Monday 20 January 2014

How to Deadlift Without Wrecking Your Back Part 1

Whether you are training to improve sport performance, daily life function, build lean muscle, melt off unwanted body fat, or be as time-efficient as possible, you would be hard-pressed to find a better exercise than the deadlift (yes, you could make a great cause for the squat here). In my previous post I sang the praises of the deadlift, but then concluded with a warming: deadlifts are hard work and if done wrong, they can wreck you. My personal relationship with the deadlift has not all been honeymoon blis. I have tweaked my back many times and spent more trips to my chiropractor than I would like to admit. However, my journey with the deadlift has taught me a lot about how to deadlift without wrecking your back. Now, you can learn the easy, free way.
Assume a reasonable risk
The only way to have a 100% guarantee of not getting hurt in the weight room is to never set foot in one. However sitting on coach offers HUGE risks for problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease so I personally choose to take my chances in the weight room. Also, athletes who avoid putting their time in the weight room end up putting their time in at the athletic therapy clinic. Every exercise offers risks. When selecting an exercise you always have to weigh the risks and the benefits. The deadlift offers huge benefits, but there is still a risk - especially if you are not doing it properly. We all will make lifting mistakes from time-to-time that can get us injured. However, the rest of these tips will help you to minimize your risk and maximize your benefits.

Get medical clearance
Get checked out by a doctor and someone who specializes in the body (e.g. athletic therapist, chiropractor, physiotherapist) to check for problems. This is especially important if you have any back issues, past/present injuries or health conditions as the deadlift may not be appropriate for you.

Get an FMS
There are many assessments and screens that can be used. With our athletes, we use the FMS (functional movement screen). This simple screen takes about 10 minutes. If you experience pain on any of the movements, you go get checked out by a health care professional. If you have no pain, but do poorly on the movements, then you should work on your movement quality first before pulling some big deadlifts. One particular spot of importance for deadlifting is to ensure decent and symmetrical hamstring length and good hip and core stability. If you are lacking in these areas, it is best to fix these issues first.

Get flat shoes
Personally, I prefer to deadlift barefoot, but if you do not like that (or your gym does not allow it), look to get a shoe that has a flat, solid heel.
Here is one good shoe option for deadlifts
Lean the hip hinge first
Before introducing the deadlift to a new client or athlete, I like to start with the hip hinge. This critical movement is challenging for most people as many confuse it with bending forward. However, the hip hinge is about pushing your hips back, not flexing your spine forward. Once the hip hinge is mastered, it is much easier to learn the deadlift. See this video for more information on how to do the hip hinge:

You can also progress to the Weighted Hip Hinge.

Start from the right height for you
While I would rarely recommend someone to unnecessarily cut range of motion on an exercise, not everyone can and should deadlift from the floor. This is not an excuse to do a 2" inch, ego-stroking rack pull, but rather some words of wisdom - if you are not a competitive powerlifter, there is no law that says you have to pull from the floor. Some people cannot get proper set-up due to body proportions (e.g. short arms, long torso). If you have decent hamstring flexibility and you still cannot get a proper set-up from the floor, it is best to deadlift from a rack or blocks.

Work on your set-up before lifting
One of the great things about coaching the deadlift is that the movement starts at the bottom in the hardest position. This allows you to spend as much time as needed to get the correct position without the weight being engaged. Before you think of lifting, ensure that you are able to get these four check-points:
  1. Bar mid-foot and touching the shin
  2. Neutral spine (think chest and butt out and double chin)
  3. Shoulder blades over the bar (note: some lifters like to be back a bit more at the shoulder than this) (reference: Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore)
  4. Feel the heels (your weight should be more on your heels and you should be able to wiggle your toes)
Get air and get fat
Many people have heard the "rule" that you should never hold your breath while training. While this at times a good guideline (especially for everyday folks doing light-weight machine-based exercises), it is far from a universal weight room rule. Healthy individuals with a performance goal should hold their breath during the rep and breathe between reps. Try to inhale using your diaphragm which will cause your stomach to push out. This will increase pressure in your torso and enhance your stiffness.

