I’m feeling nit-picky this week.
Perhaps it’s the tedium of mundane tasks catching up with me. Or an exuberant amount of coffee in conjunction with the stressful culmination of many projects coming to a head.
Whatever the reason, I have made the decision to turn my hyper-attentive inclinations toward something constructive.
I have decided to make us all better at our deadlift.
The Deadlift form starts with the weight on the floor. Pull the bar with a neutral spine until you’ve locked your hips and knees. Return it to the floor by moving your hips back first and then bending your knees. No biggie.
I have already written about why you should deadlift, but there are only so many pointers one can fit in 750-2000 words so I will skip the philosophical treatise and reassuring motivational verbiage trusting you’ve already read that one. Instead let’s shift our focus to the HOW’s and WHAT’s — with a picky focus on how you can improve this all-important lift.
Here are the problems and their solutions.
Problem 1: You feel your deadlift in your lower back
During the deadlift, the primary mover should be your glutes in hip extension. If you watch any veteran lifter with fantastic form, you’ll note that there is very little or no change at all in the angle of their lower back during the movement.
Your lower back muscles (erector spinae) should only support the movement by stabilizing the spine as your core cinches your torso into an impenetrable, tree-trunk like structure.
So, if you are finding your lower back overly sore afterward or (worse) DURING a deadlifting session, (some tightness is normal and fine, remember it IS working) you need to do some ancillary work.
The best fixes are light, slow machine back extensions (to strengthen the stability of the erectors during your lift), and transverse abdominis activation through slow-tempo decline crunches with emphasis on the eccentric phase.
Problem 2: Your upper back rounds when you bend
There are some that would argue this is not a problem worth addressing. One of the current deadlifting prodigies in of the world (Eddie Hall) lifts his record-breaking (1025lbs.) weight with a rounded upper back.[i] Who am I to argue?
Well, I might say that Eddie Hall and the average deadlifter’s fitness goals are very different.
My tips are to help you safely progress your lift and be in condition to continue doing deadlifts 20 years from now without medical intervention. So take or leave this tip depending on your personal self-actualizing goals.
With rounding upper-backs, many have correctly diagnosed weak or underactive latissimus dorsi as the root cause, but have incorrectly concluded that lat pull-downs and pull-ups are the answer to correcting this flaw.
The logic is sound but you’re missing a piece.
In a deadlift, we need our lats to be active while we are in weight-bearing hip flexion. Unfortunately seated-pull-downs and pull-ups are not weight-bearing hip flexion.
The best remedy is a barbell row with a grip mimicking the grip you wish to use on your deadlift. Again, slower tempos are better since you’d like to train your lats in stabilization and eccentric strength. Progress in weight as you are able with flawless form and a straight spine. Resist the urge to dip your upper body and bounce up with each rep. That doesn’t train your lats; it makes problem #1 worse.
Problem 3: You rock forward on the balls of your feet, either in the beginning or middle of your lift
Since your glutes are providing almost all of the lifting force in your movement, it’s important to have the maximum stability in your foundation – YOUR FEET! If you shift forward during your deadlift, you are missing out on some serious strength coming from your primary movers.
Two solutions. First, ensure your shoes are suited for the deadlift. Minimal support is best for a lift that requires so much stability through your foot. Many people don’t consider this and try to lift in their running or tennis shoes. Not good. If you’re unsure, about your shoes, take them off and try the deadlift in your socks.
If it’s not the shoes, then its your calf and foot stability. I’ve addressed how to deal with calves and why it’s good for your health here. Follow the advice and watch your deadlift improve 10-20% in 4 weeks!
Problem 4: Your form is perfect, but you just can’t seem to progress in weight or reps
Take a quick second and ask what you’re hoping to accomplish through deadlift progression. If you’re only answer is “cuz I can”, then don’t bother. Without a reason, there is no rhyme worth telling.
But if you have a good reason, here are some pointers.
Often, strength plateau’s can be broken by training power for awhile, then coming back to the strength movement. In the case of the deadlift, cleans, jumps and short-duration sprints all create power adaptations in the glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves and core that will allow you to crush the deadlift after just a few weeks of power focus.
This is a great time to look into workout-intensifying supplements. I highly suggest the Life Time Strength Stack pre-workout complex for a number of reasons that you can find here. I have used this with clients to impressive results in just 6 weeks of supplementation with no negative effects. Definitely worth sampling at a Life Cafe near you.
Also, training type-1 fibers can have a huge impact on strength movements. In the case of the deadlift, performing eccentric reps (going slow 4-8 seconds on the way down and exploding on the way up) with 60-70% of your 1RM can hyper-stimulate your type-1 fibers into adapting the way you need in order to reach the next level. Don’t break form, though! We want this movement to maintain quality and to prevent injuries during your progression.
Problem 5: Your grip limits your lift
Hard to lift those weights with your big muscles if you can’t even hold the bar securely with your little ones!
The solution is fairly simple, but no one wants to put the work into something so mundane: train your grip strength and endurance.
Hang from a bar for time until exhaustion. Do dumbbell farmer carries. 2 sets of 20 light wrist extensions on every upper-body day. Take up rock climbing once per week. Train with kettlebells and TRX.
I want your forearms to feel like Popeye when you’re done. Then I want you to do it all again at least 3x this week.
But Alex, why not just use wrist straps?
Remember the deadlift champion? What’s your goal?
If you want to be able to continue to reap the benefits of deadlifting 20 years from now, you have to train your WHOLE body to handle the load you’re putting it under. If you can barely grip the bar, do you think it’s ONLY your forearms that you need to bypass?
It’s likely that your grip is not the only limiting factor in your upper body (are your rotator cuffs ready for that weight? What about your neck? Elbows?) and that bypassing your weakness on a regular basis instead of addressing and fixing it will only put you at a greater risk of injury. Do the work of laying the foundation for your lift. Don’t cop out on me now!
Nitpick Your Way to Your Best Deadlift
I hope you critique yourself regularly and that these tips help that practice be a positive one instead of a neurotic one. At least as far as the deadlift is concerned, you’ll train your core and back, check your shoes and calves, develop killer lats, supplement for performance and pay attention to your type-1 muscle fibers, plus work on your grip strength.
I don’t know what the best version of you looks like, but I promise deadlifting plays a role somewhere.
And since the holiday weekend is over, there should be plenty of racks available for you to practice being more awesome.
See you on the fitness floor.