Technique, Technique Part 1 – The Deadlift

I tried to be a hero back in November and lift a very large amount of weight. I wasn’t sure that I was ready for it, but I thought “why not give it a try, whats the worst that can happen?” Well, I didn’t get the weight up and I hurt myself in the process. So, there’s your answer. People say you learn from your mistakes, but funny thing is a did the same thing a few weeks after that. This time it was with a weight that was much lighter than the previous, and one that I had successfully lifted many times before. I knew I wasn’t feeling strong that day, and I definitely shouldn’t have even attempted the weight, but my inner competitiveness got the better of me. Only this time i hurt myself much worse. Fast forward 6 weeks to now and I’m just finishing a rehab stint and still don’t feel 100%. The point of this is not to be smart about your lifting (although that goes without saying), but instead that many times the little things make a big difference.

When it comes to lifting weights there is always that tendency to go into a weight room, eye up a bar and throw down a huge amount of weight for 1 rep. Everyone who is serious about lifting has that desire, and rightly so. The feeling of beating your previous 1 repetition max is uncontested. It’s a feeling of power and happiness unlike many things. It makes your feel accomplished. The only problem is that you can’t go into a weight room and do that every day. Not only is it not smart, your body will breakdown and your nervous system will fry, but it’s not appropriate training for sports. Training for sports is all about improving athletic performance in that sport, and improving athletic performance is all about technique.

The little technique differences and cues make the world of difference. To highlight this, I chose a few different examples that show how subtle differences can completely change the goal of a lift. Over the next few posts I will touch on these and explore how the subtle differences change the lift completely.

Let’s start with the king of all lifts, the deadlift. Proper deadlifting form suggests the hips start way back, the shins vertical, with shoulders lined up over the shins, knees over the middle of the foot, and feet placed shoulder width apart, all while the upper body stays tightly locked in a neutral spine position. When breaking down a lift like this, it’s easy to see how easily form could change, with so many different parts having to work together in unison. Luckily, many of these parts work in a chain reaction sequence, that if one piece moves correctly, many will follow. For that reason I’m focusing on two common errors I see in deadlifting that make a large change in the lift. These errors are: 1) bar position, and 2)  the starting knee/hip relationship.

1) Bar position

Maybe the biggest mistake I see when deadlifting comes from where the bar starts. The bar SHOULD start directly over the top of the foot, as close to the ankle as possible. Once the pull starts, the bar should glide (drag) along the shins, over the knee, and up the thigh. Here is what typically happens: The bar starts over the toes. Once the pull begins the bar travels upward at an angle, not touching the shins, still away from the body as it travels above the knee, and finally touching the thighs at the lockout position of the lift.

What does this mean? In the first example, with the correct technique, the bar is as close to the body as it can get. This allows the hips to sit back further, placing the strain through the hip joint and allowing the hamstrings and glutes to do the work of pulling the weight up. The center of mass is over the ankles (and therefore runs through the center of the body) during these circumstances, this is a good thing. A body that moves about an axis central to the body can rely on its central musculature (in this example hamstrings and glutes) to produce the movement. These are the desired mechanics as the deadlift is inherently a hip dominant exercise.

I would even put the center of mass slightly further back

In the second example, the bar starts away from the body and travels upwards staying away from the body, albeit at a narrowing angle. What this does is push our center of mass forwards. Now, instead of our center of gravity being on our ankles, it is located somewhere near our toes. This 2-3 inch difference may not seem like a big deal, but it makes a huge difference. All of a sudden the tension in the lift begins to shift out of our glutes and hamstrings. It transfers into our lower back. Lower back muscles are meant to brace against heavy load and keep the spine from exploding/imploding/disintegrating, not lift. When your lower back muscles are then forced to lift a heavy load something has to give. More often than not its your lower back muscles. In the words of my good friend, Anders, “snap, crackle, pop – that’s not your morning bowl of cereal.  That’s the sound of half your season flushed down the toilet. Four weeks slow rehab, two weeks intense rehab, and three weeks of conditioning might be enough to get you back on the rink but it can’t make up for a lost season.” Oh yeah, and it’ll plague you for years after if not done correctly.

2) Starting knee/hip relationship

The start of the deadlift is maybe the most important part of the lift. Chances are if you start wrong you will finish wrong. With that in mind, the knees and hips must be in advantageous positions to lift correctly, and lift with strength. The deadlift is a hip dominant exercise (drilled in to your head yet?) so the majority of the flexion and extension should be occurring at the hips. The knees are not motionless, however, they still need to bend and straighten with the lift. To start, the hips need to be pushed back as far as possible. This allows the hamstring and glutes to load tension. The knees in a deadlift can be considered silent. They follow the hips. As the hips are pushed back, the knees should naturally follow. Whatever knee bend they land at is most likely YOUR most advantageous position. NOTE: anatomical differences change everyone’s knee bend slightly, however joint and muscle stiffness can be a false predictor of advantageous position and can actually place you in a disadvantageous position. For this reason it is imperative to maintain normal flexibility.

If knee bend is too great, chances are not enough hip bend is occurring. When this happens the lift becomes mechanically similar to a squat. Stress is placed upon the lower spine as the torso wants to fall forward during the pull. If knee bend is too minimal, the hamstrings and glutes are required to heave the entire load. This takes away strength as we are essentially eliminating a muscle group that is helping us lift the weight. Furthermore, the torso becomes flexed forward at the hips (oh we pray, hopefully at the hips and not the spine) to a point of being almost parallel with the ground. When this happens our center of mass shifts forwards and we have the same problem we did when the bar starts too far forward, only this time our spine is in a worse position being parallel with the ground.

This is just the beginning of how subtle differences can completely change a lift. Keep a look out for the remaining pieces. Until then, remember – details, details, details.

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