Deadlifting For Dummies

Deadlifting For Dummies: 5 Tips to Avoid a Trip to the ER

Admittedly the title is attention grabbing as I don’t know many who have ended up in the ER after doing a few sets of sumo or conventional deadlifting. However, having worked as a strength and conditioning coach for the last 5 years, I have seen my fair share of hospital worthy pulls.

Whenever I write an article on deadlifting, the comment section usually fills up with 3 different types of lifters/coaches:

1.     “KISS” Coaches – Keep it simple stupid, right? While I applaud their loyalty to the concept of Occam’s Razor (i.e. a problem-solving principle which believes the simplest solution tends to be the right one), it’s often short-sighted. These coaches and lifters rely heavily on anecdotal evidence and experience but nothing else.

2.     PhD Wannabes – These coaches have read Supertraining cover to cover…twice. They can calculate the requisite torque from the hip extension moment arm in the concentric portion of the pull. But, they likely can’t touch anything close to 2xBW when it comes to deadlift numbers. These individuals know it all, they just don’t apply it all. They tend to rely heavily on academic prowess and intellectual debates but nothing else.

3.     The Padawans – These coaches/lifters understand that knowledge is useless without application. They seek to break down intellectual barriers with experiential knowledge and seek to combine both methods. They rely heavily on a multifactorial knowledge base fashioned over time.

If you find yourself getting upset because you perceive yourself as option 1 or 2, this article might ruffle your feathers. However, if you fall into category 3, this article will likely offer some healthy perspective and open you up to new ideas.

1.    Hinge Before You Hoist

For some, deadlifting comes naturally – they can hip hinge automatically, require zero cueing, and the movement looks effortless. However, this isn’t the case for everyone and others require a bit more work.

Before I let someone touch a bar, I normally ensure they have the ability to touch their toes. If they can, this tells me two very important details:

·      They understand how to posteriorly shift their weight and “find” their heels

·      They have the requisite hip flexion to get into a proper starting position

Now the rabbit hole can go much deeper than that but for simplicity sake, that’s usually the easiest place to start.

Beyond that however, we need to ensure you understand how to move through your hips without your spine resembling a wet noodle.

Remember, it’s all fun and games until someone blows out a disc.

Start here:

2.    PUSH, Don’t Pull

Often, deadlifts make their way into “pull days” along with other rowing and posterior chain work. However, this classification is somewhat of a misnomer and can result in folks having some biomechanical issues.

As you stand up and lock out a pull, you should NOT actively flex your lower back and push your hips forward. Simply push your feet into the ground and stand tall.

When folks get too focused on internal cueing such as “screw your feet into the ground” or “squeeze your glutes at lockout”, they end up sacrificing beneficial force output because their mind is busy trying to lock down multiple stimuli.

Rather trying to worry about activating individual muscles, think more about the end goal of the exercise: overcome the influence of gravity on the weight and stand up. That’s it. Push into the ground and let your hands be hooks.

Always remember this – “When things get heavy: think less, pull push more.”

3.    Focus on Your Feet

If you’re the type of person who’s constantly lost in the litany of internal cues thrown around by internet gurus, then maybe it’s time to simplify things.

To all you coaches out there yelling the same 3 cues at every lifter: “KNEES OUT, CHEST UP, BACK FLAT!”…Stop it. You’re doing a disservice to everyone.

Rather than trying to focus on multiple segments at once (chest, back, hips, knees, etc.), I’ve found that most folks react extremely well to a direct focus on their feet. You see, the feet are our initial connection to the ground and provide the largest input of sensory information when our body is upright.

As such, it’s important to understand how the feet affect the knees, hips, and spine, especially during a high load movement such as the deadlift. This video should help to tie some of the pieces together:

The video may seem long and the topic complex but if you remember nothing else, remember this: before you lift, wiggle your toes, rock back and forth, and pay attention to where your weight shifts (heels vs. toes). The feet reveal all.

4.    Experiment (N=1)

Sumo or conventional? How wide should my feet? Should I turn my toes out? Hips high or low? These questions are easy to answer in person but when someone sends me a direct message on Instagram and expects a virtual biomechanical assessment of their body, things can get a little tricky.

As a coach, many of these questions are answered with a hands-on assessment in real time during the training session. You complete a set, provide me feedback as a coach, I analyze the movement in real time along with video playback, then we make tweaks. This is similar to the scientific method – hypothesize, test, analyze, tweak, retest, repeat, etc.

However, if you’re training on your own without the help of a coach, then maybe it’s time to take responsibility for your own intellectual growth.

At some point, it’s time to stop relying on others for all the answers. No one knows your body better than you, but it’s up to you to learn more about it. Here’s a few ideas you may want to consider:

·      Stance or Grip Width

·      Toe Angle

·      Head Position (Looking straight ahead vs. Keeping the neck neutral)

·      Regular vs. Hook Grip

·      Straps vs. Mixed Grip

·      Shoes (Minimalist: no heel lift vs. Lifters: 0.75” heel lift)

No one on the internet can tell you exactly what you need. A good coach can make suggestions in person but at the end of the day, it’s up to you to play detective and figure out what feels best (not just what looks best).

5.    Be Intuitive

In the minds of most fitness aficionados, the deadlift comes down to one major principle: grip it and rip it. In fact, I’ve even seen one particular brand market themselves around the concept of “lifting angry”. They encourage lifters to approach the bar with reckless abandonment and channel their emotions into the movement.

While this mindset can be helpful in teaching someone to be more aggressive with their initial pull off the floor, it often results in poor biomechanics (unless the lifter has a litany of experience with a more aggressive setup and execution).

However, for most folks it often wiser to take a more intuitive approach, especially when it comes to movements (e.g. deadlifts) which have the potential to aggravate complex structures such as the spine.

For example, the other day I was performing some trap bar deadlifts and got deep into my working sets. As fatigue set in, I began my 5th set but felt a slight tweak in the right side of my thoracic spine (middle back). When I first began lifting, I would have continued the set and tried to “brace” harder, take a bigger breath, or just grit through it.

But, with time comes experience and with experience, wisdom. So, rather than finishing the set, I cut it short and moved on. I worked through some additional single-leg work along some volume for my upper body and a couple rehab tricks for my back.

When I woke up the next day, my back felt fine. Zero pain or even middle soreness to speak of, whereas in the past I might have had a tough time tying my shoes.

So, what’s the point?

Pay attention to your body when you’re lifting. There’s much more to it than just moving the weight from point A to point B. If something feels off, don’t be afraid to shut it down (at least for the day) and reassess tomorrow. There’s no point in crushing yourself in one session and not being able to walk for a week.

“Coax the body and it will adapt, shock the body and it will react.” – Scott Abel


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