If I hear one more geek personal trainer or "fitness enthusiast" say that he doesnt perform deadlifts because he doesnt want to hurt his back, my next set of articles may be coming from behind bars. I just can't stand to hear this crap anymore!
The truth is that pulling, like squatting, is hard work! If you aren't into getting bigger, stronger or making your time in the gym more worthwhile, read no further because this article isn't for you. However, if you aren't afraid of what a little sweat equity can do for your strength and physique, please read on and see what "precision pulling" can do for you!
When it comes down to it, the only lifts that use more muscles than deadlifting are the snatch and the clean-and-jerk. I love the Olympic lifts, but to be honest a lot of people don't have the time or resources to learn them and enjoy all their benefits. Therefore, deadlifting (or pulling as I'll refer to it from here on out) is an excellent choice for putting slabs of muscle on your frame and making you stronger from head to toe.
In short, if you ain't pulling, you ain't really working out!
Below are some of the specific keys to pulling heavy weights. There may be some points Ive omitted for the sake of brevity, but following these key points can and will take your pulling power to the next level!
When I attended the USAPL Men's Nationals this year, I got to see some of the freakiest lifters in the nation do their thing. One of these lifters included Greg Page, a 148-pound guy who pulled a whopping 578 at the meet! He later stated that one of the most important things to do when pulling was to make sure your heels were as close to the bar as possible. I didn't necessarily understand this until I tried it, but it works (especially for sumo deadlifts).
To get your heels in close, you probably need to turn your feet out a little more than usual. At this point, try to get your heels underneath the bar. By doing this you ensure the bar is as close to your shins as possible, thereby improving your line of pull before you actually pull!
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but Ill explain it anyway. While you're setting up, you need to take in a big breath and get your entire core tight. By getting tight, I mean getting your abs and low back set like you're about to get punched in the stomach. By "bracing," as we call it, you ensure that your body is ready to move maximal weight. If you need another reference, check out my 10 Tips to Flawless Squattin' article, which also discusses getting your core tight.
Whenever you set up, make sure your eyes are looking slightly upwards and your chest is up. This rule is pretty much universal when it comes to lifting weights, but especially when it comes to deadlifting. Not only does it reinforce a neutral spine, but it also helps you to lift more weight. Pretty sweet deal, huh?
I can tell when a powerlifter is going to miss a lift before he even attempts it. That's because he starts the pull with his chest caved over. When this happens, the bar gets out in front of you and your low back has to work overtime to get the bar back in the groove. You end up doing what amounts to a straight leg deadlift. Instead, force the chest up from the beginning to distribute the weight between the major players in pulling, i.e., the glutes, hamstrings and erectors.
This may seem awkward to some, but when you pull you want your chest up and your hips high at the same time. I use this example for lifters struggling with the concept: Is it easier to do a half-squat or a full squat? This example usually gets the wheels turning and they realize what Im talking about. The body is in a more biomechanically efficient position if the hips are high from the start. We arent doing reverse squats here; we're trying to pull heavy weights, right?
Research has shown us that the stretch reflex is all but negated after approximately four seconds. Some lifters may sit in the starting position for several seconds before they actually begin. Big mistake!
Not only do you lose the benefits of the stretch reflex, but you also can't maintain any air when you're in the bottom. Try it out for yourself: take a big breath and then sit in the bottom position for a few seconds. For whatever reason, it's very hard to maintain your IAP (intrabdominal pressure) and ITP (intrathoracic pressure). Doing so can decrease not only your stability but your strength as well.
I've read tons of articles on deadlifting. Some will say to initiate the pull from the legs, driving them through the floor; others will say to lead with the upper back and traps. To be honest, they're both right, and that's why I think about both when I pull.
You need to think of pulling as an explosion from the middle of your body. Once I'm tight I think to myself "three, two, one" just like a launch pad because I want to simultaneously drive my heels through the floor (which ensures Im using my glutes and hamstrings), while also pulling back with my traps and upper back (which helps keep the bar in close to the body).
If you only use one of these ideas, you lose the benefits of the other. For instance, only pulling with your upper back and traps tends to take your legs out of the lift. On the flip side, only driving your feet through the floor doesn't always keep the bar in as close as you'd like.
I put this in italics because I think it's extremely important. If you're trying to move heavy weights, why on earth would you try and do it slowly? It makes absolutely no sense, yet I see tons of people trying to "muscle up" heavy deadlifts. It just doesn't work!
