The deadlift is an amazing exercise, specifically for shaping your glutes—our top goal after flat abs as bikini season looms. In fact, we’ve called it The One Exercise Every Woman Should Do—and that’s because it also targets your quads, hamstrings, core and lower back. But lower back issues could be the reason so many women shy away from the powerhouse move.
When done with poor form, the deadlift puts too much weight on your back, which not only means your legs and butt won’t get as much love—and could lead to major back pain. The most common (pain-inducing) mistake in this exercise is not generating enough force from your legs. “You must bend your knees to get down low and generate movement from your legs rather than your back,” explains Mike Bracko, Ph.D. and exercise physiologist in Calgary, Canada. Another issue: using too much weight. If you’re not used to performing deadlifts, use an empty bar or even a PVC pipe or broomstick the first few times you attempt the move—it will help you work on nailing the movement pattern. Add weight slowly over time as you progress, advises Bracko.
There’s also simple pro lifter’s trick that could help solve the pain problem. It’s called the “valsalva maneuver” and, though it sounds fancy, it basically means that you hold your breath during the “concentric” (when the weight goes up) phase of the movement. Then, you exhale at the top before lowering the weight back down. (Find out how to Breathe Your Way to a Fitter Body.)
“It’s been shown that holding your breath during the concentric phase helps to maintain both intra-thoracic and intra-abdominal pressures to stabilize the spine and actually makes a lifter stronger,” explains Bracko.
Translation: When you hold your breath inside the body (in the thoracic cavity), it puts pressure on the spine, helping to stabilize it, which then helps to prevent low back injury or pain. And science backs this up. But bare in mind that this technique is not for first-time lifters, and some evidence points to the possibility that holding your breath could lead to increased blood pressure (so if yours is high, definitely skip this technique).
“Beginning exercisers should exhale when the exercise is the hardest (during the lift), and inhale with the exercise is the easiest (when lowering the weight back down),” says Bracko. If you do attempt the valsalva maneuver and feel lightheaded or dizzy, do not continue to try to hold your breath. Take a break and then go back to the beginner’s strategy. No one’s judging you!