The deadlift: as basic as it gets, and as technical as it gets.
For me, the deadlift represents the final pillar of aging well. Anyone who already lifts weights gets to control the heaviest weight possible. And it’s how we’ll still be able to pick up our own bag of groceries or pile of laundry when we’re 95.
Just Pick It Up?
The deadlift may fix any low back issues…and it can also do a real number on your low back, without proper coaching and good mechanics.
Which means, please take this as a refresher or a tuneup rather than as an introduction to deadlifting! That should always be done in person.
First, we’ll go through how to pick up any load safely, from relatively light to less so. (Click here for the TLDR video version.)
The setup definitely gets the longest checklist! It may seem tedious, but it’s definitely worth it.
- Centre of mass of what you’re lifting is as close to your own centre of mass as possible. If you’re lifting a bar, that means your shoulder blades are over the bar. For more compact loads, aim to have the heaviest part of the load in line with the top of your foot’s main arch, where you would put the bow when tying your shoelaces.
- Tripod foot is firmly screwed in.
- Shoulders are packed (lats on).
- Chest above hips…but not too much.
- In almost all situations, keep the spine neutral spine (easy tip: use a dowel to check yourself). And don’t forget, “neutral” includes the neck. For a great explanation by Matt Taylor of how to stay safe in a very few exceptions to the neutral spine rule, click here.
Initiating the Lift
Okay, that massive checklist all gets “yes” ticks. Whew. What next? We finally get to start moving.
- Breathing: There are a number of ways to come at this, but the crucial thing is, you must have air inside you at the bottom of the move while loaded.
- Brace: this is the “core on” part. The need for your brace will depend on the challenge level of what you are lifting. See below for when it gets heavier.
- Hip hinge: The hips move dynamically while the core is working statically/isometrically. (Hip movement is forward, not up as with squat.)
During the Lift
Again, here is where we want a strong spine that doesn’t budge. We also must make sure to keep air inside of us as long as we are controlling the weight before giving the weight back to the ground.
- Core stays on isometrically to keep the spine neutral; glutes drive the hip hinge.
Finishing the Lift
In competition, we don’t get a pass (that is, at least 2 of 3 judges turn on a white light) unless the lift finishes properly too.
And in regular life, fully finishing your lift promotes good movement patterns that will help to keep you moving pain-free.
- Full hip extension at the top, knees fully straightened, with shoulder blades pulled down and good length through the back of the neck.
When It Gets Heavier
As the load increases, i.e. what you’re picking up gets heavier for you, the mechanics stay the same. Now we just start to need more of everything, particularly the internal brace.
- Abs on, pelvic floor up, high-pressure (sharp and low) diaphragmatic inhale to brace.
- The diaphragmatic brace in particular can take some practice, and it usually won’t work properly until we know we can access diaphragmatic breathing in a relaxed, parasympathetic-system fashion. (A couple of cues: visualize drinking a bubble tea where a bubble is stuck in the straw; consider using an external “target” belt; and if it’s still not working, spend some time in the 90/90 or crocodile positions.”
When It Gets Really Heavy
Personally, I love how I feel after a heavy deadlift. (Especially now that I have discovered using the hook grip.) For programmed training, and perhaps even competition level, we again need to turn things up a notch.
- Don’t forget the chalk to create more friction and keep the grip solid.
- This is low rep work due to the high level of nervous system involvement and resulting need to recover mentally.
- For barbell users, you will need either a mixed grip or hook grip (which is my strong preference, if you can tolerate the discomfort, because it keeps the body more symmetrical). Click here for a more in-depth demonstration of hook grip by the inimitable Mark Rippetoe.
- Maintain full-body tension with no energy “leaks.” Isometric pull-throughs are very informative for this.
- The deadlift is different from most lifts in that there is no eccentric portion; it comes straight up into the concentric work. To create our own “pre-stretch,” we can load the front of foot first.
- Full intent! Spending some time with visualization practice can be helpful.
- And I’m not even going to get into the whole belt discussion here…
Maybe you’re a DIY person and you prefer to program yourself. If so, here are a few points worth noting.
- One-legged stability work is important.
- Males often only deadlift once a week; females can usually tolerate both a higher volume and working closer to their 1RM.
- Don’t be greedy. Again, the deadlift may well fix you, but it can also break you.
- Deloads are critical. Consider proven programs such as Wendler’s 5-3-1, where a light deload is built in every fourth week.
From “Activities of Daily Life” to Record-Breaking
And there we go! This post wraps up a series of six on aging well. It’s the crowning physical move that I feel we should be able to do, in some form, up until the week we die.
The others were:
- dowel overhead squats to maintain mobility,
- taking the stairs for mid-range cardio and functional leg strength,
- the pushup for push and core strength,
- jumping or hopping for bone density and agility,
- and sprints, to keep the ol’ ticker ticking nicely.
This article was a lot of information. Contact me if you need help making sense of any of it, or keeping yourself safe as you get stronger.