Just Because You Have a Neutral Spine and You Bend Your Legs Doesn’t Mean You Won’t Bust your Back

So we are all set up and ready to go. We’ve just bumped up the weight. The bar is nice and close to our shins. We’ve gotten down into the textbook deadlift position our coach has drilled into us… set back, weight towards heels, eyes 2m forwards… We take hold of the bar and puuuullll!!


And there we have the all too common sound of a deadlift related back twinge.

“I don’t know what happened? I set up correctly.”

Yes it is vital that we set our backs and bend our legs when lifting anything of some weight from the floor. But no, just because you have a neutral looking spine and bend down safely doesn’t guarantee a safe lift. How many people feel they are doing this correctly, yet still leave the gym with a sore back? So, so many.

There are two major factors I commonly identify as major causes of back injuries and twinges when lifting from the floor, even when a person looks as though they have correctly set themselves up:

Zero tension on the bar and through our body before we pull.

Our backs are initiating the movement and are the primary driver of motion rather than our legs, commonly caused by factor 1.

If you don’t have tension, I guarantee you’re driving through your back.

What is Tension?

Tension on the bar is the feeling of complete connectedness with yourself, the weight and the main muscles you intend to use in order to complete your lift. Just like your safety rope when rock climbing… when the rope is under tension as you climb you feel connected and safe. You know that if you slip you will barely move from where you fall. When the rope becomes slack as you climb ahead at a rate quicker than your spotter can keep up with, you lose tension. You know that if you slip, you’re in for a groin crunching one metre plus drop before tension takes hold. When we don’t find tension through our legs when we deadlift, our backs become that catching tension that occurs after the 1m drop. Rather than it being our precious bits crunching in the safety harness, it is our spinal muscles and vertebrae that do all the crunching.

In a deadlift, our back’s primary objective is to maintain midline stability as we hold the weight in our arms and use our legs to stand up. It’s very minimal secondary objective is to aid the lift. Our hamstrings, glutes and to a smaller extent our quads (note: our quads are most dominant in our Olympic lifts from the floor, not hamstrings) primary objective is to move that weight! Movement is created by forcefully driving our feet into the floor.

If we are deadlifting, and all we do pre lift is set our backs and grip the bar, the likelihood of having correct tension is going to be very low. Our hamstrings should be the primary driver of movement in a deadlift. If we ‘set’ our backs by squeezing them, but don’t also drive our legs into the floor until we feel our hamstrings not only tighten but completely engage, then our backs become the primary mover. They are the most active muscles you have managed to switch on, how can you possibly use your legs effectively if you can’t even feel them?

What we must do is find our legs in our set up and force them to be the primary driver.

How do we achieve this?

My favourite exercise we practice at our gym to achieve correct tension and ‘feeling’ in our legs is incredibly effective. This is what you need to do:

Grab a barbell and some relatively light weights (10-15kg plates max should do the trick). I prefer to go light as it helps show our members how much force and tension we can create even under light loads.

Set up in a deadlift. Set up as you usually would do so… Neutral spine and back squeezed, weight towards heels but with full foot contact from heel to toe, eyes 2m ahead.

Rather than just lifting the bar, force your feet into the ground as though you are pushing the Earth away from you. But DO NOT let the bar leave the floor! Instead, push with all the force you can possibly muster, but again, DO NOT let the bar come from the floor.

Feel your legs now? Damn right you do! Your hammy’s should be burning like fire! But hey what about your back? “What back?” you ask. You’ve completely forgotten about it, sitting up there all strong and supportive, doing its job. Once your back is set and your focus is shifted to your legs, you really shouldn’t need to think about your back at all anymore.

Now that you feel this all-time hammy burn and fatigue is beginning to set in, using those burning hammy’s push through the floor and complete the lift.

Continue to practice this method at this light weight until you can do it with barely a thought. DO NOT increase the weight until you have nailed it. Yeah we all know you’re a hero and have a 170kg Back-Breaker Deadlift PR. But guess what? 1. No one cares 2. Your coach has had enough trying to cue you as you nod your head and continue on doing it the same way because you know better, and 3. Your back is fucked, probably time to work on getting it right before you’re forced to have life changing spinal surgery, never to lift weights again.

If practicing a Clean or Snatch from the floor you can use this method too. Just shift the weight in your feet towards the front of your foot rather than your heels in your set up, and push until your quads are burning rather than your hamstrings.

There you have it! Get on out there and practice this over and over again, do not use heavy weight where you cannot sustain the use of your legs as a primary mover. If you cannot sustain your legs, you either haven’t developed the movement pattern enough yet, or you aren’t strong enough. To revert back to using your back only de-trains this new movement pattern and avoids the strengthening of your legs.

Yes your ego may have to take a back seat, but it is for your own good!