Admit it, most of you will just skim the majority of this article so I’ll just go ahead and sum things up as succinctly as possible: if today ends in “y” you should be deadlifting.
Needless to say, when I watch some people pull they resemble a scared cat. Yes I’m looking at you Quasimodo…
Turns out deadlifting is a bit more complex than just walking up to a loaded bar, arching your back, and picking it up off the floor.
If you’re on the gain train but you want to avoid any unexpected stops to snap city then take 5 minutes to read this article and implement some of these tips.
1. Master the Hinge
The first component of a successful deadlift is being able to kinesthetically sense where your body is in space. Most folks struggle with being able to isolate and modify individual segments.
For example, can you move through your hips without incorporating your spine? If not, then you need to start there.
Takeaway: You make or break the deadlift with the hinge. If you can’t control your bodyweight then you’re doing yourself a disservice by loading the pattern and laying strength upon dysfunction.
2. Feel Your Feet and Grip the Floor
Hey twinkle toes, listen up.
Turns out your feet have a much larger impact on your entire body than you realize. To quote Henry Gray, the author of Anatomy of the Human Body,
“In order to allow it to support the weight of the body in the erect posture with the least expenditure of material, the foot is constructed of a series of arches formed by the tarsal and metatarsal bones, and strengthened by the ligaments and tendons of the foot.”
Essentially, these arches are designed to absorb and transmit forces through your body as you make contact with the ground during locomotion and propulsion.
However if you lack intrinsic foot stability due to prior injuries, excessive use of heeled shoes, or heavily padded inserts then you’ll struggle with being able to exert force through your feet into the floor.
Whenever a joint lacks stability, it is referred to as an “energy leak”. If the joint can’t maintain a neutral position with muscular tone during a given activity then it will default to ligamentous and tendinous structures in order to accomplish the goal.
However, in the long run this can lead to issues such as tendinitis (tendon inflammation) and tendinosis (tendon chronic degeneration).
Ever wonder why the bottom of your feet hate life the day after a run? Hello plantar fasciitis, sounds like it’s time to address those arches.
In the case of a deadlift or squat, you want to maintain a stable platform (i.e. a tripod foot) from which to generate force. As soon as you lose the arch of the foot, you will get subsequent compensations through the rest of the kinetic chain.
Some coaches cue “knees out!” in the squat or deadlift which can be beneficial if there’s a motor patterning issue within the lumbo-pelvic hip complex but many times this issue can be attributed to instability within the arch complex.
Always assess the feet first, they’re the first link within the kinetic chain.
Takeaway: Find 3 points of contact with your heel and the base of the 1st and 5th toe. Lift your toes (i.e. activate the windlass mechanism ), try to spread them as wide as possible to increase your base of support and then focus on trying to “grip the floor” to improve arch stability and activate the intrinsic musculature of the foot.
3. Stop Trying to Make Your Spine Straight
You spine wasn’t perfectly straight when you were born. Even now your spine is not perfectly straight.
If you’re a coach with any semblance of concern for your client’s intervertebral discs, please for the love of everything biomechanics related, stop teaching people to arch their low back in order to get into position to deadlift.
Rant aside, let’s discuss some basic anatomy.
The thoracic spine has a natural curvature of 35-40 degrees in both genders while the lumbar spine has a natural arch of 3-5 degrees in males and 5-7 degrees in females. In other words, your spine has a natural curvature which you’ve possessed since birth.
In order to generate proper apical expansion, you must be able to drive air into your posterior mediastinum (area located just behind the heart).
However, this won’t occur if you’re trying to make your spine perfectly straight, your scapula are depressed or retracted, your pelvis is anteriorly tilted, or you exhibit a forward head posture.
If the spine is globally extended (anteriorly tipped pelvis, flat thoracic spine, lordotic lumbar spine, etc.), you will lose congruency between the pelvic floor and diaphragm.
When this occurs, individuals have a higher chance of using the accessory musculature within the upper chest to pull air into the lungs and externally rotate the ribs.
As such, you’ll primarily drive air into the anterior mediastinum and reinforce the extension bias which will just compound the issue even further.
To put things succinctly, altering spinal neutrality during your deadlift setup will influence inspiratory capacity by limiting complete internal rotation of the ribs and thus decrease subsequent intra-abdominal pressure.
