by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
Improve your deadlift setup and execution with this simple fix.
(This article was subsequently produced as a video, which you can watch below.)
As we discussed in a recent short videoon the Greysteel Channel, barbell training is a precision activity.
Precision is an interesting word. It does not actually denote a correct activity or measurement, but it does denote an exacting and highly reproducible measurement. One can measure very precisely with a mis-marked ruler. The results will be highly reproducible, but not accurate. Similarly, one can take an accurate measurement with a device, obtaining the correct result, but if the measurement or procedure is then repeated and the results vary, then the instrument or the procedure lacks precision.
So it is in fact the case that you can do something very precisely and consistently wrong. In fact, that's a redundant assertion, not to mention the apparent operating principle of modern American politics.
But I digress. The precision of barbell training is reflected in, among other things, our approach to the bar, which for any particular exercise should have an almost ritualistic flavor to it. For the bench, our hands go on the bar just there, precisely so. When we get under the bar to squat, we do the same things, the same way, every single freakin' time, so that our results--hopefully, our good results--are on consistent, reproducible display.
Nowhere is this precise, choreographed approach to the bar made more explicit in our model of training than in the deadlift. In Starting Strength, Rippetoe prescribes a 5-step approach to the bar that reliably and precisely produces the correct diagnostic angles for an efficient pull, regardless of the athlete's anthropometry. These diagnostic angles--back, hip, knee, arm, ankle--are crucial. Certain physical conditions must obtain at the moment any pull of nontrivial weight leaves the floor...Because Physics. The 5-step approach to the bar allows the athlete to establish these physically non-negotiable conditions before the pull begins, so that Nature doesn't have to establish them for you, in the firm and implacable way she is wont to do. Allowing a 350-lb bar to put you and your back into the necessary configuration for a deadlift may be great for your chiropractor, but it sucks for you.
To review something I'm quite certain you all know already, the 5-step process is:
1. Stance--narrow, toes out, with the bar over the middle of the foot, which for most hominids means about an inch away from the shank.
2. Grip--low in the hand, where the bar will end up anyway.
3. Shins--drop forward to the bar, while keeping the ass high. For the vast majority of people, this will result in the knees being inside the crook of the elbow, and it is virtually always the case that if the knees are pointing in front of the elbows the hips have been dropped too low.
4. Chest up--set the back. Chest up, belly-button down, back tight. Squeeeze all the slack out of the barbell-lifter system.
5. Pull--the bar up your legs.
Rippetoe, quite appropriately and elegantly, spends dozens of pages unpacking all this in the Deadlift Chapter, and the details are beyond the scope of this essay. My intention instead is to point out just one of the myriad ways that human beings, in their infinite mischief, can screw this up, and how to fix that one particular and common error.
The entire process of setting up the deadlift will, if one does not take care (and sometimes even if one does), result in a subtle, insensible shifting of the lifter's weight forward, away from the midfoot and towards the toes. This serves to aggravate the already innate tendency of humans to be on their toes during physical activity, which is not a bad thing per se, but can be troublesome in wrong setting.
Thus, in step 1, we are looking down at the bar superimposed on our feet, slightly flexed at the hips, our center of mass therefore slightly ahead of the midfoot. It begins.
In step 2, we bend over at the hips and grip the bar--and our center moves a little more forward.
In step 3, we bring our knees forward, keeping our hips high, but still moving our center a little more out in front of the midfoot.
Now here we are, ready for step 4....except we're not ready. Because you can't really set your back properly and squeeze out all the slack, much less pull a maximally heavy bar, if you're forward. You can't deadlift on your toes. It just won't work. Ask me how I know.
And so it is quite frequently the case--and perhaps it is the case with you--that a step 3a is indicated before moving on to step 4. And that step 3a is simply to get off your toes and back on to your midfoot. Many if not most can do this by simply shifting the weight back on their foot while keeping the hips high. Others find it works best to transiently lift the toes or forefoot--again, keeping the hips high, and everything tight, especially those long straight elbows.
A completely inappropriate way to get back over the midfoot, however, is to drop the hips, which you must not do. This most tragic and grievous error, illustrated at the far right in the above figure, will lead only to heartbreak. It will cause the hams to slacken, the arms to loosen, the knees to poke forward, the back to become gelatin, the bar to roll out in front of the midfoot, locusts to swarm, gargoyles to animate, rivers to run sanguine, and Gozer to assault Manhattan in the form of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. This is the proverbial Beast, slouching toward Bethlehem. It is transcendent in its wickedness, awesome in its horror, unthinkable in its implications. It's lame. It's loser-ness.
So don't do that.
But do keep an eye on your balance point, over the midfoot. If, like many of us, you find that the forward-going process of setting up the dead puts you on the ball of your foot or your toes, take a step 3a before you Valsalva and set your back. Your pulls will be stronger and more efficient, so you can get stronger and harder to break.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.