A Little Deadlift Troubleshooting

Something I find myself frequently discussing with the athletes and adults at SAPT (as well as with Sarah, Chris, and Ryan) is that there is ALWAYS room for improvement in the lifting and performance realm. More specifically, there is always room for improvement with regards to form. One can always make his or her form just a little better, even if he or she has been training for years on end. Case in point: I recently stumbled across an old video on my computer that Kelsey (my lovely fiancee) had filmed for me when I was around the 15-month mark of learning the deadlift. During this particular deadlift session, I was pulling 285lbs for as many reps as I could without technical breakdown (i.e. rounding of the back, hips shooting up ahead of the shoulders, etc.). Given that I'd severely injured my low back due to improper deadlift form in high school, I wanted to be sure my form was spot-on, so that I could continue to progress accordingly.

A couple years ago, when I initially watched the video, I gave myself a small pat on the back. Not because I was lifting a lot of weight (I wasn't, and I readily admit my deadlift is far from world-class), but because, at the time, I thought my form looked pretty good. At least, it appeared angelic compared to the form you see in people like THIS deadlifting across America (Warning: don't watch the video unless you want to crawl into the fetal position under your desk).

HOWEVER, as I re-watched my deadlift video the other day, I chuckled a bit because I realized that my form was far from perfect, although I didn't realize it at the time. Were there a lot of good things going on? Sure. But, there are also a few tweaks that "2011 Stevo" would make if he were coaching this.

Here are three coaching cues I would give to correct some of the errors in the video:

  1. "Pack the Neck"
  2. Reset the bar between each rep (i.e. don't bounce it off the floor)
  3. Finish "tall" at the top

Let's quickly go over each one....

1. Pack the Neck

In the video, I'm looking straight ahead, thus hyperextending my neck/cervical spine at the start. This can put significant undue pressure along the cervical spine, negatively affect mechanics further down your back (at the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae), and actually compromise your breathing patterns, too.

So, I would cue to "pack the neck," or, make a "double chin" by looking down and pulling the chin in.

This may be very difficult for those of you who have been deadlifting for a long time with eyes looking straight ahead, and I won't deny that there are many elite deadlifters that lift this way. However, I do think it would be wise to at least begin practicing neck packing during your warm-ups, and gradually work towards keeping sound spinal mechanics up through max attempts. Also, I CERTAINLY recommend teaching it to beginners so that they can develop good habits right from the start.

2. Reset the Bar Between Each Repetition

As you can see, I transition, quite quickly, from the lowering to the lifting phase of the movement. I'm not "bouncing" it, per se, but I'm certainly not letting the bar settle completely, either.

The reason I recommend pulling every rep from a dead stop is this takes out the stretch reflex. Deadlifting seventeen reps without pausing (as in the video) is much easier than pulling seventeen reps with a pause between each rep. This is of special importance for those that are training for a max deadlift attempt, as well as those working on their starting strength. When you go for a max deadlift, you don't get to set the bar down and utilize the stretch reflex. Instead. you have to pull it from a dead stop. Be warned, lest Newton's first law (inertia) reign victorious over you.

Now, for those of you seeking a little bit more volume, I could see an argument for a "controlled bounce" betwixt each rep, but that is a different story. In general, I recommend that most trainees reset the bar in order to ensure safety and form are in check.

3. Finish the Pull "Tall"

If you look carefully, there are a number of reps where I don't stand completely vertical at the top. I'm slightly hinging forward from the trunk up. It's important to finish the rep by standing TALL, completely pulling the shoulder blades "down and back." This will ensure you're getting the hips all the way through (using your glutes and hamstrings and minimizing anterior pelvic tilt), strengthening the thoracic erectors, and pulling the scapulae into full retraction and depression.

So, essentially, as I'm coming up to the top, 2011 Stevo would tell pre-B.C. Stevo to:

  1. Hump the bar
  2. Stand tall with the chest out, as if you're strutting your stuff at the beach.

So, what does it all look like? Here's a demo:

Granted, there is still room for improvement (as I said in the beginning, there ALWAYS is...), but there are many more good things happening here than in the first video.