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Beyond the Deadlift

sandbag training

Jessica Bento, Physical Therapist (Creator DVRT Restoration Certification, DVRT Rx Shoulder, Knees, Pelvic Control, & Gait Courses)

exercise libarary

We have fallen for it! The trap that we thought we avoided by shifting our focus from training muscles to that of movement. While we believed we had evolved in our thought process, the reality is we switched from muscles, not to movement, but to exercises. Our industry has been told that if we do just a handful of “perfect” exercises that our movement issues will be solved.

The real problem comes in the form of not truly understanding what we mean by training movement and not exercises or muscles. When we speak of movement we are referring to patterns the body creates in every day life and sport. As spinal expert, Dr. Stuart McGill, lists in his book, “Low Back Disorders-3rd Edition With Web Resource: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation “, our movement patterns can be broken down into the following:

sandbag training

This is quite an encompassing list of movements that addresses much of our needs in life and sport. However, what many miss is that each exercise is simply a version of one of these patterns that lie along a continuum of movement. A great example is that of a deadlift.

Many will suggest that deadlifts are a cure all for all issues. After all, the deadlift teaches the important hip hinge pattern. This pattern teaches the client how to load the hamstrings and glutes while sparring much of the low back. Learning such a movement pattern can also have carryover to more fundamental movements such as walking and running that required a transitional phase of hip flexion to hip extension to propel our body through space.

The issue in how many employ the deadlift is they follow a very small continuum of movement. How do I mean? Most will simply focus on two variables of training the deadlift, load and instability. Such a philosophy leads to a big leap in progressions. For example, we assume when one can deadlift a certain amount of load that they will be able to perform the same movement in a single leg environment.

While this might seem quite reasonable, our practical experience shows us making such a leap from the bilateral deadlift to single is quite a large one. The strength of just the bilateral deadlift often doesn’t come close to reflecting what one can perform in the single leg variation. Why is it we have such a gap? Many of the reasons can be traced to the variables we miss in making the deadlift part of the hip hinge continuum of movement rather than just “another” exercise. The classic conventional bilateral deadlift (either with trap bar or barbell) is almost exclusively a sagittal plane movement.


How does that impact movement and our ability to progress people successfully? In Dr. McGill’s movement pattern list above, there are other aspects of the movements that aren’t discussed. For example, all of the movement patterns possess aspects of a plank. That means we have in the case of the deadlift, not just the hip hinge, but anti-flexion and extension in the torso as well. An often missed aspect of the deadlift is teaching the client the ability to disassociate the hips from the low back. A concept that many struggle to achieve and can only be done if one maintains “the plank” during the movement.

Realizing that we have an aspect of a plank as well helps partly explain our challenge in progressing people to more advanced drills like the single leg deadlift. Performing the single variation requires not just anti-flexion and extension of the torso, but anti-rotation in the trunk and hip complex as well as resistance of the frontal plane. That is why our assumption that purely strength in the sagittal plane will carry over to other hip hinge patterns, such as single leg.

If we map out the hip hinge continuum, we can see all the opportunities we miss to make stronger connections in the body and build better movement literacy so that we can progress people in a more successful manner.

Instead of just adding load, we can change the position of the load to accomplish more than just adding greater load. Work by Gullet et. al, has already established that a change in the position of the load to more unstable postures can activate the same amount of muscles that heavier loads in more stable positions can attain (2).


Changing the position of the load does increase the perceived load, but it does something even more important. When we move from the classic holding position of the deadlift by the hips to what we call in DVRT™ (Dynamic Variable Resistance Training) to the Front Loaded position we increase core activation and the need to activate the lats. This is of great importance due to the connections that the Posterior Oblique System creates in stabilizing our spine and creating motion in more real life hip extension activities. That chain of glute, thoracolumbar fascia, into the contralateral lat helps provide stability and force to help us move more efficiently. Moving the load up to the Front Loaded position achieves this goal and when we return to the more classic position of the deadlift clients typically remark how much easier the lift becomes.

