A Deadlift Fix - Hip Dominant doesn't mean Knee Absent.
"Like any of the major movement patterns the deadlift (hinge) is multi-joint, multi-muscular, multipurpose, and accessible through a variety of training modalities."
I'm happy to report that the deadlift is in vogue. It's no secret now that the deadlift is the key to unlocking a better body, regardless of what that achievement means to you. The wealth of coaches pushing the deadlift, and its myriad of variations on articles, blogs, social media and video have helped make the fitness population pay more attention to this vital lift.
Rumor has it he sang to the barbell. "Always going to lift you up, just don't break my spine"
In my experience though, those that are experimenting with the deadlift don't recognize that it is simply an exercise among the many that fulfill the general movement pattern - the hip hinge.
See, the deadlift is an incredible exercise selection that challenges the hip hinge pattern, otherwise known as a hip dominant movement. The movement requires recruitment of the muscles that compose the posterior chain - the hamstrings, glutes, lats, and spinal erectors. There is also incredible amounts of anterior core, obliques, and quadriceps usage during a hinge.
The deadlift is a movement pattern, and so much more than just an exercise thrown into a program. Like any of the major movement patterns the deadlift (hinge) is multi-joint, multi-muscular, multipurpose, and accessible through a variety of training modalities.
Coming to the realization that multiple muscle systems are involved in the process is a critical step towards actually excelling in the deadlift. Breaking it down further is to understand that the muscles involved in the movement require a variety of positions to be achieved by the joints
Far too many people make the following connection:
The deadlift is an exercise that works the back and glutes, therefore I need to only feel the exercise in these places.
It is this assumption that leads to missed progress and many injuries. It is the over-emphasis of the hips that completely robs the person of the power of the hamstrings and quads. The lack of knee flexion during hip extension also makes it so much harder to maintain a tight anterior core, a strong upper back, and a neutral lumbar spine.
The deadlift is hip dominant, yes...but that doesn't mean the knees don't do anything.
Regardless of whether or not you perform conventional stance deadlifts or sumo stance deadlifts, Kettlebell, barbell, or dumbbell deadlifts - the knees must engage of a level of flexion/extension in relationship to the length of your limbs.
Even a Romanian deadlift (one too often confused with a stiff-legged deadlift) involves a level of knee flexion in order to safely execute the movement. Sure, the flexion is significantly less than any other form of the hinge, but it is present nonetheless.
Why Does this matter?
A deadlift that doesn't involve an appropriate amount of knee flexion is going to push all of the forces into the lumbo-pelvic region. It'll push all of the sheering forces into the S.I joint and lead to acute or chronic lower back pain if left unchecked.
Beyond the obvious "it'll do your body wrong" statements it is easy to say that getting the appropriate amount of knee flexion is critical to achieving your peak deadlift potential. Simply put, you need those hamstrings and quadriceps in order to pull your best.
In regards to the actual biomechanical breakdown of the deadlift I'm going to avoid going into a long winded explanation of force vectors and joint angles here on the blog. Instead, I'm going to provide you this link if you are interested in checking out more. It's an incredible examination of the biomechanics by Tony Leyland.
Below is a video to help you figure out exactly how to ensure you are in the best possible position to deadlift, regardless of how big you are.
Note: I'm demoing the set-up with a kettlebell because I firmly believe that everyone should master their hinge prior to engaging with a barbell. A kettlebell provides an excellent modality for learning how to hinge, how to engage the correct musculature, and how to finish the lift.
A quick how to guide is as follows (in order of operations):
Set your feet so that the load is even with your midfoot (roughly where you tie your shoelaces). A kettlebell might be a tiny bit behind this line while a barbell may drift a bit in front.
Press your hips back towards the space behind you. You can use your hands to "push" your hip bones back. At this point the knees are only unlocked and slightly bent.
Extend your arms high overhead as though you are reaching for the top shelf. Forcefully bring them down to your sides with the intention of squeezing your lats against your arms. I once heard a coach say, "squeeze an orange in your armpit".
Take a deep breathe and begin bending your knees until your hands can firmly grab the bell.
"Pull yourself" into the load by pushing your knees out, or "screwing your feet into the floor", while simultaneously "sitting down" and maintaining a tight plank position with your core
Push the floor down and drive yourself to the top, exhaling as your reach the top. Squeeze those mother-loving glutes.
Thinking out Loud
The deadlift is a movement that is highly position and person based. A tall person may always pull sumo from an elevated block, while someone shorter would never consider pulling sumo stance. It is truly an exercise, or movement pattern, that takes time to hone in on. Various biological, physiological, and even psychological factors can impact it:
Many factors that come into play are:
Limb length (short tibia and long arms make for a happy deadlift)
Body type (long and lean pulls different from a little meatball)
Hip Anatomy (some are able to drop much deeper into their sockets without hurting their lumbar spine)
Training Experience (a highly trained lifter will have much more refined approach and technique than that of someone who hasn't experienced dead lifting)
Mobility (poor thoracic extension and internal rotation can cause slumping in the shoulders, while tight hips and hamstrings can make achieving a full hinge harder than needed)
Strength (let's face it. Being stronger in the posterior chain and anterior core plays a major role in how you can hinge, and what deadlift you'll train best).
Considering each of these elements will allow you or the person you are coaching to better achieve a great deadlift. Like a training program a deadlift has to be a bit unique to the person doing it. Sure, there are points of science and practicality that have to be observed, but each trainee will exact their force a bit differently.
One thing is for certain though, you have to bend your knees. Your lower back will thank you and so will your lifting numbers.