Training Women: Deadlift Considerations

TAGS: back strength, deadlift technique, hip strength, muscle gain, low back pain, building muscle, female athletes, conventional deadlift, sumo deadlift, female powerlifters, Alexander Cortes, strength training

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When it comes to the deadlift, some women take to it immediately, while others hate it. Unlike the squat, which favors women's natural inclination to be stronger in their legs than their upper body, the deadlift is much more of a challenge due to the upper body involvement.

Relative to general populations, and powerlifting, I've noticed for some time now two predominant issues:

  1. The assumption that women should pull sumo, since they have “wider hips” and this makes the deadlift more akin to a squat movement pattern for them.
  2. The prevalence of low back pain and SI joint issues are with women who deadlift “heavy.”

Both of these deserve some attention, so let's start with number one.

Got Hips? Pull Sumo (and Squat Wide)

I believe the “sumo” assumption happens for a few reasons. The general modus operandi is to have women squat “wide” and pull sumo, based off the assumption that they have wider hips.

This is NOT correct, and for some significant reasons. It also relates to the prevalence of SI and hip issues that come with sumo pulling and wider stance squats.

Firstly, “wide” hips is a very relative term that doesn’t have an real definition to it. "I know it when I see it" doesn't mean anything either. Wide relative to what? Their waist? Their thighs? Having an hour glass figure?


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A girl can have “wide” hips and have a more straight up and down athletic build. I've trained plenty of "hippy" girls as I say, that squatted narrow and pull conventional. The wide hip assumption also doesn’t account for leg length or hip socket structure at all. Or the torso length, or arm length. All these things impact pulling mechanics, not just the hips.

There is also individual joint structure as a whole to consider. A woman can have “shallow” hips, or deep-set hip sockets. The facing of the joint can vary greatly. There are also postural habits to consider, such as anterior pelvic tilt.

Collectively, all these things inform deadlift technique.

Understanding the “technique” of an exercise matters more than what you think “good form” is supposed to look like based simply off the perceived width of the hips or size of the glutes. Form endlessly screws with people as they try to replicate the “look” of something and don’t account for whether the actual joint coordination/technique is sound relative to the person's structure

Hip Strength > Back Strength

I will say first, women are naturally more flexible than men. This is generally accepted. This also tricks people into believing that women have the active muscular control to lift heavier weights, when in reality they do not.

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Again making the point that women's lower bodies are stronger than their upper halves, it must be accounted for that the musculature of the back is not at all in balance with the legs/hips.

Said simply, if the spinal erectors, core strength, and overall mid to upper back musculature is not well developed, a female lifter will lack the muscular structure to lift “heavy” without experiencing unnecessary joint loading.

Whether a girl pulls sumo or conventional, a lack of back muscle with shift load to the lumbar, which causes further issues within the hip flexors if enough time passes.


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It also puts the SI joint under increased strain as well. There is also a factor that a woman pulling Sumo can experience soft tissues in the hip flexors and adductors, again predicating that this lack of muscularity isn’t addressed for a long period of time.

What's to be done?

Build Muscle

If you feel you or your clients are lacking muscularity within the posterior chain, especially the back, the following are all possible movements:

  • All manner of rows, high, middle, low, DB, cable, KB, barbell, bodyweight
  • Deadlift variations (RDL, stiff leg, single leg) with DBs, KBs,
  • Banded good mornings
  • Pulldowns and chins/pullups
  • Machines (Lying leg curl, leg press, rows, etc)

Let it be said, these movements are all hypertrophy focused. The reps are high, the sets many, and the goal is to add tissue, not to set one-rep maxes.

A general template I am fond of is the following:

  • Two rowing movements (the first for 8-12 reps, the second for 10-20)
  • One chin/pullup movement
  • One deadlift variant
  • Spinal erectors

This is very akin to a Mountain Dog back workout, but it does result in complete muscular development, given enough time and progressive intensity.

If pain/technique is an issue. It can be entirely worthwhile to dial back the intensity, stick within the 60-70% range, and focus purely on hypertrophy for a dedicated training phase before attempting to lift higher percentage weights.

Regardless of level, once sound technique is established, muscle is always going to be a limiting factor. Unless someone is very advanced/elite, the likelihood that they are “too muscular” or don’t need muscle is very, very low. And from a standpoint of joint health and long term lifting, muscle is always beneficial.

Start building!

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