Once we build such a connection via load position, we can begin to manipulate body position. A study by Saeterbakken et. al found that changing to more unstable body positions can create high EMG readings due to the need of the body to both create and resist force during an exercise (3). This is where most go wrong in moving directly to a single leg variation. Instability, like load or volume, needs to be incremental.

That is why we begin people with what we call the Sprinter Stance Deadlift. This seemingly simple “heel to toe” position often exposes great weaknesses in both rotation and frontal plane instability. The act of just moving the foot a few inches is enough to create a strong enough stimulus for most to lose the fundamental concepts of not just hip hinging, but our standing plank as well.

In any of the progressions we mentioned, we can use load and volume as training variables to build up strength and competency, but you are also seeing how other variables can be used to create a more complete progressional system. Instead of only relying on load and volume we can use length of step as a means to raise intensity and challenge the ability to maintain the quality of the movement pattern.

Which leads us to address one more variable, plane of motion. The work of Gary Gray has definitely inspired DVRT and the way we view movement in a more global movement concept than a few muscles or singular movement patterns. That realization helped us shape using planes of motion as a means of progressing the movement. Our rule of teaching should be to establish good movement pattern competency and then to slowly challenge it through a variety of means, one being instability. Moving through different planes of motion challenges our body’s coordination of the pattern in different ways as well as provides varying levels of instability.

The reason that many stay in only sagittal plane based movements is because they are the most stable and the greatest amount of load can be applied to the individual. Hopefully by this point you are seeing how load can be a deceiving variable if not viewed with the impact to all training variables (i.e. load and body position).

Our progressions of plane of motion would take us to the following.

strength training

What will get quickly overlooked is the fact we have direction with sagittal and frontal plane movement that will change the stability of the movement. Therefore, if we were going to put all of these concepts together it would flow in the following manner.

Deadlift Front Loaded Good Morning Rear Step Deadlift (starting with Sprinter Stance) Rear Step Front Loaded  Good Morning
Lateral Step Deadlift Front Loaded Lateral Step Good Morning Forward Step Deadlift Front Loaded Forward Step Good Morning
Crossover Step Deadlift Front Loaded Crossover Step Deadlift Rotational Deadlift Front Loaded Rotational Good Morning

The table above is designed to illustrate how we could use a more complete progressional system to build to the actual single leg deadlift. Following such a series makes training more incremental and builds the quality of movement needed to be successful as we move to more true single leg training. This by no means exhaust all our options, but twelve different types of “deadlifts” allows us to address more specific needs of the individual. What we think of as “variety” is more accurately described as purposeful progression.

The great value to the coach or therapist is the ability to quickly adjust the movement to the needs of the individual. Such as system allows a fitness professional or strength coach to individual training of large groups instead of using a cookie cutter exercise for everyone. It provides the ability to train many different fitness levels with the same implement and even same load! Lastly, we can use these progressions as an easy means to periodize the training of a week. Since more stable positions are going to allow us to apply more load, we can use these other concepts to help work on different qualities throughout the course of a week. An example is below.

Monday Wednesday Friday
Deadlift Forward Step Deadlift Crossover Front Loaded Good Morning
Greatest Load-Least Instability Moderate Load-Moderate Instability Low Load-Greatest Level of Instability

This way we get to use the movement pattern each workout, but we train different aspects of it without the risk of overtraining. We can also use this to help us plan future training cycles by identifying which aspect of the pattern the individual struggles to maintain good movement throughout.

The beauty of using these strategies of the DVRT system is that we can help more people, be more efficient with our training time and equipment, and look at movement in a more global sense as it relates to real life and sporting activities.

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1. McGill, Stuart. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Stuart McGill, PhD; 2004, 3rd Edition

2. Gullett, Jonathan C; Tillman, Mark D; Gutierrez, Gregory M; Chow, John W. A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research:January 2009 – Volume 23 – Issue 1 – pp