* Please read this article with your heavy sarcasm detection goggles on *
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is of the utmost importance that I warn you about a particular exercise that is commonly used in strength and conditioning. Chances are, you’ve been unknowingly performing this highly dangerous exercise, blind and oblivious to all of its potential consequences. Hopefully it’s not too late for you, and hopefully you haven’t already created irreparable damages.
This exercise has…
- Been shown in the literature to induce the highest compressive forces on the spine out of all exercises (see below for more detail)
- Been shown in the literature to induce very high shear forces on the spine (see below for more detail)
- Been known to make some lifters’ backs crack in the middle of a set
- Been known to cause seizure-like convulsing mid-set
- Been known to cause lifters to faint immediately after a set
- Been known to cause vision-distortion and flickering light in the middle of the set
- Been known to cause nausea or lead to vomiting after a set
- Been known to cause nose-bleeding immediately after a set
- Been known to cause petechiae/broken blood-vessels/rash breakouts in the eyes, face, and chest following a workout
- Been known to lead to biceps tears if using a mixed grip
- Been known to lead to spondylolysis, spondylolisthesis, and SI joint issues
- Been known to lead to herniated discs and ligament strains
- Been known to create strains in the hamstrings, adductors, erectors, and traps
- Been known to lead to hip pain, especially if using a wide stance
- Been known to bloody some lifters’ shins
- Been known to cause rib dislocations
- Been known to lead to massive delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) especially in the erector spinae
- Been known to lead to incontinence mid-set
Would you like to know the name of this exercise?
It’s the deadlift!!!
*** This section in red is for the science Geeks like me. If compressive and shear forces don’t interest you, just skip this section. Studying spinal loading is a hobby of mine, I have 69 studies in my “spinal loading” folder, I summarized many of them in THIS T-Nation article, and I even visited spinal biomechanist Stu McGill in Canada to discuss the topic with him (see HERE, HERE, and HERE).
*** Cholewicki et al. 1991 showed that a 273 lb powerlifter deadlifting 608 lbs experienced 17,192 Newtons – which is 4,034 lbs – of compressive force on the spine. Granhed et al. 1987 showed much higher compressive forces at 36,400 Newtons, but Cholewicki’s data is probably more accurate due to their usage of a more accurate moment arm for the spinal extensor musculature (5 cm compared to 6 cm).
*** Either way, a 273 lb powerlifter pulling 608 lbs is not very impressive. Benedikt Magnusson weighs 379 lbs and set the deadlift world record at 1,016 lbs. This won’t be accurate since anthropometry and form affect compressive forces, but if we simply scale Cholewicki’s data with Benedikts, we see that the Benedikt’s system load (bodyweight plus barbell) is 1,395 lbs versus 882 lbs used in the study. Using the same proportions, we can broadly estimate that the compressive forces on Magnusson’s lumbar spine were approximately 27,191 Newtons, or 6,113 lbs.
*** The reason why compressive load on the spine so far exceeds barbell load during the deadlift is because of core muscle contractions. When muscles that cross the spine contract, they pull together, and this compresses the spine. So any exercise that highly activates the core muscles will necessarily create high levels of compressive forces.
*** If you round your lumbar spine (spinal flexion) during the deadlift, it greatly increases the shear loading due to the changing orientation of the muscles and ligaments. Out of all exercises, it appears that the back squat induces the highest shear forces, followed by a football blocking maneuver, followed by various strongman exercises, followed by the deadlift. However, this information is not accurate due to technical reasons – mainly that there are more shear forces as you measure lower on the lumbar spine, especially at L5-S1, so the exercises aren’t fairly compared.
Here is Mangussson’s world record deadlift performance.
Magnusson seems to handle the crazy amount of spinal loading just fine, so what gives?
