Stiffen Up Your Deadlift

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There are many things in this world that I love.   My family, friends, and girlfriend come to mind first and foremost, obviously.  But, since I’m on the topic, I might as well take the opportunity and throw in a few more things to boot:

My readers – seriously, I can’t thank you enough

Omelets

My fan that I sleep with everynight as background noise

Puppy dog kisses

The perfect pump – you know, when you ‘re pumping gas and you stop EXACTLY on the number you want.  Yeah, that’s awesome.

The Daily Show

Turning on the tv and randomly coming across a Star Wars marathon

When some idiot cuts you off on the highway and then speeds off, only to pass him five miles down the road because he’s been pulled over by a police car.

Beef jerky

Alicia Keys

And, not that I even need to say it – considering how often I blabber on about them – but I also heart deadlifts.  I love talking about them.  I love writing about them.   And I especially love coaching them.

The latter, of course, is where I want to direct my attention towards today.   You see, amongst other things – building overall strength along with general badassesery for starters – deadlifts are arguably one of the most valuable exercises in existence.  I mean, not only do they carry over to a multitude of real lift qualities (everything from picking up a bag of groceries to explosive power and strength for sport), but deadlifts also serve as a fairly powerful corrective tool as well.

Name me another movement that simultaneously targets ankle dorsiflexion, strengthens the glutes and hamstrings (which in turn helps reduce the risk of ACL injuries and helps counteract things like anterior pelvic tilt), teaches neutral spine and helps alleviate sheer forces, works grip strength (which can have an influence on rotator cuff health), not to mention forces people to learn how to “hip hinge” and stiffens the upper back? 

And those are just the things I thought of at the top of my head!  All by myself!

Not to toot my own horn (okay, maybe a little), but I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll never walk into Cressey Performance and see an athlete or client performing a deadlift with less than suspect technique.  A few reps might fall through the cracks here and there, but for the most part, there’s always a coach standing right there to offer cues when necessary.

Chest up, hips down!

Lock your shoulder blades!

Get tension in the hammies!

Big air!

Get your hips through at the top, and squeeze those glutes!

Sit back!  Push your hips back on the descent!

In addition to the above popular cues (which work for 90% of trainees out there), as I noted HERE, it’s also beneficial to be a little more hands-on with clients and “mold” them into the positions you want them to be in.    For some, they just don’t have the kinesthetic awareness to “feel” what their body is doing in space and they just need a little nudge here and a little prodding there to give them some feedback to get into proper position.

That said, however, sometimes you have to think outside the box and recognize what one’s weak link is in order to remedy the problem.  Using an obvious example, lets take someone who just can’t seem to prevent their UPPER back from rounding during a deadlift – especially on the descent.

While verbal cueing and positioning will work nine times out of ten, sometimes it’s just a matter of recognizing that their upper back is weak and we need to build some stiffness in that area.   Sure, grooving deadlift technique and getting quality reps in will help, but in addition to that, I’d be more inclined to really (and I mean, REALLY) hammer some horizontal rowing.

Look at it from this point of view:  some trainees have been sitting in front of a computer screen for 20 years.  So, if you think about it, many trainees have been sitting in flexion ever since McGyver started saving the world with duct tape and a pair of tweezers.  It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that many have really short pecs and really weak/inhibited scapular retractors.

It goes without saying that a healthy dose of dedicated t-spine mobility work would be in high order, as would some additional soft-tissue work for the pecs.

For a lot of trainers and coaches, it stops there.  That’s not a bad thing, and is certainly a step above what many would do in the same situation – but what about taking it a step further and throwing in some additional rowing movements?

HINT:  you should throw in some more rowing movements.

Honestly, much like thoracic mobility, I feel people really can’t get enough horizontal rowing movements into their repertoire.  I’m actually not opposed to throwing in some form of it into every day programming for some individuals.

One day I may have someone perform some light seated rows.  The next, I may have him or her toss in some heavier 1-arm DB rows.

Likewise, later in the week, I’m not opposed to other variatios such as chest supported rows, TRX rows, face pulls, t-bar rows, whateve, being thrown into the mix.  The point is, for most trainees, increasing upper back strength – and subsequently, upper back stiffness – will undoubtedly help improve not only their deadlift technique, but their performance as well. 

