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DECONSTRUCTING THE DEADLIFT

Updated: Mar 6

The deadlift is one of those exercises that appears as simple to perform as stirring the spoon in your morning coffee. However, to your likely disappointment, the truth paints a different picture.


Let’s be real: deadlifts aren’t pleasant. It’s the absolute heaviest weight you can ever lift on a given exercise, which, I guess, is partly the reason why it doesn’t make it easy to perform. It is also the number one lift which is most unforgiving to small technique errors: bar sliding away from the shins, upper back not tight enough, giving up mentally if the bar doesn’t come off the floor, etc. There’s arguably one most efficient way to deadlift – but there are many ways to screw it up.



Like all exercises, none of them gets easier over time. You just get stronger. This is, from my experience, particularly true for the deadlift. Hitting a plateau on this lift is far from joyful. Every time you try pick the bar up, things just suck. You feel like you have no power getting it going, the weight doesn’t seem to be moving, and reps literally feel like a train hits you. Welcome to the world of deadlifting.


The good news is: there is hope. Hope for YOU to keep at it, to keep figuring the best way forward out for you, and to get the deadlift going (again). It will be a tricky ride, but that makes it even more worth it in the end. Your entire body will eternally thank you for the strength developled through deadlifts as well as your persistence.

 

By deconstructing the deadlift, we find that “plateaus” are in 70-80% of cases caused by technical errors. The rest is made up of programming flaws, and poor mental performance.

 

The purpose of this article is to discuss the technique part of the lift.


FOOT POSITION

This plays an important role as a too narrow stance will raise your hips too high, which will diminish the ability of your quads to get the bar going off the floor (remember: knee extension is the first movement performed in the deadlift – which is done mostly by your quads). A stance taken too wide will enter sumo deadlift territory – a lift we are not teaching at Strong For Life. If you place your feet too wide apart in the deadlift, it will reduce the moment arm on your back and hips – which defeats the purpose of using the deadlift what it is best used for: strengthening your back and hips.


To obtain your correct deadlift stance, think of hip width (top of the femur in alignment with mid foot/big toe). This will give you the best of both worlds from a high enough hip position to load the back, but low enough hip position to have enough bent in the knees to use your quads for lift-off. I would suggest you experiment with slightly different stance widths to see which one produces the most strength for you. SLIGHTLY is the key. Your toes need to be around ten degrees turned out to engage more of the external hip rotators. The simple fact of that is that this position engages more muscle mass – and more muscle mass involved in a movement equals greater strength.

 

GRIP

This is one of the most common steps where mistakes are made. If your grip is slack, or loose, because your wrists are bent, your hands won't be able to bear a lot of weight. Remember this:


The back can only bear what the hands can hold.


Firsthand, you need to touch the bar with the base of your fingers (right at the spot where calluses would normally form). Assuming this, think of making your wrists very stiff. Feel how this tightens your grip. Now imagine “growing your arms" as long and as heavy as you can. This will create tension across your forearm and the outside of your upper arm and shoulders. Now you have tightly locked-in system that will connect the bar to your shoulder blades and back via your wrists and arms. Tension is key!

 

HEAD

Refrain from looking straight ahead. This will overextend your cervical spine – which leads to two issues: one, there is excess load born by the neck and spinal structures when you do that. Two, your spine needs to be held as straight as possible so all segments form a solid chain from top to bottom that can bear force. Another factor to consider is that your nervous system originates from your vertebral bodies. Imagine having electric wires bent at one end (which would be in the case of overextending your neck). The circuit won’t run as fast and efficient, will it? Think of “holding your chin back” slightly to create a gaze direction of roughly 1.5m meters in front of you. Hold the chin back until the bar is at lockout as this will ensure that spinal rigidity is kept throughout the whole lift.

 

BACK

The lower back should be set into either a slight arch or a straight position (depending on your anthropometrics, some will find making an arch easier than others). The mid and upper portion of the back should be set into extension – i.e. into a position that would make those parts as flat as a plank. The whole idea of the deadlift is to strengthen the back. To obtain this goal, the entire back must be set into a tight isometric contraction before the bar comes off the floor – and everything must be done in the lifter's capability to keep holding it tight. Whether the back should be able to flex during the deadlift has been discussed in our previous article. In a nutshell: extreme levels of low-back rounding should at all costs be discouraged. However, a slightly flexed lower back seems to be an inevitability in every lifter’s career at some stage as this improves leverage for getting the bar off the floor and into lockout position.

 

AIR

Breathe air into your tummy and trap it there. The particularity about breathing in the deadlift is that you’re in a rather constricted position when bending forward, as the back is set horizontally. Bear in mind that you’re not able to draw in as much air in the deadlift as you are in movements like the squat, bench, or press. Do not actively draw air into your lungs or even head as this could lead to feelings of light-headedness. Ensure you’re setting your belt to the closest hole so it is as tight as possible. You almost shouldn’t be able to breathe.

 

PULLING THE SLACK

Once you’ve taken a breath in, imagine pulling the bar “up and back” ino the ceiling. Picture a spot that is about a meter behind you, diagonally, on the ceiling, and pull the bar there. Firstly, this will take the slack out of the bar. Hear that clicking sound when you try lift the bar off the floor? That’s the slack. Pulling it out ensures there is no oscillatory movement of the barbell sleeves inside the hole of the plates once you get the bar going. Oscillatory movements are small rapid movements which create a “back-and-forth” impact on the barbell – something we want to avoid as we want the equipment to be moving as smoothly as possible. Secondly – and probably more importantly – pulling the slack ouf of the bar will tighten your lats, keep your back rigid, and lock the hips into place. One of the most common mistakes lifters make is that their hips rise before the bar comes off the floor – making the movement inefficient and weaker.

 

LIFT-OFF

The arguably most common technique error is to not push the floor hard enough with your feet to get the bar going. This is so crucially important for one major reason: the first part of the deadlift can be seen as a PUSH – whereas the second part - once the bar clears the knees – can be seen as a PULL forward with the hips. The push is generated by a movement called knee extension. When you push your legs into the floor in the deadlift starting position, your knees will extend. The main drivers of knee extension are the quads – and we need to use these muscles as efficiently as possible to simply get the bar going. The second major mistake that is made in the lift-off is to not push the floor LONG enough. There are situations where there will be a slight delay between you pushing the floor and the bar actually leaving it. This – ladies and gentlemen – is called gravity. And we need to overcome it, together with the inertia of the weight. So you have to ensure that you push the floor until the bar gets going. And you need to keep applying pressure into the floor until the bar arrives at the top of your knees or slightly above it. This brings us to the last bit of the movement analysis in the deadlift.

 

LOCKOUT

In fact, this part happens slightly before lockout – even though the aim of this movement is to get the bar to a lockout position. Once the bar has passed your knees on the way up, you need to keep your chin back and flex your hips forward into the bar. Do not miss this step! Think of a strong pull of the hips forward to get the bar to lockout. A common mistake happening here is that too much work is done by the lower back, with which you will see a slightly leaned-back position at the top of the deadlift. Remember this: your lower back is not as strong as your hips – so why not use the latter? If you struggle with this movement, high rack pulls or paused deadlifts at the top of the knee are excellent technique movements to practice the correct movement of the hips in this position.

 

Whether you find the deadlift gruelling or simply a P in the A or not, you need to respect it. It is a lift that doesn’t just get you as strong as hell, but teaches you important life lessons: figuring out how to deal with things that are uncomfortable.


Maybe, and just maybe, you eventually find comfort in discomfort.


I let you be the judge.


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