Mastering The Compounds Part 1: The Deadlift
There’s no other way to pack on strength and size than through mastering the compound lifts. By honing your skills when it comes to lifting and being patient and consistent with your recovery and nutrition, you’ll have a potent combination for physical development.
This series of lifting guides will give you a “how to” when it comes to training. If you utilise the cues and tips provided, you’ll be sure to enhance your technique, allowing you to add weight to the bar.
First things first, not everyone is created equal
You may be familiar with the concept of training to accommodate for your lever lengths. This is the premise that you must adapt your lifting technique to suit your own mechanics. We all have different shaped hips, shoulders and longer or shorter arms or legs. These intricacies impact how we will set up for a movement and also how “natural” it may feel. For example, someone with long thigh bones may not be suited to a high bar position on a squat, but more of this in later chapters.
The take home point here is that a tip that may be applicable for one person may not be for another. The cue that resonates most with you will either be one that suits your own personal biomechanics or something that indicates why your technique breaks down at a certain part of the lift. Think of all of the tips given in this series as a buffet. All the food is good, but you only pick out what you really like.
The Deadlift: The good, the bad and the ugly
The Deadlift is one of the best movements you can do in the gym to add size and strength. It is without doubt the king of lifts and will give you a monumental physique if approached in the correct way. The only issue is, failure to master this lift early on can actually put you at risk of injury, instead of adding muscle to your frame.
This lift must be treated with the utmost respect. I can tell you this first hand, as for years I focused on the load rather than the quality of how I was lifting. If ego gets in the way, your spine will usually bring you crashing back down to earth. Here are my top 5 tips on what to do whilst deadlifting.
1. Brace and inflate
Diaphragmatic breathing is a technique in which we breathe through our abdominals. Also known as “belly breathing”, this method is excellent for relaxation. When we deadlift, being relaxed is the last thing we want to do, however engaging the entirety of the abdominal musculature is essential for lifting properly. When it comes to the core, I like to think “first brace”, so tense the abs as hard as possible and then inflate, breathe into the belly inflating the abdominals, lower back and then the chest. When you do this correctly, you’ll notice more involvement of the hip muscles and less in the lower back.
2. Scaps forward and down
For years I used to think that shoulder retraction was important in deadlifting. This isn’t the case. The shoulder blades being retracted actually makes your arm theoretically shorter as it takes the base in which your upper arm sits (shoulder girdle), further away from the bar. When thinking about shoulder position, think forward and then down, making them as long as possible. The down cue will also help engage the lat muscles more, keeping the spine more rigid.
3. Lock out the arms and push the knees in to the elbows
A common mistake I see in novice lifters is flexing at the elbow when lifting. This isn’t something you want to engrain, as any type of flexion at the elbow could lead to a bicep tear or pull as the load increases. Having the arms locked engages the triceps more which in turn creates more tension through the lats. When you push your knees into the elbows, muscles in the glutes will fire more efficiently, helping you utilise the hip hinge more. This again prevents the lower back from taking over. For more lats and glutes think “Arms locked, knees out”.
4. Pull yourself into the bar and push the ground away
A cue you’re likely to hear on any “how to deadlift guide” is to pull the slack out of the bar. This is so you create tension prior to moving the weight and therefore work the target muscles. I always look at where the hips are when the bar breaks the floor. If the hips shoot up, either the person hasn’t created enough tension or the weight is too heavy for them. Before initiating the lift, you should scour your body for any energy leaks, see where you may be losing tightness and focus on rectifying the position. The hips should stay glued into position and the quads should leg press the ground away during the first part of the movement. Once the bar passes the knees, you can then start to utilise the hips more. As world famous Strength Coach Sebastian Oreb put it, “the deadlift is the perfect combination of push and pull”.
5. Create an arch with the feet and spread the floor
If you’re going to deadlift barefoot, it’s essential you do it correctly. In order to get the most out of the lower body musculature, it’s vital you create the optimal position for the feet. This includes creating an arch and establishing three points of contact with the floor; the heel, ball of the foot and outside of the foot (fifth metatarsal). You must then screw your feet into the floor and act as if you are pushing the floor apart. This engages the hip complex much more, enabling you to generate more power.
Putting it all together: how to use it
All these cues are very useful for mastering your deadlift, however you may find yourself a little overwhelmed if you try to apply them all at once. I would recommend trying out the one tip which you believe will help your lift the most. So, for example if you’re weak off the floor perhaps you need to focus on how to create more tension there. Once you’ve seen a noticeable improvement in the fluidity of your lift, then think to whether you’re utilising the other points as well.
Lifting well is largely based on common sense. If the movement feels right and the bar line is smooth, carry on as you are. If you’ve hit a plateau, aren’t growing or feel your lower back over working, make sure you go through the check list and have mastered all the points above.