Deadlift Troubleshooting Using the Coach's Eye

Here's a clip I recently threw together using the extremely handy application, Coach's Eye. Today we are going to analyze a recent deadlift session of one of our adult clients, Conrad, and explain how we were able to use this video footage to help him take his deadlift from "good" to "better than good."

More of these "Coach's Eye Analyses" will follow on SAPTstrength in the future, should you all find them enjoyable and/or useful.

Grip, Dip, and RIP!

Obviously, we’re talking about DEADLIFTS! If you haven’t heard it before, “grip, dip and rip” typically refers to the set-up and execution of picking up heavy barbells off the ground. Grip- Grab the bar and squeeze it tight. Dip- Dip your hips down, get your back flat. RIP!- RIP that bar off the floor!

I’m a big fan of the phrase. It takes an extremely technical lift like the deadlift and boils it down to three simple words that happen to rhyme. Awesome. Of course, when teaching someone how to properly pick up heavy things, more effective cueing is going to be necessary. However, if you’ve been deadlifting for a while and your technique is in check, sometimes you need to stop obsessing over the MILLIONS of details involved in the technique and just RIP that bar off the ground and into lockout.

The Dip

Although each cue deserves a blog post of its own, what I want to talk about specifically is that crucial point between the grip and the rip. That moment immediately before you pull when you set your position can make or break your lift. So what really goes on in that short duration in your deadlift set-up?

Bracing and Setting Your Lower Back

The moment you set your hips into position is also the moment when you should be bracing as hard as you can through your abs. With your hips in place and your abs as tight as possible, you set your lower back into a neutral position to protect your spine from the high sheer and compressive forces you’re about to hit it with.

Applying Tension in the Hamstrings

Pulling your hips down into position while simultaneously flattening out your lower back will place a significant amount of tension on your hamstrings, which is a great thing to have happen right before your deadlift. By creating this pre-stretch, you will be able to take advantage of the stretch reflex that we humans so thoroughly enjoy. When the muscle spindles in your hamstrings are stimulated by the stretch they will freak out and wake up all the contractile units, who will all jump on-board the deadlifting train and say “alright boss, LET’S DO THIS!”

One thing to keep in mind regarding the pre-stretch on your hamstrings is that the longer you hold that stretched position the more the reflex potential will be diminished. Think about it in terms of another lift: what’s easier, a touch-and-go bench press or a bench press with a 3 second pause on your chest? So when you dip down into position on your deadlift and feel tight, PULL! Don’t hang out at the bottom for too long.

Setting Your Upper Back

Another key component in preparing for a nice deadlift is setting your upper back. This means shoulders down and back, sufficient t-spine extension, neck packed, and using your lats. During my “dip” on the deadlift, I also like to roll my shoulders from a shrugged position into a packed position while doing my best to extend through the t-spine. I also like to apply some external rotation torque on the bar with my hands because I feel like it helps me “turn on” my lats.

All of THAT in the Dip?!?

Yep, all of that happens in the dip. It’s a lot of detail, but as I mentioned earlier, don’t get caught up in trying to go down a HUGE technique checklist before every pull. Trust me, you’ll drive yourself crazy because you will always be able to find an aspect of the lift you didn’t do with absolute perfection. Just work on fixing a couple form issues at a time and keep on grippin’ dippin’ and rippin’!

10 Reasons You Should Swing Heavy Bells

So, I forgot to post on Wednesday. Sorry folks! To make up for it, I present this: As the title states: Swing. Big. Bells.

Me and Natasha, just swinging around.

1. Glute strength- Do you want a strong butt? Of course you do, that's why you read this site. Swings are fantastic glute builders. The glutes are the most powerful hip extensors so it makes sense to perform exercises that force the glutes to extend the hips... hmmm, sounds like swings huh? The powerful snap of the swing carries over into other lifts such as the deadlift and squat. The glutes also play in vital role in sprinting and jumping. So if you want to be the Athlete-Of-Steel, you needs buns of steel. Swing it baby!

Gotta build the wheels if you want speed!

2. Upper back strength- During the swing, the upper back is essentially holding an isometric contraction to maintain the "chest up" postion throughout the swing. The lats are working hard to keep the bell close to the body (so it doesn't go flying away and pull you with it). The rhomboids and the teres major and minor are doing their duty of keeping the shoulder blades down and back and keeping the humerus in it's socket (kinda important). Guess what? Chin/Pull ups require those muscles too.

