I have to give CrossFit a lot of credit. Although it’s currently popular for many bodybuilders and powerlifters to bash the CrossFit movement, you won’t hear me doing that. I believe that CrossFit is largely responsible for the dramatic increase I have seen in gym-goers performing basic compound movements such as squats and deadlifts over the past 5-6 years. CrossFit has familiarized the larger public with these exercises and helped eliminate the tendency to avoid them. If I really think about it, there weren’t nearly as many lifters doing these movements on a regular basis 10-12 years ago, even in the so-called “hardcore” gyms.
Checklist of Mental Cues
That being said, I still see plenty of people screw up these basic movements, deads in particular. Listen, I’m no expert lifter by any means, but I’ve done my fair share of deads over the years. I’ve even managed to develop an effective strategy for maximizing strength while minimizing the risk of injury. Those of you who have studied the deadlift and made it an art form will likely be too advanced to benefit from the advice here. I’m thinking of my fellow Animal athletes like Dan Green and Pete Rubish, for example. But for the rest of us who are not as focused on the big three movements—bench, squat, and deads—as our powerlifting counterparts, you might find this info helpful. Each time I do the movement, I run down a mental checklist of certain cues.
A Pushing Movement
First and foremost, it is essential to think about the deadlift as a pushing movement. Deadlifting as a push movement? Have I lost my mind? Bear with me now. If you approach deadlifting as a pulling movement, you will likely destroy your lower back.
It is essential to make full use of your lower body (namely the hips, legs, and glutes) in the movement. In order to accomplish this though, the first thing that should happen when you step back from the rack with the bar in your hands is to break at the knees. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT start the movement by bending forward at the waist.
Do Not Bend Over
Next, as you begin to bend your knees, your hips will break. Again, you have to resist every temptation to simply bend over. That’s bad. Instead, keep your chest as high as possible. Visualize, focus, and execute. Doing so will enable you to keep the bar tight to your body.
The bar should graze your thighs, just barely clear your kneecaps, and come as close as possible to just clearing your shins.The further the bar drifts forward, the greater the likelihood that the weight will kick your ass and prematurely glue you to the ground.
Not only is it imperative to keep your chest high during the movement, but you should also keep your ass down. Ideally, your back is at as steep an angle as possible, with your chest as high above your ass as your body will permit. If your chest is high, your ass should be down, and vice versa.
Once you reach the bottom of the movement and the plates hit the floor, it is time to push. Again, do not focus on pulling. Instead, try to push the floor away using your heels. Here’s a good tip: some lifters will find it helpful to imagine falling backward with the weight. Of course, with all that weight being held in front of you (assuming you are not using baby weight), you will not fall.
By driving with your heels while your chest is up and your ass down, you will inevitably use your hips and glutes to drive the weight out of the hole rather than your knees and lower back. This is more powerful and it is safer.
It is not until the top 25-30% of the lift that you will actively try to contract your back. Once the bar has cleared your knees on its way up and is approaching mid-thigh, begin to roll your shoulders back and emphasize the squeeze in your back. Keep in mind, as far as the back muscles are concerned, that the majority of the deadlift is a static hold.
You are doing all that you can to maintain posture and use the muscles of the lower body to move the weight until the back muscles have to finally contract. At the bottom of the movement, forcefully push the floor with your legs. At the top of the movement, you can actively squeeze your back. Push, squeeze, push, squeeze, and so on.
Proper Form Not Maximum Power
While it’s awesome that more and more lifters are doing deadlifts on a regular basis than ever before, it’s crucial that we practice the mechanics of proper form—not only for maximum power output and muscular development—but to ensure safety. Squat aside, the deadlift is one of the most technical lifts that is likely to cause you injury if you fail to perform it properly.
However, perform the deadlift correctly, and you’ll be setting yourself up to gain tremendous strength in your posterior chain. This will then carry over into other movements like squats and barbell rows. Whether you’re training for maximum muscle gain, strength, conditioning, or even fat loss, the deadlift should always be a part of your routine. Good luck, be strong, and train safely.