The Deadlift. What is more straightforward? Go grab something off the floor and put it down again. We’ve done that tens of thousands of times in our lifetimes. Piece of cake, right?
Well, anyone who has committed to improving their deadlift numbers knows that it gets a bit messy pretty quickly.
Why Do Our Deadlifts Get Funked Up In The First Place?
It’s largely due to your bodies instinctive compensatory controls to help you get out of ‘danger’ as quickly as possible and get the rep(s) done, and will do that in a number of less than ideal ways for safety, form and gains.
What do we see time and again?
- Bar drifting forwards.
- Rounding of upper back.
- Rounding of lower back.
- Tucking of hips under the shoulders.
- Unable to rip the bar of the floor.
- Getting stuck halfway up.
- Trying to muscle the bar up with the biceps and shoulders.
I’m sure there are more, but these are the most common. And I’ve done them all!
So, when you get into it, and want to make some strides forward in you Deadlift performance, you’ll likely go to Google and watch a few YouTube clips. Some are useful, but many failed me for a few reasons.
Firstly, when Deadlifts are demo’d with low weight, it definitely helps see what is ‘optimal’, but under heavy load the body just acts differently. Not to mention the Central Nervous System and the head game that requires you to show up in SUCH a different way.
Secondly, you often see people lower into the Deadlift in what looks like a squat, with their back arched and butt out – mostly for the booty shot I think. 🍑🤔
Thirdly, there are SO MANY potential cues you hear banded around that it can all be pretty confusing, especially when you are trying to lift your max training load.
So Many Cues – E.g. Engage Lats / Shoulder blades in to your back pockets / Corkscrew your feet into the ground /Tear the floor apart / Bend the bar, chest up / Shoulder Back / Stare kinda forward and down / Don’t strain your neck, Squeeze your glutes / Lift slow and fast like a rocket takeoff. There are loads more… hopefully you get my point by now.
How Did I Get Into A Funk?
I’ve been properly Compound Lifting as part of my overall exercise regime since early-mid 2016. And by proper, I mean paying for lost of coaching to work on my gym IQ and how to work on the big lifts of Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Overhead Press and several other multi joint exercises.
Maybe I was deadlifting about 90KG at the beginning. I’m 5’11” and back then was about 175-185lbs. I’m now 190-205lbs, 37 years old, and am up to 187.5KG Deadlift for 2, and more consistently 180KG for 5. Deadlifting over 2x your bodyweight is a reasonable place to be for an early intermediate average-joe lifter.
My Deadlift strength is largely thanks to having a strong back – that would often get me out of trouble when lifting – especially in squats and deads. I’m also reasonable at grinding out reps, commanding a lot from my CNS and getting into the zone.
However, I had been stuck (and went backwards) over the last few months, as I seemed to have ringed out all available strength from my muscle mass. Or so I thought.
I got myself in to a funk. You know, over thinking ahead of the lift. Getting anxious when approaching near max training weight. Worried about herniating a disc. Piss balling around for far too long once I approached the bar – sometimes hanging around for 20-30 seconds before lifting.
Followed by false start lifts and having to dial things down for a while.
My form was starting to let me down. This was 180KG. It was a grind throughout, and I couldn't get the third rep out
It was more than that. When something feels broken, you start tinkering. I played around with my various weightlifting belts, and could never find the right rightness and placement. I messed around with grips and grip straps. Got some Smelling Ammonia (check out this review).
Threw in some Deadlift variations to break the plateau. But, in the end, I needed to find a better way of lifting and get in more practice…
My Old Deadlift Technique
Pictures paint a thousand words. Check out the below pics and the bullets underneath to see how I was previously deadlifting. You might find some similarities.
#1 – OLD START Notes:
- Too Deep – I got it into my head that I needed to start the Deadlift in a squat-like position, so I can leverage my quads and not my back
- Back & Lats – I knew what a strong healthy Back looked like, so would get it ready when standing and lower myself to the bar, trying to maintain the position why fidgeting with grip, stance and hip height.