All my ButtKamp Ladies are swingers (the G-Rated kind, not the other kind) and ALL my ButtKamp Ladies' have improved in the pull up/chin up. We now have 2 women who are able to do a body weight chin up...(Suzanne, above, is one. The day after this, she nailed it!) pretty awesome! Personally, I've noticed an marked difference in my pull up strength, both my 1-rep max (weight on my waist) and my total rep max (how many I can do) have increased. With all the work the lats and upper back do in the swing, I don't think it's a cowinky-dink. Once again, the upper back strength also carries over to the big girl/boy lifts: squats and deads. Try performing either with a weak upper back and you'll find yourself stapled by the weight.

3. Injury prevention/rehab for lower backs- I professed my love and belief in swings for back rehab on Wednesday. The nature of swings, strengthening glutes, upper back, the spinal erectors, and core muscles, perfectly align with the needs of most back-pain sufferers. Most of us have, weak glutes, upper backs, cores, and spinal erectors. I know mine were (thus part of the reason I have injuries). While I can't claim that swings will heal any injury, they can at least prevent further injury (or injury if there isn't one present) and build up the muscles that protect the injury.

4. Grip strength- When your forced to grip a heavy weight while it's moving, you're going to build up some pretty strong hand and forearm muscles. One of my weak links in the deadlift (and pull ups) was my grip. I found this out pretty quickly once I started doing high rep, heavy swings. My forearms were on fire and my grip often gave out before the rest of me did. If you like picking up heavy things and walking around, swings will help build up an iron grip so you can pick up heavier things and walk around even more.

Keep on walkin'...

5. Cardiovascular and muscular endurance- Don't like running? Me neither. I do love to swing though. Swinging is excellent for building up cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance (the ability for muscles to produce sub-max force over an extended period of time). Don't believe me? Try this: do a ladder of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. Take a breath for every swing you do. How do you feel? Oh wait, I can't hear your over you pounding heart and labored breathing...

I see too many people talk while using this...

6. Core strength and function- During the swing, the midsection must remain tight not only to protect the spine, but also to transfer the force of the glute contractions into the bell to swing it. The core has to also be able to relax slightly so you can breathe throughout the workout (pretty important piece of exercise, that breathing. Generally, you inhale on the way down, brace on the way up, and breathe out forcefully at the apex of the swing.) and immediately brace for the next cycle of contraction as the bell swings forward. For those with back pain, sometimes the core muscles aren't firing in the right order. Swings help retrain the muscles in this sense.

7. Joint-Friendly conditioning- As mentioned, swings are pretty safe for those with back injuries (most of the time anyway). They're a perfect conditioning tool for those with cranky knees, ankles, and shoulders (mostly). They're also good introductory training for deconditioned individuals as they're scalable to individual strength and fitness levels. Unlike running, which essentially is thousands of one-legged hops, swings have very little negative joint impact (the elbows can take a beating if the upper back isn't doing it's job though so be prudent!) so it's less likely that you'll sustain an injury and want to quit exercising.


8. Leanness- This is more anecdotal than factual, but swinging promotes leanness better than any other form of conditioning I've run across (outside of regular sprint sessions, which can take their toll on the system physically as they're pretty stressful). Coach Dan John has spoken of the power of the swing to help athletes/trainees maintain a lower body fat percentage and I've noticed in myself as well. It's not going to be the magic bullet, but for those who train hard and eat pretty well, the addition of swings can help pull the body fat down a bit without too much stress to your system.

9. Overall strength- Swings involve the whole body, in case you couldn't tell from the above points. If you want to increase your strength, add some of these in and you'll be amazed at the carry over into the rest of your workouts/activities.

Hagrid-like strength in a little body

10. Self-Defense- If swings help build up the glutes and hamstrings, which are the primary movers and shakers of sprinting, should you be attacked by zombies or some other terrifying creature, you'll be able to scamper away pretty darn fast. Or, if you're brave, just swing your bell at them and let go. 60+ pounds to the face will mess any body up. Pretty sure Kathy could take down any foe.

If those didn't convince you then, well, I have no words.

Friday Musings 1/18/13: Coaching the Overhead Press, Deadlift Program, Tying the Perfect Tie

No, it is indeed not Friday at the time of posting this....decided to do this round a day early.

1. Coaching the Overhead Press

There's something intrinsically satisfying about pressing a heavy weight overhead, not to mention the host of benefits it provides, provided you don't butcher it. I actually did a little Q & A on overhead pressing HERE, for those interested. Moving on...

A cue often given in the overhead press is to "push the head and body through" at the top, the goal here being to prevent the bar from drifting too far away from the body. However, I often see people woefully abuse this cue to the extreme and jut their head way too far out at the top, slipping into gross extension, especially at the cervical spine:

Those of us coaches in the crowd often experience profuse bleeding of the cornea when we see people perform a pushup with the oh-so-prolific forward head posture, so why is does it all of a sudden become a different ball game when we press vertical instead of horizontal? You can see, if I flip the above picture of Kelsey 90 degrees, where she would be in the horizontal plane:

Not a pretty "pushup" position, right?

