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Introducing the Deadlift (and variations)

Updated: Dec 30, 2021


What is a deadlift? In the simplest terms, it’s the most mechanically efficient way to pick up something heavy from the ground. The traditional deadlift has the individual flexed at the hip, with the back and legs straight. Unlike a squat, the hips shift backward to achieve hip flexion, rather than down, and the knees have a slight bend to accommodate the hips shifting backward. The glutes are engaged to extend the hip, but there’s also a powerful activation of the biceps femoris to further promote hip extension, allowing the trunk to lift. The core is also engaged, with lats and back extensors pulling to transfer the weight from the barbell to the legs. The individual lifts the bar from the ground to waist height, achieving a full “Standing” position, before returning the weight to the ground. The barbell moves vertically, with the weight staying as close the lifter’s center of mass as possible.


Sounds.. Easy, right? Totally simple?


Yes, and no. What makes the deadlift so beautiful is its paradoxical simplicity and beauty. To perform a deadlift correctly, muscles must engage in sequence to ensure that force is moving through the body in the most efficient way, along tissue that is primed and ready to carry a big load.


If it’s this complicated, why do it? Because what is more functional than lifting something static from the ground? Whether it be groceries, your kiddos, or that couch you’re moving for a friend, being able to lift something heavy from the ground is practical, and functional, and a skill we’ll need throughout our lives.


The fun thing about deadlift is that it comes in about as many different flavors as there are flavors of icecream (not really, but it is a lot). However, even as deadlifts vary, a lot of things stay the same, so keep these in mind when reading about the variations


  • Hips shift posterior in a “hinge” motion. This is really the center axis by which a deadlift is defined; the majority of the motion is coming from the hip.

  • The trunk stays straight, with shoulders retracted and engaged.

  • Arms are straight.

  • There is minimal to no (stay tuned for this one) knee bend.


The Sumo Deadlift

Many people are familiar with the traditional deadlift (TD); feet shoulder width apart, back locked and strong, hips back, lats and hamstrings engaged. But sometimes, we might see something different at the gym and wonder about that rando who’s clearly doing it wrong. Or are they?


Deadlifts can come in many shapes and sizes, and technique can vary from body to body. Depending on the amount of twist in the femur, turning toes more in or out can be more helpful and provide more stability compared to someone else, for example.


So, what is the Sumo Deadlift (SD)? Compared to the TD, Sumo deadlifts have a much wider stance, and are often performed with more locked out knees The focus in SD includes more adductor engagement. The biggest difference is that hamstring activation is pronounced in the TD, but not the SD. In other words, SD’s will work more on glute and adductor engagement, while the TD will drive more hamstring activation. Given what we know about the mechanics, this makes sense; by widening the stance, the hamstrings are no longer directly in line with the direction of movement, but due to the oblique angle of the glute attachment from sacrum to femur, the glutes are moved more in line, increasing their utilization. Additionally, Sumo deadlifts often come with more outward rotation of the leg, allowing greater activation of the hip external rotators. Another common component of the SD is that, due to the wider stance of the knees, the arms and hands are placed more narrowly. Lastly, due to the wider stance, the lifter’s chest is closer to the bar, and a decreased forward trunk lean is required.


An analysis of energy expenditure was 25-40% greater in the TD compared to the SD, which makse sense; the barbell has to be lifted a shorter distance, a decreased range of motion is happening at the trunk, and fewer muscles need to be recruited.1 Colweicki et al found increased lumbar shear forces at L4-L5 with TD.2


So what all does that mean? The SD can help you train your glutes and adductors with more isolation, and in a more limited range of motion, and will have reduced forces on your lower lumbar. However, TD will provide more challenge, with increased energy demands, and add increased load to your hamstrings.


I personally like Sumo’s when I’m wanting to give my hamstrings and my low back a break, or when l want to train that hip hinge/hip thrust motion.


Romanian Stiff-Leg Deadlifts: To Bend or Not to Bend

We’ve been talking a good bit about deadlifts lately, and a common question that comes up is “should my knees be bent?”


