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Updated: Feb 3, 2022

by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC

The push and the pull are the Yin and Yang of the deadlift. They both have to be there, in the right proportion, and that balance must be more finely tuned as the lift gets heavier.

Everybody hurts from something.
The Tao of the Deadlift: A Push, A Pull, Both, and Neither.

Deadlifts, cleans, and snatches: we call them “pulls”—and they are. You are literally pulling the bar off the floor to lockout on the thighs, on the shoulders, or overhead.

But that’s only half the story. They’re also pushes. And if you don’t balance the push with the pull, you’re doing it wrong. Let’s fix it.

There’s often a subtle but critical difference between the way to correctly do a lift and the way we should correctly think about the lift. When we do a deadlift, both the hip and the knee joint open up—because it’s both a push and a pull.

However, most but not all people have to be taught to emphasize one and not the other, and for the raw novice the emphasis is usually going to be on the push.

Here’s how that happens. Once we have new lifters perform a correct setup (a huge topic in itself, beyond the scope of this essay), we then tell them to drag the bar up the legs. A significant percentage of them, but not quite half in my experience, will do it right—at least at first. The hips will remain high, the hams tight, the back angle fairly constant, and the bar path will be vertical.

But many will not do it right, and what we usually see is a lowering of the hips as the back becomes more vertical, while the knees remain flexed. This is a deadlift with too much pull and not enough push.

We fix this by fixing the thinkage of the deadlift, with a fair amount of yelling thrown in for seasoning. The lifter is persuaded by cuing, coaxing, and cattle prods to keep the hips high, to keep the shoulders just in front of the bar, to “stay over it,” to not stand up, and to push with the legs. Only when the bar has passed the knees is the lifter to think about opening the hips and locking it out.

This usually fixes it. If it doesn’t…well, the cattle prod has different settings. Level 8 usually does the trick.

Of course, what really happens when we fix this error is that the lifter is actually extending at both the knee and the hip—but we’ve got them thinking about just the knee. Push the Earth Away from You!

In this thinkage, the deadlift is a leg press, the back is set against an invisible bench at a constant angle, and the leg press load is the entire planet. It works.

Until it doesn’t. With this pragmatic thinkage in place, the lifter will make terrific progress. The deadlift gets the heaviest the fastest, especially in Masters, and it is one of those things that gives me great satisfaction and joy in this work. But eventually things start to break down, because Form Creep is a thing—a terrible and terrifying thing, like some sort of Cosmic Lovecraftian Horror lurking in the shadows, in the very fabric of the universe, in the interstices of existence itself, like Evil, Entropy, and Eminem.

Thus, at some point, the athlete making great progress in the deadlift by focusing on the push will morph into an athlete stalled on the deadlift, for want of a pull. This is easily diagnosed when we see the hips rise while the bar stays on the floor and the back angle gets more horizontal. The bar may come up, but it will be off the legs, and the lifter will be on his toes, and the back will lose its extension and become completely disorganized, and there will be weeping and wailing and the rending of garments and Total Protonic Reversal. The Old Ones have returned from the dark dimension.

It’s bad.

Fix your deadlift today.
Figure: The Tao of the Deadlift. A: a correct setup. B: The pull is initiated with very little change in back angle. Push and pull are balanced. C: The lifter is moving the bar by changing the back angle--this deadlift is all pull and no push. D. The lifter is pushing with the legs but not transmitting force to the bar by maintaining the back angle. This deadlift is all push and no pull.

The fix is the reverse of how we got the deadlift going in the first place: there has to be a pull. There are many cues for this, but the effect is the same: the back angle must be held constant out of the bottom. The push must still be there, but the pull has to match.

One of the cues I’ve used for this recently is “Chest-Up It!” The bar has to be chested up. This helps, because when there’s no pull or not enough pull, there’s an accompanying collapse of the Superman Chest. A corresponding rededication to keeping the chest up from setup throughout the pull often fixes the problem. Sometimes the lifter must be cued to “lift the shoulders out of the hole.”

Less commonly, I’m forced to cue the lifter to “sit on it,” but I use this cue with great caution and foreboding, because the idea here is to maintain the back angle, not to make it more vertical at the start or to lower the hips and turn the deadlift into a squat.

Whichever cue does the trick, the effect is the same: a modification of the thinkage of the deadlift that results in a more perfect and efficient pull—meaning one in which every bit of push results in a corresponding pull and elevation of the bar. If you are Pushing the Earth Away From You and the back angle remains constant as the hips rise, then the bar hasto come off the floor.

The push and the pull are the Yin and Yang of the deadlift. They both have to be there, in the right proportion, and that balance must be more finely tuned as the lift gets heavier.

It’s the Way. The Tao of the Deadlift.

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.

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