The deadlift is so effective as a total body strengthener precisely because it loads the entire body so efficiently. It hammers the calves, the hamstrings, the quads, the glutes, the erectors, the rhomboids, the traps, the rear delts, the lats, and the forearms. The lift involves a powerful hip hinging motion that allows for very heavy loading. This heavy loading doesn’t just strengthen the muscles; it causes bones and soft-tissue to grow stronger as well. Powerlifters have the highest bone mineral densities on the planet. If you progress gradually over time and periodize your training properly, your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bone strengthen accordingly, allowing your body to tolerate the increasing loads.
However, because the deadlift loads the body so effectively, it can lead to dozens of issues if performed incorrectly. For example, excessive lumbar rounding can cause disc herniations and excessive lumbar arching can damage the posterior elements of the spine. Hell, the deadlift can lead to issues even if performed perfectly, for example, bloody shins usually means you’re deadlifting properly, a biceps tear can occur just from using a mixed grip, even if a neutral spine is kept, compressive forces can cause issues with certain individuals, pushing it hard will inevitably lead to high levels of intraabdominal pressure (IAP) which can lead to fainting, flickering light, vision distortion, convulsing, nausea, vomiting, and/or petechiae, hip pain will likely ensue in lifters that pull sumo and have FAI or poor hip flexion mobility due to hip anatomy, and strains and severe DOMS can occur just from using high loads or effort.
At the last powerlifting meet I competed in, one lifter actually soiled himself on the platform when deadlifting – we all saw it because he wore a light green singlet. Luckily he had a separate singlet that he changed into immediately afterward.
The Deadlift: A Worldwide Respected Exercise
Despite all of these potential problems, the deadlift is still one of, if not the, most accepted, respected, and recommended exercises in strength & conditioning.
I deadlift every single week, as do all of my clients. It is highly functional (one could make a good argument that it’s the most functional exercise in existence) and leads to numerous improvements.
Straight to the Point
So what is my point in writing this article?
I’m definitely not trying to scare anyone, resort to fear-mongering, or create nocebo effects.
My point in writing this article is simple: to help the industry reconsider our persistent and relentless condemnation of exercises!
Check out these two articles I’ve written in the past:
The New Rules of Strength Training (written in 2011)
You Should Definitely Avoid this Movement
I have a funny story to share. There’s this really strong powerlifter that commented on one of my YouTube videos once – it was a video promoting the back extension. He wrote something to the effect of “talk about spine destruction, what are you going to have people do next – sit ups?” I could tell he was fresh out of the blocks in reading the work of Stu McGill. So fine, the back extension and sit up lead to high levels of shear forces on the spine.
Guess what else does? Deadlifts, squats, kettlebell swings, hip thrusts, and sled pushes.
If you condemn back extensions or sit-ups for creating excessive compressive or shearing forces on the spine, you also have to condemn deadlifts, squats, kettlebell swings, sled pushes, Olympic lifts, hip thrusts, strongman exercises, and even certain core exercises like Pallof presses.
I wanted to reply to the individual and say, “good call dude, I should stop having people do back extensions and instead tell them to put on a squat suit and throw a thousand pounds on their backs like you.” But I decided to just ignore him as I could tell he wasn’t interested in learning anything from me. Apparently powerlifters don’t realize the hypocrisy in advising people not to do back extensions or sit ups when they are regularly engaging in just as dangerous of activities in their sport.
Fitness experts can get very high-and-mighty. We love to judge others based on their exercise selection. We love to call others out for doing crunches or sit-ups, using machines, doing leg presses, kipping with their pull-ups, doing American kettlebell swings instead of hardstyle, or doing isolation lifts.
But any bro with a year of training experience, a college Anatomy & Physiology course under their belt, and a college Physics course under their belt could come up with myriad reasons to vilify any exercise.
We should be glad that people are in the gym and exercising rather than sitting on the couch watching television. That’s what’s most important. It’s okay to be passionate and vocal about exercise selection, as long as you’re reasonable, unbiased, and respectful. Let’s be careful about exercise condemnation, it’s a slippery slope. And when it comes to exercise selection, usually, the correct answer is, “it depends.” Factors such as individual anatomy and anthropometry, injury history, goals, logistics, preference, and periodization must all be considered.