- Unknowingly Lost Tension – Whilst I braced hard at the top, with all the lapsed time getting ready, I was losing maximal brace and all-body tightness
- Shoulders Over Bar – I had it drummed into me that you want to lift vertically, so I needed to have my shoulder above the bar… right?
- Mind Wandered & Worried – I would try and keep energised, aggro and and focussed, but it’s hard if you are doing ‘stuff’. I was running out fo gas before even starting!
- Belt – I have an SBD Belt, which is amazing. But, bloody uncomfortable unless you get it’s placement just right. I would be distracted by the belt digging into my ribs and just not feeling right.
#2 – OLD PULL Notes:
- Controlled – I had it in my head that fast is bad. Controlled is better, and a sign of better technique and strength.
- Hip Rise – I didn’t have enough tension. Even with my best efforts, I could not prevent my hips shooting up prior to the bar moving. It was really frustrating.
- Lose Back Tension – With this pre-lift movement, my lower back would travel up, leaving my shoulders where they are, causing an immediate upper back rounding.
#3 – OLD ASCENT Notes:
- Focus on Lifting – I would just be thinking ‘lift this crazy heavy bar. Get it over and done with’. Turns out thinking about lifting is not productive, as you naturally tuck your hips in and have the back take all the load.
- Back would Round – I tried desperately to squeeze my back with all the cues I knew, but at max loads, my thoracic would absolutely round, which can be tolerated, but my lumbar would over flex too. Felt dangerous.
- It was a Grind – Not a good place to be. Feeling like the mild part of the rep is taking forever, in a compromised back position.
- Hips Inactive – Whilst not strictly true, what I hadn’t realised was that my form and style was putting all the hip flexing muscles secondary to my back musculature.
- Lockout – Only when almost at lockout did I feel the full force of my glutes and hips.
#4 – OLD ECCENTRIC Notes:
- The Perfect Eccentric! – This was the most confusing thing. I would round on the way up, but could maintain a strong flat back as I slowly would control the weight down to the floor.
- Rewind – I often felt that if you watched my deadlift in rewind it would look perfect. All the tension in the right places.
- Reset – Once the bar was on the flow, I would do a mini version or Step 1 and 2, effectively repeating the same problem with every fatiguing rep.
Then My Mind Was Blown
Luckily, I subscribe to some valuable sources of reputable evidence-based training information, and when I get some time, I might even read it… 🙄
One guy who produces fantastic work, is Greg Nuckols (founder of Stronger By Science). His work is extremely technical, geeky and very very long, but he knows his market. Greg produces technical papers of mastering powerlifting lifts, pours into exercise science data and helps synthesise some really interesting conclusions around strength and muscle gains.
He wrote this encyclopaedia of an article on How To Deadlift, which goes into your bone structures, muscle insertions, loads, levers, individual anatomy variations, differences between Sumo and Conventional and many other highly technical observations of the deadlift. Word of warning, this is a two hour read!
It’s through this article, that my Deadlift got a new lease of life, after a few weeks of working on some fundamental changes.
Some of the big EUREKA MOMENTS for me were:
- My Weakness – If you can maintain a strong neutral spine on the Eccentric / Lowering of the bar, then you back is strong enough for the weight. The problem is your HIP STRENGTH!
- Hip Strength – To Improve Hip Strength, exercises such as Good Mornings, RDL’s & Hip Thrusts need to be purposefully introduced
- Many Styles – There are 5-6 different Deadlift setup variations for Conventional and Sumo, and you need to see which one works best for your anatomy and muscle-mind connection
- Hip-Hinge – The Deadlift is predominately a Hip Hinge motion, and not a pseudo Squat / Leg Press
- Shoulders – The key is to bring the hips as close to the bar as possible, to reduce the moment arm – one way to do this is to have the shoulder start ahead of the bar and engage lats
- Foot Placement – Jump up and land. That will be approximately where you will feel strongest
- Pause Deadlifts – These can help find your comfortable starting position, and acclimatise to the first pull couple inches of the pull
- Activation – RKC Planks, Banded Diagonal Pull Downs and Fast Heavy Kettlebell Swings
- Accept A Little Breakdown – When lifting maximally, form will degrade a little. It’s your job to flirt with the highest weight that you can perform and 80-90% technical quality. Don’t assess your Max lift in the moment. Just do the work!
