Building a Better Deadlift
Is deadlifting dangerous?
Do you have to be a strength athlete to care about deadlifting?
Do you have to deadlift with the intent of lifting heavy or maximal loads?
Who should be deadlifting?
What should my deadlift look like? Do I need to work on technique?
These are just a handful of the questions and confusion surrounding the topic of deadlifting. Unfortunately, there is a tremendous amount of misinformation and misguided answers that you may hear in response to these questions.
As with all activities, there is likely a time, place, and method that each and every one of our clients could benefit from performing some variation of deadlifting. The intent of this discussion is to dive into some of the most common deadlifting Do’s and Don’ts!
To begin this discussion, let’s first define exactly what a deadlift is:
A deadlift is just one variant of lower body hinge movements that involves lifting a load from varying heights to an upright standing position. The deadlift is a highly relevant movement as all humans need the ability to efficiently and confidently bend and lift for both daily activities as well as performance.
Most commonly, heavier deadlifts are performed with implements such as barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells that allow for significant amounts of external loading.
In reality, deadlift variations can be performed with assistance (hand supported reach toward the ground), unassisted and unloaded (reaching between the feet to pick something up), or loaded (with a slew of possible implements).
The most common characteristics of a deadlift are:
- High degree of hip flexion and minimal knee flexion demands
- Highly demanding on hamstrings, glutes, and lumbar erector musculature
- Maintenance of spinal and hip orientation throughout the movement (no excessive bending/extending from start to finish)
- The ability to separate movements of the hips from the spine
- Ability to generate varying degrees of trunk stiffness in order to efficiently transfer force through the upper and lower body
Trap Bar Deadlift:
This leads us into the next question: “who should be deadlifting?“
My answer is rather simple: everyone… to some degree!
Regardless of an individual’s familiarity with formal strength training, improving upon the basic characteristics and competence with hinging and deadlifting movements can offer significant return on investment. Whether the goal is to be able to pick up the grandkids, carry the laundry basket pain-free, be able to work in the garden, or deadlifting over 500 pounds, the deadlift is likely relevant for you.
Deadlifting in and of itself is not dangerous. Just like any exercise, it can be performed recklessly with ill-advised loads, volume, technique, and inadequate preparation.
The determining factors that help determine which type of deadlifting we perform would be:
- What are relevant loads? (how much do they need to be able to lift?)
- What are the relevant positions? (how far down must they get?)
- How often and how many times do they have to lift? (how much capacity do they need?)
By answering the above questions as they relate to the person you are working with, the selection and implementation aspect becomes quite simple!
If the individual’s goal is to pack on strength and power to improve on their performance as a running back, I will likely want to select deadlift variations that allow for use of heavier loads through a significant arc of motion. In this instance, I would levitate toward the use of barbells, trap bars, and heavy free weights with the intent of eliciting high degrees of muscular force and exertion over short periods of time.
Alternatively, if the individual’s goal is to be able to more comfortably and repeatedly bend, lift, and carry items less than 20 pounds for work, my selection will be vastly different. In this case, I might utilize light-moderate loads with the goal of accumulating greater repetitions in a pain free range. This may take the form of performing partial range of motion kettlebell deadlifts (lifting from a box) and gradually progress to lifting from the floor as required for work. Additionally, I would likely utilize asymmetrical hinging strategies with this individual as the added variability of positions and movements may help to better distribute loads across multiple tissues.
But what about Technique?!?
How do we determine if a deadlift is within “acceptable limits”?
While not exactly scientific, I will start by using the “eye test”. Does it look smooth, fluid, and consistent.. Or does it look uncontrolled, unpredictable, and overall resembling the qualities of s**t?
If something looks drastically off or if there is excessive and noticeable deviation outside my expectations, I may inquire further as to what is contributing. In many cases, I have either made an error in demonstration, exercise selection, or load.
