This is the forth and final part of the “Barbell Training” quadrilogy. We previously covered the bench press, the overhead press, and the squat. We will now round out this series with the infamous deadlift.
Many old-time strongmen believe that the deadlift is the most important piece to the physical culture puzzle. There was a time (before benches and squat racks came along) when deadlifting was one’s true test of physical strength.
Unfortunately, deads fell out of favor in recent years for three major reasons. Here they are, followed by my solutions to these potential roadblocks:
1) Personal trainers just love to instill fear in everyone by blowing the “lower back injury” whistle.
My solution: Never let a 150-pound “strength trainer” with a collared shirt and clipboard dictate your strength training exercises!
2) Gym owners will threaten revoking a gym membership if a weight is dropped on the floor.
My solution: If a gym brags about having a fancy juice bar, marble in the bathrooms and “unlimited Pilates classes”, simple put your left foot in front of the right and alternate this pattern in the direction of the nearest exit.
3) The average gym member wouldn’t dare callous their manicured hands by gripping onto some real iron.
My solution: Go Hard Or Go Home!
Okay, now that we just got those three hurdles out of our way, let’s get back to business.
For gains in lean muscle and strength, the deadlift is an awesome exercise. It works just about every muscle in the body with an emphasis on the hamstrings, glutes, low back, mid back, and traps.
To reap the rewards offered by the deadlift, you MUST do it with near perfect form. Unfortunately, atrocious form is all too common with this exercise, which leads to overtraining and injuries faster than ANY other movement out there. Although several types of injuries can occur with deadlifting, most injuries involve the lower back. Let’s take a closer look…
Lower Back Injuries
Improper technique can put unnecessary stress on the spinal discs. This excessive pressure can lead to many types of back injuries ranging from a sprained lumbar spine to much more serious disk herniations.
Bad (and thus, dangerous) deadlift form can be caused by several factors, including: tightness, weakness (or inability to activate certain muscles), and lack of kinesthetic awareness of what good form is. Let’s address each of these factors individually:
1) Muscle tightness- The most common areas of tightness are the hamstrings, glutes and hip flexors. These muscles MUST be at an optimal length in order to deadlift safely and effectively. Unfortunately, plain old static stretching will not do the trick here. Instead, you need to develop strength and muscular control simultaneously while stretching these muscles. To best accomplish this, I recommend isometric stretches.
2) Muscle Activation- Obviously, many muscle groups must be activated in order to even think about performing a deadlift. However, there is one muscle group that has a high tendency to fall asleep on the job. This particular muscle group is the glutes. You see, sitting down in front of a computer for 10 hours per day discourages the normal function of the glutes. In order to start firing your glutes properly, you should perform supine bridges prior to a deadlift workout.
3) Muscle strengthening- Since the deadlift works your entire body, it’s arguable that you should just strengthen every muscle group! Although there is some truth to that statement, there are certain specific muscle groups that, if weak, can definitely lead to problems. These muscles include: shoulder retractors, lumbar erectors, and abdominals (including deep abdominals). Be sure that none of these muscle groups are neglected in your strength training program.
4) Deadlift Form- Preparing you body to deadlift is only half the battle. The actual technique of the pull is just as important. An entire post (or book!) could be written on deadlift technique. So for the sake of brevity, I’ll just target the main points for spinal safely.
a) Get your core tight! Before you even pull a weight off the floor, you must get tight. To do this, take a big breath and brace your abs. “Bracing” involves flexing your abs and lower back, as if you were getting ready to absorb a kick to the stomach. This action creates intra-abdominal pressure, which in turn protects the spine and solidifies the core, thus making it stronger.
b) Keep your lower back arched. The normal (or neutral) position of the lumbar spine is an arched position. This position puts the disks in the safest, most advantageous position. Additionally, when this position is maintained, the lower back muscles “take the heat” instead of the actual spine bearing the weight. The cue I often give to clients is, “lift your chest and butt up”.
c) Start with your hips up high. This may be contrary to what you’ve been told in the past but I find it to be a very important point. You see, if your hips are too low at the start (as they would appropriately be during a squat), you will have the tendency to shoot the hips up at the beginning of the pull without the bar leaving the floor. When this happens, it tends to throw you out of optimal deadlifting position.
d) Don’t “grind out” reps. Going too heavy and grinding out reps allows form to rapidly deteriorate. Also, the excessively heavy reps that require “grinding” lead to overtraining faster than just about any other exercise. The body simply can’t recover fast enough from these reps. Quite frankly, the only time I allow grinding is during a testing or competition day.
Although this post revolves around the deadlift, you can integrate these techniques into all pulling exercises including: RDL’s, Olympic lifts, Sumo deadlifts, etc.
I hope you guys enjoyed this series. Follow these guidelines and you’ll be on a safer and faster path towards you goals!
Dedicated to your success,