Defending the Deadlift: An Interview with Coach and Powerlifter, Eric Cressey

TAGS: injury, injury prevention, injuries, strength, deadlift, powerlifting, strength coach, Elitefts Info Pages, barbell, training

If you needed an expert on Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, you might contact Daniel Mahoney, a professor at Assumption College. For an expert on squatting, there’s Fred “Dr. Squat” Hatfield of the International Sports Sciences Association. For an in-depth discussion of deadlifting, I contacted Eric Cressey, MA, CSCS. Eric coaches athletes at his facility, Cressey Performance, in Hudson,  Massachusetts and is also an athlete in powerlifting who has deadlifted 628 lbs in the 165-lb weight class. A contributor to publications such as Men’s Fitness and T-Nation, Eric is the author of The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual and with Mike Robertson co-produced the DVDs Magnificent Mobility and Building the Efficient Athlete.

 

MK: When did you discover deadlifting?


EC:
I was a scrawny 19-year-old when I was first introduced to a “more enlightened” way of training. I did dumbbell deadlifts with 35 lbs the first time, and my grip was so terrible that I actually had to use straps! In my next session, I “graduated” to the straight bar and wound up going to the five-foot barbell, pulling a whopping 95 lbs. Ha! What’s even funnier was that the next day, my shins were all bruised and scraped up and my lower back was fried. Needless to say, I refined my technique.

 

MK: When did you begin deadlifting competitively?

EC: My first meet was in June of 2004, four years to the month from that first deadlifting experience. I went four for four at that meet, ending with a 510-lb pull for an American Powerlifting Association (APA) Connecticut Junior record in the 165-lb weight class. That meet got me hooked on powerlifting for good. I’ve since gone on to pull 628 lbs this past June, and I’d estimate that I’m right around 650–660 lbs now.

 

MK: Who are your major influences on strength training in general and deadlifting in particular?

EC: I’m a firm believer in borrowing bits and pieces from everyone out there. Obviously, I’ve learned from a wide variety of powerlifters, but I’ve also picked up bits and pieces from Strongman competitors, Olympic lifters, physical therapists, and various strength and conditioning professionals. And, perhaps most importantly, I’ve trained thousands of athletes and clients. Each individual with whom you work teaches you something unique and adds to your “sample size” in considering whether what you’re doing is getting the job done.

 

MK: I’ve seen the deadlift called everything from a hamstrings exercise to a back exercise. How would you describe it?


EC:
I’d call it an everything exercise! It hits the grip/forearms, upper back, mid back, lower back, lats, glutes, hamstrings, and core stabilizers. It’s no wonder that I just want to fall asleep on the couch after every heavy pulling session!

 

MK: What are the unique benefits of deadlifting?

 

EC: I’d say that, along with box squats, the deadlift is the single, most effective movement for training the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, adductor magnus, and lumbar erectors). The posterior chain is of paramount importance to high-level performance. Watch the best sprinters run and you’ll see that they seem to just “float.” That’s because they’re running with their hamstrings and glutes. In contrast, watch a guy who runs with his quads and you’ll see that his hips are bouncing up and down. There’s a lot of wasted movement. The glutes and hamstrings are all fast-twitch fibers with a lot of strength, speed, and size potential—potential you’ll never realize without deadlift variations.

Strengthening the posterior chain with closed chain movements like deadlifts also reduces the risk of injury. Weak hamstrings are a serious risk factor for anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries, patellofemoral pain, and a host of other problems in the knee, hip, ankle, and lower back. Conversely, leg curls simply won’t get the job done because they don’t require co-contraction of the glutes and hamstrings. They’re open chain and occur in a fixed line of motion. Our body is far smarter than some piece of inflexible equipment.

Deadlifts enable a lifter to train hip and knee extension together without learning the full Olympic lifts, which have a big learning curve. They also enable a lifter to use more loading, thus ensuring that more motor units and, in turn, muscle fibers will be recruited all over the body. The more fibers you recruit, the greater your stimulus for growth. And, if you’re looking to shed body fat, the post-exercise oxygen debt will be larger from recruiting more muscle mass. This means that after the end of your training session your metabolic rate will be really jacked up for longer.

You can train deadlifts several different ways. Light weights (~30% 1RM) with high velocities develop speed-strength, mid-range loading (45–70% 1RM) develops strength-speed, and circa-maximal weights enhance maximal strength. Pulls at 90% can have tremendous benefits in terms of both power and maximal strength development.

Deadlifts are quite possibly the best exercise for enhancing the rate of force development (RFD), also known as explosive strength. This refers to how quickly you can develop tension in a muscle and is of tremendous importance to athletic success. Movements that are initiated from a dead stop are superior methods for enhancing RFD. Box squats and Anderson squats are great as well. Olympic lifts can be tricky in this regard because the first pull is actually somewhat slow compared to what you’ll see in a speed deadlift. Olympic lifters are more interested in setting themselves up for the second pull.

As noted earlier, deadlifts have a better functional carryover to real world performance than leg curls, glute blasters, and all of the other silly machines out there. Deadlifts are unparalleled in their ability to wallop loads of muscle mass on your upper back. The more I’ve improved my pull, the bigger my upper back has grown—and by accident! It’s actually gotten to the point where I’ve had to bump up a weight class because my upper back, hamstrings, and glutes have grown so much from pulling that I’ve been forced to do so!

Deadlifts train supporting grip like nothing else. If you can’t grip it, you can’t deadlift it. And believe it or not, deadlifts can be a tremendously valuable corrective training exercise if coached correctly. I’ve used them to correct iliotibial (IT) band friction syndrome, lower back pain, lateral knee pain, groin pain, and a host of other torso and lower extremity problems. The secret rests with the proper execution of the exercise.

