It’s just another day of your workout routine. You hopefully head to the gym excited and ready to better your physique once again. Even if you typically mind your own business, you can’t help but be wary of the guy deadlifting with a hundred or more pounds above his actual max attached to a barbell. At this point, you’re probably cringing and shivering as his back begins to recite the alphabet starting with the letter “C”.
While there are more than enough memes scattered across social media about deadlifters being compared to frightened felines, the issue of lifters not concerning themselves with proper form should not be considered a hysterical matter.
While all three major compound lifts, the squat, bench press, and deadlift, have the potential to subject lifters to injury, the deadlift puts practitioners at the most risk when excessive flexion occurs in the spine. For those who see the deadlift as a somewhat daunting exercise, I suggest you hear me out so you can stop stagnating your progress and get stronger.
From the missed lockouts to the lower back pain, there must be a precursor to these inconsistencies in your deadlift. What exactly happens to our backs when we’re pulling to generate such consequences? It’s called “flexion”
Our spine is composed of the thoracic (upper) spine and the lumbar (lower) spine. These two parts of the spine, especially the lumbar, due to it containing much smaller and weaker vertebrae than the thoracic, play crucial roles when performing the bending movement pattern, the deadlift.
Flexion is when the thoracic or lumbar spine rounds or curves over. Are spines are overall very flexible and not made out of glass, so we can get away with most flexion like when we’re sitting in a chair. Flexion really only becomes a problem when it is done under a relatively heavy load when lifting of any type.
Since flexion of the spine obviously occurs at the back, there’s a high chance that your torso is not set properly and/or isn’t tensioned properly. The deadlift isn’t simply just pulling on the bar recklessly. It requires much tension that must be generated by engaging your latissimus dorsi muscles, which are located below your armpits and extend down to your hips.
A great cue to think about when attempting to use your lats is to pin your elbows to your sides. This creates a noticeable tightness in your lats, which allows these muscles to keep your spine in a neutral position. If your lats aren’t sore after a tough session of deadlifts, you can bet you’re not engaging them in the first place.
Another easy cue to take note of would be to keep your chest up. Allowing the chest to fall while deadlifting will undoubtedly cause your spine to flex over, as the act of elevating the chest is creating tightness in itself. Naturally, the weight of a deadlift wants to pull you back down to earth, so it’s crucial to actively keep raising your chest to keep the barbell rising to lockout.
You should notice that creating proper tension, when done with a fairly light weight, will cause the barbell to hover slightly above the ground before you even attempt to actually lift the weight. Regardless of load-size however, you will notice that a properly-tensioned deadlift will result in a “clicking” sound between the plates and the barbell. This is the slack being pulled out of the barbell, which allows your body to pre-tense itself to exert a ton of force directly into the bar.
The deadlift is a full-body compound exercise, which means you should be utilizing those tree trunks (hopefully) known as your legs. This is done simply by pushing your feet through the ground as if you were attempting a 1,000 lb leg press. Be sure to shift your bodyweight back as you would in a trust fall, as this will help break the weight off the ground.
You should feel your quads, glutes, and hamstrings participating in the deadlift and not just your back. As a matter of fact, not engaging your lower body will force your torso to do all the work in the deadlift. Stagnant use of the legs will make maximal deadlifts impossible.
By properly synchronizing the tension in your torso and legs together, an easy lockout can be created. No matter how much leg drive your setup has with a poor-tensioned torso, the lockout will either be excruciatingly difficult or impossible due to the spine having to uncoil itself to allow your hips to get complete the rep. Conversely, your torso can only raise the bar so much by itself before the legs have to step in and assist. These principles make the deadlift a two-part movement.
While I definitely agree that you should strive for perfecting your deadlift setup by generating as much tension as you can, I also agree that a lifting belt should be implemented as you become more advanced. I’ve discussed the valsalva maneuver and its relationship with properly bracing for heavy lifts in the past, and a belt will make bracing that much easier.
Regardless, slapping on a belt and expecting all of your deadlift’s barricades to vanish will prove futile. Always keep the weight on the bar at a manageable level that you can maintain a rigid spine with as little flexion as possible using your core. Too many lifters underestimate the sheer importance of the core when deadlifting even though your core is responsible for keeping your torso upright to begin with.
You now hopefully understand why the back may round in the deadlift as well as how to correct the issue, but please understand that if your form is lacking, it will not be fixed overnight. Let your ego heal for a bit by keeping the weight light so you can work your way up through strengthening your posterior chain.
I myself have suffered for a long time with deadlifting in the past, as I’d always feel just my lower back being taxed like a check while never getting any gains in my hamstrings or glutes. I thought I’d never get the deadlift down, but with my learned knowledge, my confidence has been renewed. It’s your turn now.
With consistent practice, awareness, discipline, and patience, the deadlift can become an intuitive sharp tool in your shed of strength gains instead of the lift that puts you out of commission for a couple sessions. Get out there and show Eddie Hall your worth!