The deadlift has a bad rap. No other exercise has been banned from public gyms, falsely accused of breaking backs and exiled to be used only by the meatiest of meatheads. It can be a tough exercise to defend as I cringe, watching the uneducated or poorly coached population slumped over like Mr. Burns picking up a barbell while crashing it back down rep after rep. Who would have known that in my career as a strength coach I would also need skills as a defense attorney and a saleswoman? But, the defense is worth it because the results of prescribing the deadlift speak for themselves.
First of all, I make no claims to be a world class powerlifter or a deadlifting expert. I am a certified RKC (Kettlebell Coach) and have a NCCP Level 1 in Olympic Weightlifting. I have been a strength coach for over 15 years now, certified by the N.S.C.A. It is my job to teach the clients I work with to pick up weight in the safest manner possible. My clients range from office workers, weekend warriors to elite level athletes of all types. The deadlift also happens to be my favorite exercise as it has the most ‘functional’ (there is that word again) relevance to everyday life. I also happen to perform the deadlift on a regular basis. You can only coach something as well as you practice it. To me, the deadlift plays two vital roles in the realm of strength & conditioning:
“It is both the prerequisite lift and as well as the quintessential lift”
It should be in every beginner’s program as it teaches patterning that modern day humans are becoming foreign to and it trains the muscles that rarely see sunlight in the sedentary office worker population. It should also be in every athlete’s strength program. No other exercise, barbell or machine, stimulates the same amount of musculature. The deadlift trains hip extension; and hip extension is the primary movement of running and jumping. The deadlift serves as a slow-strength base and should be introduced, in my opinion, even before the squat. It teaches individuals how to brace, how to create tension, how to breathe and how to use their posterior chain. No amount of bridging on a swiss ball will ever replace or even come close to the gains one can make with the deadlift.
The Deadlift vs. the Squat
First, let me differentiate between the deadlift and the squat. During the squat, the hips go DOWN. The tailbone stretches away from the client’s forehead. During the deadlift, the hips go BACK. The tailbone reaches away from the chin or adam’s apple region of the client. In both cases, the back is straight, but the angle of the back is what differs. The hip moving back in the deadlift is called the hip hinge motion. I begin teaching the hip hinge from a kneeling position, as do all the coaches at Human Motion. We also use a dowel rod along the spine to help teach our clients about proper spine alignment. A straight back DOES NOT mean an upright back. It means the vertebrae are stacked atop of one another all times, while maintaining the normal curvature of the spine. Slouching is an example of a rounded back and it is NOT what we want to see on this lift, or any other for that manner.
This hip hinge movement pattern, as shown above, is part of our branded group exercise program: Building a Strong Foundation® which is now being taught as a 2-day Instructor certification course. In the kneeling hip hinge, it teaches clients to moves the hips back and lengthen (pre-stretch) the posterior kinetic chain, while keeping the back straight. The action is identical to the movement of the deadlift, minus the last two joints of the lower chain: the knees and the ankles.
As I said in my intro, deadlifts have a bad rap. I have been advised by physiotherapists to avoid the deadlift with certain clients. I have been to gyms where there are signs that read: No Deadlifting here! I have seen the worst technique imaginable being applauded on youtube by Cross-Fit junkies. As coach Dan John has always said: “It is not deadlifts that will hurt your back; it is the way YOU deadlift that will hurt your back.” I will add that poor understanding and instruction of the deadlift can also hurt a client’s back.
Deadlifting, when performed correctly is a fantastic strengthening exercise. However, this article is not about the benefits. If you are curious about these, consult Dr. Stu McGill’s research as he has proven time and time again in his biomechanics lab that the deadlift is less stressful on the spine than the ever-popular sit-up. I am wondering why sit-ups are still prescribed and I think it may be because they are easier to coach and easier to learn. Any strengthening exercise where one is lying down is extremely limiting when it comes to gaining strength.
Creating Tension ~ A lost skill
And after studying the deadlift for the last couple of years I have come to the conclusion that the most important thing for those who are new to the lift to learn has less to do with the technique and more to do with mastering the strategy of producing tension and maintaining intra abdominal pressure (IAP) in the human body. And I am not talking about the ‘core training’ exercises you learn in Pilates class. Strategies such as: performing a kegel and breathing out on effort are to be tossed aside when building strength via the deadlifting paradigm. In fact, breathing out on effort has been shown to compromise spinal stability on particular movements. These strategies simply do not teach the participant how hard they need to brace in order to support their spine.
