Exercises You Should Be Doing...But Probably Aren't
The deadlift. One of the central "slow lifts" and a mainstay in powerlifting and strongman competitions. You're probably already familiar with this movement, but we're going to break it down in a little more detail, pointing out some common mistakes, and get you pulling more than you ever imagined.
The deadlift varies from most other movements in that it begins concentrically - that is, you pull the weight "dead" from the ground, without creating a stretch reflex by passing through the eccentric (or negative) portion of the movement, thus it's popularity as a brute strength movement.
It is one of the most taxing lifts, recruiting multiple muscle groups and putting a high level of stress on the central nervous system. Due to its difficulty and impact on the body, the deadlift is an essential part of everyone's program - regardless of goals. You can't get big without getting strong, and the deadlift will make you very, very strong. It has a number of uses, variations and modifications, but we will begin today with the basic barbell deadlift.
1. Foot position varies, dependent on a number of factors. I generally begin most people with a standard stance: feet hip width apart (9"-14"), with hands gripping the bar outside the legs. It is up to you whether you choose a hook grip, double overhand or over/under. I suggest beginning with double overhand (as it builds the most grip strength) and save alternate grips for heavy weight. Your feet should be placed under the bar, with the "laces" of your feet directly beneath it. For those with ankle, calf and hamstring tightness, this will be difficult at first. Proper execution, stretching and strengthening will quickly correct inflexibilities. Eyes look straight forward, the hips are down and back, and the back arched. This arch is the MOST IMPORANT part of the deadlift. As in the squat, if we lose this powerful position, we compromise the integrity of our spine and greatly increase risk of injury - so maintain extension of the spine (the arch) throughout the movement!
2. Driving up from the bottom position: the initial pull from the ground determines the rest of the movement - your spine, of course, is in it's power arch, and your feet are firmly planted. Don't try to stand up straight quite yet - instead, increase the angle at the knee, while keeping the hip/back angle the same. More simply: straighten your knees. Keep your chest out over the bar while pulling up. Here your quads will be doing most of the work, but the hamstrings, hips and lower back are ready to take over. Squeeze and straighten those knees.
3. Clearing the knees: one of the biggest problems for the novice deadlifter is pulling the bar past the knees.Lack of posterior chain flexibility causes the knees to thrust forward, while insufficient recruitment of the lats causes the bar to drift away from the body. Once the bar moves away from the legs, it becomes much more difficult to maintain back position (remember the arch?). The cue here is to "lock the lats," or pull the shoulders back, as if squeezing something in the rear of the armpit. This assists in maintaining back position, while keeping hte bar locked close to the body. It is not uncommon to scrape the shins while deadlifting - it's even a sort of badge of honor in powerlifting circles. That's not to say you have to shave the skin off your shins to deadlift properly, but it speaks to the importance of maintaining bar proximity. The shins should stay fairly vertical throughout the movement, with the initial extension coming from the knees, and the secondary pull coming from the hamstrings, driving the hips up.
4. Once the bar is past the knees, the hips, hamstrings and lower back take over entirely. The hard part has past, the only duty now being full extension, or lockout. Continue to straighten the knees, while driving the hips forward and maintaining back position. Again, emphasize the strong arch of the back, keep the lats locked down and squeeze the glutes to finish driving the hips forward. The bar should maintain its closeness to the body, sliding up the thighs, past the knees. Initially you may not be able to fully activate the hamstrings in the deadlift, but through awareness in this portion of the movement, and through accessory movements such as Romanian deadlifts, deadlifts from pins, and good mornings, you can increase hamstring and gluteal recruitment.
5. You're not done yet! The prevalence of gluteal weakness can have a big impact here: trainees with lacking glutes can have a hard time finishing the lift from this point, being unable to properly recruit the glutes and lock the body in to position. This weakness also has an impact on lower back issues, as the structural muscles of the lower back can take on the workload that should be handled by the glutes. Squeeze those babies, pull those shoulders back and hold - that's it! Return the weight to the ground in the same way you pulled it - don't round the back and drop it down.
If you've never deadlifted before, I recommend adding it in one to two times per week into your program. Begin with a rep range of six to eight for four sets. Don't forget to warm up before your work sets! This means use a piece of PVC pipe or a broom handle and do eight to ten reps. Then use the bar, with a similar rep range. Slowly work up to your working weight - don't just toss on some 45's, then another pair, then another. Be conservative, maintain your form before all things, and track your progress. Once you're familiar with the movement, move to a rep scheme with less reps and more sets, increasing intensity and volume. Try something like five sets of five, or six sets of three.
Now these are only basic guidelines, and I challenge you to integrate the deadlift into your program and discover your strength potential!
Tyler Welch is the Strength & Conditioning Coach at Neutral Ground Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He is also the founder of Second Nature Fitness, an active Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitor, and a whole lot of other stuff that means he paid a bunch of people to teach him things about fitness. Follow him at www.twitter.com/secondnaturefit, www.myspace.com/secondnaturefitness, Facebook and www.secondnaturefitness.org
See a list of previous USCS Strength & Conditioning articles here.