By Dave Thomas, NSCA-CPT, USA L1
Google, “How to increase your deadlift” and you’ll instantly be returned 67,899 results from books to blogs to podcasts on tips to increase your pull. No disrespect to any of the authors, after all, I have contributed to that clutter, but they are almost always the exact same. A couple of adjustments in technique, stop rounding your back, get more volume and XYZ accessory pull. David Dellanave is really the first person to come out with anything revolutionary on the topic in a while.
However, try your hand at, “Creating a safer deadlift” into the search query and it’s nothing but tumbleweeds and old Wild West music. In fact, I could not find a single article that didn’t immediately go into form that anyone searching would already know well. It seems the industry is chock full of information about how to lift more, but there exists a dearth of opinions on how to align yourself to lift safer.
The deadlift is arguably the best exercise you can do for pure strength as it requires you start from a position of bad leverage and from a “dead” stop. Unlike a squat where you have the advantage of a stretch reflex at bottom, the deadlift is all brute strength and technique. However, this yin of positive benefit also presents a yang of compromise as this bad leverage and lack of momentum makes it the single most compromising traditional lift we can perform.
While by no means is it a dangerous movement, it is absolutely important that you prep your body to handle the rigors of heavy pulling and understand the key factors at play.
I’ve seen what most would consider poor technique produce repeat 500# lifts because the lifter possessed mobility and was able to handle a compromised position, yet I’ve also seen flawless technique result in strained lumbars at just 135# because the lifter was completely broken on the inside.
So, what does this mean?
It means that without any doubt that 99% of deadlifting injuries for common folks occur not because of technique, but because of tight musculature and immobility in the areas we need to be mobile. You can perfect your form all day long but if you have tight, knotted muscles it’s only a matter of time before an injury occurs.
As sure as death, taxes and girls jumping in beach pictures, there will be a population that reads this and tells themselves they don’t need it, just like I did. So you ignore it, and allow yourself to be crazy sore every time you deadlift, slowly getting tigher and tighter. Then, one day. The game’s up. Your lumbar is pulled. \
The reality of heavy lifting is that it works until it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, you’ll wish you addressed underlying symptoms before they rear their ugly head.
What I aim to do here is today is present a convincing case why you should pay attention to this stuff. After all, it’s not fun. It’s boring mobility and maintenance. It’s not going to get you abs. But what I don’t want is for you to make the same mistakes I did, ignore your tightness and write it off as bad ass because you were just going so heavy brah, and then hurt yourself lifting a spatula one day because you’ve used up all of your get out of jail free cards.
So, today you won’t see a single tip regarding step-by-step textbook technique instruction form as we address that ad nauseam prior to class. We’re going to instead focus solely on prepping the movement and ways we can pre-hab our body to pull heavy, safe lifts for the long term so that when we actually step up to pull our brain does not have to think.
These are stretches, drills and practices you should perform on your own separate of the actual deadlift.
#1: Static Stretching
I used to shun this. Then I hurt myself. Now I worship it like Jessica Biel’s ass. All of the fancy banded stretching in positions that look like Bruce Lee couldn’t hold are definitely beneficial, and we’ll get to them, but let’s not put the cart before the horse. Static stretching, while not ideal immediately prior to a workout, should be done every single day in the areas we are tight and just by holding mundane positions for 30 seconds at a time we can drastically increase our chances of staying bulletproof.
Here’s how to correct this tightness before it bites you in the
Note: the lumbar stretch is the exception to the mobility work in neutral spine since we are creating that position for the sole purpose of stretching in flexion.
When I hurt myself in December during Battle of the Sexes, I saw our friend Dr. Jarret Welsh of Peak Performance here in Mission Valley and it was quickly pointed out to me the sole cause of my ailments was extreme tightness in my hamstrings, glutes and quads.
Here’s what was scary, and listen up.
Dr. J had me perform a basic test where I tried to touch my toes. The result?
I could get my palms flat on the ground with knees fully extended.
What else ya got, Doc? I’m killing it, right?
He had me then perform the same test where he held my hips in place and I could barely get past my knees. This meant that my hamstrings were in fact not mobile, but just the opposite. They were so immobile that my lumbar had developed a sense of over-laxity to make up for it and in fact I was stretching my lower back in such an extreme manner I could get palms flat without barely any contribution from my hamstrings.
From personal examination it seemed like my flexibility was perfect but it was far from it.
Suffice it to say, when Dr. J then told me what was happening with a couple hundred pounds in this position, it was no shocker that I injured myself. This tag team tightness from both sides was causing the muscles in my lumbar to be pulled past where they should be and finally, it caught up to me on just 315#.
#2: Lacrosse and Barbell Rolling
Foam rollers are the bee’s knees, but can be insufficient in really pulverizing the built up knotty soft tissue that causes immobility to linger. Here are a couple of good glute and hamstring rolls to get you started.
I first read about using the barbell to roll out tough areas that foam rollers can’t get to in Kelly Starrett’s book, Becoming a Supple Leopard. If you really want to take your mobility to the next level I highly recommend you pick up a copy.
OK, so we’ve covered how to pre-hab yourself prior to addressing the barbell. Now, it’s time to look at areas in which we can better focus during game time.
#3: Pre-Load Hamstring Tension
Tension is critical in all heavy lifting but never more so than when pulling heavy. If you do not pre-load tension in your trunk and hamstrings you basically send your body out to sea with no direction a big noodly, floppy mess. By signaling tension in the right areas prior to gripping the barbell, you let your body and CNS know what’s coming and you wind it up like a powerful instrument. Think of a boxer drawing back to throw a haymaker.
