Written by Ryan Brown
The deadlift has become notorious from the number of backs it has claimed. We all know that it is a great exercise for building strength and size, as well as for building the hip hinge pattern. In the circles that I travel in, I rarely find anyone opposed to the deadlift, but out there with regular people the deadlift has achieved a bad reputation. People don’t pick things up off of the ground for fear of hurting themselves and then somehow move through thier lives without ever expecting to need that skill… but that is not all. Fact is, many of you who think that you are doing it right are doing it wrong too. You don’t feel anything in your back so you don’t identify the problems that your excessive extension, or flexion in your spine is causing elsewhere in your body. Never underestimate the interconnectedness of your body. Many times excessive lordosis in the lumbar spine, often caused by keeping a “flat” back while lifting, leads to a huge anterior tilt of the hips… and you can check the site for the other mobility articles and find the scores of problems that can cause.
Plain and simple. Neutral is neutral. You can’t extend and look up, and you can’t let yourself flex forward. When you want to properly brace in the deadlift, you must find the middle. The place where you can create balance between the anterior and posterior core. The place where you can optimally use all of your musculature.
Bracing the Deadlift
This morning I was having my weekly meeting with our intern Steve. We were going through a series of tests on him and then we began to talk about his abs. He, like many many young CrossFitters before him, has a set of frighteningly weak abs. So weak, that he couldn’t even breathe. He is being forced to lift his ribs with his sternocleidomastoid (SCM) and shoulders, ruining his posture and setting him up for a short lifting career.
Steve isn’t really really weak or anything. He just started, so I can’t just throw you all kinds of numbers, but I know he clean and jerks around 285# or so and only weighs maybe 165#. He, as most proficient athletes are, is doing a good job of compensating for his asymmetries.
As you can probably guess, bracing the spine all starts with our ability to breathe effectively. I know I feel like I talk about it all the damn time, but the fact is that it seems that most people are on the functional movement bandwagon and have completely skipped the very first functional movement. I don’t know if you have ever seen a baby, but they are pretty much worthless when they come out. The only things that they can do when the are released from the birthing canal is breathe and eat.
Hell, Steve weighs like a buck sixty. He has forgotten both of the most basic functional movements.
This is one of my favorite deadlift videos ever. Mostly because it is awesome.
Before I go into my neutral spine/bracing schpill, I’d like to address the two cues/styles of deadlifts that I am going to slightly contradict. The first one being the guys who are gonna come at me with the round back deadlift argument. I can clearly see that there are several high level deadlifters/real strong dudes that deadlift with a rounded back position, however, I will also contend that most of these “round backs” are in the thoracic spine (where there should be a natural kyphotic curve) or at least that they do not move during the movement. With a rounded thoracic spine, you can still achieve a position where your pelvic floor and diaphragm are facing each other and in a good position to provide stability. Yes, those guys are real strong and that is a great position for them, however, if you are a regular ass dude, or a bro that lifts and competes a little but is not a professional powerlifter and you have a real person job, then I can’t understand the appeal of a riskier movement to you.
Amer the Hammer gives us some really shitty tips on deadlifting here. Aside from how much I want to smack this girl in the face for standing on one leg and cocking her hips to the side in the beginning of the video, ruining her hip mobility… I especially hate how he is coaching her to go into extension so hard. He actually even tells her that she should breathe on the way up and that her toes should almost come off of the ground. She is so far in lumbar extension that at the top she can’t even achieve full hip extension. Which pisses me off. “You’re vertebra is like a string, if you put weight on it, it is gonna break.” -Amer the Hammer.
(That was actually the first video that came up when I searched for deadlift technique and I loved Amer the Hammer so much I had to use it)
There is a great article on the site already about the problems with excessive extension by Molly G, but if you don’t feel like reading it… basically, it sucks. You crush your spine, pull your glutes/abs/hamstrings out of position. Compensate with your cervical spine, and you only rely on half of your musculature to brace because you are pulling the other half so far out of position.
If you are just forcing yourself into extension then you are only using half of your body to try and brace the deadlift. Sure, you can try and squeeze your abs, but you are going to be forcing them out of position, so no manner how many situps you do they are still going to be weak. I was telling my homie Steve this morning that doing situps and expecting it to give you strong abs is like leg pressing and expecting your squat to fly up. I think that it is a great analogy, in the fact that if you learn how to use your abs then doing a multitude of exercises to create hypertrophy and strength are going to work, but if you don’t learn how to use them correctly, just as if you don’t learn to squat… no amount of hypertrophy is going to make them strong. Good movement is about good motor patterns and joint position.
Here is a video I took of Mike T deadlifting at the gym one morning. I love to show people this because you can hear so well how he uses his breathing to brace himself for the pull. I talked to him about it afterwards, since I do alot of teaching people to breathe and whatnot, at North End Cafe over a nice meat omelette special and a cup of coffee and he told me that he didn’t really think about doing it, that it was just what helped him feel like he was getting tight.
Enough of stuff that isn’t good, lets get to the stuff that is. I have been talking about breathing patterns and drills for a bit, but I have added a few cues that I am using in some of the CrossFit classes that I am teaching with people and I think that some of them are responding much better. The point of all of this is that you have got to breathe your spine into the correct position and then create equal pressure in the front and the back. Not just squeezing your back. Once you are strong enough to breathe in all of these positions, the sequence of how you fill with air is going to be key in correctly bracing your spine to deadlift.
First, check this one out
Also… video disclaimer: I usually have people working on these drills for a few weeks before we try to change anything with their actual lifts. At first you will probably feel a little weaker, because you are using muscles that are weaker. Taking the time to do the drills for a few weeks allows you to build strength and the awareness to move correctly.