By Stephen E. Alway, Ph.D., FACSM
Do you want to achieve an upper back that is not only wide, but also has thick cables of spinal muscles running from your neck to your hips? Strong and thick spinal extensor muscles are essential to assist you to walk upright, stand and run and to maintain body position when you do squats, curls and overhead presses.
The deadlift is an effective basic exercise used widely for developing massively thick erector muscles of the spine. It is mechanically simple, but it requires a huge amount of effort, probably only second to squats. It can be both a blessing and a curse. If you do the exercise correctly, the back will thicken and your traps, thighs and hamstrings will also benefit along the way. If you do it sloppily, it can incur an injury that will keep you out of the gym for a long time.
Muscles Activated By Deadlifts
The back muscles around the spine are positioned in doublets, with one muscle on the right side of the vertebral column and the other muscle on the left side. We will only focus on three major muscle groups of this complex network that extends the spine. These are the splenius, erector spinae and transversospinalis muscles.
The splenius muscle group is superficial and it is located in the posterior neck (cervical) and thoracic area of the vertebral column. This muscle wraps around the neck like a bandage (splenius = bandage). Three large muscles collectively make up the massive erector spinae muscle group. The iliocostalis muscle is the most lateral of the erector spinae group. It runs from the ilium of the hip bones superiorly (toward the head) to attach to the ribs (costals). The longissimus muscle runs the length of each half of the back. It sits between the iliocostalis and the transversospinalis muscles. The most medial are the spinalis muscles. The spinalis has short muscle bundles that run from spinous process (the protruding bump on the vertebrae) below to spinous process above. This muscle extends from the thoracic to cervical vertebrae.
The transversospinalis muscle lies deep to the erector spinae. Most of its muscle fibers attach between small lateral and posterior bony projections on the vertebrae called transverse and spinous processes, respectively. They help to rotate the spine (slightly) especially when contracted on one side at a time.
When both left and right parts of these back extensors contract together, the vertebral column is extended (i.e., from a flexed bent-over position to an upright standing position). If only the left half of the muscle contracts, the vertebrae will be rotated to one side.
This exercise is not for everyone! If you are one of those who have a long upper body and a relatively short lower body, you are at risk for injury in this exercise. This is because you will have much more torque generated through the lumbar vertebrae and intervertebral disks than someone with a short upper body, long legs and long arms. Nevertheless, there is a substantial population who is architecturally suited to this exercise and also appears to derive good benefit from it. The risks of injury also can be minimized by paying close attention to good exercise form.
1. Before doing the exercise, you should spend a few minutes stretching the hamstrings, quadriceps and back. This does not guarantee that you will never sustain an injury, but without stretching, your likelihood of eventual injury is high. If you have had a prior injury you should wear a weightlifting belt during the heaviest lifts.
2. To begin, place a standard Olympic bar on a power rack or stand (e.g., in a squat rack) at about knee height. It is not a good idea to start with a heavy weight from the floor, because this is the position that the back will be most vulnerable (i.e., flexed spine).
3. Your feet should be approximately shoulder-width apart and under the bar, with your knees bent and the middle back flat and tight. Grab the bar with both hands in a pronated position (palms toward the floor) with slightly more than a shoulder-width grip. By looking up, your neck, back and thorax tend to “flatten” (extend) and this reduces shearing forces through the intervertebral disks.
4. Take a breath and hold it. Slowly lift the bar from the rack (do not jerk the bar) by extending both the trunk and the knees. After coming to a straight (erect) position, take one step backward from the rack to avoid hitting it during the exercise.
5. Exhale, take another breath and hold it. Keep your eyes and head up as you slowly lower the weight toward the floor and exhale as the weight is lowered. Never look at the floor during the lift, otherwise the middle of your back will become rounded and this invites a serious injury by destabilizing the spine. On the other hand, do not stare up at the ceiling, as this could extend your neck and cause undue disk or nerve pain. Bend (flex) your knees as the weight is approaching the floor (rather than keeping your knees locked straight). Do not let the weight come to a rest on the floor (and do not bounce it off of the floor) between repetitions.
6. Immediately move toward a standing position as before, by looking up and extending the knees and back as you come to an upright position. Normally you may want to maintain extensor muscle activity by stopping the upward lift about 1 to 2 inches from a full back extension, because when you are fully erect, the weight is transferred through the vertebrae and most of the muscle activity is eliminated. While some lifters do not stop the upward lift until the back is hyperextended (i.e., leaning backward), this is potentially damaging to the intervertebral disks.
7. Finish the set at the top of the lift and then take one step forward to the rack. Bend both trunk and knees, but keep your head and neck up to maintain a tight back as you lower the barbell on the stands at the end of the set.
The three muscles of the erector spinae all strongly contract during the lift upward (extending the vertebral column). These same muscles will undergo an eccentric (lengthening) contraction as the bar is lowered back toward the floor. This phase of the contraction is important for maximizing strength and mass development of the back extensors and for preventing or minimizing injuries from sports and daily activities in the gym. The splenius muscles are particularly active in the top two-thirds of the lift, whereas the gluteal and hamstring muscles are most active in the lower one-third of the movement. The transversospinalis muscles contract isometrically throughout the exercise.
Wrist straps provide a good tool for avoiding grip failure during your heaviest sets. This is certainly preferable to using an alternate handgrip, where one hand is pronated on the bar and the other supinated. An alternate grip rotates the spine toward the pronated hand as the weight is lifted. While a small amount of rotation of the spine with excessive weights will not hurt most backs (and this increases transversospinalis muscle activation), it can aggravate and magnify any pre-existing injury. Furthermore, if the left hand is always supinated and the right hand is always pronated, the muscles on the pronated side will develop more strength and thickness at the expense of the muscles on the other half of the back. This creates an imbalance of strength so when you are lifting some heavy object (e.g., a heavy box, moving furniture, etc.) you will have a tendency to rotate the spine to the strongest side, and these twists are usually done with less control than in the gym. An excessive or quick twist will tear the intervertebral disk.
Deadlifts are used as part of assessment and rehabilitation for heart patients, so this is not an exercise that is likely to kill you (although it is tough enough to feel like it). In general, increased extensor strength stabilizes and protects the back against injury. However, greater back extensor strength is a double-edged sword. I suppose this goes with the territory, but stronger extensors including the erector spinae are also capable of faster contractions and quicker twists using submaximal loads, and this makes the intervertebral disks more vulnerable to the wrong types of movements.
Deadlifts can develop strong and balanced back extensor muscles, which will reduce the chance for injury. Furthermore, heavy deadlifts will cloak your back with muscle fibers that will look like thick girders of competition winning steel. Nevertheless, you must stay very alert when you are lifting and twisting, or that extra strength might be used against you.
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