The first step to mastering something is understanding it. Deadlifts are no different. It is particularly important in their case because this is a much-misunderstood exercise. While there are many ways to deadlift, we’re going to emphasize the method that will work for most people. We will also focus on injury prevention, something that’s a major concern for many who shy away from this lift. Read on and let us be your guide along the journey of mastering what is in our opinion, the king of weightlifting exercises.
Deadlifts are not squats – Understanding the Deadlift
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the deadlift is just a squat with the weight in your hands. A lot of people seem to consider these two exercises to be ‘the same thing,’ especially when performed with a bend at the knee. Both these excellent lifts, however, bring about a completely different physiological and training response and it is important to understand the distinction between the two to do either of them properly: –
Center of Gravity
While squatting, the majority of the weight is directly over your base of support, i.e. the center of gravity is where the weight is (or directly over it). There is going to be a different response/training stimulus depending on where the weight/resistance is relative to your center of gravity. To put it simple, the weight is going directly through you, straight down to the middle of your feet.
Now imagine an exercise where the weight goes directly in front of your feet or right in front of your base of support. I’m sure you’ll agree that you are at a significant mechanical disadvantage in this case. This is what creates the unique training effect of a deadlift in comparison to a squat.
Major Muscle groups
Squats will primarily utilize the Quadriceps with some of the workload going to the glutes, calves and hamstrings, along with several other minor ones.
As we’ve discussed above, because you are at a mechanical disadvantage with the Deadlift, you end up recruiting a heck of a lot more muscles in comparison to the squat.
The preferred method of performing a strong deadlift is with a slight bend at the knee. When performed correctly, you engage several muscle groups that work together at the same time. These are your Back, glute and hamstring muscles respectively.
The glutes are at the center of this movement, bearing the majority of the load.
To perform the deadlift correctly requires a significant amount of upper back strength and this is what truly sets it apart. These are the rhomboid muscles and scapular adductors, basically muscles around the upper back that pull the shoulders together and draw your chest up and out. Hopefully you can see how the exercise starts low, engages the core and then starts creeping towards the upper body. These properties are what make it so awesome.
Here lies the real depth of the deadlifting movement. When we were talking about engaging the core within a movement, what we’re talking about is increasing the Intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). The purpose of core activation is to increase the abdomen pressure so that it may relieve and/or support pressure on the back. The back isn’t built for doing the heavy lifting during a movement but plays an excellent supportive role. This makes core engagement even more important as without it; the back cannot share the load. Engaging the core correctly and creating that abdominal tightness is therefore very important when it comes to the deadlift and failure to do so is the number 1 reason so many fail to perform it correctly (and in some cases end up injuring themselves). The deadlifting movement, when performed correctly should naturally create a high IAP. Professional strongmen and others who lift very heavy weights will sometimes use a belt to increase this pressure artificially.
Now that the basics are clear, let’s get deeper into what makes a really good deadlift:
Rhythm over Brute-strength – Balance & Precision
If you’ve ever seen a master at work, the chances are that they made it look effortless. This finesse is rarely as a result of raw strength or power but attention to detail, introspective practice, timing and willingness to constantly improve and evolve even if it means slowing down and taking stock of the situation.
Let’s face it, most of us aren’t in fully functional bodies. Thanks to modern living, most of us have body imbalances that need to be identified and corrected before we can perform at a high level, or meaningfully reduce our chances of injury. Let’s take a look at the supporting structure of a really good deadlift: –
The Lumbar Region
For the sake of simplicity, let’s just say that our focus right now for this region is the musculature and structure of your abdomen at the front and the lower back at the, well, back. This also includes the ligaments the connect this region to large muscle groups that ultimately affect the neutral position of where everything sits, as well as the supporting lumbar erectors.
The Pelvic Region
Here we are primarily concerned with the Psoas at the front and hamstrings at the back. As with the lumbar region, our emphasis lies on the support structure i.e. the femoral ligaments and their relation with the rectus abdominis. In simple terms, what’s in front of your pelvis and behind and around the femur bone.
If you’ve spend some time studying the regions described above (you should!) or even if you look at the illustration above, you can see that there is a deep connection between these regions, not just linearly and laterally but also diagonally. That is to say that the position of the front of the lumbar region, the abdomen, affects the rear of the pelvic region, the hamstrings. The Psoas and the lower back affect each other in the same way.
So if you were to have tight hamstrings for example, that’s going to deform the position of your rectus abdominis and so on. If you take a look at yourself in the mirror and don’t see everything lining up correctly, know that you are starting from a less than ideal place. In a perfect world, we’d have our standing structure balanced perfectly between abdomen, hamstrings, psoas and lower back but in reality, this is unlikely.
If you do want to be able to perform to the maximum of your potential, if you want to be really, really good, it is worthwhile to try and improve this balance before you try to increase the weight that can be put across your body.
True mastery and world-class ability doesn’t come easy. We’ll continue to expand this topic but this is it for part 1 on mastering the deadlift. If you’re unfamiliar with any of the terms mentioned here, you have some work to do my friend! Understanding them is key to taking your lift to the next level. Let’s take it up a notch in part 2!