3 Lessons I've Learned From Deadlifting Heavy: and Why You Should Do it too!
For years I couldn't stop deadlifting. In college I loved slapping on my weight belt, strapping in to 275 or 315, turning my Ipod to Till I Collapse, and yanking on that barbell until the damn thing came off the ground.
But it was ugly....
So ugly in fact that I hurt my lower back pretty good. On a failed attempt at 335 I felt like I took a sniper round my left lower back and dropped to the floor. Lucky for me the injury wasn't one that required medical attention, rather rest and time away from the gym.
That was the last time I deadlifted seriously for years. I was a bit timid to get over the bar and start yanking on it again. I was a trainer, but still wet behind the ears. I didn't understand the lift enough. I hadn't broken it down and made it mine. My body reflected it too. My lats were narrow, and my body slightly hunched forward into internal rotation at the shoulders.
This time last year I said enough was enough and broke the lift down to its nooks and crannys. I tore through "Starting Strength by Mark Ripptoe", earned by USAW Level 1 certification for the olympic lifts, and began studying for my Strength and Conditioning certification. Empowered by knowledge and a desire to recapture my passion for the lift I grabbed a barbell.....and only the barbell.
For a year straight I've been deadlifting heavy one to two times a week, every week. I started with an empty bar and have worked myself up to the neighborhood of 405. It certaintly won't break a world record, but it still feels damn good.
Here are 3 Lessons I've learned from Deadlifting:
1. Deadlifting Fixes Your Posture
Assuming you are doing it correctly; the deadlift will only enhance your posture by strengthening the muscles of the posterior chain (or backside of the body). Everything from your traps, latisimus dorsi, lower back extensors, glutes, hamstrings, and even calves will get stronger from doing heavy deadlifts.
Furthermore, aligning your body correctly at the shoulders and hips prior to the lift all the way through to the completion of the lift will help rewire your static posture (The posture you hold when you are not thinking about it).
My issue was being internally rotated at the shoulders. Essentially, my shoulders fell forward and inward towards my nipples. I wasn't a horrible case, but years of throwing baseballs, carrying WAY TOO HEAVY OF A BOOK BAG, and working pecs three days of week had shortened my pectoralis minor (front side), and made my traps over engage and pull too darn hard.
Doing a correct deadlift requires tucking your shoulder blades down into "your back pocket" and flaring your lats outwards. I often tell my clients to think of a security guard, or an egotistical bodybuilder...how would they stand?
This image ensures that we aren't pinching the shoulder blades together, but rather opening them up and pulling them down, which engages the correct back musculature and retrains the posture.
Next, we look at the hips. Learning how to effectively utilize the power of our glutes and the degrees of freedom in our pelvis is critical for strength, power, and spinal health. Furthermore, individuals who typically have immobile and weak hips often have lower back or knee issues. This is simply because the knees or lumbar spine will do their best to gain mobility that the hips don't have, but at their own peril. The knees aren't meant to be mobile, rather they should be stable. In the case of the lower back; it is designed to flex and extend, but not under extreme load, and not without assistance from the pelvis.
To engage the glutes I coach my clients to bring their hips to the bar at the top. You often see people lean back as they are locking out the deadlift, but this is wrong. We want to stand ideal vertical and squeeze our ass like we are trapping an American Express black card in there. Don't drop that credit card...or else I'm going to go shopping.
See the picture above: At the bottom of the lift we want our hips tilted back as far as we can get them with our weight on our heels and our balance still in check. You shouldn't be tumbling backwards, but the further you can push your hips....the flatter your back will be at the bottom.
Why you should Deadlift: Deadlifting correctly will teach you how to engage your upper back chain and align the shoulders into the best position for pulling, and for life. Mastery of the hip hinge (anterior and posterior pelvic tilt) will mobilize the hips and remove strain from the lower back and knees. Posture fails when the upper back and lower back aren't in alignment, typically from bad habits and weak muscles. Lift heavy and have great posture.
2. Deadlifting Heavy Makes you Mobile and Flexible
Often times we assume that lifting heavy will trash your mobility and flexibility and you'll be walking around looking for someone to wipe your butt for you. We assume that lifting heavy weights will make you so darn big that you'll have to buy new clothes and deny steroid usage forever...
Not even close bro, not even close.
In my time deadlifting heavy I have found that my hips are more mobile in all three planes (frontal, saggital, and transverse), and that my muscles are more flexible than they were previously. Here is why.
First, let's look at flexibility. My hamstrings are far more flexible than they were prior to this journey. The bottom position of the deadlift is an active and applicable stretch to all of these muscles as you prepare to engage them in the pull. Simply working your hip hinge can make your hamstrings feel like you've been living in the figure 4 stretch.
Secondly, mobility. Getting into the bottom position requires you to conform to a deep hinge of the hips with active movement of the shoulder blades. Thoracic mobility, scapular mobility, pelvic tilt, and even ankle mobility all come into play when you are setting up to pull weight off of the floor.
I currently drop into pigeon pose with ease, can chill in the bottom of a squat like I grew up in Malaysia, and can do wide mountain climbers like I'm about to start break dancing.
Sure sure, I spend time doing additional mobility work on foam rollers, trigger point utensils, and active drills to increase it further. Yet, much of it has come from simply gripping and ripping on the bar consistently.
Why You Should Deadlift: Gain flexibility in your hamstrings and mobility in your hips simply by getting into perfect deadlift position time and time again.
3. Deadlifts Make You Stronger and Help You Look Better Naked!
have never heard the phrase, "God, I wish I was weaker".
No kid in high school gets picked on for being too strong. No one hates looking better naked.
Hey Arnold, NICE MUSCLES YOU MANLY MAN! WHAT DID YOU DO? LIFT WEIGHTS!!!!!!!!!! Scrawny arms are what is cool man....
It doesn't take a kinesiology degree to understand why they make you stronger and more muscular either. The deadlift should be your heaviest poundage lift, and so regularly lifting your heaviest weights will subject your body to incredible amounts of tension. Your body loves tension! It eats it up like soup, salad, and breadsticks at an Olive Garden in Tennessee.
The body adapts from tension by making your neuromuscular system more sensitive to changes in resistance. Information begins flowing faster up and down the chain from the brain to the muscles and from the muscles to the brain. Think of it like a dirt road being turned into a four lane highway due to the demand from traffic.
The body increases lean body mass (muscle) in the areas where it is needed; the quads, hamstrings, glutes, back, and core. The muscles become stronger and more dense!
If you start doing deadlifts for repetitions and cutting silly calories from your diet...you can even get leaner without stepping one foot on a treadmill.
So Kevin, your telling me I can lose fat, gain muscle, and get stronger with a deadlift?
YOUR DAMN RIGHT.
Every muscle in your body engages and contracts when you deadlift heavy. This blasts your metabolism, shreds calories, and makes your body a living breathing piece of concrete.
Did i mention they make your glutes awesome? You can start to feel your damn glutes when you run. There is nothing more cool than feeling faster, and feeling effortless; while feeling your booty being so bootylicious.
Why you Should Deadlift: Because they make you sexy, strong, and damn awesome at Wheel of Fortune (not really, but maybe you could do crossword puzzles inbetween sets).
So there you have it. Deadlifts make you stronger, more flexible, and can even fix your posture. IF your not doing them now. You should be. If you don't know how to do them, then ask me. I'd be honored to help you learn your way.