Part 2: Unlock Your Deadlift
Updated: Jun 13
In Part 1 of 'Unlocking Your Deadlift', we focused on the benefits of understanding weight shift and arches of the feet. If you haven't read that, I highly encourage you to do so because the concepts build upon one another. In this section, we are going to discuss the more common focus of the deadlift - the hip muscles (glutes, hamstrings, ab/adductors). This is usually the body part that gets the most attention because of the fairly well-known relationship between strong hips and reduced back pain. However, in order to achieve this positive relationship we need to understand two concepts. First, recognizing the importance of preparing the hips prior to movement. Second, grasping incorrect versus correct lifting patterns of the hips. Comprehension of these and previous concepts will continue your progress to unlocking your full deadlift potential.
Build Tension: Benjamin Franklin said, "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." We can apply this principle to deadlifting as well. When we deadlift, building hip tension is the preparation needed for success . What is hip tension? Hip tension is simply the activation (contraction) of the hip muscles prior and during movement. This activation helps to create readiness, stiffness, and power for explosive and safe movement. To achieve this correctly, we need to combine our proper foot mechanics from Part 1 with contraction of our hip muscles. Seems challenging? Don't worry, when these two steps are accomplished, hip tension is developed almost automatically and effortlessly. However, creating and sustaining hip tension are two different battles. Creating, as I mentioned, can be produced with relative ease. Sustaining is the more challenging of the two and is the more noteworthy point of discussing. When hip tension is created but not sustained, it results in a "re-wiring" of the correct hip-hinge pattern to an incorrect knee-dominant pattern. Let's explore further.
Incorrect - Knee Dominant: We've all heard the phrase, "lift with your legs, not your back." However, this does not paint an accurate picture when talking about the deadlift. When you "lift with your legs," you tend to exhibit more of a squatting technique (see picture below). This is called "squatting the deadlift" in which we see excessive knee bending, heels lifting off the ground, and an over-straightened back. As a result, it creates unnecessary compression of the spine and knees. To minimize this unwanted stress we need to understand the following:
A DEADLIFT IS NOT A SQUAT AND A SQUAT IS NOT A DEADLIFT.
This is means that there are two different techniques that need to be utilized when performing these exercises. When you have an upright torso and a greater bend at the knees during a squat, that's okay. When you replicate this technique during a deadlift, that's not okay. This is because the location and distribution of weight during a deadlift places different demands on the body compared to a squat. Furthermore, when we put ourselves in a squatting deadlift position, we are unable to build adequate hip tension - we lost before we started. The excessive knee bending and upright torso gives leverage to our quads and low back. As a result, our hip muscles can not be utilized like we want.
Correct - Hip Dominant: So, for a deadlift, "lift with your legs" should really be "lift using your hips." This will allow us to minimize back strain while maintaining good form. This correct position will facilitate more abdominals for sufficient spine stabilization and create the desired hinge motion. The picture below demonstrates how the hip dominant deadlift looks. Notice the decreased knee bend and chest parallel to the floor compared to the improper quad dominant set up.
One Movement Versus Two Movements: The correct deadlift technique will have subtle but significant differences. The most important difference is that you will only see one fluid movement. The movement consists of the entire body working together as one unit. The knees will move back in sync with the forward moving hips. There is no separation between the two and they start and stop together. This creates the desired hip extension movement and is obtained when the correct preparation at the hip and feet are accomplished. Additionally, movement like this is a key factor in decreasing back pain. Conversely, when the incorrect "squatting" deadlift is performed, you will see two distinct phases. The first phase will consist of only the knees moving backwards. Once they reach their end range of motion, the spine will kick in and extend the rest of the trunk to the finished upright position. When the body moves independently like this, we tend to see increase incidences of injury from excessive pressure placed on our joints. Additionally, poor movement patterns are developed that tend to persist into other exercises and eventually create chronic pain.
Check out the two quick videos below that demonstrate the one movement (correct) versus two movements (incorrect) deadlift. As a side note, these compensations typically are not as exaggerated as much as this. However, it's easier to see and learn when it's more pronounced.
Hip tension needs to be created and sustained
Don't squat the deadlift
1 Movement Deadlift = Correct Deadlift
"Lift with your hips"
Incorrect: Knee Dominant Deadlift
Correct: Hip Dominant Deadlift