Injuries That Can Occur with the Deadlift
I went in the gym this morning to get my pull-workout in, and I started it off with some deadlifts. ‘Cause, why the hell not?
My warm-up felt fine, so I went on to performing my working set for the workout. I’ve been worrying about preventing low-back-rounding as well as my hips shooting up. Thos eactually weren’t issues today, as my deadlift felt fine in regards to my lower back and my glute activation, but I felt something strain in my shoulder. Of all things to start hurting from deadlifting, it’s my shoulder. Go figure.
I realized quickly after that I was gripping a little too widely on the bar for a conventional, double-overhand deadlift. Let me explain why this was screwing me over.
First, check out this video of Youtube-personality Clint Darden performing snatch-grip deadlifts. Take note especially of the elbows and the shoulder rotation during the lift.
Notice how with a super-wide grip, like with the snatch-grip deadlift, the elbows flare out a bit and the shoulders internally rotate. Do yourself a favor and mess around with the width of your grip next time you hold a barbell. While you do this, externally rotate your shoulders and pull your elbows BACK.
What will you notice when you experiment with different grips? I’m sure you’ll notice that the narrower you grip the barbell, the easier it is the keep your elbows back and prevent them from flaring. This was my issue. For a conventional deadlift, my stance was a little too wide, thus my grip had to widen as well. As I pulled, my shoulder was actively rotating internally under the load, stretching the hell out of my rotator cuff muscles. My teeny-tiny rotator cuff muscles were actively supporting that load – it bewilders me how I did not get seriously injured.
Fortunately, I narrowed my stance and my grip, and was able to externally rotate my shoulders just fine afterward.
This got me thinking, though – I’ve been so worried about my back with the deadlift, that I overlooked other potential “injuries”. What else have I been missing out on that can get hurt in the future? So, I decided to compile a list of potential risks and injuries, from common to the absurd, when it comes to deadlifting.
I’m just stating the obvious here. If you don’t take the time to learn how to deadlift, you will hurt your damn back. Plenty of people out there don’t know how to maintain a neutral spine while using their hips to generate force – they just bend over, round their back, and pick shit up off the floor!
With rounding your back, not only are you “leaking energy” by introducing numerous dynamic joints to the system and not taking advantage of the powerful glutes, you’re predisposing your spine to injury. A neutral spine can handle more load than a flexed spine. This is talked about extensively in Dr. Stuart McGill’s Ultimate Back Fitness of which I heartily recommend to anyone (click here to read my review of Ultimate Back Fitness).
I discussed this injury in a previous edition of On the Road to Deadlifting 405. This is why I chose to get straps whenever my deadlift outpaces my grip strength.
Bending your elbows slightly before lifting the barbell means you have to eccentrically contract your biceps and then lower the weight. Eccentric contraction is the most damaging to the muscle and tendon, so therein lies the risk for a biceps tear. Supinating your hand to perform a mixed-grip deadlift seems to encourage flexion of the elbow, so therein lies additional risk for a tear.
However, extra attention paid to locking the elbows should prevent these kind of mishaps. In the video below, you can see the poor fellow left his elbow slightly bent before he pulled the weight, which led to the tear.
Wrist-and-Finger Flexor Strain
When using the typical overhand grip, the tiny muscles in your forearm are contracting as powerfully as they can to prevent the barbell from rolling out of your fingers. As a side-note, that’s why the mixed grip is easier than the double-overhand grip, because as the barbell rolls down the pronated hand, it rolls up the supinated hand.
Anyway, the said tiny muscles are capable of allowing your hands to hold onto some heavy weight, but if someone decides to ramp-up their deadlifts without much grip work, that trainee will quickly outpace their grip strength. Working with weight that causes your grip to fail will be embarrassing if you end up dropping a heavy barbell in public, but it will be even worse if you end up straining or tearing those flexors.
Pulled Hamstrings and Glutes
Although I’m not sure if I’ve heard of anyone pulling their hamstrings or glutes while performing deadlifts, theoretically it can happen.
The deadlift is a compound exercise, but hip extension is the movement being emphasized in the deadlift. That means the muscles involved with hip extension will endure the greatest amount of strain during the deadlift. So, what muscles allow for this movement?
The glutes and the hamstrings are the ones responsible for hip extension. Given that the deadlifts strengthens the glutes and hamstrings, it makes sense that this exercise would prevent future strains. As long as you don’t increase the weight you deadlift too quickly, but do warm-up properly and allow enough time for recovery, you won’t be pulling these muscles.
Rotator Cuff Strain
Rotator cuff strain while deadlifting is what we discussed already.
When you grip the barbell with your palms facing down, you have to rotate the hands internally (AKA pronate them) to get them in that position. Naturally, the entire arm and shoulder will want to internally rotate, meaning your elbows will flare out. If you turned your palms up, the elbows will want to turn back, meaning your arm and shoulders will naturally externally rotate.
Now, you can rotate the hands one way and rotate the shoulders the other way, which needs to be performed during the deadlift. If you let your shoulders internally rotate during the deadlift, you will strain the hell out of your rotator cuff. It’s trying to hyperextend your knees or something – you’re forcing a joint into an unnatural and extreme range-of-motion.
When setting up for the deadlift, rotate your arms so that your elbows point backwards and your rotator cuff should be safe from getting yanked.
Ruptured Blood Vessels
This is a nausea-inducing injury to bring up, but is still worth bringing up.
When exerting heavily (when deadlifting), it is wise and completely natural to hold one’s breathe in and grunt. Think about it – if you were about to push a car, you would totally hold your breathe in without thinking about it. This technique is called the Valsalva maneuver, and it allows for additional core stability by filling up our hollow bodies with air.
Now, it is possible to “push” the air down towards your stomach, or up towards your head. The reason for the Valsalva maneuver is to gain addition core stability, so it makes sense to push the air towards your stomach. This takes a little bit of practice, but is well worth the effort. The increased pressure, when applied towards our heads, can cause blood vessels to burst in our eyes and noses.
Here’s a video of Derek Poundstone getting a nose-bleed during the deadlift.
Moral of the story – learn how to hold air in your gut, not your head.
Anecdotally, people complain about getting headaches after a set of heavy deadlifts. I believe this ties back in to the previous issue – not properly performing the Valsalva. Storing all of the air and pressure towards your head does nothing to protect your spine and logically could cause damage to the structures around your head.
Make sure you stop your exercise program and consult with a doctor if you have any persistent headaches or pain from exertion.
There you have it folks. Don’t worry though – progress in the proper increments, nail your technique down, and ensure you rest enough between deadlifting sessions.If you’ve got any potential injuries to add to my list, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below.