Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tips for a better Deadlift I (from a moderately competent deadlifter)

Not long ago I started a series of posts about the squat with the rhetorical question of what move would I recommend to the whole of humanity to improve their lives by acquiring more strength, more balance and a better ability to move. I still think the squat is the go to exercise for the vast majority, and the one that gives everybody, from the 90 years old granny to the elite Olympic weightlifter, a bigger bang for the buck. But that doesn’t mean that squatting is enough for a healthy physical development. Or rather, it is probably enough (it surely beats not doing any kind of resistance training, or doing only something with pink rubber dumbbells, or doing something with iron but moving the same weight for the same reps for years on end), but can be improved upon by the judicious addition of some select movements, that share with it the features of being multi articular (demanding the participation of multiple joints) and thus involving many muscle groups so they can be progressed almost indefinitely. So in my next “barbell sports” posts I will be talking about the exercises that can better complement a sensible dose of squats. I will use the same structure I used to discuss that first move: I’ll talk a bit about how to safely perform the movement, discuss the equipment that is convenient to use and finally provide some tips to improve once one has mastered the most fundamental basics. I intend every post to be as self contained as possible, so I have to ask my readers in advance for a modicum of patience if I sometimes repeat some concept or insist in some cue that has already been discussed.

The first movement I’m going to deal with is the Deadlift. It is probably the simplest lift you can perform: just approach the bar, grab it (which will force you to crouch down a bit) and stand up without letting it go. Once you have fully stood up (technically, you should reach a “locked out” position, in which your knees and hip are be fully extended, your back solidly fixed in neutral position –to support without danger the maximum weight possible, and the shoulders slightly back and down) you just put the bar down on the floor again. That’s it. Some people do argue about it as if it were an extraordinarily complex and technical movement that requires a PhD and two years of post doc practice before you can even think about performing it productively and safely. Well, like most things in life, it has many nuances and shades, especially when you become better at it and start moving some significant weight, and there comes a point when you may miss some lift you have the strength to complete successfully because you do not go through the exact positions, with the exact timing, that would have allowed you to do it, but overall I don’t think you can find a simpler movement to perform. When in doubt, just do what feels natural (while respecting a few basic safety rules we will talk about in a moment), and 99 times out of 100 that will help you get into the position you are stronger, and go through the motions most efficiently.      

Like in the squat, there are a number of variants you may want to consider before you start deadlifting, although my recommendation is to become proficient in all of them, as they complement each other nicely and switching between them helps defer the dreaded stagnation that is the bane of every lifter. In the case of the deadlift, the two variants that we will be talking about are the conventional deadlift and the sumo deadlift. There is a third widely used way of doing it, the Stiff Legged Deadlift (which some people mistake for the Romanian Deadlift, with which it has many similarities), that we will deal with as an assistance exercise, as it allows for less weight to be moved, and thus can be used to strengthen some parts of the main lift, but doesn’t constitute a legitimate lift by itself.
This is, then, how the two main variants (conventional and sumo) of the deadlift look like, seen from the side and from the front:

As you may notice, the main difference comes from the fact that in the conventional deadlift the feet are kept much closer and the hands grab the bar outside the legs. Those closer feet keep legs vertical, so the hip starts at a higher position (the angle between the back and the floor is more acute) and, for a lifter of the same height, the bar has to travel longer & higher, so the lifter performs more work. However, as part of that work is done by the opening of the hips, the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes and erectors) becomes more engaged, so that extra work may be easier than the alternative. In the sumo variant the feet are spread apart as much as possible (almost touching the plates), so the hip starts in a lower position, the back is more vertical so the posterior chain has less work to do, and the main contributors to the lift are the quadriceps, that straighten the knees to lift the bar. What variant is better for you? It depends on the relative dimensions of your legs and torso. Lifters with a long torso relative to their legs tend to do better with the sumo version, while lifters with shorter torsos and longer legs gravitate naturally towards the conventional. In powerlifting competitions the lighter categories (up to 105 kg for men, lightness is pretty relative here) tend to pull mostly sumo, and in the heavier ones it is more common to see the conventional style. All of this being standard wisdom, I’ve never seen any convincing definition of what constitutes “a long torso relative to leg length” (something along the lines of “if the ration between DL and DT is above 0.8, DL being the length from the crest of the hip to the ankle when standing, and DT the distance between the crest of the hip to the top of the collarbone at lockout, then pull sumo”) so the previous definition is probably of as little use to you as it has always been for me… just pull both ways for a few weeks and find out what feels better and allows you to move more weight with less exertion.
Before moving on to the safety rules for deadlifting properly I’d like to reflect for a moment on the potential application of this most basic and primal move to the sport of Weightlifting (consisting In the competitive execution of the so called “Olympic lifts”, namely the snatch and the clean & jerk). If I’ve chosen the deadlift as the second movement to expound is because I think it is an unbeatable help to develop raw strength. It allows the lifter to displace more weight than any other movement (well, nowadays and thanks to knee wraps and multi ply squat suits there are many top powerlifters that squat substantially more than what they deadlift, but let’s leave that aside for the moment). But, and regardless of how many very knowledgeable and very vocal coaches say, in weightlifting there comes a moment (and it comes very fast) where how technically sound you are is more determinant of how much you lift than how brutally strong you are. Coaches of a powerlifting persuasion love to quote how Chuck Vogelpohl snatched above a 100 kg (225 pounds), a very respectable weight that many dedicated weightlifters (me included) will probably never attain, the first time he attempted the lift in a gym, and conclude from that anecdote that aspiring weightlifters should spend more time getting strong with basic, simple to execute lifts (namely the deadlift), and devote a much smaller percentage of their training time perfecting their technique (the reasoning behind such recommendation being that they may derive more benefit from squatting and deadlifting than from endlessly repeating the snatch and the clean & jerk). Sorry, but as much as I respect some of those coaches I have to call poppycock.
The idea that there is some weightlifting methodology where people only practice the lifts with relatively low weights is mostly a straw man, as most actual practitioners squat their asses off, not just because they need to squat a ton to recover from a heavy clean (and to a lesser extent from a heavy snatch), but because that is their way of imposing a systemic stress to their bodies that forces them to adapt by becoming overall stronger. Furthermore, most of us achieve a decent level of strength much faster, and much easier, than a decent level of technical proficiency. Consider my own case: after a few years training consistently I can deadlift 220 kg (490 pounds), a not too shabby number for a 45 years old, 90 kg male. But the strength gained doing that exercise only allows me to clean & jerk 100 kg (223 pounds), which is really nothing to write home about. What should I do, then? Keep pounding at the deadlift, which requires most of my energies for months on end to gain may be 5 kg? I very much doubt that would add a single kg to my C&J. What I need to do is practice clean & jerking much more (ideally under the supervision of a knowledgeable coach) until I manage to perform it without thinking with a half decent form, which has the potential to have a much greater pay off (actually, that is what I intend to do after summer, if I manage to have my dissertation finished by then). By the way, one of the biggest technical hurdles I have to overcome is my very poor transition between the 1st and 2nd pull (roughly, the 1st one is done mostly with the quads, and takes the bar from the floor to just above the knees, and the 2nd is done with the hammies & glutes, and launches the bar from mid thigh to sternum level, although just reaching navel height would be enough if I managed to change direction and get under it fast enough), transition that owes much of its deficiencies to the fact that I’ve been doing a completely different movement pattern for years… you guessed it, by deadlifting heavy, powerlifting style (which is much more dependent on straightening the knees and the hips at the same time after the bar passes the knees, while in weightlifting the knees stay bent so the quads can still contribute to the second pull). So, summarizing this long detour, if you someday intend to do Olympic style weightlifting, be very careful with how much and how frequently you deadlift, and consider ingraining since the very beginning the pattern of (much more dynamic, to the extent of performing a little “scoop & jump” at the top of the move, and without locking out… and forget about mixed grip, obviously) “oly style” deadlifting.  For the rest (I guess the vast majority of my current readers), feel free to deadlift to your heart’s content in the manner I'm about to teach you.