If you got lost in all of the anatomical jargon above, just give this video a watch. I discussed the topic in-depth and also demonstrated some breathing strategies to enhance posterior mediastinum expansion.
What’s the point you might be asking?
Optimizing biomechanics allows you to maximize training volume without negatively affecting ligaments, tendons, or the central nervous system.
Takeaway: Use your warmup to improve breathing patterns and ensure posterior mediastinum expansion. During your setup, get your breath first before trying to pull the slack out of the bar and establishing tension throughout your entire body.
4. Don’t Over Cue Your Glutes
If we’re going to discuss the glutes, we have to remember that they’re responsible for a number of different actions, namely hip extension, external rotation, abduction, and posterior tilting of the pelvis.
During the deadlift it’s important not to focus on one cue in isolation. This can become an issue especially when one is trying to understand how to gain a neutral starting position.
As a coach, many times lifters are cued to “find their glutes and hamstrings” in the bottom position to establish tension and learn how to pull the slack out of the bar. However, this can become an issue as cueing the glutes will lead to a posterior tilt and flexion within the lumbar spine.
Not to mention, the glutes ( and adductors can function in opposition to one another so, by only cueing the glutes or focusing on forcing the knees out, you may miss out on some of the hip extension capabilities found within the adductor complex (vertical head of the adductor magnus specifically).
Not to mention, we have to remember that the hamstrings are biarticular in nature, meaning that they cross 2 joints (the hip and knee). If you activate the glutes and posteriorly tilt the pelvis, you will slack the hamstrings at the hip and reduce their force generation capacity.
Movement competency occurs when someone can complete a motor pattern without having to actively think about it or cue themselves within the movement.
Weight lifting is a learned skill which takes time to acquire. In the end your main goal should be to progress from a state where movement only occurs with conscious thought to a point where the skill can be executed without any internal or external cueing.
Now of course this doesn’t happen overnight and as such, you should seek to be as consciously aware as possible when learning the movement. Here are a few ideas:
- Don’t rely entirely on visual input (i.e. ditch the mirror).
- Take note of your hip position and understand what a neutral spine feels like.
- Feel your toes within your shoes.
- Understand how to diaphragmatic breath and incorporate it within your setup.
- Try to kinesthetically determine joint positioning (e.g. sensing knee positioning without looking down).
- Test muscular activation at specific joints to look for compensation patterns.
Takeaway: When trying to establish tension and pull the slack out of the bar, don’t worry about trying to squeeze your glutes as this can posteriorly tilt the pelvis and pull you out of a neutral lumbar position. Instead, focus on co-contraction of the hamstrings and quads to build stability in the bottom position and improve your starting position.
5. Lock in the Lats
I’ve written about the lats before (5 Reasons You Can't Deadlift More Weight (And How To Fix Them)) and their influence on spinal stability due to their attachment on the thoracolumbar fascia.
However, many find it tough to actually engage the lats or feel them within the deadlift. There are a few strength coaches within the industry who have created some interesting drills to accomplish this task but recently I came across a new exercise by Max Shank which really ties everything together quite nicely.
Enter the shank lever (barbell version).
The biggest benefit is the fact that you’re training the lats within the hip hinge position. You’re having to maintain thoracic spine extension while simultaneous training shoulder extension.
Before you ask, no, this isn’t the same thing as a straight arm pulldown or even a pullover due to the differences in range of motion and implement; try it out and you’ll quickly feel the difference.
There are a few ways to approach this from a programming standpoint:
- Simply program in 1-2 sets of 5-6 reps within your warmup as an activation drill.
- Add the shank lever as an accessory movement for sets of 8-10.
- If you’re really feeling adventurous, you can superset the shank row with any deadlift variation for sets of 3-5.
Takeaway: Learning to engage the lats takes more than just cueing someone to just “squeeze oranges in their armpits”. Utilize the concept of specificity and load the pattern in the position you’re trying to improve.
Take Your Deadlift From Suck to Sick
When implementing these new cues give yourself 2-4 sessions to get acquainted with new motor patterning before you expect things to really start “clicking”.
Technique under maximal load is built through practice and volume with submaximal weights. In the words of Joe Defranco: “Focus on building strength rather than testing it.”