Deadlifting: Performance & Injury Prevention

By Jonathan Davenport, CSCS, TSAC-F, CCC, CPT

An introduction on how to approach training the deadlift for performance while minimizing risk of injury.

If I had a dollar for every time that someone has told me they injured their back deadlifting, then I would be a very wealthy man. However, does this mean that deadlifting is inherently a dangerous movement? And if not, how should someone go about learning to perform the movement in order to reduce the potential risk of injury?

These are extremely common questions, and the answer usually given is on the extreme end demonizing deadlifting. However, most people if properly coached and learn the movement and what to feel for can potentially even rid themselves of back pain… I will explore deadlifting to rid yourself of back pain in another article. For now, let’s explore the topic of deadlifting for performance and how to prevent the risk of injury related to the movement.

1. Can you Properly Hinge?

This first tip may seem like common sense, however, I see this issue in many athletes, most of them young and developing.

Hinging properly can be the difference between low back pain, and instead, utilizing the muscle groups desired. Imagine a door hinge… and now imagine your hips as that joint on the door hinge. Your hips should be the prime mover of the deadlift.

Here is an example of testing the hip hinge:

Notice in this example video how the hips drive back, the chest moves forward and the bar path remains straight.

2. Feel the Movement & Desired Muscles Engaging

When performing any exercise, your focus should be on neuromuscular connection, which gives you feedback when you apply a certain stimulus. Meaning, you should feel the muscles you are actively trying to engage. In this case, the prime movers of the deadlift are the glutes, hamstrings, and lats.

Not feeling the desired muscle groups? Try performing more volume with very light weights or band accommodation until you feel the muscle groups functioning, or try using Tempo (varying the pace – slow down the movement) in your warm ups.

The Tempo Trap Bar Deadlift is a great option for those lacking muscle activation. As you slow things down, the muscle fibers will continue to be recruited

The Banded Good Morning is an example of a high rep scheme exercise to help with activating the desired muscle groups. This exercise is recommended in the warm up before a heavy hinge day in rep ranges of 15-30.

Here is an example of limiting the range of motion of the deadlift. The Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift will help longer-lever individuals get into the proper positioning to execute the lift properly. This regression can also be used as a progression by overloading the movement with more weight than typically accustomed to.

3. Have a Plan

This tip is crucial for success! You must have a plan in order to manage volume and load because too much of either can cause injury. My recommendation is find an estimated 1-rep max, a 3-rep max, or a 5-rep max. That being said, proper technique and neuromuscular recruitment must be present to perform this task.

Once you have established a baseline of strength, you can use these metrics to help establish a plan. The most common approach for beginner/novice athletes is a classic periodization model. The Novice Stage is a phase where the athlete is not accustomed to consistent training, therefore, increases in strength come quickly.

The most common way to utilize this system is by starting with high volume loads and progressively decreasing volume while increasing intensity. A very simple example of this would look something like this:

  • Week 1: 4×10 @70% of estimated 1RM (1 rep max)
  • Week 2: 4×8 @75%
  • Week 3: 5×5 @80%
  • Week 4: 8×3 @85-87.5%

Then, retest..

4. Listen to Your Body

One of the most common pieces of advice that I have heard from elite coaches, and I myself adhere to, is to get to know what type of athlete you are. In other words, how do you respond to certain exercises, volume and intensities? These are questions only you, the athlete, can answer correctly.

My main point of mentioning this is for athletes to not get fixated on sets, reps, and numbers. These metrics have a place in training; however, the athlete’s health should be prioritized first and foremost. Feel out what type of workload you can handle, then slowly and carefully progress!

Deadlifting is an Amazing Exercise

Deadlifting is an exercise I use as a staple in most of my training for myself and athletes. To me, deadlifting is the most foundational movement. You pick weight up and put it down. However, you need to prioritize proper mechanics and muscle-to-mind connection for longterm success.