Piecing It All Together – My New & Stronger Deadlift!
Ok, so I’ve shared warts and all on my prior Deadlift form. I’m in a really good place with the Deadlifts now, and am excited to see weekly improvements. The goal of 190KG for 6 and 200KG for 1-2 by Christmas is in sight. 🤩
Here’s the new form. Whilst there are different styles, I think this will be productive for most lifters. Even if you prefer Sumo Deadlifts, these same principles apply, as my wife Michelle is finding out.
#1 – NEW PRE-START Notes:
- Speed of Setup – The key is to not work yourself out of the set, or to burn out before getting started. Approach the bar with some aggression, take a quick breath and immediately go grab the bar (see below).
- Bow-Arrow Hamstrings – Keep the hips high and go for maximum load and tightness in your hamstrings. Don’t let this tension go.
- Hunch – Whilst keeping those hamstrings tight, hunch over and grab the bar. Don’t worry about the roundness – you want that at this stage.
- Mixed Grip – This is probably best, so you are not let down by your grip. Bar in the base of your fingers, not the palm. Straps are also an option, but take valuable seconds away.
- Shoulder Above / Ahead – As you’re hunting, making sure you are directly above the bar, with the shoulder stacked above the bar and the bar above your mid foot.
#2 – NEW PULL Notes:
- IN ONE MOVEMENT – It’s important that the pull and below happen ALL TOGETHER, not sequenced. All together. You want to to to be lifting within 2-5 seconds from grabbing the bar in Step 1
- Straighten Back & Chest Up – Do this whilst maintaining all the tension in the hamstrings, and lowering the butt as little as possible to achieve this neutral spine position. Chest Up help focus on a neutral Thoracic.
- Huge Breath and Massive Brace – Take the the biggest belly breath you can take and brace you core by trying to push your gut, obliques and lower back against your belt (aka circumferential pressure)
- Shoulders Forward & Bar Back – To allow you shoulders to hover ahead of the bar, you need to tightly engage your lats and attempt to pull the bar back into your shins
- Squeeze the Bar! – We want even muscle fibre and piece of fascia switched on and ready. Squeeze the hell out of the bar, like you’re trying to pop it.
- Push Floor Away – It’s super important that you do NOT think of the Deadlift as a Pull, but instead you are trying to PUSH the floor away. This mental shift brings the legs and hips into play first.
#3 – NEW ASCENT Notes:
- HIPS FORWARD, SHOULDERS BACK – That’s the ONLY thing you should be thinking about.
- NOT lifting the bar – The bar is immaterial. Instead move through space as you have practiced and can imagine. Hips Forward, Shoulders Back. Repeat it over and over in your head. This is NOT a lift.
- Speed & Power – Imagine how fast you can shift an empty bar or a kettlebell. That’s how fast you should INTEND to move on the accent. It’s all about powering through.
- Chest Up – Make sure to present your chest to the mirror or wall all the time. Visualising peacocking your chest you help control your tendency to round in the thoracic spine.
- Think Strong Hips – This is after all a hip-hinge. Let’s get those hip flexors firing on all cylinders – think Glutes, Adductors, Hamstrings, upper elements of your Quads.
- Hump The Bar – Really get those glutes fired up near the top so you can lock out with maximum force. Think about having your shoulders, hips and feet stacked before lowering the bar
- Controlled Lowering – It’s actually the eccentric part where you cause the most tissue damage that will result in strength and muscle gains. So control the bar back down over a course of a second. Don’t just let go or let the bar crash you down to the floor.
- Maintain Tension – Touch down on the floor, and quickly reset following Step 1 and 2. Allow a moment to make sure you are ready like the first rep, but get moving quickly to keep in the zone.
That Leaves Only One Thing Left…
It’s time to go Deadlift baby! Lift safely my friends, and do share your progress on the AdapNation Facebook Community Page.
Follow this PT Corner microblog as it unfolds. Comment if you have questions or ideas.