Kinetic awareness is a massively important part of lifting. You must be able to feel and control different body parts while under load.
This is much easier to explain in video form.
By creating this tension and explaining to your body which muscles are about to be used beeeeffffoorrrreeee we pull, it takes us right into…
#4: Push, Don’t Pull
I always hate that deadlift is technically a pulling exercise because it means we casually refer to it as pulling, yet that’s not the movement we want our brains to cue up prior to lift off. In reality, a safer deadlift is going to be one that we push from our hamstrings and midfoot, not pull (or more commonly in beginners, yank) from our upper body.
Let’s make one thing abundantly clear.
The lower body is responsible for the vast majority of this initial movement.
The upper body simply helps finish it off like Mariano Rivera in the 9th, and you call in Mo to close out a victory, not throw the first pitch.
As far as the upper body goes prior to a deadlift, you want rigid, tight levers, a pressurized trunk and a cervically neutral spine. That’s pretty much it. In reality, you are prepping them for the ninth inning and not to be the primary mover off the floor.
Do the arms and torso contribute? Of course. They’re holding the damn thing. But the initial blunt force trauma is why we have big bodacious hamstrings and glutes to act as the primary movers.
#5: Know When to Hold ‘Em, and When to Fold ‘Em
Listen to The Gambler, baby! His heavenly white mane and beard know all.
Some days you suck. Some days you are awesome. And most days you are even par. Accept it, get used to it and embrace it. Even Olympic champions have days where mentally, they are right as rain but their body just ain’t feelin’ it. The key is to get used to this biofeedback the second you sense it and plan your day accordingly.
In an era of dipshit fitspirational posters, we have been brainwashed to think we should just forge through the pain, crush the discomfort or some other stuff a 115 pound borderline anorexic fitness model posted in her spare time to simply show off her abs while holding a tricep kickback…not to cue proper weight lifting. She didn’t have you in mind, I promise.
The reality is we must be a Shaolin monk. We must listen. And our bodies are the Dalai Lama giving orders.
Typically, you should be able to tell the minute you pick up your third or fourth warm-up set whether or not PRs or even really grueling lifts are in the cards for you on a given day. Listen to these cues.
This is especially true if you are a morning class attender. Rolling out of bed and pulling heavy is not something that your body is going to frequently agree with time in and time out.
The risk is simply not worth the reward, and anyone who tells you that you can’t get beneficial work in at sub-maximal is a jackass.
Find those days where the stars are aligned, and then demolish it.
Otherwise, get your work in with a lunch pail mentality.
A Final Note: You’re a Newb. Accept It.
And you know what? There’s not a thing in the world wrong with that. Every single person in this gym from the owners down to the firstest of first timers was a newb at some point. We freaking love the go getter attitude in a world where people quit at things left and right. Being a beginner is simply the first phase of your cycle, yet no matter how many times we might say to take it easy, ease into the movement, don’t go nuts your first three months deadlifting, there is always someone who thinks they are the outlier.
They are not.
They never are.
You don’t go onto a Harley before you attempt a tricycle.
Deadlifting is an animal unlike anything else and the only way you can properly train your body to handle it is by creating neural paths at light weight, not by tossing 225# on like a boss and pulling with a back that looks like the McDonald’s arches.
Advanced lifters might be able to get away with a lumbar in flexion when they’re seeing stars and pulling PRs. Not beginners, moderate or even proficient lifters.
You must train the proper neural path for your body because your body is great at remembering. As P360 member Chris Hill puts quite well, “the funny thing about neural pathways, they stay with you forever whether you build good ones or crap ones. You can build new, better ones, but the crap ones remain as a default for when you get tired or lose focus.”
So, you better make damn sure you program the proper path of movement up front because if you program in crappy ass technique you will have a very hard time undoing it.
It’s like a tattoo. Shit’s permanent.
You can get away with crappy form at light weight but when you start to progress and lift anything heavy, it becomes quite unsafe. This can all be avoided by possessing patience and understanding that the gym is a classroom, and you have to pass 101 before you can go into 404.
Ever scene Hitch? Albert is a new person trying to pull 300# for reps their third week and Hitch is the voice of reason, us, slapping with him with needed reality.
Technique. This is you. This is where you live. They ain’t need no pizza, they got food there.
This is the exact conversation we have with a lot of incoming men who “think” they know deadlifting their first few weeks. I get it. We all want to be good at stuff, but weightlifting takes a selfless sense of ego and understanding we can’t just dive headfirst into the deep end.
We gotta wade in slowly using the ladder in the kiddie pool filled with piss first.
Get used to the piss. Swim in it. Appreciate it. Make it your second home.
Only do you get to appreciate the marble laden private pool with bikini babes everywhere after you’ve hung out in piss for a while.
So, your first three months you are not concerned with load, ya dig? Technique and kinetic awareness is where you live.
That’s the whistle, gang. Learn from my mistakes and my injury. Only once I started to implement these practices did I become fully healed, and while my posterior chain mobility still has a long way to go, I am getting there. Pre-hab yourself by taking the time to address mobility and proper bio cuing and you further decrease the chances of a mild or serious injury ever interrupting your gains and progress.
Good luck, and let us know how we can be of assistance as you embark on your journey of bulletproofness.
Dave is co-owner of Performance360 in Mission Beach, San Diego. Dave is a certified personal trainer and nutritional consultant from the NSCA, as well as a Russian kettlebell instructor and USA Level 1 Weightlifting Coach. He also likes peanut butter.