Coach Caleb’s Corner
3 Tips to a Stronger Deadlift
“Lifting weights is dangerous? Try being weak. Being weak is dangerous!”
This quote has been floating around the web-o-sphere for a bit, and I believe it’s attributed to Bret “The Glute Guy” Contreras. I agree with the sentiment (of course!), but with that said, we like to do what we can to safeguard our journey in strength.
As mentioned in a previous Coach’s Corner, the deadlift is one of the most beneficial lifts you can include in your training for building posterior chain strength, abs of steel and an iron grip. Unfortunately it gets a bad rap sometimes, thanks to all the poor technique and bad decisions being made in gyms across the fruited plain. Even the more prudent trainee who isn’t taking unnecessary risks often hits a plateau; unable to crack the code to make the lift stronger. When I talk about deadlifting (one of my favorite topics) with trainees, friends and colleagues, I hear all sorts of curious things. The closer my deadlift gets to triple bodyweight (almost there!) the more vehement the comments I hear. “Isn’t that hard on your back?” “I’m stuck at (fill in the blank weight). I must just not be built for that lift.” “Can’t you pull your own arms off?” (That last one’s an SNL Weekend Update joke. Google it, if you have a strong stomach.)
Enough of the preamble. Deadlifting isn’t dangerous, it’s how you deadlift that might be dangerous. Also, there might be ways of making what you’re already doing safely even stronger. So let’s get to it; whether it’s a kettlebell or a barbell, here are three tips for a stronger, safer deadlift!
1. Practice a Rock Solid Setup
In StrongFirst, we know the technique in setting up for a lift is as important as the technique of the lift itself. A strong setup means a strong lift. A poor setup is not only weak, it can lead to injury! Your stance is very important. No matter the stance, the bar should sit directly over the center of your feet. For kettlebells, if you extended a line from the handle, it should run right through the center of the feet. If you’re a Sumo puller, your feet should be slightly wider than your shoulders with the toes turned out a bit (no more than 45 degrees). Although a very wide stance might feel stronger for some, it carries considerable risk of injury and has much less carryover to other sports and activities. A coach or training partner can help you find this stance, such that your arms then grip the bar parallel to each other, just inside your knees but without touching them. Conventional lifters use a narrower-than-shoulder-width stance with a slight turnout of the toes, arms parallel to each other on the outside of the legs. Once again, avoid too much friction between the arms and the legs; we want it to feel like a well oiled machine when we lift! With the proper stance set, actively “pull” yourself down to the weight with your hip flexors, keeping your shins near vertical. If you casually bend over, shoot your knees forward and round your back to grip the implement, even in your setup, you might be making a rounded back part of your dead lift ritual and that’s just plain risky! Along with this idea of pulling yourself down to the weight, you also want to “Preload” your body with a power breath to brace your abs and set a lower back that is “locked” in a neutral position. A good coach can help you understand the technique of “packing” your stomach with air in the setup. All these details, with the exception of the barbell grip positions described, apply to deadlifting a kettlebell as well.
2. Create “Long Arms”
Biceps tendon tears are not fun. I have friends who have described the experience like this; “I started to pull and suddenly it felt like the inside of my arm just snapped and rolled up into my biceps like a window shade!” Ouch! How does this happen? Well, the amount of weight one can deadlift is usually much higher than the amount of weight one can curl with the biceps. If the arms bend while under maximal deadlift load then you are effectively trying to curl your deadlift weight with your biceps! Those small muscles and connective tissues are just not designed for that kind of work. Even taking the risk of injury out of the equation, a bent elbow on a deadlift is just a joint leaking energy out like a balloon with a hole poked in it. So, when deadlifting, lock those elbows and tense those triceps; it’s safer and it’s stronger.
3. “Plank” the Lockout
One of the strangest things I see in powerlifting competitions, is athletes “over lifting” their deadlifts. What do I mean by this? The deadlift is going well, the bar is almost locked out, the lifter shoots their hips forward… but suddenly shrugs their shoulders and leans back. This effectively lifts the bar higher than it had to go to count for a successful lift, and risks a back injury in the process! As the bar gets past the knees, we do indeed want to use hip drive like a kettlebell swing to initiate the lockout. However, we want to lockout with a big, proud chest, a pelvis pushed slightly forward but no leaning back! Extending the spine under load is a recipe for a painful back. The ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles should be stacked up in a nice straight line. There are no bonus points for lifting the bar higher than the other lifters. Also, this standing plank should be tight! To quote world record holder, Andy Bolton, “Without tightness, you cannot have strength. All the best lifers get tighter than the average lifters. Simple as that.”
And there you have it. A few straightforward things to focus on to help make your deadlifts feel strong and stay safe. Happy lifting!
PS – Bonus Tip – At Breakthrough Strength & Fitness, we like to exceed expectations, so here’s a bonus “pro tip” for you. Learn the concept of the “wedge.” The idea of wedging yourself between the weight and the floor on just about any lift will make it stronger. In deadlifting, we’re talking about bringing your torso back until your shoulders are almost directly over the bar or kettlebell handle in your setup. In so doing, you should feel your hamstrings stretch and your glutes load up. From here, you’re ready to push the floor down with the legs, instead if lifting the bar up with your back. Here’s a link to a video so you can see the subtleties of the wedge technique.