What comes to mind when you hear the word “deadlift”? Do you get the image of a physically imposing Slovenian heaving up a Volkswagen from its rear bumper? Or a chalked up barbell loaded with 500lbs of weight plates? How about a leotard donning Jane Doe holding a pair of 5lb dumbbells while bending over to push her fanny to the ceiling with locked knees? Do you experience a pre-conscious sense of low-back pain and herniated discs? Why bother thinking of such a thing? Why try to lift objects off of the ground obviously not wanting to be picked up? What good is a deadlift nowadays when there are so many other ways you can hit your target areas and burn calories?
Since the advent of more “functional” tools and training protocols in gymnasiums, standard lifts have been stigmatized as some of the main culprits for exercise induced injuries. Deadlifts met the same fate as back squats and bench presses. These exercises became reserved for the bodybuilding and powerlifting arenas where ego depends on the poundage. Somehow weight became a primary determinant of who is considered successful, never mind the form or the health of the person days and years later. If someone can pull 800lbs off of the floor, then their technique is spot-on, right? Weight came before form and this mindset still leads people to racing through their workouts in order to be faster, stronger, or more apt at attracting the attention of others. The deadlift though is not an "exercise" and being a successful deadlifter does not depend on a particularly athletic skill or talent. It is not something reserved for athletes and bodybuilders. It is a fundamental human movement. It is something we’ve practiced since we first taught ourselves how to pick things up off of the ground. Naturally, we made mistakes while learning the best way to perform this action but we’ve also been our own best teachers in refining our technique. It’s when the movement becomes an exercise or skill that we open ourselves up to failure and injury.
Changing the image of a deadlift from an exercise to a movement is one of the best ways to begin making it an effective part of a well-balanced fitness program. Just as much as we should practice proper posture while sitting or standing we should also have the same emphasis on technique when picking things up. This requires a little more than the uttering “lift with your legs.” A good deadlift is a hip hinge that is the happy medium between incoporating the strong musculature above and below the coxal joint. It concentrically engages all of the muscles of the posterior chain running from the back of the heels to the back of the head. It also requires a coordinated effort from the front of the body in order to maintain proper posture while lifting and lowering the weight. When someone asks me what this “exercise” is working my first thought is to tell them “everything”, but it may be too simple and too true of an answer. This is when some anatomical wisdom comes in handy. Cuing people in order to get a greater sensation from their gluteals and hamstrings rather than from their lower back is easier when you know how each muscle functions separately. A problem with this way of learning the technique however is the hams and gluteals aren’t working on their own to complete this movement. They are completely intertwined with one another through fascia. People should learn to generate force form the center, not the hams or glutes. Repeated practice of this movement is essential if the benefits are going to crossover into real-life scenarios when you’re not thinking so much about lifting your bum as you are in picking a fallen person up off of the floor.
Since the deadlift is such a fundamental movement it gets every muscle in your body working and working together. When that happens, the metabolic benefits skyrocket and you quickly feel like your body is working instead of burning. Oddly enough, such a fundamental movement can be difficult to train to do properly, especially when the goals are long term ideals like weight-loss, weight-gain, or a tighter backside. Gyms have a way of directing attention from present activities to their desired results. Overcoming this mental obstacle requires just a little more time, patience, and change of perspective on what necessitates a “workout.” Each workout with deadlifts is an opportunity to practice this fundamental movement. You endanger yourself when it becomes an opportunity to get bigger or fitter. It’s like riding a bike. It shouldn’t be painful or extreme. It should be just enough to keep you consciously involved in how you are moving at that moment.
With any movement it is important to be able to do it properly before you add external resistance. I take this from one of life’s many lessons, “If you can’t control yourself, then how can you expect to control something else.” So it is crucial that you build the foundation first and then continually reinforce that foundation as you move on to performing more complicated tasks. Regular movement maintenance guarantees optimal efficiency for performing the lift during workouts and during day to day activities. In other words, maintenance is practice. Below are some drills you can perform to practice proper deadlifting mechanics. Feel free to do these on their own for a brief body-check or just do them to help reinstate proper patterns before you start to a tough workout---
Active-Isolated Hamstring Stretch:
Begin by lying on your back, on a mat, with both legs stretched out flat on the floor. Keeping your toes pointing up towards the ceiling, lift one leg straight into the air as high as you can using your own strength in the hips and quadriceps. At the highest point reach and interlace both hands behind the belly of the hamstring on the lifted leg and try to get the shoulders back down to the ground. Bend the knee if you need to in order to get back into a relaxed position with your spine. Hold the stretch as you normally would for a few breathes and then move on to the active portion. While holding the leg in place, use about 20-40% of your strength to engage the hamstrings and glutes and pull the entire leg back down towards the floor against your hands. Hold this contraction for 7-10 seconds, then take a deep breath in as you relax a little out of the stretch. As you exhale pull the leg up a little higher than it was before and hold again for a few breaths. Repeat up to 3-5 times on each leg.
Hip Flexor Engagement:
Take a knee on a mat while keeping the knee of the other leg up and foot flat on the floor. Keep the knee of the upright directly over the ankle. If it is coming forward over the toes then slide the kneeling leg back until you have that nice 90 degree bend on the front knee. From there posture up with your spine and keep the torso erect. Think about keeping your ribs as high off the hips as possible. You should feel a slight pull on the kneeling side of your hips and on the front of that thigh. If not, slide the kneeling leg back again and posture up. Hold the stretch for a few breaths and then engage the front of the leg on the kneeling side while simultaneously pulling from the back of the leg that is supported on the floor. Push and pull both legs together but keep them in the same position for about 7-10 seconds. Inhale as you relax a little out of the stretch and exhale as you deepen the stretch a little more. Repeat 3-5 times on each side.