This goes hand in hand with the previous point: you want to explode from the middle and try to move the bar as fast as possible. Deadlifting may not always look fast (especially because you don't have much stretch reflex or an eccentric portion to the lift), but the fact is that if you want to move heavy weights, you have to try and move them quickly.
This is another point I can't emphasize enough. Pulling is hard, but it lends itself to "the grind." If you don't know what the grind is, you haven't been moving enough heavy weights. What we're talking about is that point where you don't think you have anything left in you, but you keep going and grind out the rep. Not only do you get stronger, but you also build confidence when you win battles with the heavy iron.
Please note that I'm not saying to train every set and rep to failure, but there are times when you're pulling heavy that the bar speed will slow down, you'll get out of your groove, and you'll have to go to war with the weight. The choice is yours, but those who grind out those big reps are the ones that'll end up with the stout physique and big numbers in the end.
The final, and maybe the most important part of deadlifting, is attitude. Sure, some people may be genetically predisposed to pulling heavier weights than others, but a lot of deadlifting is having a deadlifter's attitude.
If you're a powerlifter you know the routine: you do three maximal squats, three maximal benches, and then you deadlift. It's arguably the hardest lift and you're doing it at the end of the meet when you're physically and mentally drained. If you don't have a never-say-die attitude, you're going to get beat not only by your mentally stronger competition, but by weights.
Every time you pull, you need to be aggressive. In case you missed my point in the beginning, pulling is hard! Those who are aggressive, confident, and who have that solider mentality will always succeed when it comes to pulling heavy, whether it be for a new PR in the gym or on the platform.
Now that we've discussed the key points when it comes to pulling, let's put it all together to what amounts to a thing of beauty: bar-bending weights and perfect technique to boot!
Before you even approach the bar, get your mind right and your body ready to go. Use a psych-up when appropriate. If you're just training in the gym I wouldnt tap into my nervous system too much as it expends a lot of nervous energy, but if you're going for a PR it'll definitely up your arousal level and get you primed for some heavy iron. Run through any points you specifically need to focus on with regards to technique as well.
When you approach the bar, work to get the heels as close as possible and underneath the bar. Once you're comfortable, think of "screwing" the heels into the ground; this will give you a stable base from which to pull. Your shins should be close or touching the bar gently.
Now grab the bar with a comfortable width and squeeze as hard as possible with your hands while taking the slack out of your arms. Some people take a breath before they ever go down, but this doesn't always work because you end up holding your breath too long before you're even set up.
Once you have your feet locked in with the weight on the heels, you need to set up the upper body. The slack should be out of your arms, so while you're still getting ready, take a big breath and get your entire core area tight. From this point, work to find that perfect spot where your hips are high but your chest is up and your low back is arched. You may have to fight to find this position, but it'll be worth it. If you don't, your chest will either be caved over and you wont use your legs, or your hips will be too low and you end up reverse squatting the weight. Once you find this perfect spot, you're set up and ready to pull!
Again, you have to think of an explosion coming from your core. You need to simultaneously drive your heels through the floor while pulling back with your upper back and traps. This will not only ensure maximum usage of your low body muscles, but also keep the bar in tight to the body. Keep the bar in tight and don't forget to keep pulling! The bar may slow down or even stop for a second, but nobody ever said this would be easy. Keep pulling, lock out the knees, hips and shoulders at the same time, and revel in what has just occurred: precision pulling!
Pulling is a total body lift that'll pack the muscle on your frame and pounds on your total. Don't be the average gym-going geek who's afraid to deadlift simply because your buddy told you he "tweaked his back doing those things before."
Remember that the people who get hurt pulling are also the ones whose egos are bigger than their physiques. In the words of the infamous Louie Simmons, "Most exercises that are totally safe are also totally useless!" Until next time, find out what some precision pulling can do for you!
Mike Robertson, M.S., C.S.C.S., U.S.A.W., is the Director of the Athletic Performance Center (APC) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The APC offers sport performance training, injury rehabilitation, and personal training services to its clients. Mike received his Masters in Sports Biomechanics from the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University. Mike has been a competitive powerlifter for the last three years and is currently the USA Powerlifting State Chair in Indiana. To contact Mike, please send an e-mail to [email protected].