Wait Brett, didn’t you post a video a while back with you maxing deadlifts? lol
Kevin, maybe I didn’t make this clear. I LOVE the deadlift. I prescribe it to my clients. It can definitely be dangerous along with many other exercises, but my point with this article was to say that fitness professionals shouldn’t be so harsh when condemning exercises when one could easily condemn the deadlift and most other good exercises.
I just love the conclusion! Still too many health related professionnals seem to have something about the deadlift. I have to agree that not everyone should just go to the gym and lift a loaded bar from the ground, but as Pavel has been telling us for years now, it’s way easier to learn than the squat. If you’re looking for strength and don’t have that much time to spend learning many lifts, you will get a big bang for your buck with almost any deadlift variation.
Good! Good! Good!
Great article as always Bret. I have a larger female clientele base and your advice not to mention work with the posterior chain backed by research speaks volumes my man. Kudos!
Bret, here you go again promoting squats, Deadlifts , push, pull instead of promoting exercises like behind your curls while standing on a bosu ball. Shame on you!
As to any particular exercise/lift, it should be up to the individual if that lift is good or bad. What is good for me may be bad for you.
Good read. Keep posting!
Great read Bret! I do have a question though regarding this :”If you condemn back extensions or sit-ups for creating excessive compressive or shearing forces on the spine, you also have to condemn deadlifts, squats, kettlebell swings, sled pushes, Olympic lifts, hip thrusts, strongman exercises, and even certain core exercises like Pallof presses.” Now bear with me because I’m new to the fitness world, so I want to make sure I am not misinterpreting/misunderstanding what is being said. Would it be okay to perform some of these exercises, but not all, if somebody was wanting to limit the volume but not necessarily eliminate all shear forces on the spine? Just curious. I love the work by the way. Keep it coming!
Yes it’s okay to perform all of these exercises. You can’t eliminate shear forces. If you build up the body, it can tolerate more over time, but you have to be gradual in your progression.
Ross Rodgers is the strongest man in Texas. He currently holds the state deadlift record. Bret is strong, but not as strong Ross.
I think I used to lift at the same gym as Ross – do you know him? I think he used to train at Independence Gym in Scottsdale on Thomas and Hayden, ask him if he remembers me. Anyway, what does this have to do with anything? There are probably several thousand guys in the world that could out deadlift me.
Don’t wanna sound douche, but…
Bret – are you saying that back extension and sit-ups’s ONLY problem is the shear force?
Also are you saying that the shear force from just the muscles contracting in place (because all of us who have read Stu’s work know that MUSCLE activation also causes shear force on the spine) — for 500lbs deadlift is the SAME AMOUNT OF SHEAR FORCE on the Spine structure and applies the SAME way to ALL the tissues around the spine (including the itra-vertebral parts) — when you compare it to loaded or even unloaded Sit-Up?
Are the shears same? Are they affecting the SAME way the human spine – even if they were similar readings for both cases, for example?
Dimitar, intelligent questions are NEVER douchey!
It depends on how the exercises are performed. For example, one can do a back extension while keeping the spine in neutral and moving solely through the hips, or by flexing/extending the spine. Similarly, one can perform a sit-up with lots of hip flexion and thoracic flexion and not much lumbar flexion, or with tons of lumbar flexion. When you have bending of the spine, you’re at more risk of disc herniations and ligament strains, so that’s an additional concern. But with regards to shear forces, 1) there is the shear induced by the load, the shear induced by the muscles/ligaments, and the net (balance between the two), and 2) posture affects shear greatly, for example the erectors can better protect against shear when the lumbar spine is arched, but this decreases protection against compressive forces.
Ross is #1, you are #2… At least in TX.
I think there are probably a hundred guys in Texas that are stronger deadlifters than me, and probably a thousand with higher PL totals haha. But I thankfully accept #2 haha 🙂
The most dangerous exercise is sitting behind the office desk for 8-9 hours
Isn’t this the truth. I recently suffered a back injury from lifting a laundry basket ( with hardly anything in it btw), at a funky angle. Spent hundreds of dollars and weeks at pt just to be able to tie by shoes without pain. Anything done incorrectly be it bad form, too heavy, too fast, whatever, can cause problems.
