By TJ Lopez, BS, CSCS, FMS
What You Need To Know...
Screw Your Feet Into The Ground
Breathe, Reach, and Pull
Lift with Your Hips, Not Your Back!
Tuck Your Chin!
Remember to FINISH!
When working with a new lifter there are always commonalities in the specific exercises we work on before the athlete can get some true strength improvement. I use the word "new" loosely, because it's usually the "seasoned vets" that have developed some of the worst habits.
Screw your feet into the ground.
The set-up is key. When teaching either the kettlebell, conventional deadlift or the hexbar deadlift the first thing to consider is your foot placement and how you'll be focusing force into the ground. For this reason, I like to deadlift barefoot when possible. We want the least amount of space possible between your feet and the floor. Everyone's hips are different, so some may take a narrow base with their feet about 8 inches apart and inside hip width, while others may want to go slightly outside of hip width. With the toes pointed straight ahead or slightly turned out (up to 15*), imagine corkscrewing your feet into the ground outwardly. Think about driving your big toe, through the rest of your toes and your heels into the ground. I like to cue the athlete to spread the ground on their ascent. Not only will this establish a strong base and connection to the ground but will help to create a stronger arch and stability in your foot which won't allow for any energy leakage other than pressing through the ground. This will also create a chain reaction throughout the rest of your lower body by activating proper muscles to establish stability in the knees and the hips.
Breath, Reach and Pull
Now that your lower body is set, let's continue with the set up of your upper body for the deadlift. Breath, reach and pull. In that order. You'll see some of the strongest lifters do some variation of this set up, mixed in with some grunts of course. And yes, grunting is allowed and encouraged! Once your feet are secured to the ground and have proper tension in your lower half, make sure the bar is close to your shins. Take a deep diaphragmatic breath and reach both hands to the sky while looking up. This will help to properly align your spine while also emphasizing the important deep breath that will activate your core to protect your lower back. You can take a few breaths and then you want to pull your arms down and back to activate your lats and lock your upper back into position. Now you're in the right position to hinge at the hips and grab the bar.
Lift with your hips, not with your back
Locking down a neutral spine is very important for a strong and safe deadlift. Of course, you are using your back muscles in the deadlift, but the Lats, scapular retractors and erector spinae are working isometrically to keep the shoulders and spine in place. It's all too often that we see athletes in the gym with the mentality of lift the weight by all means necessary regardless of what it looks like. Now, there are some extreme circumstances where competitive powerlifters or strongman competitors will round their back. We aren't talking about them, that's a conversation for another day. When applying this lift to the athletic population, we want to see a neutral spine as much as possible. See image:
Keeping the spine neutral is imperative for a few reasons.
1. Over-rounding or extending the spine along any of its curves will cause stress to the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems causing a lack of strength and power to the limbs. I like to think of the spinal cord as the power generator and the nerves that run through the muscles and joints as the power cord. If you put a kink in the power supply, then you will lose energy in the system as a whole. Proper joint position and alignment is paramount to pulling the most weight off of the ground in the most efficient way possible.
2. Rounding the spine, especially the lumbar spine, will cause unnecessary stress to the discs which can lead to herniations. Dr. Stuart McGill likens these loaded lumbar flexion movements to bending a credit card. Every spine has a certain amount of flexion and load that it can handle until it snaps. The more you bend improperly, the more likely you will experience a lower back injury.
Tuck your chin.
To piggy back off of the last point, keeping a neutral spine isn't just for the lower back. It is also important to keep your cervical and thoracic spinal curves neutral. Unlike the lumbar spine where most people allow too much flexion or rounding, many people will over-extend the cervical spine (looking up) while trying to deadlift. This is why I love the Dowel Hip Hinge. This exercise is great to teach the athlete how to keep a neutral spine. The dowel should always have 3 points of contact: 1. the back of the head, 2. the upper back (between the shoulder blades), 3. the tailbone (coccyx). This drill will teach the athlete to keep the chin tucked and make it impossible to look up when hinging without the dowel coming off of the athlete's upper back.
Again, this technique will allow for heavier and more efficient pulls from the ground because it will allow for less energy leakage in the movement pattern. Most of the time, overextending the cervical spine will lead to more movement flaws like losing the neutral position of the thoracic and lumbar spine which leads to improper loading of the posterior chain. Its a slippery slope. Don't let it happen to you! Think of making a double chin and imagine you have the dowel on your spine to ensure you have the neutral spine you're looking for.
"Make your combat stance your every day stance"- Miyamoto Musashi
This is a quote consistently brought to light by Physical Therapist and Strength Coach, Kelly Starrett. I believe in this wholeheartedly, especially when speaking of the finish position in the deadlift. I see too many athletes leave their hips behind to go right into the next repetition without finishing the last. At the top of the deadlift your joints should be "stacked" or in alignment and perpendicular to the ground. The top of the deadlift should be as close to anatomical position as possible. One of the cues I'll use is to push the ground away and "hump" the bar by squeezing their glutes and spreading the ground. You should also try to get as tall as possible. If you fail to finish each rep, the subsequent reps will be less effective and out of position.
The deadlift is a very important movement for building posterior chain strength from head to toe. There are also many variables that can come into play when executing the movement. Put these 5 tips to use next time you're in the gym. As I said before, even seasoned vets fall into bad habits without consistently focusing on the right things.