by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
Use this simple cue to bring your lats into the exercise and improve your deadlift.
(This article was subsequently produced as a video, which you can watch below.)
At the moment a heavy deadlift comes off the floor, certain conditions will obtain, Because Physics. If a damn heavy bar comes up, it will be over the middle of the foot, which means it will come up the leg, the back will be at some non-vertical angle determined by the lifter's anthropometry, the wrists and elbows will be straight, the hips will be high enough for the hamstrings to be at length and engaged, which means that the forward edge of the patella will be behind the forward edge of the forearm, right inside the antecubital fossa (the crook of the elbow) at the moment of liftoff.
All of these things will be true at the instant a heavy deadlift breaks off the floor.
There are two pathways to this compound Deadlift Truth. You get to choose.
The first and preferable pathway is for you to make all these things true before you Push the Earth Away From You. This is the purpose of the deadlift setup procedure elaborated in Rippetoe's Starting Strength, which procedure will produce the correct set of diagnostic angles for you, transforming you into a living embodiment of Deadlift Truth. You should feel special.
The other path is to just Grip It and Rip It, in which case Nature will make all these things true. Even if you abdicate your duty to Deadlift Truth, at the moment a 405 dead breaks the floor, your elbows and wrists will be straight, your hips will be high to engage your hams, and the bar will be over the midfoot...because that's what Mother Nature wants, and She always gets Her way, because She is, after all, a Mother. She cares deeply about your diagnostic angles, and She will make damn sure you're in them when a 1RM comes off the floor.
She cares rather less about your intervertebral discs, your elbow ligaments, or your thoracolumbar fascia, however, and they won't get in Her way. If you don't transform your start position into a living embodiment of Deadlift Truth, Mother Nature will step in take up the slack (so to speak).
And again, you'll feel special. But probably not nice-special.
So Deadlilft Truth is implacable, and one of the cornerstones of Deadlift Truth is that the bar will be over the middle of the foot, which means it will be in contact with the legs. If the bar is not touching the legs, then it's in front of the middle of the foot, which means there's a moment arm between the midfoot and the load. This moment arm may be only 1/4 or 1/2 inch long...but it's loaded with 200 or 300 or 400 lbs, which makes the resulting leverage against you disproportionately large.
(To you. It's disproportionate to you. To Nature it's entirely proportionate, because t = rFsinθ, and that's all there is to it. She's not just a Mother, she's a Math Teacher.)
Because the correct start position puts the shoulder joint anterior to the bar, the arm will not hang straight down at the start of the deadlift, but rather be at a posterior angle back to the bar as it sits against the shin. And this angle will have to be maintained through most of the deadlift if the bar is to be held against the leg. In other words, when we say you have to "drag the bar up your legs," we're not talking about a passive process. You have to actively and aggressively pull that bar back into your legs, because if you don't, your arms will swing forward to the vertical, and the bar will be off your legs out front, and you'll have a huge moment, and the lift will fail, with the gnashing of the teeth and the pulling of the hair and the rending of the raiment, and nobody will like you ever again. Sad.
This rearward angle of the arm--holding the bar against the leg--is maintained by the latissimus dorsi, a huge triangular slab of muscle that originates in the midline in the thoracolumbar (low back) area and high posterior hip (iliac crest) and inserts high on the medial humerus (arm bone) right in the area of the armpit.
This muscle, the largest of the upper body, has a number of functions, but the one that concerns us for the moment is humeral adduction--it pulls the arms in toward the body.
If, as you sit reading this, you squeeze your armpits tightly shut, as if trying to hold a precious coin in there, then you are using your lats. If, better still, you are naked--and, gee whiz, I hope you are--you can reach around with your opposite hand and feel your lats engage as you squeeze the armpit shut.
Thus, our recent emphasis of the Armpit Cue for the deadlift. As you raise the chest and push your belly down between your thighs to set your back, you should also squeeeeeze your armpits shut....hard. This engages the lats, the huge volume of muscle originating in the low back that pulls your arms back to keep the bar against your legs. And because of its origin in the low back, that squeezing will also recruit another action of the lats--spinal extension, which as you know is living gold in the deadlift.
Squeezing the armpits shut adds to the overall commitment to total-body-tightness, prevents the error of shrugging in the setup, keeps the bar on the leg, reinforces the extension of the low back, and brings a big slab of muscle mass into the movement. Consider making the Armpit Squeeze a standard part of your deadlift setup, concurrent with the setting of the back in step 4.
It won't hurt, and it will probably make Mother Nature smile. Which is best for all concerned.
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.
Image credit: Anamatogrphy, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latissimus_dorsi_muscle#/media/File:Latissimus_dorsi_muscle_animation.gif