Written by Dean Somerset
The deadlift is probably one of the most revered lifts in training. It’s one of the top movements for maximal amount of weight moved, is a common staple exercise for bodybuilding, strongman competitors, Olympic athletes of any sport, and even useful in rehabilitating low back injuries.
Because of the propensity for ego to exceed logic, especially in the weight room, you’ll want to make sure you’re using all possible benefits to your advantage while making sure you’re safe, yet still throwing around more plates than a dishwasher at Dennys. Todays post will show some simple yet very effective things you can use in your workout to maximize the benefits for your pulls, without taking much time and energy at all. These are the low hanging fruit that can reap big rewards.
#1: Get the lats fired up BEFORE you pull
Lat strength and activation is a major feature of a good deadlift. When I hit it right, I get more of a pump in my lats than from anywhere else. They connect the shoulder to the spine, and run from the T-10 vertebrae by the base of the shoulder blade right down to the sacrum, and interconnect with a lot of the fascial slings that help stabilize the low back, while also pulling the spine into extension to reduce the flexion moment of hoisting massive poundages from the floor. In leymans terms, they help hold the entire spine together during the deadlift and getting them involved in the party can make or break a good pull.
For these reasons, as well as simply lats look hella cool when they’re rocking a sick pump, getting them to kick up a notch before a set is a key feature to having a stronger pull. A simple way to do this is to use a band and go through a mimicked deadlift set where the resistance is pulling forward.
A key to this movement is to make sure the arms stay vertical throughout the entire movement, much like what you would see with an actual deadlift. This helps the lats stay on through the range of motion, which involves moving the shoulders through a small range of extension, helping them squeeze harder. Finishing the movement with a strong glute contraction and abdominal bracing helps to reinforce core and pelvic stability, which is stupidly important with this movement.
Do 5 reps of this drill before a pull and see what happens.
#2: Tires Touch the Road
I used to work as a tire technician on big tractor trailers when I was in university, and one of the key things I always looked at was the wear pattern on the tires to see if the alignment was off, as well as the tread depth to see if the tires were worn out or not. Since the tires were the only part of the vehicle that touched the road, it was as important to make sure they were working properly as it was to look at the brakes. If your wheels locked up but the tread didn’t create friction with the ground, you would just continue to slide around versus coming to a strong stop, or might not corner as well, a big problem if you’re hauling a large load.
Similarly, your feet are the only part of your body that’s in contact with the floor during a deadlift, and all of the alignment of every joint above is dependent on how the foot is structured underneath.
Standing with a flat foot to hit a heavy pull tends to result in the tibia and femur rotating internally, which stressed the hip, pulls it into an anterior pelvic tilt, and alters how well the low back can stabilize the movement. Conversely, a high arch pushes more weight to the outside of the foot, which can increase external rotation of the leg and result in a posterior tilt of the pelvis. Either position can be trained effectively, but sometimes a small change can make a big impact in how you approach the movement.
For those with flat feet, thinking of actively contracting the arches of your feet can have a huge impact in creating some proactive and stabilizing tension through the lower leg, which makes your pull a lot more effective as it increases activity through the entire posterior chain. It also helps you form a more solid base, much like a linebacker in football taking a wider and lower stance versus standing upright with their feet together.
#3: Turn your Right Foot Out
Before getting too deep into this one, let’s discuss the pertinent anatomy a little more thoroughly to understand how and why this should be a consideration.
There are four different types of pelvis when looking at the width, breadth and angulations of the sit bones (technically known as the ischial tuberosities). This is important because the wider and shorter the arches, the less likely they can sustain during crazy heavy loadings. The best hips for heavy vertical loading are narrow and deep.
The Android and Anthropoid hip positions are the most favorable for pulling a sick deadlift off the floor, whereas the wider and shallower gynecoid and platypelloid hips would most likely result in an epic fail and probably injury.
Additionally, the angle of the femoral neck which joins the shaft into the ball that forms the hip joint can be different. A “normal” angle is roughly 120-135 degrees, but you could also get angulation less than 120 and greater than 135. Each of these would provide different abilities. A more vertical femoral neck angle could help with loading, whereas a more horizontal angle could help with more mobility.
The femoral neck could also be rotated forward or backward outside of a neutral position. Someone with a forward rotation could have a lot of easy pulls off the floor but struggle during lockout, whereas someone with a more posterior rotation could struggle to get the weight off the floor due to increased range of stretch on the glutes in this position, but could lock out like a boss once they have shortened the muscle up enough to produce more power.
Interestingly, forensic scientists have the ability to tell what part of the world someone was from based solely on the shape and angulation of their bones. Many individuals who come from Scotland tend to have what is known as a Celtic or Dalmatian hip structure, with a much deeper hip socket and thicker ring of their acetabulum. This tends to help with vertical positioning, walking and running without creating any hip pain, but can significantly limit hip mobility. Alternatively, those from eastern Asia as well as some eastern European countries tend to have a socket that is set more laterally and less inferiorly, which means they have a greater ability to create a range of motion through something like a squat or hip hinge, but can’t manage impact or max loading as easily.
