Deadlifting might be the single most intimidating exercise one might find in the gym. I will paint you the picture: A massive dude with a lifting belt and wrist straps, strutting around with his protein drink in one hand and his iphone in the other hand emerges from his eight minute break of mirror gazing to approach a barbell lying on the floor loaded up with hundreds of pounds of iron. After grunting and psyching himself up for an additional two minutes of heavy breathing and self-talk he eventually bends down and somehow lifts the barbell off the ground with a shout before letting it drop down with a sound so loud that it can only mean a plane crashed into the gym. Does that sound familiar? That is a deadlift. While this particular scenario is stereotypical, there is some truth in it, but there is merit as well.
The deadlift is a highly effective exercise that is a stand alone pinnacle assessment for physical strength, but is also a prerequisite for the mobility, stability, and strength required for many Olympic lifts. Even within the deadlift family, there are many different variations of the lift because of how effective it is. However, many people shy away from such an exercise leaving it to the professional athletes, cross-fitters, and Olympians, because they “don’t need it.” Others shy away out of fear of injury, often saying “I have a bad back.” This is where I’m going to step on some toes and make you feel more uncomfortable than when that guy at the gym starts making animal noises on the lifting platform.
The deadlift is not just an exercise for the elite. The deadlift is not even just an exercise. The deadlift is a movement pattern that you probably use everyday without even realizing it. Learning to perform a deadlift properly can help move your kid into college without having to rely on someone else to do the lifting and moving; or being able to pick your grandchild up from the floor instead of leaving them on the ground like their other grandparents; or having the capacity to pick up that heavy load of laundry and bring it upstairs without a second thought.
Learning to do a deadlift safely is even more important if you already have a bad back. The truth is, the back shouldn’t be doing the heavy lifting. Generally speaking the prime mover within the deadlift pattern is the hips and if you haven’t been reading fitness blogs lately, yes your low back pain isn’t your low back’s fault. Spoiler alert, it is probably your hips. Whatever work the hips don’t do, can’t do, or won’t do gets picked up by the back. Now if you look closely, and not too closely otherwise you run the risk of really making someone uncomfortable, the human body has a mass of muscle right on the backside part of the hips. That derriere back there is one of the most powerful muscles in the body, but very often we spend most of our time sitting on it. Because we spend so much time sitting on it, the hip flexors on the front side of the thigh get tight and can actually inhibit or reduce the effectiveness of the reciprocal muscle groups. This puts the low back at even greater risk. Consistent soft tissue work either by self myofascial release techniques (e.g. foam rolling) or massage therapy, combined with an integrated global stretching program can literally change your life, but then we must train the proper patterns and strengthen those pathways to convince your buttocks it’s not just a cushion for sitting on.
As I mentioned earlier, there are many different variations of deadlifts, and they all have their appropriate utilizations. At Movements 4 Life, our programming model as you may or may not know, is designed to be balanced regardless of which service you choose. Whether it is over the course of the individual session or over the course of our weekly classes, the entire body will be challenged in a balanced fashion. To ensure this, we utilize a hip hinge deadlift as opposed to a more traditional deadlift. Below you can see the differences in approach.
Figure A – Deadlift
Figure B – Deadlift
If you examine the down phase of Figure A, you can see that the lifter maintains a flat back, his ears are practically over-top of his shoulders, his shoulders over-top his knees, and his knees are over-top the middle of his foot. This is great technique for getting super low to the ground. This technique will load the quads, glutes, hamstrings, as well as some postural muscles along the spine.
By comparison, the down phase of Figure B looks vastly different. The biggest difference is that there is much less knee flexion (knee bend) of the lifter in Figure B compared to the lifter in Figure A. Her head is still above her hips, her spine is flat or maybe even slightly arched, and her knees are bent slightly (instead of knees being over-top the midfoot, they are over-top the rearfoot, a good visual aid would be keeping your knees over-top of the knot of your shoelaces). This technique loads considerably more into the hamstrings, while greatly reducing the quads involvement. Please keep in mind, both lifts are correct. Both lifts are right. Both lifts are good for the body. Generally speaking, at Movements 4 Life we tend to utilize the technique found in Figure B, sometimes called a Romanian Deadlift or misnomered as a “stiff-legged deadlift,” this hip-hinge as we call it is the ultimate exercise for loading the “back butt.” We use this technique most often to differentiate between the mechanics of the squat pattern. Below, I compare the deadlift from Figure A to the squat of Figure C.
Figure A – Deadlift
Figure C – Squat
The alignment of the head, shoulders, knees, and feet are very similar. Although the placement of the weight dramatically changes the loading schematics, I think we can all agree that there is a greater disparity between Figure B and Figure C when compared to the disparity between Figure A and Figure C. The differentiation between the squat and deadlift allows for a balance of tissue loading. Utilizing the hip-hinge deadlift of Figure B adds greater load to the posterior chain through the hamstrings, allowing them to build strength at that range of motion.
Now before you get too distracted by the big weights these models are holding, remember the deadlift is a movement pattern and not just an exercise. Whether you are picking up a pencil from the ground or lifting a car’s two back tires off the ground, the biomechanics should be relatively similar. The deadlift is for everyone. Load is only one way to challenge the deadlift pattern. There are several other ways to increase the tissues’ ability to take stress and strain away from the lower back.
Contact us today and ask about our Movement Assessment or our Movement Therapy Assessment to see how deadlifting can improve your life. Regardless of the stage of life you are in, never stop deadlifting. #Deadlift4life