by Don Heatrick

I’m often asked how fighters can adjust their training programs if they’re experiencing lower back pain while deadlifting.

Here’s a recent question…

“I’m struggling doing deadlifts at the moment due to my lower back being activated before my glutes in my posterior chain.

“I’m working on the muscle imbalance in my physio in conjunction with tendinopathy. I’ve tried hex bar deadlifts and still get lower back pain.

“Would a low bar squat be a good exercise swap for the deadlift in the program?”

Worked Example –answering this person…

A low bar squat would be more hip dominant, and build better posterior chain strength.

You could use that as a starting point, however, I’d be keen to teach your body to tolerate a true hip hinge movement like the deadlift in the longer-term.

I’d address this in three ways:

  1. Improving use of the glutes in your hip hinge movement pattern

  2. Improving strength in your lower back

  3. Regressing the deadlift exercise by reducing the load and the range of motion

Use of Glutes

Use the Cook Hip Lift exercise to ensure you extend at the hips and not the lower back during your hip hinge pattern.

This exercise is both an assessment and a corrective exercise.

I generally program this exercise in resistance session warm ups, as part of my Activation & Movement Preparation section.

I’d also recommend adding a Dowel Hip Hinge to your warm up too.

Hold a dowel down the the back of your spine, in contact with the back of your head, between your shoulder blades, and your tail bone. Maintaining flat contact on the dowel of all three points on your body, hip hinge with strict form (using your glutes to pull you out of the bottom position, as primed by the Cook Hip Lift).

Lower Back Strength

Progressive deadlifting will improve your strength in your back, but I’d also take other opportunities to build this too. Using unsupported Bent Over Rows, while maintaining a strict hip hinge position, will help build strength while also scoring your upper body pull pattern off your list.

It would be worth mentioning that you should be using a ‘bracing breath’ to help stabilise your lower back during a deadlift too. Take a diaphragmatic (intra abdominal) breath (instead of a chest breath) and hold it throughout your lift to benefit from intra abdominal pressure stabilising your lower back.

Regress the Deadlift

Picking the barbell up from the floor is likely causing you to start the lift with poor form. First, make sure you’re using at olympic diameter plates – to correctly space the bar at least 225mm (8.8″) from the floor, even for your lightest lifts.

Then I’d regress this further, by placing the loaded barbell on a stack of plates at each end, so you don’t have to start with the barbell as close to the floor. Lift and lower to rest your load on the plate stack (under each end) instead of the floor.

Start with both a barbell loading and a reduced range of motion that doesn’t give you problems. And then over the weeks, progressively reduce the amount of floor plate stack so that you get close to lifting from the floor.

Instead of a stack of plates, I use ‘crash pads’ with a lot of my face-to-face clients who struggle with a full range deadlift.

And using a Hex Bar instead of a barbell could also regress this exercise further still if required.


Generally, tidy up your hip hinge movement and regress both exercise selection and load to a point that your back will tolerate it, and progressively build back up from there.

Hope that helps!

Don Heatrick

Founder of Heatrick Strength and Conditioning

Don Heatrick is a family man from the UK, former mechanical design engineer, European Muay Thai silver medallist, former pro Thai boxer (ranked 4th in UK while aged 40-years), a Muay Thai coach, podcast host, and the go-to expert on Muay Thai performance training with over 25 years of coaching experience.

Don helps ambitious fighters and coaches take their game to the next level by bridging the gap between Strength & Conditioning, Performance Science, and Muay Thai.

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