If there is a noticeable detriment in performance above a certain threshold (load or range of motion), modifications or cueing may be warranted. This does not mean that the athlete will sustain an injury, but rather that the risk to reward ratio becomes less desirable when performed outside of an acceptable bandwidth. That desirable bandwidth will be determined based upon the individual’s goals and the necessity of deadlift heavy loads to achieve them.
Additionally, it is highly important to garnish some sort of feedback from the athlete. How does the movement feel? Is there any discomfort/pain? Does it feel easy/medium/hard? Are you feeling confident with this weight?
The subjective reports from the athlete in conjunction with your coaches eye provides valuable insight into the quality of execution and the current degree of difficulty. If the athlete reports the movement feels good and you are seeing smooth and consistent execution, there is likely no need for additional cueing or modification. Alternatively, if they are feeling uncoordinated or lacking confidence, it is likely not a good time to add significant load, but rather to allow them to build repetitions and consistency at familiar intensities and loads.
When should we intervene versus letting the individual figure out what works for them?
Strive to set up a “safe-to-fail” experiment. If you are just beginning to work on deadlift progressions, I would anticipate the weight to be fairly low and multiple repetitions to be performed slowly. In this scenario, I will not be overly concerned by a handful of repetitions that deviate from the norm. Little to no risk for adverse effects should be present.
Alternatively, if the individual is intending to perform maximal effort deadlifts for the sake of performance, technical deviation and variability from the mean must become significantly less. The higher the intensity and the greater the loads, the more significant technical execution becomes. At lower loads, the body has multiple viable options to perform a deadlift. As the load increases, the window of error begins to narrow. Losing trunk stiffness in a sub-maximal deadlift has a much lower likelihood of leading to a failed lift or injury as compared to during a maximal effort attempt. Context matters.
I am always cautious of using the word “fault” when describing movement, as there is no perfect way to perform a given movement. That being said, there are handful of instances in which execution and safety can be bolstered through technical modifications.
In general, the purpose of such modifications would be to improve the efficiency and/or to alter which muscles and tissues are loaded with a specific movement. If the intention is to utilize deadlift variations to improve posterior chain strength, hip extension strength and power, and lower extremity explosiveness, there will most certainly be joint positions and styles of execution that are more favorable compared to others.
Common Fault #1: Squatting the Weight
Knees excessively forward/ “Squatting” the weight
This is an incredibly common occurrence when teaching a deadlift pattern. Many individuals have it deeply engrained to “lift with their legs” or to “squat down to pick up heavy things”; unfortunately, this often manifests itself in apprehension and lack of control when performing hip dominant lifts.
A “squatty deadlift” is not inherently an evil thing. It is characterized by a greater degrees of knee bend and lower hip position as compared to your more traditional deadlift movements. This position greatly reduces the demand of the posterior hip musculature and shifts the demand to the anterior muscles (quads especially).
When performed with implements such as dumbbells and trap bar, this pattern poses little safety concerns. Alternatively, if this squatting pattern is utilized with barbell deadlifts, it can lead to the barbell travelling further away from the body and potentially posing increased stress to lower back musculature.
Common Fault #2: Locking out the Knees
Some individuals take the reduced knee bend to an extreme with their deadlifts — they may lock out their knees and perform almost exclusively hip flexion with knees remaining straight. This pattern may be useful in some instances, but in many cases, it reduces the potential range of motion of the movement and places the hamstrings in a less advantageous length-tension relationship.
If the individual does not possess a high degree of hip flexion range of motion and control, a straight-legged deadlift may result in loss of trunk stiffness and resulting in increased spinal flexion under load While loaded flexion is not bad (it occurs in both squats and deadlifts!), a loss of spinal position occurring during a loaded movement may place undue stress on specific joints and tissues.
Common Fault #3: Insufficient Stiffness in Start Position
How often have you seen an athlete get into a great start position, but as soon as they start lifting the weight from the ground, their body bends like a wet noodle?
This is an all-too common occurrence with newer deadlifters. The ability to generate and maintain trunk, hip, and shoulder stiffness is vital to the ability to transfer force into the barbell and the ground. Creating tension through the shoulders and trunk is paramount to maintaining position throughout the duration of the lift.