Yes, you do want to prevent the bar drifting away from the midline of the body, but be sure to keep the head neutral - aka a packed neck - as you finish the lift at the top:

When we jut the head forward, all we essentially wind up doing is cranking on that levator scapulae - thus cementing a downward scapular rotation pattern (not ideal) - and substituting forward head posture for actual scapular upward rotation and posterior tilt, anterior core stability, shoulder flexion, and T-Spine extension.

Translation: Shoving the head forward turns you into a walking ball of fail.

Keep those glutes tight, abs engaged, ribcage down, and ideally you'll want a vertical line going through the bar, ears, and midfoot when at the top of the press.

2. High Frequency Deadlifting

Back in 2012 I wrote a post called A Little Deadlift Experiment, Part 1, in which I briefly discussed a high-frequency deadlifting plan I used to add 40 pounds to my deadlift in 4 weeks. I never ended up writing Part 2 (yes, fail on my part), but I received a number of questions, both on the blog and through email, on how it ended up.

Well, I actually only ended up doing it for another month, but I did add another ten pounds to my total during that month. Excellent. I stopped it due to the pursuit of a few other goals, but I did want to share that I've "experimented" with the program on other people and it has worked wonders.

Mark - one of my buddies, and a physical therapist - called me up last year year telling me he made a bet with his supervisor that he could eventually deadlift over 400lbs. The kicker? He only had about 4 months to do it, his deadlift 1RM was sitting right around 300lbs, and he made the dreaded Alpo Bet, a la Dan John. So he called me in hopes I could help him add 100lbs to his deadlift in a matter of a few months.


After berating him on the phone for making me responsible to help him win an absurd bet he never should have made, I gave him the very deadlift program I used.

The result? His deadlift shot up from 300lbs to 435lbs in a matter of five training cycles, leaving him the winner of the bet and relieving him from eating a can of Alpo in front of his supervisor. What?!

Keep in mind, he had over three years of solid lifting experience under his belt, so these weren't newbie gains, either.

Note: All the credit goes to Mark on this one. He worked his tail off - despite the fact that he has a very demanding schedule and was undergoing some significant "life" changes - and trusted me every step of the way with the seemingly asinine program I gave him.  

I'm not going to share the program here yet though, as I may end up using it for future article or online program. Patience, patience....

3. Tying the Perfect Tie

This one's for you gents in the crowd.

Maybe I'm a bit of an anomaly here, given that I'm fortunate enough to wear t-shirts and athletic shorts to work each day, but getting ready for an event requiring a tie can be exceedingly frustrating. (Yes, you office workers in the crowd, go ahead and shake your heads in reproach, I realize I have it easy.)

Fortunately, Tim Ferriss seems to be an expert at doing any and every random task extraordinarily well, and tying ties is no exception. Here is a quick, extremely useful video on how to tie the perfect tie, every time.

It can take a couple tries, but once you get it, you're golden. Ever since employing this tactic I've been able to boast the best tie in the room at formal events. What what!

I've run out of musings for the time being, hope everyone has a great weekend.

An Overuse of the "Arch Your Back" Cue, and How to Create Better Positioning During Your Lifts

"Pull your chest through.""Stick your chest out." "Put your shoulder blades in your back pocket." "Arch your back....I said, ARCH!"

If you've ever set foot in the weight room, I bet you've heard at least one of the above verbal cues spat out hundreds of times by a coach or trainer in the middle of teaching someone to lift weights.

And for good reason, considering that this is what I usually see when I watch the average gym-goer set up to perform a deadlift or row:

Not pretty, right? And something that should make you want to throw your face into an axe.

We know that lifting with a round back (flexion), at least in the lumbar region, is exceedingly dangerous, large thanks due to Dr. Stuart McGill and his research showing that repeated lumbar flexion, especially under load, is the exact mechanism for disc herniation.

So, what did we do as an industry? We took the stance that if lumbar flexion is bad, then we should keep people as far away from that as possible. If extending (arching) your back is good, then the more the better, right? This thought process lead to us ensuring that everyone "arched their back," or "pulled their chest through" as much as humanly possible anytime they set up to perform a deadlift, row, squat, you name it.

Guess what? Excessive extension is bad, just as excessive flexion is bad.

