Here, we examine the reasons for training the deadlift, anatomy of the pelvis, as well as common deadlift faults and how they cause injuries.
King of the barbell exercises
The deadlift is often hailed the king of all barbell exercises; and rightly so. A properly executed deadlift is one of the most functional exercises to partake in, its carry over to everyday life as well as athletic endeavours is huge. In my opinion, everyone who begins strength training should learn how to efficiently deadlift, squat, bench and overhead press before using any isolation machines/split body programmes.
If you begin your journey into strength training by seeking to isolate particular muscles, you begin to develop a segmented perception of the human body. We start to imagine the lower back only being trained when exercises that isolate it are used; this is not helpful and definitely not true. Thankfully this viewpoint is becoming more and more outdated as we learn how the brain coordinates the body through the nervous system and motor patterns. Learning to deadlift will develop the participant’s body as a whole. It will teach them to stabilise the trunk while moving through their hips and legs, and it will teach them the essential skill of producing and maintaining tension throughout the lift.
(Please note figure C is the correct mechanics)
The hip hinge and fundamental movement patterns
The deadlift is, in essence, the most simplistic of human movements, and is when boiled down to the basics, a simple “hip hinge” (visualised in the image as C). This is one of the first movements I will teach to any of my patients with low back pain and one of the most helpful pieces of advice to follow for every day back health!
When we are born, we are born with the potential for perfect movement. Our brain contains the blueprint for this from the day it starts to intricately develop. After birth, we gradually learn to coordinate ourselves through our environment. This development follows a specific pattern:
We call these patterns fundamental motor patterns, and these are patterns of movement that we should completely retain our whole lives. Unfortunately with bad posture, sitting at desks, asymmetric training (football, cricket, etc) injury and lack of education, we tend to slowly degrade these patterns to the point that few people can properly roll from laying on their front to their back/perform a satisfactory bodyweight squat. Why is this important?
We need to imagine movement as a hierarchy with these basic patterns being at the bottom of the pyramid, the absolute basics. From these patterns we can build upwards into more sport-specific skills such as cleans, snatches, tennis serves and golf swings. Without these fundamental movement patterns underlying our everyday lives and activates, we predispose ourselves to injuries. If we cannot stabilise ourselves to roll from front to back then we clearly lack a degree of rotational stability. This is not always something that would be obviously apparent. I have treated people squatting 200kg+ that are unable to perform the most basic of movement patterns! This is also proof enough for disputing the argument of pushing young children into sport specific training – they may well be the best 11-year-old footballer, however this often is where the child will stay.
At a young age children should be encouraged to perform a large variation of sports and movements to fully embrace their kinematic awareness, working to develop fundamental movement skills.
Personal trainers take note
Gray Cook developed the Functional Movement Screen along these lines, and it is my opinion that all PTs should be assessing the most basic movement patterns before allowing clients to delve into resistance training/barbell training. It seems that would be the most beneficial thing a PT could do – helping the client become a more efficient human, rather than just helping them develop a six pack.
Now, following on from all of this, we can talk further about the hip hinge. This movement is a rotation around the ball and socket hip joint with the spine kept straight and is the archetypical movement for picking an object up.
* How to assess your own rotational stability: Lay on your back, lift one arm so that it’s pointing towards the ceiling. Now, using only the momentum from your arm, roll from your back onto your front. Do not use your feet to push yourself over – you can only use the momentum from your arm.
Anatomy of lumbar spine, pelvis and femoroacetabular joint
The lumbopelvic region is the engine room of the body. It is the driver behind all human movement, but it is also the most neglected and poorly trained area and thus the most prone to injury.
The lumbopelvic region is comprised of the two sacroiliac joints – the public sympathsis joint, the two hip joints (ball and socket) and the articulation with the spine (L5/S1).
The sacroiliac joints (SIJ)
These two large joints are regularly involved in back pain that is felt on one side of the spine. It is often a nagging deep dull ache that is worse when raising from seated to standing, driving, squatting/deadlifting, as well as when hoovering/twisting/sweeping. These joints have NO local muscles to control them – they are solely reliant on the passive support of the ligaments around the area, thus when the joint is sprained, the body often has a real issue trying to regain function.
Often after a single sprain injury, we see a regular reoccurrence of back pain. We can attribute that to a weakened SIJ joint/faulty patterns of compensation. The hamstrings insert on the bottom of the pelvis and exert a force across the SIJ joint, often this is the course of deadlift related SIJ pain.
The hip joints
There are two ball and socket joints which join the thigh bone to the pelvis. These joints are made to produce movement and are the areas that we should be using in the hip hinge. Because the hips are made to move, it is uncommon to see true problems within these joints until we get much older (excluding FAI/soft tissue/ligamentous).
