Monday 27 January 2014

How to Deadlift Without Wrecking Your Back Part 2

When it comes to blog posts, a topic like deadlift technique may seem rather bland. However, when it comes to your training - you have to make a decision - do you want results or fitness entertainment? If you want results, you need to follow this simple formula: 1) select a specific goal, 2) find the best exercises to get you to that goal, 3) learn to do those exercises in the safest and most effective way possible and 4) get better at those exercises. In addition to the technique strategies I mentioned in Part 1 of this post, here are some additional strategies that will help you maximize the benefits of the deadlift while minimizing your risks.
Do practice sets, not warm-up sets
When it comes to any big movement like the deadlift, you want to think of your "warm-up" sets as practice sets. The goal of these sets goes far beyond simply getting warm. As evident from part 1 of this post, there are a lot of technical things to know during the deadlift. Lighter sets provide an opportunity to practice these techniques without the distraction of a heavy load. Do not miss this opportunity. When you are lifting heavy weights, there is only so much that you can think about. Preform every set with the same technique and respect you would need when lifting a maximal weight. This deliberate practice will make the techniques discussed in part 1 become more automatic.

Use an appropriate grip
With beginners I encourage the use of a  pronated/double-overhand grip (both palms facing into towards you). The prontated grip will strengthen your grip. Also, when using a pronated grip, your grip will be the limiter (i.e. it will be the first thing to go) and to start, that is a good thing. Having the grip be the limiter help to keep the low back from being the limiter. It is better to miss a rep because your grip gave out than your low back.

As weights get heavier, you will find it challenging to hold onto the bar. There are several options - all of which have their advantages and disadvantages:
  1. Strengthen your grip and stay with the pronated position. This is quite safe but will tend to limit the weight you can lift and potentially under-train your posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, low back).
  2. Use a hook grip. This is a popular choice for weightlifters. The benefit is that it keeps the shoulder girdle balanced and does not place a hand in supination. Warning: this will hurt and will take some time to get used to - and will still likely hurt.
  3. Use an alternated grip. This means that one hand is supinated (palm facing out) and the other is pronated (palm facing in). This is the strongest grip and makes it much easier to hold onto the bar. The downside with this grip is that it can cause some muscular imbalances over time. This can be minimized by learning alternate both ways (i.e. each hand get comfortable being pronated or supinated) and spending equal time each way. There is also some risk for bicep tendon tears on the hand that is supinated. This is usually due to not keeping the elbows completely extended or using steroids (which can create an imbalance between muscle and tendon strength). Also, I have heard of some research years ago that found the risk of biceps tears was less when you supinated your non-dominant arm (something to consider for your heaviest sets). When using the alternate grip, it is also good to avoid using it in your warm-up sets for extra grip work and less imbalance risk.
  4. Use a trap bar. Deadlifting with the trap bar places your hands in a comfortable, neutral (palms facing in) position. While this does not help out as much as the alternate grip does, you will find your grip stronger than you would with a pronated grip.
  5. Use wrist straps. I'm personally not a fan of this one, but it is an option. If you train at a gym that does not allow chalk it can be a necessity (however, if your gym does not allow chalk, try to find another gym). Straps take care of some of the disadvantages of the above options. The downside is that you will become dependent on them as your deadlift strength will increase without your grip strength. That means if you forget your straps, you cannot deadlift normally. They may also put strain on your wrists. Another disadvantage is that with your grip secured, your low back will definitely be the limiter so if you use straps, be extra careful to stop before your back gives out. I have also found that on occasion when I have tried pulling with straps that I'm unable to get the same tightness through my hands and torso.
Make a deal
Unless you are an advanced powerlifter, make this deal with yourself: if I cannot keep my chest up and low back arched, I will not do the rep. Only do reps that you can complete with proper form. It is better to leave a rep on the table than to get hurt and not be able to deadlift.

Earn the big weights
This is a great tip for all exercises. Remember you have to get good at deadlifts to get the benefit and that means progressively increasing the weight. However, you want to earn the bigger weights by first having good technique with light weights and then demonstrating that you can maintain that great technique with a heavier weight.

Keep the reps low
While I have dabbled in high rep deadlifts, I recommend most people keep the reps 5 or less. Many people mistakenly think that low reps are dangerous and high reps are safe. However, in the case of complex movements such as the deadlift, the opposite is true. High reps bring on more fatigue which breaks down form and increases your risk of injury.

Do individual reps in your set
Think of every rep withing your set as a single rep. In an attempt to increase their quantity of reps, many people sacrifice their quality of reps and bounce the plates off the floor each rep. A safer and more effective way to deadlift is to let the bar sit at a complete stop between each rep. When the bar is sitting, get another breath of air in, re-set like I wrote about in Part 1 and then do another rep. This not only increases safety, but provides the opportunity to build dead-stop starting strength. You can take this a step further with a method from renown physical therapist Grey Cook and actually let go of the bar and stand up between each rep.

Leave 2 reps in the tank
I know this sounds totally non-hard core, but hear me out. A mentioned previously, the low back tends to be the limiter with the deadlift. As a result, if you were to go to complete failure, you would find that the last rep or two was still doable with your legs, but your back rounded. It is these reps that can be especially dangerous. If you hold back a bit and leave a few reps in the tank (i.e. stop 2 reps short of your max reps you could do), you will greatly reduce the risk of harming your low back. Don't worry about it being too easy. Because it is such a big, total-body intensive exercise, you can progress with the deadlift while not training it to complete failure.

Use low volume
Another effective strategy for safe, effective deadlifts is to keep the volume low. Coach Dan John recommends his "rule of 10" for the deadlift. This means keeping the total reps for the deadlift 10 or less. This could be a number of different set & rep combinations such as: 2x5, 3x3, 5x2, 6x1, etc. (note: these numbers are written as sets x reps). While there are technically no "rules" when it comes to training, keeping the volume a lower on the deadlift is a solid, high-mileage principle.

Look to set PR's but don't max
This tip is a gem I learned from Brett Jones. As mentioned previously, I discourage people from going to failure in the deadlift because the high risk of injury and the tendency for the back to give out. However, this does not mean you should not chase PR's (personal records). For example, last week, I hit a a life-time PR in the deadlift. It felt great, came up fast and I stayed tight. However, it was not a true 1 rep max and I probably could have done more. However, I chose to be smart, enjoy the accomplishment and move on healthy and ready to keep getting stronger.

Get it on film
When you are deadlifting, have someone film your set. Then, you can watch your set and critique your form. This is an amazing way to learn a movement and is very enlightening. With today's cell phones, this is very easy to do.

Get coaching
While written tips and videos are helpful, nothing replaces hands-on coaching. If you have access to a coach who can analyze your form and help you with your technique, take full advantage of this opportunity. We all can benefit from coaching. Even for myself after years of lifting, coaching and studying, I will still have my interns find technical problems with my lifts and this information is invaluable for me to get better.

In Conclusion
The deadlift is a very powerful exercise which offers tremendous benefits for building strength, increasing lean muscle, losing fat, enhancing performance and training in an extremely time-efficient manner (click HERE for more information on the benefits of deadlifts). However, it is a high-risk exercise. By following these tips and the ones in Part 1 of this post, you will maximize your results while minimizing your risk of injury. Happy Deadlifting!

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