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Deadlifts: Setting Up For Success

Matt Malloy

When it comes to the deadlift, setting yourself up properly is the key to success. We want to put the right muscles in the right positions in order for them to do their job.

Too often the deadlift has been referred to as a “pulling” exercise.

What’s wrong with a pull?

We want to create a push.

A vertical jump isn’t about pulling your body to the ceiling; it’s about pushing yourself away from the floor. There is a distinct difference.

DL StanceFake it until you make it

It’s common to see an athlete is using their back to pull a weight instead of pushing through the ground. Just because the weight goes from the floor to the finish position doesn’t mean it got there in an efficient manner. Many athletes are good at faking it. It’s impossible not to use your lower back, chest and neck when your spine is in excessive extension. Let me repeat that. It’s impossible.

What to do about it

When you’re going for a true one-rep max (the heaviest weight you can lift), pulling instead of pushing can’t be avoided. But, you aren’t testing your max every day. In fact, 98+% of your lifts should technical sub max lifts done with perfect technique. For the ninety eight percent of the time when you are using submax (moderate weight) lifts you can apply some rules to keep you from pulling with your head and neck

Triple Flexion:

You may have heard strength coaches talk about “triple extension.” This means you’re getting full extension through the three major joints of the body, ankles knees and hips. What they have failed to realize is that in order to get triple extension, one needs to enter into a state of triple flexion. Too often deadlifts are taught with vertical shin angles.

Limiting ankle flexion will limit ankle extension. Limiting Ankle flexion limits knee flexion, which means you’re limiting knee movement. It’s like swinging a baseball bat without a wind up. No ankle flexion puts you in a position that maximizes the stimulus put on your low back, chest and neck. This is not a good thing.

Toes into the floor

It’s impossible to initiate the deadlift with just your hips. Your glutes, hamstrings and quads are connected as a chain. In order to fully engage this chain of muscles you have to initiate the movement with your gastrocnemius (your main calf muscle). Yes, your calf muscles. Keep your weight in your heels and sprawl your toes into the ground to start the deadlift.

Rib to hip distance

The distance between your ribs and hips should stay the same through out the lift. When you reach your chest forward, the distance will increase. If the bottom of your ribs are waving hello to me when you’re pulling a deadlift you’re using your lower back, chest and neck as primary movers throughout the movement. This is not a good thing, and I’m confident your back will be telling you the same thing. Your lower back is an important muscle just like any other; you just don’t want it to be a prime mover.

Reflexive muscles

old school strong man“TIGHT CORE, SQUEEZE YOUR BUTT!” – Every coach/trainer

These are not optimal cues to use. This isn’t the proper way to create stability. When an athlete is about to tackle the other teams running back, is he going to remember to tighten his core and squeeze his butt? No. He is just going to try and crush the guy. The core is going to turn on reflexively upon impact, the same way it should while you lift. If you create proper positioning of the rib cage and pelvis, your core will turn on.

(This doesn’t mean you can’t use these cues when troubleshooting)

When you put a muscle in the proper position, it’ll do its job every time.

Putting it all together

Here are the cues we use:

  • Relax your shoulders, let your sternum drop and tuck your tailbone between your legs.
  • Slide down into a good position by keeping your knees parallel with your upper torso.
  • Now get tight, press your tongue to the roof of your mouth and breath in.
  • With the weight in your heels, press your toes into the floor and push your knees backwards as if jumping the ceiling.
  • Check your rib to hip length. If it’s the same as when you started, your legs probably did the majority of the work.

Check out the video below for a visual demonstration