Intuitively, the degree of stiffness will be highly dependent upon the intensity of the load being lifting. Lifting a 5lb dumbbell from the floor will take relatively minimal trunk stiffness as compared to lifting a 500lb barbell. This concept is far more relevant to our heavier loaded deadlifting variations.
Common Fault #4: Weight Drifting Away from Body
When we think of deadlifting we have to consider that as soon as the load is lifted, it becomes part of the athlete’s mass. Therefore, the location of the external load will highly influence the center of mass of the individual. This becomes increasingly important if the external mass is located further from the athlete’s center of mass.
If a load is lifted from directly underneath the individual’s center of mass, it will take considerably less energy to maintain that position and generate force as compared to lifting a load that is one foot in front of the center of mass.
Imagine lifting a heavy kettlebell from the floor. What is the best strategy? Do I want to stand back two feet behind the weight, bend at my hips, and proceed to lift it? Probably not my wisest choice. In general, we want to stand right overtop the weight, lower our center of mass closer to the ground, and stand back up.
Put simply, we want to keep any sort of deadlift implement as close to our body as possible. The proximity of the load to the base of support and center of mass will require less force to stabilize the trunk and place the body in a more advantageous position of leverage.
Common Fault #5: Pulling with the Arms
Throughout the movement, the arms should remain long and relatively relaxed. Commonly, you will witness an athlete try to “pull” or row the weight as they are lifting it. Such a strategy may place undue stress on the biceps and impair the transfer of force from the lower body to the upper body.
Some common cues I will give in this instance are “relax your arms” or “pretend your arms are ropes!”.
While this is by no means an all-inclusive list, below are some easy to implement deadlift cues along with their associated intentions. As with any cue, they may work perfectly well for some individuals and fall painfully short with others. Adding more options to your toolbox will likely increase successful outcomes and require less repeated reminders from you as a coach!
Deadlift Common Cues:
- “Soft bend at the knees!” – reduce hyperextension at the knees
- “I want you to bend at the waist as if you were about to be karate chopped” – getting into start position
- “Reach your arms forward as you push your butt back to the wall behind you!” – start position and initial hinging
- “Bow… then sit!” – establishing start position
- “Push the ground away as you stand up” – external cue to emphasize leg drive into the ground
- “Pretend you are trying to bend the barbell!” – cue to generate tension of the upper back and lats
- “Pretend your arms are ropes” – cue to minimize pulling with arms
- “Protect your armpits!” – cue to keep lat and upper back tension
Educate: The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system – Stephen Porges
This in-depth article dives into polyvagal theory as it applies to the human autonomic nervous system and how it influences behavior by responding to constantly changing feedback. The author makes the case that there are three distinct stages in the development of the autonomic nervous system and are linked to social communication, mobilization (fight/flight), and immobilization (vasovagal syncope). The theory draws linkages between our evolutionary history and our lived experience, communication, and emotional responses.
Listen: PT Pintcast – How to Get Paid Right For Your Clinical Services
This discussion offers some incredible insights into the behind the scenes billing and payment side of being a clinician. Even for clinicians that are not performing their own billing, this talk is highly valuable to better understand what variables go into being paid appropriately for your hard work!
Read: Antifragile : Nassim Taleb
While this book is by no means specific to rehab or reconditioning, many of the key principles and arguments hold true in all situations. In essence, Taleb makes the argument that the most robust and versatile organisms and systems excel in the face of adversity. The more adaptable and resistant to sudden perturbations, the more antifragile you become.
Follow: Greg Schaible @sportsrehabexpert
Greg Schaible DPT, CSCS is the owner of On Track Physiotherapy and continuing education company Sports Rehab Expert. As a former collegiate athlete and 5x Division II track and field All-American Greg has a unique blend of strength and conditioning, locomotion training, and rehabilitation methods that he utilizes to treat and empower patients to overcome pain and start a continuous process of building a more resilient body for the long term.