The benefits of the Deadlift have been thoroughly related, all over the internet. As you click through STACK.com, you will find amazing articles on why the Deadlift is important, how to get into a good set-up position, differences in stances and other info on this essential exercise. Most people know the Deadlift makes your back, legs, hips and core stronger. It also has a myriad of benefits on the field.
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That’s not why you’re here, though. Many athletes find that during a Deadlift, developing tension throughout their upper back, specifically the latissimus dorsi (lats), is especially tough. It comes down to making a single muscle contract as part of a group of muscles that keep you upright as you pull the weight off the floor.
Have you ever had a coach or trainer just shout out, “engage your lats” or “squeeze your back,” with little to no results coming from those cues? Most athletes have no clue how to do it, let alone know what a “lat” is, so it can easily end in failure.
These two exercises can make things easier. By using a band against a dowel and with a barbell, you have no choice but to engage your upper back. Otherwise, you will be pulled forward and likely fall flat on your face.
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Learning how to develop and keep tension is one of the hardest things to nail down on the Deadlift, but once you figure it out, you’ll see your numbers go up. That’s because the back brings together the entire posterior chain, from your upper back all the way to your glutes, hamstrings and lower legs. Adding another link in the chain makes you that much stronger.
You can insert these drills in a few different places in your workout. Your best bet, however, is to do this as a precursor to deadlifting. This will help to ingrain the cue physically and mentally before you take a heavy set.
Straight Arm Pull-Down with Hip Hinge
This is a precursor to the main exercise. It teaches lat tension and helps you maintain a solid bar path. It requires a band attached to a dowel and anchored to something above your head, like a pull-up bar or the top of a squat rack.
The band pulls the dowel away from your body, forcing you to react and actively pull it into your body. This, in turn, activates the upper back and creates the tension you seek.
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When you do this drill, you should instantly feel your lats light up. Keep your arms straight, as if you were holding a loaded barbell, because you will use one in the next drill.
This can seem easy, but it will quickly become a challenge as you move through the range of motion of the hip hinge.
Band-Resisted Barbell RDL
This is the next progression on the journey toward deadlift mastery. The set-up is slightly more complicated than the previous exercise. It requires attaching a band to each end of a barbell and to anchor points for each band. A good rule of thumb is to place two guide points so you know where to start each rep. This will prevent your having to adjust each set as you find the proper band tension and set-up.
Again, the bands on either side pull the barbell away from you, forcing an opposite reaction from your body. Remember Newton’s Law? “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” That opposite reaction will be your upper back fighting like crazy to keep the bar in toward your body.
A key point of emphasis in both these drills is that you are not chasing fatigue, nor are you trying to overload your body with band tension. You’re working on activation and learning a particular cue. It’s not necessary to go crazy with the band. As you can tell in the video of the Barbell RDL, two red Rogue bands provide just enough tension to be effective.
If you’re struggling to develop tension in your upper back while deadlifting, these two simple drills and kinesthetic cues can help tremendously with getting your lats to fire and become that last puzzle piece in a kick-ass deadlift.