This is the area in which the spine articulates with the pelvis and this is where most people lack stability. This is also the area in which the largest proportion of disc herniations and degeneration occur. Why is that? Too much movement and a lack of stability means this area often works too hard, leading to the aforementioned problems.
Basic deadlift set up and coaching cues
Stance selection (where your feet go)
To select your stance, stand comfortably, then leap as high as you can vertically. This is what we call your “power position” and is a great place for beginners to set their stance at. Often it will fall somewhere with the feet sitting just inside/just outside shoulder width with the toes more or less pointing forwards.
Here you have two choices:
- Hook grip: favoured by Olympic lifters. This involves placing both hands, palm facing towards you, around the bar. Then wrapping your fingers over the top of your thumb at the back.
- Mixed grip: A much easier alternative to hook grip that involves holding the bar one palm facing inwards and one outwards. The negatives are you will eventually build up an imbalance in the shoulders.
Grip selection is simple – your grip should be wide enough so that your arms don’t push into your legs as your raise the bar, but narrow enough to keep your arms as vertical as possible.
Squeeze into neutral
Now, once you have got your feet in the right position and you have gripped the bar, we come to the most important and neglected part of the deadlift set up. Imagine now pulling yourself downwards using the pressure of the bar to straighten your back. It should be straight enough to balance a broom handle on.
Drive legs into floor
The deadlift is a push, NOT a pull. Once you have got yourself in the neutral spine position, you need to maintain that tension and positioning throughout the whole lift. To initiate the pull, you need to imagine you are pushing the floor away from the bar, not pulling the bar from the floor. This strange mental visualisation helps you activate your legs, rather than pulling using your back.
Hips and shoulder raise in tandem
This is an important point that is often left out. As the pull begins, the hips and shoulders should raise together, up and till the bar has crossed the knee. Try to envisage keeping your chest proud. The bar should be kept as close as possible to your shins.
Drive hips through to finish the movement
Finally, as the bar crosses the knee, your hips should extend towards the bar. This movement is far easier when your spine is kept in neutral.
Low back flexion
Utterly ubiquitous across all fitness professionals, this is the most common fault seen in any exercise. Now, before we look into this fault, I am (by all means) not saying that you cannot get lethally strong in this way. People regularly pull over 800lbs/362kg with spines that look like rainbows. This is NOT a reason for you, the amateur gym goer, to follow suit.
You should be looking to develop a good level of overall muscular development, not skipping straight to pulling as heavy as you possibly can. If you have previously read the Monster: Biomechanics of Squatting article, you will be more than familiar with the term neutral spine. Neutral spine means keeping your spine aligned so that each vertebra is not exhibiting too much movement. This applies to the deadlift just as it did to the squat.
When you initiate the pull with your lower back, you do a number of things:
- Lose tension
- Take your spine out of neutral
- Reduce the capability of the hamstrings/glutes to fire appropriately
- Force the lumbar erectors to work excessively, levering the weight up rather than acting to lock the spine in place.
- Find it harder to “lock out” or finish the deadlift
For a competitive powerlifter going for a one rep max in a competition, there has to be an allowance for breakdown in form. But when first learning to build strength, or in the middle of a training cycle, it is imperative to maintain good form.
Finally, when levering with your lower back, you change the mechanics of the lift. Reverting back to physics, we can show how this way of pulling is less efficient.
When the pelvis and lumbar spine stay fixed/rigid in space, it creates what we call class 1 lever. The hip joint (ball and socket) is the fulcrum where the movement takes place. The hamstrings insert on the bottom of the pelvis. This is the ideal area to produce maximum torque and a clean, efficient pull (Ref figure 1)
(Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength is an excellent text for the interested reader, and explains the mechanics of the deadlift in a clear and understandable way.)
When you dissociate the pelvis and spine, it breaks this leverage, destroying the class 1 lever and forcing the segmental spine to move through range of motion, rather than the singular ball and socket joint of the hip, creating a less efficient pull (Ref figure 2).
Hips up, shoulders down
Occasionally, we will witness lifters setting up with a perfect neutral spine, maintaining tension, driving into the floor, and finally shooting the pelvis up before the weight even leaves the floor. This fault turns the conventional deadlift into the straight leg deadlift/distorted good morning lift, completely erasing the leg drive from the movement. It also places a high degree of strain across the hamstrings, which can lead to tears/recurrent sacroiliac joint pain.
Pictured is a straight leg deadlift which, if we are not careful, our conventional deadlift often morphs into as we let our hips slip up faster than our shoulders.
Next article will deal with the rise of the sumo deadlift.
Dr Luke Thomas Neal MChiro
North Down Chiropractic Clinic