 

MK: It seems many people stay away from deadlifting because they associate it with danger, especially back injuries. How much of the danger in deadlifting is inherent versus caused by improper form?

 

EC: I firmly believe that the overwhelming majority can do variations of the deadlifts safely. As long as proper form is in place and people aren’t attempting unreasonable weights, this movement will improve health and performance. If you really think about it, is deadlifting that much different than picking up your groceries or your child? The problem isn’t the exercise. It’s the technique of the person performing the exercise or that of the trainer or coach’s coaching.

In many cases, people lack the flexibility to pull from the floor. For these individuals, I devote more time to improving dynamic flexibility (as shown in our Magnificent Mobility DVD). I have them do rack pulls (bar is elevated) to start to “groove” the technique. I’ve had several clients over the age of 70 and even 80 safely perform deadlift variations—and they all remark on how much easier it makes daily living activities.

 

MK: Speaking of technique, what are some easy ways to get injured if you deadlift improperly?


EC:
Some easy ways to get injured are:

·        Initiating the lift with the elbows flexed/bent. (They should be “taut” the entire time.)

·        Pushing through the mid-foot or toes. (You should push through the heels.)

·        Starting with the hips too high. (You should use the lower back instead of the hamstrings and glutes.)

·        Starting with the hips too low. (Don’t try to squat the weight up instead of deadlifting it.)

·        Allowing the hips to rise faster than the shoulders. (Everything should come up together to keep the stress on the legs.)

·        Not finishing the lift. (The hips should be fully extended. You should be standing completely upright at the lockout. This can be fixed by squeezing the glutes and pushing the hips into the bar.)

·        Hyperextending the lumbar spine at lockout. (You shouldn’t be leaning back. If you are, you’re moving too much at the lumbar spine and not enough at the hips.)

·        Rounding the spine at any time. (The spine should remain neutral at all times. If you look like a scared cat, you’re doing deadlifts incorrectly!)

MK: Is there an ideal physique for deadlifting?

EC: If you want to pull big weights competitively, long arms are to your benefit. If your hands reach past your pockets in the standing position, chances are you “picked the right parents” for deadlifting. The key is a short torso with long arms. Short legs will never hurt the cause in any powerlifting endeavor.

 

MK: When would you recommend that someone not deadlift?

EC: Various musculoskeletal injuries are contraindications for deadlifts, but I see no reason why an ordinary, healthy individual shouldn’t be deadlifting. The most important thing is to learn how to do it properly from the start.

MK: Discussing his recent world record 1003-lb deadlift, Andy Bolton remarked, “Lifting 1000 lbs has to do with levering the weight. It seems to me that the heavier I am the stronger I am.” On the other hand, powerlifters much lighter than Bolton, such as Oleksandr Kutcher, John Inzer, and Rickey Dale Crain, have pulled in the 700s in the 165-lb class.

 

MK: Compared with the squat and bench press, how significant is body weight in deadlift performance?


EC:
I think that you have to view deadlifting a bit differently for the bigger guys than you do with the little guys. Lifters with more body weight to use to their advantage can get away with leaning back more. They can also get away with starting with the shoulders further back. Those of us in the lighter weight classes don’t have that luxury so it actually helps to start with the shoulders forward a bit more to generate some momentum. At least that’s what I’ve seen in some of the best lightweight pullers I’ve been around (and in my own experience as a conventional puller at 165 lbs and 181 lbs).

Adding weight doesn’t help the deadlift like it does for the squat and bench press because you’re not really shortening your range of motion by adding in a big belly. In fact, you’re adding an “obstacle” to get down to the bar! My experience with other lifters tells me that adding weight helps until guys hit the 242-lb weight class. Then, the belly gets in the way. At that point, they often switch from conventional to sumo if they aren’t already pulling sumo. Although you’ve got big guys like Bolton and Benedikt Magnusson pulling insane weights with a conventional stance, the exception isn’t the norm.

 

MK: As with other lifts, individuals eager to increase their deadlift often overtrain the exercise. Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell has remarked that “the deadlift is very taxing on the central nervous system” and that “most lifters deadlift too often and too heavy.” What do you consider to be overtraining the deadlift?

EC: This is a very loaded question that I could spend all day answering. In a nutshell, I’ll just say that there is more than one way to skin a cat. I’ve made progress on my deadlift by ignoring it altogether, and I’ve made progress training it twice a week (once for speed, once heavy in the 3–6 rep range, and an additional heavy pulling session on speed day once a month). Beginners need to pull more frequently to continue to improve on technique. More advanced lifters don’t need to pull as frequently to increase their deadlift, but they can still benefit from frequently incorporating deadlift variations in their programming.

Speaking of variations, I think it’s extremely important to include variety in training the deadlift. I perform all of my speed work with my competition stance in order to improve technique, but I do all my assistance pulling with variations—snatch grip deadlifts, stiff-legged deadlifts, rack pulls, deadlifts from a deficit, and trap bar deadlifts.

 

MK: What resources do you recommend to enhance one’s deadlift knowledge?
EC: Just recently, Mike Robertson and I released the eight DVD set of our Building the Efficient Athlete seminar that took place in July. In the DVDs, we spend several hours going through all sorts of technical advice on over 30 lifts—including the deadlift. Not to toot my own horn, but it's a tremendous resource for trainers, coaches, and lifters. We leave no stone unturned when it comes to explaining technical breakdown and compensation patterns, and most importantly, how to avoid and fix them.

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