This is paramount and I teach it by using three cues, not necessarily in this order
- Tighten your core by bracing for a punch & simultaneously close your anus (please don’t make me say ‘anus’ again)
- Inhale until 70% lung capacity and hold your breath momentarily – those cleared by a physician may hold their breath. Those who are not cleared, have them “hiss” out through pursed lips.
- Spread the floor – root your energy to the ground like you are a tree. If someone were to push against you, you are now immovable and solid.
- Squeeze your fists and lock your elbows as if you are trying to crush a rock. I want a white knuckle squeeze and no less. I want to see your triceps pop out.
Breathing, rooting strength and bracing are absolutely critical skills when learning to build tension PRIOR to lifting a heavy weight. If these are not accomplished, in unison, then you may injure yourself. Learn how to create tension before you learn any advanced lift and you will have more success in the long run. Also, the load must never be taken for granted. If anything, dial up the volume of tension beyond what you think my be necessary for the lift as it is easier to shave some off, then to try and muster more up when again, it is too late.
(First, find a good pair of flat soled shoes – never deadlift in runners and throw away weightlifting gloves)
The deadlift, like all other strength exercises begins with the set-up position. The set-up begins outside of the body and inside of the mind. Without the intent and mental focus of the correct technique, you might as well go back to the pec dec and forget about becoming strong. If you get this right, then everything to follow has a much higher chance of success.
To begin with the standing position, you must be close to the bar….very close to the bar before beginning the pull, so the vertical path of the bar moves directly upwards in a straight line. This can be adjusted by a skilled coach. The feet width will depend on whether you are doing conventional deadlifts or sumo style. For this purpose, we will assume it is conventional and the feet should be about hip width apart. This can be adjusted by you or the coach, yet once established, must be replicated each time you deadlift. Once you are close to the bar, in proper set-up begin the tension techniques as listed above. Standing tall, take a breath in and hold, creating IAP, then immediately begin the descent and reach for the bar. It is important you do not hesitate during the breath hold as you will lose vital seconds of IAP.
Next, push the hips back and maintain the natural arch of the low back. The neck must also be in line with the rest of the spine. Do not look up at the ceiling as it will cause unnecessary cervical extension. The hips must be at the correct height, below the shoulders. If they are dropped too low or too high, drive from the posterior kinetics chain is lost. Furthermore, the shoulders must be directly over or even slightly ahead of the bar. If they are behind the bar, the bar simply will not move until they are. So, this extra effort is wasted.
Grasp the bar with either a double overhand grip or an alternating grip (one palm facing forward and the other facing back). Get deep into your hands, squeeze the bar and keep the arms straight, like cables, locked at the elbows, triceps on contraction. Pull your shoulders into their sockets and keep them there. Pull your shoulder blades down and across as if you are putting them into your back pockets on a diagonal line. Now, here is the critical point, begin the lift by pushing the floor away from you.
DO NOT jerk the weight off the floor and
DO NOT lift the bar quickly.
This is a grind lift. Furthermore, the hips should not accelerate faster than the upper body – focus on keeping the back straight. If you need to, exhale some air through pursed lips, like a hiss, to maintain IAP. At the top of the motion, ensure you push your hips all the way through and you are tall through the crown of your head. To lower the bar, maintain tension in the upper back by imagining you are breaking the bar in half, and push the hips back, tracing the thighs on the way down. Put the barbell down faster than you picked it up. Just be safe and do not round your back. If you do round out, this is a sign you have disrespected the load. Serious lifters never disrespect the load, no matter how light it is for them.
Once the bar is on the ground again, or on risers as in the pictures, release it completely and stand up. This is your micro-rest period – must like the rest a basketball player might take between free throw attempts. It is the time to re-focus and mentally rehearse the steps and create tension for another big effort. The micro-rest should last 2-5 seconds. If you attempt repeated reps without returning to top each time, you will begin each rep from a sub-optimal position and likely injure your back. Plus, you will not get any stronger.
Try 2-5 sets of 1-5 reps of the deadlift. It is grind lift, meaning, high volume workouts are not the aim of the game. If you want to get strong go heavy and keep the reps under 5. The same thing goes if you are looking for ‘tone.’ Use a light weight to start, perhaps 60% of your body weight and move forwards and upwards from there. You may deadlift 2-3 times per week, but vary the volume and intensity. It is OK to have days where you are just working on technique and others where you work very hard. Never go to failure on this lift – always leave a rep or two in the bank.
“Sweating and breathing heavy does not warrant a good deadlifting workout – great technique does.”
Have fun and train hard! Coach Bott