Master the Movement: Deadlifts

deadlift-amongtheflora

When we understand movement patterns, we see the best results and ultimately, cultivate a healthier relationship with our bodies. No matter our level of expertise, it serves all of us to correct flaws and master proper biomechanics.

This series will feature one exercise & explain it’s alignment + technique. We’ll also throw in suggested regressions, variations, and auxiliary exercises to bring the mastery full circle. 

Train your entire body with the classic hinge.

The three largest muscles in the body — glutes, lats, and hamstrings — are on our posterior chain. The deadlift targets all three at once.

This exercise has a tendency to reveal muscle imbalances. The most common are overactive quads, a weak core, and weak glutes. When this exercise is done incorrectly, it is infamous for stressing the lumbar spine and causing further imbalance. There’s a temptation to go into this move with heavy weights, but to receive all the benefits, it’s best to stay at a light weight until you’re confindent in your hinge.

THE SETUP:

The lift is only as good as the setup. Make it secure.

*Note: Because everyone is anatomically different, hip positioning in deadlifts varies person-to-person. Simply execute your setup properly every time and you will always be in the correct position for your build. 


1. Step under the barbell.
2. Bend knees, hinge hips and move the barbell directly above the middle of your foot.
3. With a good grip on the bar, bend knees and sit back. As you root feet to the ground more, lift the chest and straighten arms completely so there is no bend at the elbow. It should feel like a “trust fall” into the glutes, with the barbell as the opposing force that keeps you from falling.
4. With abs tight, you should have a neutral spine with shoulders above wrists. Congrats, this is your correct hip position in a deadlift. 

*From the side view: hips are positioned somewhere in between shoulders and knees. Armpits + barbell + mid-foot should be in a straight line right above each other.

THE MOVEMENT:


1. Once in the setup above, inhale.
2. To lift: exhale and brace core as you lift through glutes to come up to standing.
3. Engage glutes fully at the top by bringing hips into a full extension. NOTE: Be sure there is no sway or excessive thrusting– this stresses the low back & disengages the hamstrings + glutes. Instead, think of stacking your shoulders + hips + feet when you squeeze glutes as tight as possible.
4. To lower: inhale, hinge hips and return the barbell to the starting position directly above the midline of the feet. It helps to think as if you are pressing glutes back to touch a wall behind you. Make sure weight in your feet is distributed evenly.

2 KEY ASPECTS OF DEADLIFT MASTERY:

a). The shoulder and hip joints move AT THE SAME TIME.
Essentially, don’t straighten legs before moving your upper body. Both joints must move in sync and be one fluid motion.

b). The barbell must stay over the midline of the foot.
This is imperative throughout the entire exercise. Imagine that you are drawing a vertical line with the barbell and it must remain straight from its starting position on the ground to its finishing point in the upright position.

DETAILED BREAKDOWN:

STANCE: About hip-width.
But this can depend on what you’re targeting. No matter what you choose, your arms should have clearance to lift the bar.

BARBELL POSITION: Directly above the center of your feet. 
The mid-foot is our center of gravity. If the bar is too far forward, you will not be able to contract the legs properly and instead stress the spine. The bar should start by touching your shins (it will naturally move to give clearance to lift, but the barbell should move directly above the midfoot throughout the entire movement – non-negotiable). 

ARM POSITION: About shoulder-width (can be slightly wider), completely straight, with armpits directly above barbell + mid-foot.
*TIP: engage triceps. This helps keep the lats active, while also taking the biceps out of the movement — (NOTE: if you’ve ever had elbow pain while deadlifting, a bend in the arms could be the culprit. Bending means your biceps are attempting to lift the bar, when they are not strong enough to carry the amount of weight used for a deadlift).

GRIP: Start with an overhand grip.
It’s important to build grip strength overhand first. Experiment with a mixed grip once you’re ready to increase your barbell load.

LEGS: Knees bent roughly 15 – 20 degrees.
This gets your glutes firing so they can support your pelvis & spine. YOUR GLUTES SHOULD BE FIRING BEFORE YOU LIFT THE BAR. If you don’t feel your glutes turn on before lifting the barbell from the ground, it’s possible your knees are not bent enough.

GAZE: Eyes locked on the floor a few feet in front of you. Do not look in the mirror.
It is not safe to lift the bar while looking up. It also prevents the core from engaging properly. Looking at the ground a few feet in front of you will keep your spine neutral and neck safe. (p.s. the photo on this post is not a proper example since I have my neck slightly raised. The neck should be neutral with the spine).

REGRESS FOR PROGRESS

A Regression: a scaled-back version of a movement.
It can be a whole different workout or a simple adjustment to the original move to add assistance. There is never shame in mastering your foundation. True strength starts with the basics. 

If you struggle with deadlifts, it’s possible you need to work on building up your glute and core strength. My two favorites for the deadlift specifically:

  • Deadbugs. The deadbug exercise will teach your abs to brace properly so you can move your arms and legs without hyperextending through the back.
  1. lie on your back.
  2. bend legs 90 degrees so knees are above hips. straighten arms so wrists are above shoulders.
  3. before moving, secure your foundation: inhale, now as you exhale push your spine into the floor. low back should be completely flat. keep this core brace.
  4. exhale & lower opposite leg and arm (example: left arm, right leg) while keeping the other arm and leg still. focus on keeping low back glued to the ground.
  5. inhale, return to starting position. Repeat on the other side. 

Suggested: 3 sets, 14 reps each.

  • Glute bridges. Most of us have excessively tight hips because of the way we live in modern society. Fun fact: a muscle can only be a strong as the opposing muscle is flexible. If we have tight hips, the opposing muscle, our glutes, will have a hard time knowing how to function properly. Glute bridges help loosen tight hips and strengthen the posterior to prepare your muscles for deadlifts.
  1. lie on back.
  2. bring feet close to hips (at the top of the bridge, knees should be directly above ankles).
  3. engage abs and keep weight in heels, not toes.
  4. push through heels to engage glutes and extend hips at the top of the bridge *you should form a straight line from your knees, hips, to shoulders.
  5. keep glutes and abs engaged as you lower down to starting position. 

Suggested: 3 sets, 18 reps each. 

VARIATIONS

  • Sumo deadlifts.
  • Hexbar deadlifts.
  • Romanian deadlifts.
  • Single leg deadlifts.
  • Staggered Stance deadlifts.

AUXILIARY EXERCISES

Auxiliary lifts are exercises that work on a specific movement pattern and/or muscle, building the necessary strength in bigger, compound movements. 

There are so many you can do for deadlifts, but these are a good place to start if you need to build posterior and core strength.

  • Lat pushdown.
  • Hip thrusts.
  • Single-leg glute march.
  • Barbell ab rollouts.
  • Any move that challenges lower core, such as reverse crunches.

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