As you might start to imagine, I’m going to say “it depends.” The Romanian Stiffleg Deadlift is defined by the fact that the knees are “locked out” into extension, forcing more flexion and posterior glide of the hip. This increases the distance between the fulcrum (your hip) and the weight, which increases the amount of force being transferred through your low back. For this reason, stiff leg deadlifts are more challenging in terms of amount of force your body has to handle. It is also technically more challenging because the lifter must be able to control that much hip flexion and maintain a stable lumbar spine.


Because there are increased forces, when this lift goes wrong, it can result in a more significant injury than other lifts. This is not to say that stiff legs are more dangerous for everyone, but it’s important to say that they are more technically challenging and exert greater forces on the body. Therefore, if you don’t have good lumbar control, more force is going to be running through unprepared tissue, which can result in a greater injury.


So, what’s the benefit if the stiff leg deadlift has a greater risk? Because the knees are locked out, and greater force is required by the muscles, it challenges the posterior chain more extensively. This increased activation can drive strength gains, hypertrophy, and neuromuscular control.


I want to say a note about function, because it’s so important we put it in our name. Weight lifting and training can be for our mental health benefit, because we love the community, but often because it makes us more functional in our daily lives. And, if you’re going about your daily life, you probably don’t want to pick up toddlers or a heavy bag of groceries stiff leg style; why transmute more force through your body unnecessarily? Bending your knees slightly promotes increased efficiency of your mechanics, reduces the load on your low back, and is easier to master in terms of technique. Personally, I keep stiff leg lifts in the training room, but I consider Traditional Deadlifts more functional as they transfer better to the activities of daily living.

The Single Leg Deadlift

Next on our Deadlift adventure is the single leg deadlift (SLDL). I consider them one of the most important exercises. The SLDL has all the components of a traditional deadlift (TD), but it dramatically increases the hip and core stability required by making you do the same motion-- on one leg.


In particular, I like SLDLs when assessing individuals for asymmetries. Most people will have an easy and a ‘fun’ side. While we might SEE it in the SLDL, it is ALSO happening in any bilateral exercise you’re performing, but your body is able to successfully compensate for it in a bilateral position. These compensations can lead to overloading tissue inefficiently and poor mechanics, which can result in injuries over time.


Four things make a SLDL more challenging, and therefore equally important to include in your workouts. Try adding them in 1-2x a week for some neurodiversity or before a leg day.



  1. Balance: your body has to work harder to keep your center of mass over that single leg, and you’ve got to do so in dynamic motion.

  2. Foot Stability: The foot must engage actively to help keep your center of mass balanced atop it, promoting your proprioception (awareness of what’s happening in your body). Use it, or lose. This also improves the strength of the intrinsic muscles of the foot because they have to work so hard.

  3. Hip Stability: The muscles of hip, particularly the gluteus medius, have to contract asymmetrically to keep your pelvis level to allow force to transmit efficiently from your hip upwards. In fact, all of your rotators in your hip will be engaged, helping promote healthy connection of the head of the femur in the socket. Meanwhile, glute max is working hard to promote hip extension on the way back up.

  4. Core stability: Particularly with weight added to a single arm, your core must engage asymmetrically to prevent any excessive rotation and twisting.


So, how do you do a single leg dead lift right?


First of all, it is STILL a hinge motion, which means the motion needs to come from the hip. With the other leg free, people can get lost in rotating, in hyper-extending their low back to get the free leg behind them; I’ve seen it all.


When performing a SLDL, find your balance on your stance leg. As you hinge forward, keep your shoulders blades together, and engage your lats by tucking your upper arm to your side. This keeps a strong core, and helps prevent that rotation. Secondly, using touch down balance with your free leg, pushing it backwards in a straight line as you hinge. This allows you to use the floor as a reference point for where your leg is in space. As it slides, imagine tucking your free knee behind your stance knee-- it does not need to be perfectly in line, but this cue will help prevent you from overly rotating your pelvis toward the ceiling.


As you build stability and proprioception, you can progressively transition to lifting your free leg completely off the ground, but only do so as much as you can manage while maintaining the hinge. Remember, this exercise isn’t about how high you can lift the free leg; it’s about how well you can contract that stance leg to hinge and control the motion.


