Few things make me feel as old as telling you that when I began in the industry deadlifts were often a big no no. When I began in the industry you only had the “hardcore” lifters doing deadlifts. It was so crazy that when I did start implementing deadlifts, other trainers in the gym would almost yell at me that I was going to hurt people’s backs. So, seeing how people see deadlifts as the solution to just about every training need, does make me laugh.
Not only because I have seen the 180 that the industry has taken, but my own journey as well. I fell in love with deadlifts once I started doing them because I was able to make such progress on them. Of course I would squat, but being tall squatting deep was always a lot more difficult than deadlifts. Being someone with a spinal disease and history of back issues, I didn’t have really any issues with deadlifts.
That is until I realized the heavier and heavier I push my deadlifts the more I found myself being stiff, achy, and taking longer to recover from training. Eventually I would find similar issues with clients and had to decide if I was really making others and myself better or just trying lift more weight because that is what you were suppose to do.
When you see something isn’t working you start re-thinking the role of the exercise and how we make it work for us, not work just to deadlift. It is after all the point of an exercise to help us move, perform, and feel better not just go heavier. So, where have deadlifts gone wrong and how do we make them better?
How Strong Is Strong Enough?
The reason that most just try to heavier and heavier on not just deadlifts, but pretty much any movement in the gym is because that is how you get strong, right? To some point that is true, but most are unfamiliar with the concept of “optimal strength”. This term refers to the fact that at a certain point, increasing weight in an exercise doesn’t carry over to other activities. The term originated in athletic based training where at a certain point getting “stronger” in a lift didn’t transfer to improved to athletic performance.
This is an old picture from one of my gyms, so you see I am speaking from experience, we did all these things ourself so I know from such experiences.
Now, I could make up some random number for people to say “strong enough”, but I’ll leave that up to the internet to provide;) I don’t think there is a perfect number for everyone, but based on 25 years of coaching I would say a woman that could deadlift 185 and a guy that could hit 275 on a barbell is really ready to think smarter about where they go with their deadlifts. If you are let down by those numbers I hope you won’t be as the point is if you follow these strategies about deadlifts you should see your ability to lift more go up without having to beat your body up in the process.
Did You Say Barbell Deadlifts?
Some may be surprised that I said barbell instead of trap bar deadlifts. Well, there are a few reasons for that. For one, we had a trap bar in my gym, but I didn’t use it so much. Why? For one, the handles are at a random distance that doesn’t allow many able to engage their lats because the handles were too wide. Conceptually the trap bar does reduce load on the lumbar spine because the weight is closer to our axis of rotation (#science), but the handle placement often created such an issue that clients would complain of issues in their low back because they weren’t able to create proper tension.
The other reason was that most turned the trap bar deadlifts into more of a squat. It made teaching the hip hinge pattern more difficult and I saw less transfer to other hip hinge movements because we didn’t really solidify the pattern. However, you are probably MORE shocked to hear me talking about trap bar and barbell deadlifts. Probably because I’ve spent a lot of the last 15 years telling people not to really use a lot of either.
I feel like I can make such statements because I did both in training of myself and others for some time. The truth is, the longer I coached people, the less and less I would use trap bars or barbells. Outside of the reasons I just presented, these tools are designed to be largely sagittal plane based movements. That means if you wanted to do more than more up and down from a perfectly balanced position, trap bars and barbells didn’t work so great.
You can see from DVRT Master, Cory Cripe’s work, we do use kettlebells in our deadlifts, but they are more reactive because of the lack of tension we can create. Many people go wrong because they go to one kettlebell on a side before so and that is more advanced even though the load is lighter.
In fact, it was seeing what kettlebells could do in the early 2000’s that got me re-thinking did we have to do barbell deadlifts and if we did how much? To appreciate where I am going with things we have to admit I dirty secret…our industry has NO standards in how much you should be able to lift to be able to live better, move better, or perform better. Most of the lifting is simply a matter of ego. A great example is my work with Jessica.
When we met she had never done really any deadlifts other than some single leg deadlifts here and there. She had badly hurt her back (5 disc herniations) when she was transferring a patient in the hospital. That scared her from pretty much doing anything heavy with deadlift and scared her to death. After working on a lot of the concepts I will be sharing, Jessica wanted to see what she could barbell deadlift. I was quite hesitant as she had little technique experience with the lift and I didn’t want to pushing herself to anything unsafe. Well, with just a few cues she was able to break 200 pounds rather easily.
Sure, I know that is far from any world record, but the fact she could without any barbell or trap bar deadlifting hit over 200 pounds (we didn’t push it too hard) says something really interesting how we can make people strong without wearing down their body. So, how did we do it?
The Tools Do Matter
The fitness industry loves to say how the tool doesn’t matter, but when you think about it that doesn’t make much sense. Chefs are always very prideful if not emotionally attached to their knives. Computer programmers have very strong opinions about which computer is best. Heck, my neighbor is VERY proud of the electric tools he has to make some of his wood working projects. So, why in fitness do the tools not matter, especially when they provide us unique opportunities and impact the outcomes of our exercises, of course the tools matter!
As I mentioned, trap bars and barbells are predominately designed for sagittal plane work. We can use tools like kettlebells and Ultimate Sandbags for sagittal plane training, but progress such training so much more! In fact, in developing the Ultimate Sandbag back in 2005 it became my favorite tool to teach the deadlift. The way were we able to increase how easily people could engage their lats and core helped build faster success in deadlifts.
Being able to change how we held the weight allowed us to problem solve people learning to use their lats and bracing their core in drills like front loaded good mornings. It was the fact that Ultimate Sandbags were able to move in so many directions and help us move in more patterns that opened my mind to what deadlifts could be.
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This is is really important because our glutes and core are diagonally shaped muscles. That means they are made for more varied movement, if they were made to just move up and down, they would run up and down…they don’t!
Kettlebells allowed us the opportunity to bring the weight close to our axis of rotation like a trap bar, but bringing weight closer to our body and not having a random handle position allowed us to use our bodies smarter. Where “pulling the handles apart” on an Ultimate Sandbag allowed us to use tension for stability, the kettlebell requires us to be more reflexive. Yes, we squeeze the handles, but the tension feedback to our body isn’t the same as the USB.
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DVRT Master, Cory Cripe shows that using the Ultimate Sandbag we can actually teach how to stabilize the core better in using the lats more effectively by using what the handles allow us to create in tension. The kettlebells would be a progression in this movement because we can’t create the same tension so we have to rely on more reflexive stability.
In implementing kettlebells we can work different patterns as well, but we have another layer of progression. We can also start to build towards unilateral loading on our hip hinges which increases the demands to our core and glutes (which are made to both produce and resist force at the same time). Except, people often make two HUGE mistakes in using kettlebells with their deadlifts.
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We can load up the body with kettlebells and Ultimate Sandbags in deadlifts, however, we just have to be open about thinking of deadlifts in smarter ways. Instead of using everything like a barbell, we should be thinking of the movement of the hip hinge first and all the options that allow us to build stability and strength at the same time. When you do so, you find not only does your bilateral deadlift strength go up (like Jessica found), but also you feel better and move better. Isn’t that the REAL goal of training?
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