We’re almost to the finish line. The vilification of the deadlift as the cause of jacked-up backs, rather than it’s promotion as the cure, is nearly a thing of the past. People are opening their eyes and understanding the benefits of this multi-joint, multi-muscle group lift. The problem we’re running into now is that these same people understand why they should but may lack the hip mobility, the posterior strength, or the neural motor program to successfully replicate this seemingly complicated movement pattern and subsequently disregard it as if they’re “just not meant to do it.” Truth time, you should be deadlifting… you just might be using the wrong means.
There are only a handful of lifts, exercises, and drills that provide equal value to anyone using it. Depending on how it’s programmed, deadlifting can build strength, muscle mass, balance, stability, mobility, and athletic ability. Most people intuitively understand how to squat and can capably learn the hip hinge with a little practice, however, hip mobility or global posterior chain strength limits places a big barrier to entry in front of the deadlift.
Fortunately, the hip-hinge pattern necessary to perform the deadlift transcends the boundaries of what is considered to be the classic deadlift. There are many variants and progressions that can be implemented to suit your unique body and movement pattern while you continue to improve your strength and mobility. While unabridged books are written about the deadlift, I’m going to keep this short and sweet and focus on the 4 main variants you should be selecting from while disregarding grip choices.
Also referred to as the “classic deadlift,” this variant is the most widely used and, as a result most often seen form of deadlifting. It’s the form that comes to mind when someone utters the word. As a lifter that falls within the acceptable height and limb length margin of error to perform this movement efficiently, it’s my personal favorite. The strictness of the movement pattern forced by the bar provides immediate feedback as to the success of your rep. However, the fact that it is the purest form of sagittal hip-hinge mechanics presents the taller and less enlightened lifters with certain strength and mobility concerns. Consequently, this is the variant that turns most people off of the thought of deadlifting. If you have hip mobility problems, fear not and read on. If you want to continue to work towards this beast, you can improve your mobility with targeted exercises and practice over time.
If you want to pull from the floor but lack the hip mobility or lumbar stability to do so, look no further than the sumo deadlift. The increased foot width forces your hips to abduct and externally rotate, opening your hips up. This decreases your distance from the floor, enabling better leverage for taller, injured, or newer lifters. Additionally, it decreases the load on your back, which depending on the circumstances, could be seen as a positive or a negative. Seen by some as “deadlifting with training wheels,” you might be surprised to learn that it’s an acceptable form of pulling in nearly all powerlifting events. Hell, it’s even a terrific change-of-pace variant for those who have no trouble performing the classic deadlift. Like the classic deadlift, the use of the Olympic bar presents you with constant feedback about the load’s relationship to your center of mass. While most will find that it’s an awful lot friendlier to their backs, it’s still not for everyone… at least not right away. If you still lack the requisite hip mobility to perform this variant, read on. There’s still two more left on this list.
DEADLIFT FROM THE BLOCKS
The deadlift from the blocks is an elevated pull designed to place the lifter in a more advantageous position relative to his/her personal mobility while still giving all due respect to the hip-hinge pattern. At Full-Stride Performance, we pull from stackable technique blocks. However, this is just as easy to perform using jerk boxes, DC blocks, bumper plates, or by stacking pieces of rubber flooring. The idea stack the boxes to a point where the bar will sit at the lowest possible point of effective leverage for that particular lifter with the goal of lowering the stack over time. You literally can’t go wrong with this one. That said, if you’re still in love with the increased time under tension that comes with pulling from the floor, read on.
TRAP BAR DEADLIFTS
All coaches and trainers have their own opinions on the trap bar/ hex bar deadlifts so I’ll just go ahead and throw mine out there: it’s a great variation for tall lifters that is too often misused. The Olympic bar forces you into a “hip-hinge-or-bust” pattern. At max loads, if the bar isn’t as close as humanly possible to your center of mass, you either risk injury or at best, an incomplete rep. The trap bar doesn’t boast that kind of rigid adherence to the hip-hinge rules and as such, we find many people using this variant to be “squatting” their deadlifts, rather than hinging. In other words, they try to incorporate their quads (which are already probably relatively strong) into a movement designed to place a greater burden on the posterior chain (which is likely weaker). As long as proper respect is paid to the movement pattern, the trap bar deadlift provides some much-needed stress-relief for the taller lifter whose levers make pulling with the bar an inefficient task.
Not hinging and by extension, not pulling with your lower body is not an option. It’s as imperative to muscle balance as the upper-body pull i.e. bent-over barbell rows. Now that you know there’s more than one way to DL, you’re out of excuses. Get out and pull.