The Lower Body – Major Gains that make or break
You may be wondering why we’ve spent the majority of Part 1 talking about muscle groups and body imbalances. Take a look at the following illustration: –
What you’re looking at is something known as the ‘Lower cross’, the main area of interest when it comes to performing a deadlift. As we’ve said in part 1, each of the 4 quadrants that you see listed above affect each other. The ideal scenario is when each quadrant shares 25% of your standing load adding up to 100% between the 4 quadrants, a perfectly balanced lower cross. Unless you’ve taken extremely good care of yourself, this balance is going to be off for most people. It’s important for the right muscles to activate at the right time in order to decrease the load on the muscles that really are not designed to do the heavy-lifting.
When you put weight in front of you and try to lift it up, you’re going to be using a lot of the muscles from the lower rear of your body. Take a look at the illustration again and see if you can spot the biggest muscle there. Right in the middle of the cross are your glutes. The glutes are the major player in this equation and neglecting them is unwise. Most people end up using way too much of the lower back when performing the deadlift. I want you to take a good look at your glutes in the mirror and then take a good look at your lower back and lumbar erectors (if they are even visible, most people are just resting on ligaments back there). Which do you think is more suited to pulling lots of weight?
So how do you engage more of your glutes? This is where the bend at the knee that we wrote about earlier comes in. There is a sweet spot for how much you bend your knee that will engage your hamstrings and back at the same time while keeping the glutes at the center of the movement, doing most of the work in the deadlift. It’s usually between a 15-20-degree bend but will be slightly different for different people. It is worth finding it so you can extend at the knees and the hips simultaneously to allow the:
To really activate at the same time and support each other. Of course, this is easier said than done if you have any of the illustrated imbalances. Take a look at the following pictures:
If you look at your side profile in the mirror and see any of these deviations, know that you are starting off from a bad place, are at an increased risk of injury and cannot function to your potential because, well, you’re dysfunctional. It’s a bit outside the scope of this article to discuss exactly how to fix all of them (look it up!) but the good news is that if performed correctly, the deadlift can help fix several of these imbalances.
As you may have observed, the imbalances are not limited to the lower half of the body. Let’s take a look at the role that the upper body plays in really maximizing your deadlift: –
The Upper Body – Marginal Gains that add up
What you’re looking at is known as the ‘Upper cross’. Hang on, I hear you say. Isn’t the deadlift a lower body exercise? What you need to understand is that the body works together as a unit. This is especially true for the deadlift as, when done properly, It’ll engage every part of the body. As with the lower cross, perfect standing balance would be if you are equally distributed across the 4 quadrants. Apart from there being structural disadvantages to being imbalanced here, there are also some physiological disadvantages. For example, tight pectorals will affect your ability to breathe, something that is a consideration for any type of exercise performance. If your body cannot maintain a neutral position all on its own and especially if you cannot perform a deadlifting motion with an empty bar and still not maintain proper form, you can forget about getting really good. Hardly much point in upping the weight when you cannot even do the movement correctly, right?
Bringing it all together
All of these considerations about form, engagement, posture, balance and imbalance may have you thinking that a deadlift is a complex and technical manoeuvre. Well, it is and it isn’t. Deadlifting is just picking stuff up off the floor. To be really good at it is another thing altogether. Reading through this topic, you have enough information about what should and shouldn’t be done. Let’s break the preparation and performance down: –
Preparing for the deadlift:
If you have any of the body imbalances described throughout this article, if you are a beginner or if you’re an advanced lifter wanting to take your deadlift to the next level, you should consider what is sometimes known as a reverse deadlift. Use an empty bar or really light weights in the beginning:
- Stand with the bar in your hand using a supinated grip. Basically grip the bar with your palms facing forward rather than towards you. Now extend your thorax/draw your chest up and out while making sure your shoulders stay externally/backwards rotated. Your neck should be over your shoulders, cheekbones over collarbones. Just holding this position for as long as you can will greatly benefit you.
- Bend 20 degrees at the knee, imagine you have a hinge at the hip and start tipping over with the bar in your hand till you are over your base of support. Once over the base of support, start sinking your hips to lower the weight to the ground. Maintain upper body form throughout. If someone holds a stick against your back, it should make contact at 3 points; the head, the mid back and the tailbone.
You will be humbled by how hard it is to do this correctly regardless of your level! Once you are able to perform the movement with correct form, you want to train with light to moderate weights. This way, when try to lift heavy, you won’t distort too much out of shape because your body has learned the neuromuscular pathways to engage all of the associated muscles. You should never have to break form unless you are going for a Personal Record.
Performing the deadlift:
We’re finally here, let’s do this!
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, tip over and hold the bar with your preferred grip. The bar should be directly in front of you.
- As you hold the bar, bend at the knee (about 20 degrees) and let your shins move closer to the bar as you search for the sweet spot. Move back and forth if it helps find it.
- Stick your butt out and slightly arch your back
- You’ve found the sweet spot when your glutes tighten a bit and your hamstrings feel a slight pull. This should mean that they are engaged and will be recruited to support the weight properly.
- When you’re ready, push your feet into the ground and extend at the knees, ankles and hips at the same time. Don’t think about standing up, think about pushing the ground down. Another thing you can imagine is your head being tied to a rope and being pulled to the ceiling.
Should you drop the weight or let go of it once you reach the top?
The eccentric portion of the lift, i.e. lowering of the weight back to the ground in a controlled manner will build more muscle than the actual lift itself. That being said, if you want to build explosive strength or be a bit more conservative to prevent injury, it might be a good strategy to drop the weight, provided the floor and your surroundings allow.
Something you might want to consider about the deadlifting; It’s not about brute strength at all. It’s a science and therefore requires precision. Fix your imbalances, humble yourself with lower weight, correct form and soon you will be on your way to mastery. Good luck!
This article was inspired by the video series ‘The science of deadlifting’ by Elliot Hulse. Elliot is an ex-pro powerlifter, coach, author and owner of the Strengthcamp training business.
Research cross-checked for injury prevention:
- A Meta-Analysis of Core Stability Exercise versus General Exercise for Chronic Low Back Pain.
- Low back strengthening for the prevention and treatment of low back pain.
- Patients with Low Back Pain Benefit from Deadlift Training.
- Does strengthening the abdominal muscles prevent low back pain–a randomized controlled trial.
- The clinical effects of intensive, specific exercise on chronic low back pain: a controlled study of 895 consecutive patients with 1-year follow up.
- A clinical trial of intensive muscle training for chronic low back pain.
- Lumbar strengthening in chronic low back pain patients. Physiologic and psychological benefits.
- Kinesiology of the hip: a focus on muscular actions.