We hear it every week: "I don't deadlift... deadlifts are bad for my back!" or "My body can't handle deadlifts!" or some other version of this common fear-based saying. Let's first paint a picture, and think about where this idea often comes from logically:
You're in high school sports and your coach has you on a program where you squat and deadlift each week. Every time you squat and deadlift, your coach or team are there pushing you to lift as hard as you can. "1 more rep! Great, now just 1 more rep!" on repeat... You also know that theses numbers will be posted for your peers and opponents to see and judge you on. How much effort do you suppose you're putting towards each of these deadlift sessions? Likely, as much effort as you can muster up. How many months or years do most people have before pushing their bodies to the limits? Not much. Then, each time you wake up the day after your maximal effort deadlift day, your body feels as though it was hit by a Mack truck. Is this surprising to you when you consider these variables? And now, your lasting perception of the deadlift is that your body is "not built for it."
The solution is simple: don't go from 0-100 real quick; it's all about dose management. Sure, technique matters a bit, but more important is not pushing your body to its limits until you've prepared it to do so. What's very interesting is we can assume the technique will hone in gradually over time all on its own, especially when provided with an appropriate weight, for an appropriate amount of sets and reps. People are so adaptable to their environment and the stimuli it receives. We will naturally search for the easiest way to do something. Thus, we will gradually find an efficient, safe way to deadlift just by practicing light deadlifts. Conversely, an unintended, but guaranteed side effect of lifting maximal weights is form breakdown. Another reason our bodies felt terrible after our high school weight room deadlifts. By removing the constant maximal effort this should allow for a safe environment for most people to both learn the deadlift and build strength/resilience so they can handle heavier deadlifts in the future.
What might this appropriate amount of weight, sets, and reps look like? Without getting into too much detail on building a logical, science-based program, let's just break this down into blanket statements that will work for most people on average. You can realistically choose any number of reps, but if you're more interested in building strength, 5 reps is a good number to start with. If you're more interested in building muscle, 8 reps is a good number to start with. If you haven't ever deadlifted before, or it's been a long time, why don't we start with 2-3 sets per week to start, and work up to doing about 4-5 sets per week by the end of 8 weeks, possibly broken up between 2 sessions. I'm mentioning weight last, because we can now determine what weight to use. We will use what is called, "rate of perceived exertion", or RPE, to determine your starting weight. We will keep it in an RPE range of 5/10 to a 6/10 difficulty for the first 5 weeks. One way to think of this: without any doubt that we could have done 5 more reps or 4 more reps in the set, respectively (this is called reps in reserve). By the end of 8 weeks, I feel confident that you can do 1-2 sets per week at an RPE 7 or 8, but with most of your sets still in that RPE 6 range. This will ensure the weight is light enough to learn technical mastery, while heavy enough that it provides a stimulus to build strength/muscle. Realistically, the weight may stay close to the same for the first few weeks, but there will be an inflection point maybe 4 weeks in, where the technique starts to get dialed in and you'll be able to rapidly add weight every week at roughly the same difficulty as the week prior. If you can add 5 pounds per week the first 4 weeks, that is plenty sufficient for the beginner.
When it's all said and done, your back will likely feel BETTER with a proper strength-training program, that includes deadifting.