Make no mistake about it:  there are NUMEROUS things that come into play when trying to clean up someone’s deadlift technique, but I feel that this is one (blatantly obvious) component that’s often overlooked.

Are you feeling that or what?

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Comments for This Entry

  • Dean Somerset

    What timing!! My new article on T-Nation is all about dumbell row technique!!

    September 9, 2011 at 7:41 am | Reply to this comment

  • Nia Shanks

    Oh, Tony. Whenever you write about deadlifts, I can't help but smile. I need to find that coffee mug. Better yet, I should find it on a beer glass. ; )

    September 9, 2011 at 7:42 am | Reply to this comment

  • Rees

    Feeling it Tony. Btw, you left out the swiss army pocket knife, unless that's where the tweezers came from, then right on man.

    September 9, 2011 at 7:57 am | Reply to this comment

  • Barath

    I notice that when you do DB rows, you bring up the weight at a slight angle to the vertical. I tend to have all my torso above the bench and parallel to it and pull in a vertical line. I thought this would engage the lats a little better - am I wrong? Or is this a dumb question? :)

    September 9, 2011 at 8:33 am | Reply to this comment

  • R Smith

    @Dean: Just read your article AND Tweeted it. (I kissed it first.) The videos made me think of how I used to absolutely mangle the exercise, mainly through "hiking" the weight up with my shoulder. @Tony: I never respected (or, HELL, even knew what they were) stuff like HIRD, t-spine mobility, ankle dorsiflexion, hip hinges, glute activation and locking my shoulder blades until I (a) committed myself to learning how to row correctly and (b) realized I was NEVER going to deadlift serious weight (safely) without understanding how the entire body works in unison. RS

    September 9, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Barath

    @Dean: I just finished your article, and find that you answered my question above in it. Thanks a bunch. I've certainly been doing it ineffectively, I see now. My neck was certainly in a lower position compared to my shoulders at the top of the motion. Thanks again for writing this! Like R Smith, I'd have kissed it, but that just seems like a weird thing to do :)

    September 9, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Dave

    Tony, Nia, Dean, or anyone help me!!! What the heck am I doing wrong here (besides not packing my neck better)? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2pJ6yDyEYs My back and upper/proximal R hamstring hurts initiating every friggen' rep from the floor. (I've tried rack pulls to substitute, but that just lead to radicular pain down my R leg into my foot.) Needless to stay, I haven't pulled in over 2 weeks and am sorta depressed (really depressed, actually) since I'm really skinny (6'5'' 180lbs) and sorta can't do the best exercise in existence.

    September 9, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Samuel

    Dave - I hope you can get better answers from someone else because I'm not sure what would be causing the pain issues. It really doesn't look that bad to me, although I do have two recommendations: 1. This one is a biggy. You pull with your arms at the start of every rep. Watch your elbows in the video - they bend each time. That's a HUGE power leak right there, and a good way to injure yourself. Your arms should be dead straight the whole time. Focus on contracting your triceps if you have trouble. 2. I would suggest sitting back a bit further. Try and get your shoulders above (not in front of) the bar and really load up your hips. Drive your feet into the ground and your hips forward, and don't think about lifting the weight. This is just my humble opinion, and take the latter with a grain of salt (although the former is definitely a must - bent arms in the deadlift are neither safe nor strong). Good luck to you.

    September 9, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Collin

    Tony, I know it's a niche (very, very niche) variation on the deadlift, but could you do a post or a video on Dumbbell deadlift technique. Nobody really tackles it thoughtfully (because it's not ideal, I'm sure) but the home gym crow would appreciate it.

    September 9, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Dean Somerset

    Dave - To start, don't lift your toes. Push them into the ground to take up some of the fascial tension through the posterior line, and also to balance you in a better position and put less strain on your hammies to not only move the weight but keep you from falling on your butt.

