There is a serious lack of toughness in the modern gym these days.
Oh, there’s no shortage of tank tops, various MMA branded training gear, Dr. Dre headphones and overly-loud gym banter, but the one important element that will make or break a productive training session is largely extinct.
Straight-up, no BS, iron-clad will-power with the courage and knowledge to overcome some serious weight. The drive to surpass your current abilities and create the physique that you hold in your mind. Instead, what do I see? A forest of cable bicep curls, crappy bench pressing and the always inspiring Smiths machine squats.
What happened to us?
There’s a lot that could be said to answer this question – a generation so firmly entrenched in technology and convenience that we expect every task that we attempt to be easy or yield quick rewards. An appalling amount of false or incomplete knowledge perpetuated by health magazines, folk-lore and bro-logic that leads to ineffective or potentially harmful consequences. Defeatist attitudes and no desire to leave our self-created comfort zones. But perhaps the simplest reason is this:
We lost our balls.
For women, this still applies, although obviously in a metaphorical sense. We’ve taken concepts such as “core strength” and “functional training” and used them to hide behind and down-beat proven old-school exercises and lifts, claiming that “modern research” has made these lifts of yore dangerous and irrelevant.
And perhaps no other lift has received such a bashing in the modern exercise community than the mighty deadlift.
It’s funny, because what could be more “functional” than being able to safely and effectively lift a load off the floor teaching maximum motor unit recruitment in an optimum movement pattern? What could do more for your “core” than bracing your entire musculature to engage and stabilise a heavy or fast moving resistance? And with more movement variations than Tony Stark possesses suits of armour, there’s never a reason to experience a stagnant workout. What’s more, depending on your flexibility and lever lengths, an ideal deadlift variation can be easily adopted to best suit the individual.
Indeed, mastering safe and effective deadlift technique is one of the best methods for massive gains in strength, size, injury prevention and athletic performance.
But yet every day, to my dismay and disbelief, I see some of the most shocking and god-awful dead lifting “technique” than you could imagine. Yes, we all make naive and stupid mistakes when we first start lifting, but you shouldn’t have to have a degree in exercise physiology to notice when something doesn’t look or feel right. I think it’s fair to say that we all know we should keep a straight back when lifting, and yet I see groups of boys standing around watching their buddy lift with a back as rounded as the Macdonald’s arches.
It’s time to get smart people. It’s the 21st century and there are no excuses for ignorance – you want to deadlift? Great, I applaud you. But for the love of God, take the time and effort to learn proper technique. Internet (not any old YouTube clip – check out www.t-nation.com video tutorials), fitness professionals and a little perseverance will get you on the right path – something that is especially important for new or inexperienced lifters.
And regardless if you consider yourself a newbie or a grizzled veteran, it’s time to dump the ego at the door – the weight will always be there, but unless you plan on walking with a cane or developing a taste for painkillers in later life, drop the weight down and learn the correct movement patterns first. For what seems more glorious to you: lifting a mediocre weight with terrible form in an attempt to impress your mates, or an effective long-term approach that leads to the continual development of PB’s?
Be a Spartan, not a schmuck.
The most commonly repeated lifting errors with the deadlift
1. Too much damn weight! I’ve jumped the gun a little bit here in terms of progressive pointers, yet I have to get this off my chest. If you cannot stabilise and maintain a straight, neutral spine alignment, the weight is too heavy. And please, PLEASE, do not deadlift continuously look sideways in a mirror to ‘observe your form’. Taking a glance is ok, but if in doubt, grab an exercise professional to make intelligent observations. Start to learn better body awareness without the need for constant visual feedback.
2. Knees coming too far over the bar. This issue is more pronounced with individuals with longer limbs, but for the majority of people it stems from not keeping your weight on your heels – your weight is more over your toes which forces you to lean forward with an over the knee shin alignment. You must sit back at the bottom of your dead lift position – push your hips back and keep your bum down. Ideally, you are looking for a more vertical shin alignment with the bar either touching your shins or just a hair’s width away from it.
3. Foot stance is too wide/narrow. This is crucial for optimum pushing power in your legs. Just like in the bottom of a squat, the ideal alignment is to have your knees over your feet for maximum efficiency of force production. Bowed out or buckled knees are a sure fire way to kill your pressing power, as well as unnecessarily aggravate your knees.
