more gains, regardless of form, tempo, or range of motion. This is one of the most common causes of injury there is.
Solution: Have a word with yourself. Don’t listen to your ego. Lift a sensible weight, and make marginal gains over time. Your back will thank you for it.
Cause of Back Pain #5 Back Injury
As obvious as it may sound, you’d be surprised how often people don’t realise they have a back injury until they are mid deadlift!
You may have been lifting with perfect form, using a weight that is well within your abilities, but last night you slept funny and suddenly your back is spasming all over the place.
Solution: There are some things that you can do to reduce the risk of injury. Lose some weight, strengthen your hamstrings, improve your posture, and purchase a quality bed. But ultimately you will eventually get injured anyway.
The trick is to identify when your back is feeling a little tight, and adapt your training programs to the situation. Warm up some more, instead of deadlifting why not try some rack pulls? Less pressure on the back as the range of motion is so low. See how your back feels afterwards.
A lot of the reasons why your back may hurt during a row or deadlift are down to the same core reason. Bad technique. Either this is because of a lack of knowledge, poor range of motion (bad posture), tight hamstrings, or using too much weight.
Learn each exercise, get professionals to assess your technique, get physios to assess your posture, and be sensible with your weights and you will never suffer from back pain during a lift.