Five Ways to Fix Your Deadlift Today

TAGS: t-spine mobility, rack pulls, pin pulls, Eric Prush, proper breathing, hip mobility, deadlift

“Nah, bro...I don’t do deadlifts. They’re bad for your back.” Every lifter or coach has heard this countless times, and no matter how many times I hear it, I still feel slightly sick to my stomach. After all, there isn't any better exercise to develop total body strength, size, power, and musculature than the deadlift. Based on that statement alone, it should be obvious that someone who doesn’t pull heavy is condemned to be a weak, feminine shell of a man forever.

Despite these indisputable truths regarding those who don't deadlift, the fact of the matter is that not everyone can do it safely. In fact, most people who you see deadlifting off the floor in commercial gyms are doing so with technique so bad that their spine looks like it may explode at any moment.

Considering the fact that no one can get jacked with a mutilated spinal cord, and that it's a given that the deadlift is a must for anyone who is serious about getting jacked, here are the ways you can hone in your technique and perform the deadlift safely.

1. Learn the hip hinge

I've been over this before, but it bears repeating. Learning the hip hinge is essential before ever even attempting to deadlift with a bar. At Gaglione Strength, we use the belly swing (stolen from Dan John) to cue our athletes to push their hips back, keep their chests up, load the hamstrings, and put themselves in the correct position to pull heavy. You can never drill this position enough!

2. Perform rack pulls/block pulls

Even after learning the hip hinge, many athletes still lack the ability to deadlift off the floor with a neutral spine. Rack pulls or block pulls are the best alternative for anyone who is looking to lift heavy but can't keep proper position off the floor in the deadlift. Simply set the pins in your safety rack to a height where the athlete can keep a neutral spine (or to the height of the blocks). That said, always try to keep the position of the blocks/pins below the knees if you can. Anything higher than that and this exercise can easily turn into an ego jerk-off where you're moving the bar two inches from start to finish and patting yourself on the back for moving “big weights” while doing so.

Remember, performing a high rack pull with a ton of weight doesn’t mean that you're a good deadlifter! You should also be working to remedy what is causing you to have to pull off a higher point of contact rather than off the floor, which leads me to my next point…

3. Improve hip mobility and flexibility

Remember what I just said about not being able to keep a neutral spine from the bottom position of a deadlift? If you can’t keep a neutral spine, odds are you have shitty hip mobility. Given the way most of us spend our days (sitting hunched over in front of a desk, driving, sitting down watching television), our hips are constantly in flexion. This isn't any good for anyone looking to perform heavy deadlifts (or squats) safely.

Our warmup at Gaglione Strength spends a substantial amount of time on opening the hips both through mobility drills and stretching. Anyone with tight hips needs to spend extra time on this problem area or run the risk of hurting the lower back at some point down the road.

4. Improve thoracic spine mobility

This one has special importance to me because when I first arrived at Gaglione Strength, I may have had the most awful t-spine mobility in the tri-state area. I was completely unable to arch my upper back during any movement, and as you can imagine, it was negatively impacting all my lifts, most notably my squat and deadlift. My good friend, colleague, and 600-pound deadlifter Joe Meglio likes to cue his athletes to keep their chests up in the bottom position of their pull by saying that you should be able to read what is on their t-shirts.

As you can imagine, anyone with terrible t-spine extension would be unable to put himself in this position. If you can't keep your chest up during the deadlift, this can lead to your ass shooting up first and you looking like a scared cat while picking up the bar. This may sound funny, but it’s a great way to blow out a disk and spend some time in your local emergency room. It’s also a great way to insure that you never lift anything heavy, which, of course, will keep you from getting the strong, athletic build that you want.

5. Learn how to breathe/brace properly

I place this last on the list, but believe me when I say that this is far from the least important item here. When I first began interning at Gaglione Strength, I knew nothing about the importance of diaphragmatic breathing and its effects on the rest of the body. In fact, if you had told me that I needed to perform breathing drills in order to increase my deadlift, I probably would have told you that you were full of shit and would have never listened to you again. Fast forward eighteen months and I've come to realize that bad breathing affects everything. In this case, breathing with your chest and not your diaphragm will lead to poor posture that can subsequently cause an inability to maintain proper form during the deadlift. Not only that, but an inability to breathe with your diaphragm will also lead to an inability to brace the abdominal area properly.

While performing the deadlift, you should always strive to fill your belly with air (i.e., make yourself fat) and then forcefully contract your core before reaching down to grab the bar. This will produce more tension and allow your body to better transmit strength between your upper and lower extremities. Keeping that in mind, it's physically impossible to fill your belly with air if you're breathing with your chest, not your diaphragm. Drill diaphragmatic breathing every day. For those who are having trouble learning, be sure to include it in your warmup or as fillers between sets.

While it may appear that I just did a fantastic job of overcomplicating the deadlift, the reality is that each of these drills and exercises are easy to perform and utilize in your programming. Start using them today and you will be on your way to pulling PRs that will help take your body and training to the next level!


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