"What is the point of a deadlift?"
That's a question I fielded this week from a client. It was said with genuine curiosity, as well as a dash of skepticism.
And you know what? I get it.
Deadlifts get a bad name because stubbornness, brute strength, and an unbreakable will to see "dem gainz" can take you pretty far. Some people don't need good technique, or even much patience, in order to achieve a 1-2x bodyweight lift. Walk into any commercial gym and you'll see what I'm talking about. Heck, my early days of deadlifts would fall under this category too.
And this approach can work. Until it doesn't.
Given enough time, weight, and your injury history, deadlifts with suboptimal technique will give you a sore back and your progress will plateau. The harshest truth? When you have a back injury or general back pain, nobody - not even yourself - cares what you can deadlift.
And yes, that's speaking from experience.
So what is the point of a deadlift? To build total body strength and power as well as increasing your resilience to injuries. Above all, the deadlift should add to your quality of life, not detract from it.
There are 50 different technical aspects of the lift that can improve any one person's deadlift - bar position in your hand; grip width; conventional or sumo; foot position; proper programming and much more. Rather than focus on any of these individual differences, I wanted to highlight two higher level tips - or paradigm shifts - that will help put you on the right side of progress.
1. The deadlift begins before you even touch the bar.
I'd like to adapt one of my favorite sayings: 90% of deadlifting is mental; the other half is physical.
While I'm no Yogi Berra, the mental approach to a deadlift can be a determining factor to your success. This is something I discussed at length in my article for StrongFirst.com.
But you also need to change your mindset as to when the deadlift actually begins.
Most people think a deadlift starts when you grip the bar or when the weights begin to break the floor. To no surprise, most people set up accordingly and it looks something like this: 1) bend over, 2) grip it, and 3) rip it. This can work for very experienced deadlifters. But is it going to work for you? Probably not.
Instead, a good deadlift should begin before you even bend over. Do this by "wedging" yourself into the right position before you reach for the bar. It's something Brett Jones covers well in the following video:
By actively pulling ourselves into the set-up, we're loading our abs, hamstrings, glutes, and quads before we even think about picking anything up. It's a much safer and repeatable strategy than bending over, grabbing a bar, and hoping (praying?) we're in the right position.
Don't believe me? That's cool. But the few times I've witnessed someone hurt themselves on a deadlift, it's occurred 1) on the first rep and 2) with a lack of focus. #justsaying
2. Treat it as a dead "push," rather than a dead "lift."
If there's one deadlift secret I'd like to whisper to the world, it'd be this: you're not trying to "pull" the bar up; you're trying to push the floor away.
Yes, there's a difference. Yes, I'll explain.
And yes, "deadlift whisperer" would make for a sweet nickname.
The difference between "pulling" and "pushing" has as much to do with the activity of muscles as it does with biomechanics. First, when you're actively trying to push the floor away, it should force you to engage your legs and abs much more than your back. When someone told you to "lift with your legs, not your back" they were onto something.
But beyond that, the reason "pushing through the floor" works is because it often keeps someone in good biomechanics. If someone thinks about "pulling the bar" their hips will often rise too early, changing their leverage. Specifically, the fulcrum of our lever (nerd alert) migrates from our hips to our back.
If, however, someone thinks about "pushing through the floor," it tends to keep them in the right position until they can begin to straighten out their knees. This keeps the stress out of our back and in our hips where it belongs.
Changing your mindset to pushing through the floor is simple, but it's not easy. Every now and then I'll start to feel my lower back kick on during a deadlift, only to realize I'm not pushing through the floor. I've also coached several people for years only to have them look at me one day and say, "I finally know what you mean about pushing through the floor!"
To which I always reply, "I'll be here all week. And I'll be working on my communication skills."