Just bought your book Strong Curves Bret. It’s been a great read and now many other ladies at my job have ordered their copies.
Absolutely. Being sedentary and gradually losing muscle mass and mobility I see as being one of the biggest health risks out there.
Here is one for the bookmark folder Bret.
“Bottom line: Discs hate sustained compression but love storing and releasing rotary torque.”
Keep in mind that the spine can act as a spring when you walk/run/jump (aiding speed/efficiency). Beware that a tight psoas can contribute even further to the compression of the spine which may have come as the result of poor exercise selection/poor nutritional habits/too much sitting etc, rendering the spine almost useless as a form of propulsion. Nature tells us a flexible spine increases speed: cheetah.
Herbert, the link you posted is a bit pseudoscientific in that it relies much on logic rather than the most up to date research. For example, Gracovetsky’s spinal engine model has been largely refuted by McGill. See the links I posted in this article, Stu and I discussed this in our interview. The spine is well-suited for compression, but not sustained compression as you mentioned. I agree that we derive much of our power from the spine and that even if we try to keep it in neutral, we don’t. However, I believe that in order to preserve spinal health, we should strengthen the hips and try to limit spinal motion to mid-ranges and avoid end ranges of flexion/extension. I should write an entire article on this topic…
Regarding the deadlift mechanics and based on your experience, is it relevant how long does it take to leave the weight on the ground on each deadlift? I started feeling much more sore when i do it slowly relaiing on my hams, but am not sure about the long term benefits. Thx.
I think tempo can be adjusted based on the goal. For example, heavy pulls will necessarily take longer. Speed/dynamic effort pulls will be explosive. American deadlifts will be rhythmic, etc.
Great article, and nice way to construct the proposition. From my own personal experience, my back was problematic for a lot of my athletic life until I started deadlifting (properly). Since then I have had zero issues.
In hope of getting an answer this time…
Would you agree that deadlifting from a higher starting position (blocks/rackpulls) might be an better option for moth people then starting them from the floor, especially when we talk about shear forces on the spine ?
I’ve seen the back-extension in a lot of rehab programs concerning back-injuries. Are they really comparable to deadlifts in terms of shear forces on the spine?
What exercises would you choose to strengthen the lower back when deadlifts and back-extensions are out of order?
Tobias, block/rack pulls are a better option for many people; they’re better tolerated in terms of DOMS and also CNS fatigue, they don’t require as much hip flexion ROM, and they’re easier to learn. The shear forces depend on posture in addition to torque angle curve, etc. Rather than strengthen the lower back, I’d think of strengthening the hips and legs and teaching the spine to stay in neutral, so single leg RDLs, Bulgarian split squats, hip thrusts, kb swings, RKC planks, hollow body holds, side planks, Pallof presses, etc. can all be useful.
Thanks for your reply !
Could eating too and sitting around all day be much be a better “most dangerous exercise?”
or too much…
SO WHAT YOU’RE SAYING IS DITCH THE DEADLIFTS FOR JAZZERCISE? WELL, OK, YOU’RE THE GLUTE GUY.
Capslock, this is NOT what I’m saying. Deadlift away, just don’t go telling everyone not to do their “dangerous” exercises when the deadlift can be thought of as highly dangerous too. Comprende?
LOL. GOOD BROSCIENCE TROLLING IS MORE DIFFICULT THAN IT SEEMS.
Interesting article and right on all points. I work with a fairly elite athlete as his Physical Therapist and he was diagnosed with a Labral tear in his hip. He had been squatting pretty heavy and his hip was painful. I sat down with the S & C coach and suggested maybe we stop the squats and get him Deadlifting. The S & C agreed and the Result No hip pain at all now and no surgery required.
Static back extension for me.
No reason to do dead-lifts.
And no reason to compress the vertebrae.Nor reason for this higher risk exercise.
I already squat.
Plus…more is not better/healthier.