Overextension in the lumbar region can be just as evil as flexion. What shows up on your doorstep when you do it for too long? Hellooo to low back pathology, to spondy and her cousins. Hello to facet irritation. Hello to an even greater anterior pelvic tilt. Hello to crazy stiff lats and a weak anterior core. Hello to literally cranking on the passive restraints of your back (not a good thing). Goodbye to stronger lifts.

Below is a bevy of comparisons I've put together, showcasing what is commonly seen as good form (sticking your chest out, or overarching your back), alongside a picture of what your back should look like. The pictures on the left show broken, ugly positioning while the pictures on the right display stable and sound positioning.

Instead of performing our lifts with a hyperextended spine, we want a neutral spine. A neutral spine is a happy spine.


Seated Row

Chest-Supported Row

Bent-Over Row

Anti-Rotation Press

Bent-Over Barbell Row

Goblet Squat (Top)

Banded W 

Deadlift (Middle)

It may surprise some of you to see what you may have initially thought of as good form, to actually be broken. And knowing how to cue neutral spine is of even greater importance when you're working with someone with extension-based back pain, or even an athlete who lives and breathes in an extended posture.

And it's no wonder why you see so many ugly internet videos of people performing high rep snatches, with the top of each one looking something like this:

When we have crazy stiff lats and a weak anterior core from performing everything in extension, it's no wonder why so many of us look like utter poo poo when we go overhead.

Closing Thoughts
  • Telling someone to arch their back or stick their chest out isn't always a bad thing, you just have to use discernment as to when to use it. Some people - i.e. desk jockeys or those with very kyphotic postures - may actually need to extend their back as much as they possibly can,  just to get to neutral! These are the folks you may find yourself cueing "chest out," "arch your back" over and over again to help them get out of flexed (rounded) posture into neutral, and, depending on the population you work with, you may in fact find this scenario way more common than the reverse (those who shoot way past neutral into hyperextension).
  • For those with flexion-intolerant back pain, it can be O.K. to cue a minor bit of extension during core stability exercises, lunge variations etc. just to drive a bit of intended extension and help them get out of the flexed posture they sit/stand in.
  • It's kind of ironic that fitness professionals always freak out about anterior pelvic tilt, and yet the way we we've been cueing exercises have only exacerbated the issue! We bang ourselves against the wall when we stretch our hip flexors into oblivion and then go right into a deadlift or glute bridge with a hyperextended spine.
  • The captions "broken" and "fully operational" in the pictures above are references, of course, to the different statuses of the death star ray gun in The Return of the Jedi.

Common Exercise Corrections: Lower Back Pain in Deadlifting and Squatting

I hope everyone fared hurricane Sandy safely! We"re so thankful that worst of it bypassed the DC area!! Thoughts and prayers go out to those in NY and NJ which seemed to have brunt of Sandy"s fury poured out upon them!

Secondly, a GINORMOUS congratulations to the following SAPT ladies who made the all-district volleyball teams:

1st team- Caitlyn, Eliza and Hannah

2nd team - Kenzie

Honorable mention- Clare, Maggie and Carina

Congratulations ladies!! All your hard work in here paid off!

Anyway, onward and upward. As stated in my previous corrections post, it"s usually not the exercise that"s causing pain, it"s the execution.

Today"s topic: Lower back pain/irritation during a squat or deadlift.

From the outside eye, everything looks great: Lower back is tight and has a slight arch, the upper back is stiff, the hips are moving back like they should... but there"s a niggling pain in the lower back. What gives?

This is a perfect example. Kerry looks pretty good for the most part, but she had a little bit of a pain in her lower back as she pulled. (thankfully she told me. Lesson to trainees: coaches, though we are Jedis, we can"t always tell if you"re having a pain. Speak up!) As was the case with Kerry, more often that not, the athlete isn"t bracing the abs or is not using the glutes as much as (s)he needed.


- "Brace your abs like Now we’re back to college student credit cards based systems, pretty much the world over. you"re about to get punched" is a standard cue I tell athletes. We incorporate bracing drills, to learn proper bracing technique, but this cue will work in a pinch if the athlete hasn"t mastered bracing yet.

- "Start squeezing your glutes/cracking the walnut BEFORE you pull off the ground." (alternately, in a squat, I tell the athlete to "spread the floor with their feet" on the way down and the way up) This cue usually makes the athlete more aware of their glutes and helps them think about using them more. By activating the glutes BEFORE the pull, it acts like a primer button for a lawn mower, it gets the engine ready to work! When they glutes are doing their job well then there"s much less strain on the lower back musculature.

Again, there isn"t much visually that changed between the first and the second video, but Kerry didn"t have pain and the pull looked much more solid and confident.

So, if you have a nagging pain, brace and crack the walnut! 9 times out of 10 that will clear it all up!