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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Deadlifting 101

Most people are aware of the benefits of performing the deadlift. If you are not deadlifting then you should be in some way shape or form.

So what does a good deadlift look like? Search "deadlift" on youtube....once you sift through the 17,900 results, left me know if you still have any idea how to perform the lift correctly. My guess is that you might be a bit confused by all of the varied information out there.

Today I will cover 3 types of deadlifts. I'm not talking about sumo, traditional, reverse canadian, or the wicked haaad Boston deadlift. Instead I will talk about 3 different spine positions.

1. The Neutral Spine Deadlift

If I had it my way everyone would practice with this technique. If you cannot perform the deadlift this way, please see a good coach or PT so they can clear up any movement issues before you attempt the lift.

A side note:
Everyone's spine is different so it may look slightly different in the deadlift. I am not going to get into joint angles etc., but every athlete is unique and has his/her own body type. Athlete #1 could be 5' 2" / 200 lbs and have their neutral spine. Athlete #2 could be 6' 4"/ 165 lbs and have their neutral spine. These athletes will look very different and its up to the strength coach to decide whether or not they are in a safe position. IMHO, as long as their spine has normal curvature in the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine they are headed in the right direction.

Snapshot of the deadlift with a neutral spine:

Key points to keep in mind when performing this deadlift:
  • Presence of lordotic, thoracic and cervical curvatures
  • Tight grip
  • Posterior chain tight and hamstrings "loaded"
  • Lats tight, connecting the arms to the body
  • Core braced as if someone is going to punch you
  • "Neutral spine" should be present at the lockout
2. The Neutral lumbar/Flexed Thoracic Deadlift

**NOTE: This technique should be utilized only under the guidance of a good coach or professional. This takes a high level of skill and is very demanding on the body.

As the name implies, the athlete pulls with a neutral lumbar spine and a flexed thoracic spine. This deadlift is seen more in powerlifting, strongman competitions, or when athletes are attempting a heavier pull.

At first glance, you may see spinal flexion and judge the technique as being unsafe. What you don't realize is that the lumbar spine is not in a compromised position and the t-spine is flexed. These athletes practice this way and it becomes a technique in itself.

For some, this allows greater leverage which results in a shorter distance the bar has to travel. It's all about poundage lifted in competition; the more you lift, the better you do and the higher you place.

Snapshot of the deadlift with a neutral lumbar/
flexed thoracic spine:

I don't practice this technique nor do I teach it. I am not saying that it's wrong, it's just different. I don't pull 600-800 lbs from the floor so I have no business telling powerlifters how they should lift.

I do, however, train tons of field and court athletes. These athletes strive to be powerful, strong, mobile, fast, agile and most importantly, healthy. I will not compromise my athletes safety just because they want to have a big deadlift. The first rule as a strength coach is "DO NO HARM."

And last but least....

3. The Flexion Deadlift

Lumbar flexion is what we're seeing here. This is not good. There is nothing smart about lifting this way.

If you do choose to lift this way, be prepared for a lower back injury. It may not happen right away, it may take months or years but sooner or later, it will happen and you will not be happy at all. You will most likely herniate a disc or two. Trust me, this sucks. I herniated 2 discs about 5 years ago and the injury still haunts me from time to time.

Snapshot of the deadlift with lumbar flexion:

Don't believe me?

Here is some research from Lower back disorders by Dr. Stuart McGill. If you haven't heard of him, he's a pretty big deal. He happens to know a thing or two about the spine.

The information below is taken from Dr. McGill's book Lower Back Disorders. Basically this is a chart showing how the muscles of the trunk fire in a flexed lumbar spine vs. a neutral spine. This is measured in newtons (a force measurement unit).

What does this information illustrate? In short, it says that the majority of the muscles in the trunk 'shut off' when pulling in lumbar flexion, while the ligaments take the majority of the load. I don't have the letters MD after my name, but I am pretty sure that this is not good. Any exercises that load the ligaments more than core musculature can't be good.

Still not convinced?? McGill also conducted a study measuring the shear load of the lumbar spine when pulling in lumbar flexion vs. a neutral lumbar spine.

Here are the numbers:

  • Flexed Lumbar Spine - 1900N of shear load
  • Neutral Lumbar Spine - 200N of shear load

Regardless of whether this is measured in newtons, pounds or poods (inside kettlebell joke), the load on the lumbar spine is 9x greater when pulling in flexion!

Pulling in Flexion= herniated discs

Herniated disc= pain in the butt...no really, you can get referred pain in your butt.

Can you pull in flexion?

Will you get hurt?
Eventually. It may be this week, next month or 10 years from now, but there is a really good chance you will get injured.

Deadlifts are great when done correctly. Take time to gain the mobility needed and develop the movement patterns to master the neutral spine deadlift. Don't rush - quality trumps quantity.

Always remember the golden rule of coaching...DO NO HARM!

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