    September 9, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Dana

    I'm not feeling the love with deadlifts right now, because I can't seem to keep my arse down. No matter how many times my coach yells to keep my butt down, as soon as I grab the bar it floats up, especially on sumo. We just haven't figured out yet what cue I need to get past this. I would love to hear suggestions! This is mortifying to share, but here's the evidence that I'm completely unaware of what's going on behind me: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-2pP34pT-g&feature=channel_video_title

    September 10, 2011 at 5:43 am | Reply to this comment

  • Risto Uuk

    Just like Dana, I can't do deadlifts currently. It's a big shame, because they are absolutely my favorite. My issue is that I get this bad pain below my left side of glutes when I do a deadlift. My coach/mentor thinks it's an issue of nerves and/or inflammation. Any ideas on how to get rid of the pain and back to deadlifting?

    September 10, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Matias

    Dana, I'm no Tony G, but it looks like your pulling all the weight with your back instead of driving into the ground with your legs. Your starting form looks great, but you lose that form during the movement. How are your push ups? If your lower back sags than you know your weak link is your core. Your butt shouldn't be moving by itself, but you know that. The body should move as one. Try to pull a lower weight with proper form. It's better to hurt the ego than to wind up getting hurt physically. P.S. try some glute activation before and push that belly out as you DL

    September 10, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Dana

    Thanks Matias, My push ups are good. I think it's a matter of needing some mental image to help keep my rear down. With bench it's the thought of spreading the bar, but I don't have anything yet that works for sumo deadlift. It's not as bad with conventional until I get tired.

    September 10, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Dave

    Samuel and Dean thank you very much for your feedback and time!

    September 10, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Robert Wynne

    @ Risto: Have you tried directly stretching your piriformis? I had similar symptoms a couple years back (it felt like sciatica shooting down my leg!), and that completely fixed it. You could also try myofascial release on the affected 'cheek' using a foam roller or lacrosse ball. (

    September 11, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Robert Wynne

    Here's a link to some good basic info on the topic: http://www.thestretchinghandbook.com/archives/piriformis-syndrome.php However those 2 stretches at the end of the above link may be too intense for you if you're already presenting nervy-pain-like symptoms...I personally used this stretch (see below link) for 30secs per side X 3 sets. Good Luck mate! http://www.caringmedical.com/userfiles/images/piriformissyndromestretch.jpg (Make sure your opposite shoulder blade STAYS on the floor, be careful!)

    September 11, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Jeff Dulohery

    Tony, Nice job as usual. My question is that I can't do any pronated grip rowing without forearm pain, top of arm. I can do neutral grip with no pain as long as I don't crank up the weight too much. I do forearm stretches and use the stick on my forearms, as well as blue heat. What suggestions would you have to help with my issue. Thanks for any help

    September 11, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Tony Gentilcore

    Awesome, awesome feedback everyone. Thanks for chiming in Dean and Nia in my absence! @ Jeff: I'd HIGHLY suggest going in to get some manual therapy on your elbow - specifically on all thw wrist extensors. Also, you may also want him or her to look up the chain into the brachial plexus region. Oftentimes, there can be some "nerve" issues going on up there that can manifest itself into elbow pain. Either way, you need some aggressive soft tissue therapy. Get it done!

    September 13, 2011 at 5:43 am | Reply to this comment

  • JB

    @dana two points: first is a point of technique. Sit back more as you pull. You should be using your body-weight to lever the bar back and up. Think of your hips as a scissor lift. Second is a point of emphasis get your body in position, sit back then push the floor away rather than tugging the bar up. let me know if that helps.

    September 13, 2011 at 9:38 am | Reply to this comment

  • Dominic munnelly

    Excellent article and totally agree with the horizontal rowing for setting the shoulders. It's really helped me massively and for good shoulder health

    September 13, 2011 at 11:08 am | Reply to this comment

  • Dana

    Thanks JB! >>push the floor away rather than tugging the bar up

    September 13, 2011 at 11:10 am | Reply to this comment

  • Jeff Dulohery

    Tony, Thanks for the advice. I got some art therapy on my wrist extensors, upper back, pec minor, and cuff muscles. one quick question, I was doing front squats tonight and I was performing these barefoot, and I was feeling some sensations in one of my achilles tendons on my right foot. It wasn't painful, but I didn't care for it. I felt this in the bottom position of the squat. Is this cause for alarm, or is this just poor ankle mobility? I perform ankle mobility every day, but maybe not enough. Any thoughts? Thanks

    September 19, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Reply to this comment

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