The Squat has been called the king of exercises. In the real world, the king gets all the praise, but the warriors do the dirty work. The Deadlift is the warrior’s exercise. Deadlifting successfully is a blue-collar skill. It might make you dizzy, scrape your shins, hurt your body and dirty your hands. But it will make you strong. Strong as a bull. You’ll get hurt less, and your performance on the field will improve.
“I have a bad back,” is an excuse people use avoid the Deadlift. But by deadlifting correctly, you can alleviate back pain and prevent further back aggravation.
Disc herniations are generally caused by poor lifting technique and a lack of functional strength of the lumbar extensors, which stabilize the spine’s position.
If you do get injured, the Deadlift and its component movements can actually help your recovery by making you stronger. First, seek the advice of a trained professional who is familiar with your type of injury.
How to Use the Deadlift for Injury Prevention
The key to using the Deadlift to prevent injury is technique. Several technique cues associated with the lift are paramount. I take my cues on this from the guys who lift the most. The point is not how much they can lift, but how they can perform the movement with up to three times their body weight without injury.
Andy Bolton was the first human to pull 1,000 pounds in competition. He has since done it again. He did it both times without injury. He could do it because he performs the exercise several times each week, focusing on breathing, technique and effort. Many of his training lifts are at 85-95% of his max, and he reserves maximum weight for competitions.
Deadlifting technique is foundational to support simple everyday activities (like picking up a 20-pound box) and more complex movements (such as the Power Clean). When injured, your body defaults to this pattern. If performed properly, deadlifting helps prevent lumbar injury by strengthening the lumbar spinal extensors, which are the dominant stabilizers of the lower spine.
From Andy Bolton himself regarding deadlifting technique: “The reason why you must work on your technique is because bad technique will lead to weakness and injury—two things you want to avoid, right?”
Here are the steps to take before you can resume deadlifting after an injury:
1. Restore the neutral spine
The ability to maintain a neutral spine is necessary for any athletic movement, and it’s even more important for safe lifting technique. Once your injury is healed enough to work on restoring a neutral spine and you can comfortably hold the position while breathing properly, you can begin your return to the game.
Restoration of a neutral spine with proper breathing patterns can begin by simply lying on your back and holding your spine in the proper position. The progression involves performing upper extremity movement, lower extremity movement and alternating upper and lower extremity movement. Once you can perform the activity on your feet, begin Planks with your elbows propped on the wall and progress toward a full Plank on the ground.
When you’re injured, it seems counterproductive to move, but you must move to recover—recovery doesn’t happen in a bed or a recliner. Even when hospitalized, patients, once medically able, must move to fully restore function. The movement should first occur within a pain-free range of motion.
- Moving may mean walking, biking, or using an elliptical trainer.
- Quadruped Arm Lifts, Leg Lifts and Bird Dogs are other ways to get this done.
- To begin more dynamic activities, perform partial Romanian Deadlifts. Rack the weight at waist level. Pick it up from there and slowly lower as far as you can while maintaining a pain-free neutral spine position.
- After you can perform full-range-of-motion Romanian Deadlifts from the top down, you can progress to lifting beginning closer to the floor.
3. Restore Hip Mobility
Many injuries are due to a loss of mobility in one area and an overcompensation by another. Once you can maintain a neutral spine, you must restore mobility of the hips and posterior chain to resume Deadlifting, Squatting and Olympic lifts prior to returning to your sport.
Swings and swing progressions are not a fad. They are a significant part of a powerlifter’s program. They train the hip hinge and the posterior chain. Your recovery has progressed and your body is ready to be more dynamic. It’s also prepped for more athletic movements. Whether you use dumbbells, plates or a kettlebell, incorporating higher speed movements like swings further prepares your body to return to your sport.
5. Rack Pulls
Rack Pulls can be done by athletes with knee injuries or by those returning from a back injury. As long as it remains pain-free and safe, gradually add resistance in a natural progression toward restoring full strength.
Get the Most from Your Deadlifts
Hip hinging is a skill. It’s a necessary part of deadlifting, Kettlebell Swings, landing from a jump, cutting explosively and Olympic Lifts. You won’t deadlift heavy without an appropriate hip hinge. Learning to hip hinge via deadlifting will benefit your mobility, strength and speed, which will carry over to improved performance on the field.
Strong Abs, Glutes and Hamstrings
The abs are a critical muscle group to stabilize the core when lifting heavy. Want a six pack? Want to be strong? Want to protect your back? Deadlifting is your go-to exercise. There is no sport where weak abs are beneficial. Also, weak hamstrings and glutes are often the cause of knee pain, ACL tears or even chronic hamstring strains. Overtraining the quads and undertraining the hams and glutes predisposes an athlete to injury. Deadlifting is a major glute- and hamstring-strengthening exercise. Becoming adept at the Deadlift is a means to prevent those injuries and keep you on the field.
On the surface, confidence wouldn’t seem to have a lot to do with injury prevention, but a confident athlete works harder in the weight room, focuses on the sport instead of not getting hurt, and pushes teammates to get better. A constantly improving Deadlift will give you confidence. Besides tension creation, hip hinging and stronger abs, the confidence you gain from being animal-strong will make you fearless on the field.
Progressively improving your Deadlift technique will make you stronger, train your body to adapt to physical stress, assist you in staying healthy in-season, and give you a warrior’s mentality to dominate your sport.
2 Key Deadlifting Cues to remember
- The spine, specifically the lowest portion, should stay in a neutral position. Avoid rounding it while lifting.
- Keeping your arms straight will more greatly engage the lats, traps and posterior shoulder stabilizers and avoid the dreaded biceps tears caused by pulling with bent elbows.
Deadlifting Creates Tension and Trains Explosiveness
Deadlifting forces an athlete to create tension, which preps muscles for a heavy lift. This tension adds to the force generated. If you want to be explosive, deadlift heavy, because all muscle fiber types will be involved. Once tension is created, first slow-twitch fibers fire, then more, then faster. Once they have all been recruited, the fast-twitch muscle fibers get excited and jump on board. Even though a max effort Deadlift is not performed quickly, because it requires maximal muscle tension, you become more explosive and use fast-twitch muscles to perform the lift.