Those who know me will know I like to lift relatively heavy weights. After training for many years, studying bio-mechanics and all things related to the improvement of physical performance there is one exercise I just cant seem to perform as well as some of the others…The Deadlift!
The task sounds simple enough, “can you see that heavy barbell over there? Now go and pick it up” from the outside looking in, it would seem like a relatively simple movement that doesn’t require much thinking or technique. But don’t be fooled. When broken down, the deadlift is a very technical lift, quite difficult to master and can be hard to teach.
In terms of programming due to it’s extremely high cost to the central nervous system (CNS) The deadlift can be problematic. Some lifters prefer to pull heavy every week, while others do better by pulling heavy every other week. Some like to mix in sub-maximal sessions throughout the week, while others prefer to avoid the movement altogether until it is time to max. Finding the optimal frequency, intensity, and exercise selection that suits you is key to excelling in this lift.
Your anatomy will play a large role in terms of form. The ideal deadlifting position revolves around a combination of factors. It should also be understood that the form that allows you to lift the heaviest may not be the form that allows you to train injury free week in and week out (Contreras, 2014). I have mentioned the risk to reward ratio in previous articles, a competitive powerlifter will likely accept more risk during the deadlift compared to an 8-figure salary athlete, a competitive bodybuilder or a novice lifter looking to get in shape. You need to find the sweet spot between the form that allows you to demonstrate your strength with the form that minimises joint stress and CNS fatigue.
Having said this, In my experience not everyone has the ability to deadlift from the floor. The pre-set bar height for a deadlift is the radius of the plates, which means you have to grab that 1-1/8” bar sitting 8.75 inches from the flat ground. This is fine for someone if they’re 5 feet tall and have adequate mobility or even for the 6 foot tall individuals out there who can get their knees to their chest without a problem. But what about the guy who is 6’8” with a long torso, or the girl who is 5’8” and has a retroverted acetabulum*.Both could run out of hip flexion range of movement about a hands length above the bar, meaning they have to flex the spine to get there.
Even with the greatest of intentions I have seen many trainers turn a blind eye to the fact that their clients aren’t able to pick up the bar from the ground. Their demonstrations and teaching points may be sound but they still allow the client to lift from this compromised position causing lumbar flexion to make up for limited hip mobility.
In the past I have made this error myself however, I learnt from my mistakes and adapted the exercise by raising the bar using either a rack pull or elevating the weights with some mats / onto other plates etc up to the height suitable for the client to perform the exercise in good form. Many trainers have disagreed with me and mention that the exercise should be performed through a full range, I agree with them. What they fail to realise is raising the bar or lifting off blocks etc is performing a full range of movement for someone with limited mobility.
I stuck to my guns and recently came across an article and study by Cressey and D’Lima et al (2000) The information validates my theory and goes on to say..
“any forced flexion with uncontrolled motion under load could be disastrous. We can see people who use this lumbar flexion mode to make up for a hip limitation by looking at their low back when they’re flexed. If they’re using their low back to initiate the movement, you’ll see a distinct arching out of their low back at the segment that’s moving, as well as some significant hypertrophy of their erector spinae at that group compared to the rest of their spine. Having them pull from the floor and seeing them initiate the movement with their lumbar spine versus from their hips could be a starting point of failure. This could be via in limiting performance by using tonic versus phasic muscles, or via increasing the relative strain on a sensitive spinal segment that eventually becomes irritated” Cressey (2016)
To sum up this article do not be afraid to use blocks etc while deadlifting. For most lifters, using a slightly higher surface to pull from can make the difference between lifting with discomfort from the floor and feeling flawless and strong with no pain or problems. Work on your flexibility / hip mobility ensure your able to initiate the movement from the hips and over time you will be able to perform the deadlift from the ground. In the mean time do not worry about it, as Eric Cressey says “only competitive Powerlifters and Olympic lifters are required to deadlift from the floor.”
*(the alignment of the acetabulum does not face the normal direction, but inclines more posterolaterally.)