This is all to say we’re all different and may respond to a different set up than someone right next to us. There’s also the concept that both your left and right hip may be structurally different from each other, so your set up and approach may be better suited to be asymmetrical.
Most people approach the deadlift with the intent on being perfectly symmetrical. The downside to this is we aren’t designed to be perfectly symmetrical in our executions of movements. We typically have a dominant arm, a dominant leg, and a preferred pelvic position to start most movements.
From working with my own clients, I’ve found that most predominantly have greater strength and stability in their left leg, greater range of motion but less control in their right leg, and a greater propensity to have the right knee collapse into valgus strain (moving towards the midline of the body) compared to the left, especially when the feet are lined up straight ahead.
A slight variation in foot positioning can make a big difference in increasing glute activation, stability of the knee, foot arch formation, and core stabilization compared to setting up with both feet parallel. Typically all that is needed is a 10-20 degree turn out of the toes. It’s a small thing, but it makes a huge difference.
#4: Tongue Position and Heavy Action
Singers have long known the role of tongue position in singing, not merely in altering sound production, but also in altering the strength and control of the diaphragm for power production. New Zealand rugby players knew it with their Hakka, Michael Jordan knew it’s role in driving to the hoop, and medical professionals know about it as it relates to temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems.
In strength, letting the tongue simply flop around in the mouth reduces the tone of the neck muscles, which decreases cervical stability. As the shoulder blades are essentially hanging off the cervical spine, it’s necessary to have some significant levels of stability at play.
Additionally, a lax tongue tends to lead to less tension being developed through the diaphragm, a muscle where strength and power is necessary during a heavy deadlift as it helps to increase intra-abdominal pressure and stabilize the spine. Specifically, the level of core activation seems to be highest when the tongue is pressed into the roof of the mouth.
Interestingly, there’s also correlation to pelvic floor activity when the tongue is pressed down into the bottom of the mouth, which could conceivably be helpful for women who have a history of pelvic floor issues when it comes to exercise, especially following childbirth. In yoga, pressing the tongue down into the lower palate is known as the Jiva Bandha position.
When setting up for your lift, get tension through the entire system, breathe, and press your tongue into the roof of your mouth prior to pulling the weight off the floor.
#5: Quit Jerking it Off
When setting up for the lift, try to get maximal tension through your entire body, pulling the bar up into the plates to generate additional tension before you begin the movement phase. This is called “taking the slack out of the bar.”
Avoiding the jerk off the bottom of the movement can help maintain stability through the system and not wind up with you looking like you’re going to get whiplash through the first pull.
To summarize these 5 simple and effective hacks to prepare you for your deadlift:
Pre-activate the lats
Form tension through the foot in a neutral position
Turn the right toe out slightly
Push your tongue into the roof of your mouth
Take the slack out of the bar.
This is on top of all the normal set up and positional considerations needed to have a successful pull. I’ve used them with elite athletes (national, Olympic, and professional as well as division one and Canadian college athletes), rehabilitation clients, general population, and also myself. Following a significant low back and SI joint injury that saw the detachment of a major ligament, 3 disc bulges and a partial tear through the quadratus lumborum, I’ve had to re-learn and go through a trial and error phase to see what works and what doesn’t These simple tips have helped me get back up to a double bodyweight deadlift, in spite of the restrictions of the injury.
Give them a try and see if they make a difference for you.
Dean Somerset BSc. Kin, CEP, CSCS, MEPD is a personal trainer, author, and international-renowned public speaker.
His specialty is injury and medical dysfunction management through optimally designed exercise programs. Dean Somerset is a leading authority on strength training and injuries in Post-Rehabilitation. His expertise makes him a highly valued and much respected trainer.
Dean’s has treated clients needing post-surgical joint replacement rehabilitation, cardiac rehabilitation, and sports injury post-rehabilitation. He has worked with clients with neural impairments, spinal cord injuries, and cancer. Dean has also worked with fire fighters and elite runners. What sets Dean apart is his ability to assess a client’s capabilities and design a program that will get them from wherever they are… to wherever they want to be. Dean’s attention to detail ensures the best possible training.
In addition to personal training, Dean also acts as the Medical and Rehabilitation Coordinator for World Heath Clubs. Dean also published an awesome blog at www.deansomerset.com
Deitsch et al (2013). Effects of body position and sex group on tongue pressure generation. Int J Orofacial Myology. 2013 Now; 39: 12-22
Mano et al (2014). Tongue pressure as a novel biomarker of spinal and bulbar muscular atrophy. Neurology. 2014 Jan; 82(3): 255-262
Meyers, Thomas (2008). Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists, 3rd edition. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier
Liebenson, Craig. (2006). Rehabilitation of the Spine: A Practitioners Manual. 2nd edition. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins