Monday, December 30, 2013

Introducing the Deadlift

Tired of the leg press and abduction and adduction machines? Nice quads, but no ass? Want to see the muscular strength and development of your posterior chain skyrocket? Take the next step in your training by incorporating the deadlift.

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Contrary to many assertions, the deadlift is a perfectly safe exercise -- when done with proper technique, of course. Deadlifting will NOT break your back, unless you do it like this:

In the deadlift, you need to be certain that you have a proper hip hinge. That is, you need to know how to bend at the hips, not at the low back.

Before picking up any weight off the ground (let alone 430 pounds), here are three self assessments you can use to put your movement to the test. Feel free to remove your shoes for these drills -- as well as when deadlifting with weight. Bare feet put your hamstrings in a better position to pull and also increase proprioception (the sense of where your body is in space).

1. Dowel rod hip hinge

This drill reinforces a neutral spine. Assume a standing position with feet hip width apart and pointed straight ahead. Take a dowel rod (PVC pipe or broomstick), and hold it with one hand in the small of your low back and the other at your neck. Note the contact points of the dowel rod at the back of the head, the upper and middle back, and the sacrum. Soften the knees, and maintain this neutral alignment as you slowly push your hips back and allow your torso to tip forward.

If you lose contact with the dowel rod, that means you've rounded. That is, your spine is no longer neutral, which will put you at risk for injury if you are attempting to lift a heavy loadThe most common place to lose contact is at the sacrum. When this occurs, whatever additional depth you are getting is coming from the lumbar spine (low back), not the hips. Work on sitting back a little farther with each repetition while maintaining contact with the dowel rod.

2. Wall hip hinge

This drill reinforces the idea of pushing the hips back, as opposed to down. Stand about a six inches away from a wall, facing away from the wall with your feet hip width apart and pointed straight ahead. Place your hands on your hips. Bend your knees ever so slightly, and allow your torso to tip forward as you slowly push your hips back all the way until your butt touches the wall. Return to standing, step out another inch, and repeat.

Do not bend your knees more than a few degrees, as you want the range of motion to come from the hips. Maintain a neutral neck throughout the movement. Continue to inch your feet away from the wall with each rep until you can no longer reach the wall at the end range of the hip hinge.

3. Dowel rod scarecrow

This drill further reinforces an erect posture. Stand with feet pointed straight ahead and hip width apart. Hold a dowel rod behind your back in the crook of your elbows, almost like a scarecrow. With soft knees, maintain tension on the dowel rod as you push your hips back slowly and allow your torso to tip forward. Keep the neck neutral. Return to standing and repeat.

Learning the Deadlift

Now that you've convinced yourself of your ability to hip hinge properly, you are ready to pull some weight off the ground. Rather than complicate the movement with a barbell, though, it's wise to begin with either a dumbbell, kettlebell, or hex bar. These implements simplify the movement by loading more through the center of the body.

For the hex bar deadlift, load up ten-pound bumper plates on either side for a total of 65 pounds. Step inside, position your feet hip width apart and pointed straight ahead. Hip hinge to the bar with your butt back and your chest up, grab the handles, and stand up. It's as simple as that. Don't forget to squeeze your glutes at the top.

For a dumbbell or kettlebell deadlift, choose a moderate weight (say, 30-45 pounds). Position yourself directly over the weight, with feet hip width apart or slightly wider and toes pointed straight ahead or flared out slightly. Hip hinge to the weight, keeping your chest up. Grip the kettlebell with an overhand grip; grip the dumbbell with a neutral grip on either side. Stand up, squeezing your glutes at the top.

Notice that the dumbbell/kettlebell variation affords you more flexibility in setup position. Experiment to find the position that's most comfortable for you. If your hip hinge doesn't put you low enough to reach the dumbbell or kettlebell just yet, simply elevate the weight on a six-inch exercise step, and straddle the step as you deadlift.

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Keep the sets and reps low at first (2-3 sets of 6-8 reps). I guarantee your hamstrings and glutes will be sore the following day.

Important Technical Aspects

No matter the implement, when deadlifting...

  1. Maintain a neutral spine.
  2. Keep your elbows locked out.
  3. Maintain a neutral knee position (in line with the middle of your feet).

  1. Allow your back to round, or look way up or down.
  2. Bend your arms at any point.
  3. Allow your knees to collapse inward.

Hold Off on the Barbell

Stick to the hex bar, dumbbell, or kettlebell until you're absolutely sick of it. The barbell requires a much higher degree of scapular retraction -- one that frankly isn't necessary for the newbie deadlifter. Work up to 3-4 heavy sets of 10-12 reps. Perform the deadlift once or twice per week, along with other hip and knee dominant lower body exercises like glute bridges and squats and their single leg counterparts.

Special thanks to fitness model Kate Maum for expertly demonstrating the drills and exercises shown above.

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