4. Bent arms. You need to think of your arms as ‘hooks’ and your legs as the ‘crane’ that’s moving the load. Your arms should be extended with them taking the tension of the load. YOU ARE NOT TRYING TO SHRUG/ROW THE WEIGHT UP. When you attempt to lift with bent arms, the slack being taken up kills your power transmission. Try to crush the bar in your hand for maximum muscle fiber recruitment in your upper body.
5. Starting with the bar too far away from you. The further the bar is away from you, the difficulty increases exponentially. Remember, your goal is to move the bar upwards in a straight line – you cannot do this if you start with the bar 5 inches in front of your shins. With extended arms, bring your shoulders over the bar and readjust your position from there.
6. Jerking the weight up. This problem is compounded if your arms are bent, but trying to execute this lift too explosively will actually work against you. Yes, you should always attempt to accelerate the load as fast as possible MAINTAING YOUR POSTURAL CONTROL AND SPINAL ALIGNMENT. Jerking the weight up will only pull your shoulders out, pop your hips up and round your back. Any one of these is a big dead lifting no-no.
7. Hips coming up to soon. Ladies and gentlemen, the primary movement in a deadlift is a powerful leg extension, not a back extension. You need to drive your legs into the floor as hard as you can, maintaining a constant straight-back angle until that bar begins to pass your knees. When your hips pop up, you lose all your leg drive, and you’d better have a good relationship with Jesus if you expect to not suffer a back injury of varying severity. KEEP YOUR BUM DOWN AND YOUR HIPS BACK FOR AS LONG AS POSSIBLE.
8. Excessive back extension at the top of the movement. This one is a real pet peeve of mine. You’ve completed the lift, you’re standing vertical and proud achieving lock-out – there is no need to perform an exaggerated back hyper-extension. By all means, stand proud with your chest out and shoulders back, but performing a standing limbo with a heavy load will do for you what Bane did for Batman. There are no additional benefits to performing this ad-hoc movement. Avoid the ‘Bat-break’
9. Bouncing the bar when performing multiple repetitions. There’s a reason why I’ve highlighted this fault. In my opinion, this is perhaps even more of a greater flaw than lifting an excessively heavy load. Why? Because as soon as you bounce the bar when performing your repetition, you’re no longer performing a dead lift.
Assuming you pulled the weight with respectable technique on your initial rep, the subsequent repetitions you execute possess a completely different movement pattern – Your hips are high, your legs are damn near extended – you’ve gone from the primary mover being a leg drive to some quasi-back extension. This means that there is very little (if any carry over) when attempting to progress your strength in the dead lift and you’ll be left scratching your head wondering why you can’t hit a new PB in 6 months time. The bounce will actually make the lift easier than it should be because the bar’s inertia wants to go up – it ceases to become a dead lift because you’re not actually pulling it from a dead stop!
If you only remember one piece of advice from this blog, let it be this:
Treat each repetition as if it was your first.
What does this mean? Once you’ve completed your first pull, set the weight down and take an extra 2-3 seconds to readjust your positioning to that of your initial pull. Let’s recap:
- Feet hip-width apart
- Toes facing forward
- Start with the bar just over your toes
- For the classic power lift style dead lift, take a grip slightly wider than shoulder width
- Push your hips back, get your bum down low and flex at the knees so your thighs are parallel
- Keep your weight on your heels – sit back with the bar. This will keep your shins more upright
- Get your shoulders over the bar
- Chest up
- Arms extended, bearing the tension
- Brace your abdominals
- Drive with the legs, try to keep your hips down as long as you can
- As the bar passes the knees, drive forward with the hips, completing the powerful leg drive
- Stand up tall, achieve “lock-out” – chest out, shoulders back, legs fully extended.
As you can see, there is more to dead lifting than just picking the weight off the floor. The list above should act as a checklist at the beginning of every repetition. In time, these points will become instinctive. The best way to improve at dead lifting? Dead lift more often. Avoid reaching failure, keep the load at low-medium intensities until your technique catches up with your ambition.
Train hard. Take pride. Respect your gym.