Get total-body stiffness
To minimize your injury risk AND allow you to pull bigger weights (and thus get more benefits), you need to follow up your positioning and getting air with getting tight. Crush the bar with your hands, squeeze your lats, tighten your butt and gut. Get your whole body stiff and solid. This will protect you from moving at your spine which increases safety and ensures that your energy goes into to moving the barbell - not your spine.

Learn before you load
Once the hip hinge is learned, the next step is learning how to do the deadlift with a bar in your hands. When first learning this, a great strategy is to start with a wooden dowel or empty barbell. Once you understand and can perform the movement correctly, you have earned your right to start gradually adding weight.

Get the slack out and squeeze the bar off the ground
Many people try to explode a deadlift off the ground with a powerful jerking motion. While this looks hard core, it is a great way to add a whip-lash-like stress to your body. Before you lift, take the slack out of the bar. If you hear a "click" when the barbell breaks the ground you do not have this - listen for silence. Also, think of squeezing the bar off the ground. The deadlift starts as a slower grind and accelerates, picking up speed as you pass your knees. See this video for more details.

Learn to negotiate between your knees and the barbell
The best direction to lift a heavy barbell is straight up (or in the case of the deadlift perhaps slightly back). However, in the set-up position, your knees will be slightly ahead of the barbell. This means that your knees and shins will be in the way. Many newbies try to solve this problem by taking the barbell out around knees (see the next point for why this is not a good idea). Instead you want to move your knees back out of the way as you simultaneously lift the barbell. From the ground to just above the knee, this will result in the hips and shoulders rising at the same time - watch that this happens. For more information knee negotiations, check out this video:

Keep barbell over the midfoot
When coaching the deadlift, I will often stop looking at the individual and just watch the bar path. I look to see that the barbell stays over the midfoot and does not move out on the way up or down as you pass the knees. If the bar moves forward towards to a position over the toes it will shift the stress off your glutes and hamstrings (where it should be) and onto your knees and low back.

Maintain leg contact
The bar should be touching your shins in the starting position and maintain contact with the leg throughout the entire set. Think of sliding the bar up and down your leg. To help with this, wear pants so you can maintain the contact (and thus the proper bar position) with less fear of scraping your shins. In order to keep this bar path, you will have to use your lats to "pull" the bar in as it will naturally drift out. Keeping your lats tight will improve bar path and increase the stiffness in your trunk.

 Lockout out the hips at the top
At the top of the movement, you want to fully extend (or lockout) the hip joint. Here again we run into the commonly given fitness "rule" of, "Never lockout your joints". While this is good at times (e.g. someone pressing who has hypermobility in their elbows), there are exceptions. The hip lockout idea came from the sport of Powerlifting as a standard for how high to pull the bar in the deadlift. However, I encourage athletes to lockout the hips as it is a movement that can only be done with the glutes. In doing so you strengthen the glutes which has tremendous performance, posture and aesthetic benefits. One common mistake with hip lockout is that it is often replaced with lumbar hyperextension. Think of standing tall and squeezing your butt, not leaning back at the top. For more information on proper hip lockout, check out this video:

Lower carefully & properly
Always remember that the rep is not over until the bar is back on the ground. Too many people just lower the deadlift like they are bending over to pick a cracker off the floor. This a great way to hurt your back! To lower the bar, start by thinking Romanian Deadlift. With soft knees, push your hips back and let the bar slide down your thighs until it gets past your knees. Then continue to lower by bending the knees. If you lower correctly, the bar will end up in the same position as a proper starting set-up.

And for those who are visual learners, check out this video on the deadlift HERE.

Ready for more? Here is How to Deadlift Without Wrecking Your Back Part 2

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