Common Mistakes with Deadlifting

We’ve been focusing a lot on deadlifts lately, and we wanted to set aside time to talk about some of the most common mistakes that you might see, applicable to most of the deadlift forms we’ve talked about.

  1. ROTATING Knees out rather than PUSHING out. A lot of athletes hear the cue “image you’re spreading the earth apart with your feet,” and ROTATE their knees out. However, the real goal here is to actively engage the muscles throughout the whole leg, adductors and abductors of the hip, and the muscles of the foot, rather than creating rotation of the leg. This excessive rotation can put more torque on the hip and knee, and put the stabilizers muscles at a mechanical disadvantage.

  2. Not Engaging the Latissimus Dorsi, or the “Lats”: A lot of athletes forget to engage their lats, some of the biggest muscles of the back and one of the key connections between the arms and the core. The lats are the bridge from the weight to the hips, and if they’re floppy, the force isn’t going to smoothly transition from the arms to the hips and core. You can help engage your lats by imaging breaking the bar, or bending it away from you. I also pull my shoulderblades down and back, as well as tuck my elbows in to promote lat engagement.

  3. Not exhaling with lift: Breathe, breathe, breathe! Use your breath efficiently. Exhale on the lift, allowing your diaphragm and the natural bracing and contraction of your core to support the stability of your trunk. This synergy of musculature promotes efficiency and will improve the quality and ease of your lifts.

  4. Squat Deadlift rather than hips shift back: If someone isn’t feeling it in their hamstrings or glutes, this is the most common cause. The hips are supposed to shift back in a deadlift; it is the only way to counterbalance the amount of load arriving from the arms on the front. If they aren’t shifting back, they are shifting down, and the quads are taking more of the load.

  5. Rounding the back: This one is common due to limited hip, hamstring, or lumbar mobility. Rounding the back is not necessarily a bad thing; if you train with your back rounded, and build up weight to do it, you’re successfully preparing your tissue for that approach. However, for a traditional dead lift, the back must be flat and the core engaged, and rounding puts your core at a disadvantage, and puts increased strain on the back extensors by engaging them at a lengthened position.

  6. Overly Accelerated Increase in Weight: One of the biggest and most common mistakes I see in recreational lifters and athletes is overly-accelerating their increase in weight. They keep going until something breaks. A well rounded training program shouldn’t add more than 10-20 lbs to your maximum deadlift every 8-12 weeks. If you’re a beginner, you will find your gains happen much faster due to improvements in efficiency; I find most relatively fit and uninjured people can progress to deadlift 50% of their bodyweight in the first 4-6 weeks.

Why? Because it takes 8 months for true muscle strength gains and hypertrophy to develop. I personally err on the side of 12 weeks when training my maximum, because it takes approximately 12 weeks for the slower metabolic structures like tendons and ligaments to also adapt and remodel. When you’re lifting, you need to not only train in consideration of muscle, but the supportive tissues that are holding your body together and transmitting force. Because it is possible for muscle strength to outpace tendon and ligament strength, resulting in a body that’s so strong it tears itself apart when under stress.


Does that seem like a lot? Because it is.


Why deadlift? Because it’s incredibly functional. We lift things from the ground all the time, from groceries, to kids, to that couch you’re moving for a friend. Our workouts should make us more capable throughout our lives, and the deadlift is one of the most functional exercises out there.


If you’re experiencing any low back pain with your deadlift, or anytime you pick something up, something might be wrong with your mechanics. Contact us if you’re having low back pain or limited in your workouts to learn more about how we can help!




References:

“ESCAMILLA, R. F., A. C. FRANCISCO, G. S. FLEISIG, S. W. BARRENTINE, C. M. WELCH, A. V. KAYES, K. P. SPEER, and J. R. ANDREWS. A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 32, No. 7, pp. 1265–1275, 2000.”


Cholewicki, J., S. M. McGill, and R. W. Norman. Lumbar spine loads during the lifting of extremely heavy weights. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 23:1179–1186, 1991.”



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