The deadlift suffers from an identity crisis from time to time. On one hand, the exercise is capable of getting you quick strength gains, bigger muscles, and faster sprint times. On the other hand, the exercise can lead to lower back pain and is probably responsible for keeping the American Chiropractic Association afloat in bad economic times. Why the duality? The deadlift gets its unwarranted bad reputation because 90% of people attempting the exercise are doing it with woefully incorrect form. These people will never get the benefits from the exercise, and will most likely injure themselves.
The benefits of the deadlift far exceed the potential drawbacks. If you follow what I outline, you should be quickly and safely on your way to deadlifting 500 lbs.
So Why Deadlift?
- Primary benefit is that it strengthens the posterior chain (the glutes, hamstrings, lower back). These muscles are essential in athletic movements such as sprinting, jumping, cutting, and decelerating.
- Can lead to hypertrophy of all muscles beneath your neck.
- works grip strength.
- Every muscle on your back is heavily taxed.
- forces the development of core stability (rectus abdominis and internal and external obliques).
- develops starting strength (you are lifting the weight with no momentum from the floor).
- it is a functional lift- picking stuff off the ground is an extremely common real life scenario outside of the weight room.
- deadlifts have the ability to raise testosterone and growth hormone if programmed properly.
- Equipment requirements are low. All you need is a bar and some weights.
However, deadlifting from the floor is not for everyone. At least not at first. The lift is deceptively technical, and requires a great deal of mobility, especially at the ankles, hips and thoracic spine. Performing loaded deadlifts without a minimum threshold of mobility will lead to injury and will hold your strength potential back.
Before I let anyone deadlift, I make sure to address mobility first. The following drills can help you get your joints ready for the lift:
1. Self-myofascial release of the lower leg muscles -Foam rolling and lax ball
Use a foam roller or a lacrosse ball and massage your calf muscles. Move slowly, pausing on any spots that are particularly tender. The goal is to break down any knots, adhesions or scar tissues that have formed inside of your muscles from wear and tear. This will return the tissue back to its original state, leading to a greater range of motion for the joint.
2. Stretch the calf
3. Rocking ankle mobilization drill
Get yourself into a pike position (see below) with one foot behind the other. There should be three points of contact with the ground (both hands and one foot). Slowly rock back and forth, work on increasing your ankle’s range of motion. Start on the ball of your foot, and then attempt to put your heel on the ground.
4. Wall ankle mobilization
Stand approximately two to three inches away from a wall, with one foot in front of the other. Slowly push your front knee towards the wall. The goal is to gently tap the wall with your knee cap. Once your kneecap is able to touch the wall, move your feet back two inches and repeat this process until you can no longer hit the wall. The key is to keep your heel on the ground at all times.
1. Self-myofascial release of the glutes, quads, hamstrings and hip flexors -Foam rolling and lax ball
Slowly work out the knots and restrictions in your thigh muscles. Use the same technique as you did on your ankles.
2. Dynamic glute stretch
Start on your hands and knees with a neutral spine. Extend one leg behind you, and slowly slide into a stretch. Return to the start position.
3. Knee to knee stretch
This stretch will improve internal rotation at the hip. Lay supine on the floor, with your feet two to three feet apart. Slowly rotate your legs so that your knees are now touching each other. Hold for thirty seconds. This is an especially important drill for people who tend to walk or run with their feet out, or do a lot of repetitive movements in external rotation (think hockey players, powerlifters, soccer players).
Get in a pushup position. Take your right foot and place it right outside your right hand. Once the foot is planted, dip your hips towards the ground to get a stretch in your hip flexors. Repeat the movement with your left foot.
5. Fire hydrant circles
This drill will improve movement in all planes of motion. Start on all fours (quadruped position). Laterally abduct your leg (take your knee and swing it away from your body). Your leg should be bent at 90 degrees. Next extend your entire leg behind you while simultaneously adducting your leg (swing your leg towards your body). Finally, flex your leg towards your chest. Your leg should appear to be moving in a circular fashion.
6. Cossack Squat
This is a very challenging drill that will improve hip movement in the frontal (side to side) plane of movement. Lateral training is frequently neglected in training programs, so many athletes tend to lack good side to side hip mobility. Start the drill by standing up straight, with toes pointed forward. Slowly widen out your feet. Lunge to the side. Try to keep your toes pointed straight at all times. Maintain a neutral spine. Once in the bottom position, redirect and lunge to the other side. You may need to use your hands to help you make this transition at first. Try to keep your hips low to the ground during the transition.
1. Self-myofascial release of the upper back
2. Quadruped rotation-extension
Get down on all fours again. Take your hand and place it by your ear. Take your bent arm and rotate through your upper back towards your opposite elbow. Next, redirect your bent arm towards the sky.
3. T-Spine Extension (foam roller)
Lie supine on top of a foam roller as if you were about to roll your upper back. Keep your hands by your ears. Extend your thoracic spine, focusing on making your chest big. To finish, bring your ribcage down, allowing your spine to return to neutral.
“If it’s important, do it everyday” – Dan John, Strength Coach
Mobility is something very important if you want to lift pain free for a long time. Therefore, I recommend doing some of these drills daily in order to improve and maintain your current mobility capabilities. It only takes literally minutes a day. Make it a routine. Incorporate them into your warm up, and it will become second nature.
Now that we’ve addressed some of the major issues preventing lifters from decent deadlift form, it’s time to move some weight! In part two of my series, we will go over my preferred set up and some teaching progressions to ensure a safe, productive deadlift.
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