Now, as with the squat, if you are going to deadlift, you’ve gotta learn to do it right (Kenny Rogers words, not mine), and that means respecting the following rules:
·         Get the feet below the bar (so your shins are one or two inches from it, looking straight down you should see the bar above the middle of your shoelaces) properly centered and at the right distance from one another, which will obviously be different depending on the style you are going to use: if you are going to pull conventional, feet should be approximately at hip width (a very used gimmick to find the exact optimal width is to close your eyes and get yourself in the starting position for a standing vertical jump: that will instinctively be your optimal position for producing maximal power through the legs); for pulling sumo, open them as much as possible, as long as you feel able to still push them against the floor to raise the bar (the limit, obviously, is set by the weight plates, as you can not go any wider than that)
·         Lower the hip keeping the arms hanging loosely (as vertical as possible) until they meet the bar. At that point the shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar, and the height of the hip will be dictated by your particular anthropometry. Grab the bar resolutely (if you are a beginner, it is OK to have both hands pronated –palms facing towards you, while when the weight gets heavier you will probably need to resort to a mixed grip –one hand pronated, normally the weaker one, and the other supinated) as if you were going to crush it
·         Flatten your lower back and puff out your chest (look to a point in the floor about 15-20 feet in front of you) to ensure you achieve a neutral back (neither in kyphosis nor in hyperlordosis)
·         Start extending the legs while keeping the back angle constant (so the hip and the shoulders rise at exactly the same speed). Rather than pulling the bar upwards, think in pushing the floor downwards and away from you. Keep at all times the weight evenly distributed between the ball of the foot and the heel (another good cue is to wiggle the toes inside the lifting shoes before you start to pull to ensure the weight is safely centered towards the back of the foot, rather than towards the front).
·         Although this has been said a thousand times, it bears repeating: do not jerk the bar from the floor! There are many, many rituals to set up and start doing something that, for big weights, is quite hard (start moving a weight that is completely stationary, without the help of a minimal stretch reflex), but none of them includes jerking the bar. Pull gently to take the slack off the bar (the more flexible the bar is, the more it may give before starting to show some resistance) and then continue, applying gradually as much force as possible, but do not go down and then try to jump up (flexing the arms, probably rounding the back, and thus courting either a bicep tendon tear or a herniated disc). The key here, and the essential feature that distinguishes a safe, effective lift from a failed, potentially injurious one, is keeping the lower back flat as a table during the whole lift, keeping the erectors (and also obliques and abdominal muscles, same as in a heavy squat) engaged and working isometrically  for the whole duration of the exercise
·         Once the bar passes the knee, start opening the hip (so now is the time to rise the shoulders) contracting the glutes hard until you achieve lockout (a natural position where the weight is evenly distributed between the anatomical structures best suited to support it). Remember to keep the lower back flat at all times!
·         After solidly locking out (and do not worry, you will absolutely know if your lock out has been successful or not) put the bar down gently: first relax the hip with a minimal sitback while letting the bar slide down the thighs, and once it has passed the knees bend them until the bar is on the floor again. This can be done reasonably fast (as gravity is a powerful helper), but has to be always under control
Although in the squat I suggested doing the movement with the empty bar for a few reps until these safety patterns were properly ingrained and were done automatically (without having to think consciously about them), the empty bar is not that adequate for learning the deadlift, as the bar has to be at the right starting position (with its axis 45 cm from the floor), so use the lightest plates you have of the right diameter (that would typically be 10 kg or 25 pound plates, taking the total to either 40 kg or 95 pounds, which is still a very reasonable weight for healthy males of nearly every age and young sturdy females, but may be a tad high for the very elderly, which may require either a technique bar of lower weight or the empty bar raised on blocks or stacked plates).
In my next post on this issue I hope to talk a bit about equipment (the good news is you need less than for squatting, so we will devote less space to that) and (hopefully) ten plus one tips to improve your deadlift once you have started to do it regularly.

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