Hip Hinge Maneuver with Dowel:
This movement requires a long stick or dowel rod to serve as a plumb line for your moving posture. Begin by standing erect with feet about hip width apart and toes pointed straight ahead. Take a dowel rod and hold it to your back with one hand up behind your head and one below your hips. Use this grip to pull the dowel against your back, so it keeps contact with the back of your head, the space in between your shoulder blades, and on your buttocks. Try to always keep the dowel against these three points of contact as you hinge your hips backwards behind your feet, as if you were about to sit into a chair. Hinge back until you lose contact with the dowel at any point. Hinge the hips back forward from that end point so you come back to standing erect. Repeat 8-10 times.
Squat – Deadlift Mixer:
Set up the same way as you did with the hip hinge. From the standing posture, lower the butt towards the ground allowing the knees to bend a little more. Try to keep those 3 points of contact. When you reach a point where you are about to lose balance, or lose the dowel, come back up to standing. Once you’re at standing, go straight into the deadlift movement back shooting the butt back instead of down, letting the knees bend slightly. Once you are at the end point where you can’t go any further without losing the dowel come back up to standing. This will help you get a feel for the differences between the squat and the deadlift. Repeat both for 8-10 repetitions.
Kettle Bell (KB) Deadlift (DL):
Stand erect with feet hip width apart. This time hold two kettle bells heavy enough to pull you forward if you don’t engage your core a little more than it’s used to. Feel free to supplement with dumbbells. Keep the shoulders in the same line as they were with the dowel, hinge the hips back again until you reach the point where you cannot maintain a slight hyperextension in the lower back. Think about pulling the hips forward from the low position until you come to standing. Repeat 8-10 times. ---
After you’ve refined your technique and feel like you can raise the bar, then do so, but keep the progressions movement based rather than weight based. Here are some variations to the standard KB deadlift which better tax neuromuscular system in having to balance the body and recruit more of its core musculature ---
Single-Arm (SA) KB DL:
Stand erect with feet hip width apart. This time hold one kettle bell instead of two with one arm at the side. Keeping the shoulders in line, hinge the hips back as you do with the standard deadlift movement. The trick is recruiting the core more to counter-rotate against the uneven weight. Check in with your hips and shoulders to make sure you’re doing this properly. If you’re holding the weight on the right and you see that your shoulders are dipping to the right, then you need to rearrange yourself to get those shoulders even. Concentrate on centering first through the torso and then through the limbs. Come back to standing as you did before. Repeat 8-10 times each side.
SA Single-Leg (SL) KB DL:
Stand erect with feet close together and almost touching. Hold a kettle bell on one side as you did with the SA DL and take a slight step back with the foot on the same side. Transfer your weight onto the un-weighted side and hinge the hips back while allowing the back foot to leave the ground. Keep the leg all in one line from the heel to the bottom and then onto the top of your head. Lower down to the point where you cannot maintain a lordotic curve in your lower back or the symmetry between both hips. Slowly pull your hips back in to standing. Feel free to set the rear foot down in between each rep or try to keep it lifted the entire set to work your single-leg balance. Repeat 8-10 times on each side.
SA SL KB DL into SL Bent Row:
This is a very complex movement with a lot going on at once. Take it in steps first before putting it all together in one fluid group of movements. One way to picture the work done here is to think about bending over to pluck a golf ball up from the green. One leg will serve as the stable trunk around which everything else moves to enable you to reach to the ground and bring your arm back to your torso. Begin the same way as you did with the SA KB DL. This time pause for a second when you reach the bottom position. Hold everything steady as you retract the shoulder blades and pull the kettle bell towards your rib cage. Pause when your hand touches the side of your torso and then slowly lower the weight back down to an extended arm position. From the end point, pull the hips back in and return to standing on a single leg. Repeat 8-10 times each side.
There’s no need to do 2-3 sets of 2-3 different types of deadlifts in one workout, but feel free to practice a variation with each set in a 2-3 set program. For example, perform a KB DL for the first set, SA KB DL for the second set, and then finish with SA SL KB DL on the last set. Deadlifts are most effective when they’re done with heavy weight since they do require use of the entire body. This means keeping your rep range around 6 – 10. Repeating deadlifts for 12-15 reps will transfer the focus from improving function to inducing fatigue. This number of reps should rather be used in a warm-up or finisher with little to no external resistance. If you are failing to do a deadlift properly, lighten up, change the base, or revert to the corrective warm-up exercises such as the ones described earlier. It’s good to attempt progressions with each session involving the exercise. If you successfully completed 3 sets of 10 reps with a pair of 24kg kettle bells then a goal for the next session would be to shoot for 3 sets of at least 6-8 reps on the next highest pair. Be careful not to get too caught up with increasing the weight. Weight limits are endless and there’s a point where the risks outweigh the rewards by making the exercises more challenging through increasing resistance. This is why we encourage changing exercise selection up every few weeks. Fundamental movements like the deadlift can be practiced year-round with great benefits but this doesn't mean doing the same deadlift on Thursdays for fifty-two weeks in a row. Try variations when you feel ready and implement them in different workouts and in different parts of your program.
The best indicator that you’re doing the deadlift right is its carryover into everyday activity. Does your back feel stronger? Does it feel weaker and more fatigued? Are you more injury prone or less injury prone? Does your quality of movement seem better? Check in with yourself on these things while you’re thinking through your exercise routine. You may find reason for making adjustments or you may just find more evidence that you’re doing just fine!
For more information check out Grey Cook's articles and FMS exercise library at http://functionalmovement.com.
- Noel L. Poff, CSCS, CPT, LMT, LTS Trainer