Lumbar flexion is a rounding of the lower back when you lift. Flexion of the spine puts it in a vulnerable position with a much higher risk of serious back injury. Often this occurs during a heavy or near max load in a big lift.
What if you experience it even during your lift setup, even while not under a load?
This isn’t uncommon with newer lifters. As you set up for the deadlift, bending to reach for the bar your lower back rounds. Often this is because your hips are rotated to the anterior – the upper portion of the hip shifts backwards creating a rounded lower back.
It can be difficult to consciously rotate your hips to the anterior – shift the upper portion of your hips forward. Here is a tip I’ve used successfully to address this issue during setup, until the lifting pattern is internalized and becomes automatic:
- Instead of simply bending over to grab the bar, treat this first setup step like a Romanian Deadlift: push your hips back and arch your lower back slightly, bringing your chest down as your hips push backwards. Allow your knees to flex as needed to reach the bar.
In addition to this setup tip, there are a couple other things you may need to work on:
- Hip Mobility: If your hamstrings are tight, you will have limited mobility for hip flexion (can you bend over and reach your toes without bending your knees?). Work on your hamstring flexibility.
- Strengthen and Activate your Spinal Erectors: High volume/low weight Romanian Deadlifts, emphasizing flattening or slightly arching your lower back can help internalize the hip pattern for these movements.
If you have issues with your lower back rounding, make sure you have your hips set right for the lift.
An important aspect to deadlifting (and any serious lift, really) is FULL BODY TIGHTNESS. There are a couple of things I look for when assessing a deadlift to tell whether a lifter is really tight as she starts the pull:
– Do the shoulders move: When she starts upward, do the shoulders move downward initially as the body rises, until she engages the weight?
– Is there an audible ‘clink’ as the bar engages with the weight before it breaks the floor?
Both of these things indicate the lifter’s body is not tight, and that the lifter is not tight against the bar.
Cue the cues.
My main cue used to be ‘hips down chest up’ as the lifter rocked back into the starting position. The problem with this cue is that there is no instruction to get tight. It leads a lifter to squat to the bar, which in the deadlift creates no tightness whatsoever in the body, nor tension against the bar.
Contrast that with ‘pull yourself in!’
Now you’re not thinking about squatting down to the bar, you’re thinking about gripping the bar and pulling yourself to it. It creates the mental image of tightness, and guides to a tight and powerful setup:
– Grab the bar and squeeze your shoulder blades downward, tightening your entire upper back
– Pull up on the bar, creating upward tension
– Maintain this upward tension and pull yourself in to the bar; if you do it right, you feel tension grow in your quads and your glutes, loading them like a spring.
Now you are tight and ready to explode off the floor!
When you perform a lower body lift (squats, deadlifts, etc.) your legs perform the work against a weight that is supported in some way by your shoulders – either by a bar resting on them or hanging from your arms. Since your back lies between the load and the force, the more efficiently it transfers the power from your legs to the load supported through your shoulders, the more effective and stronger your lift will be.
A comparison I like to make is a brick and a sponge.
- If your back is rigid, solid like a brick, the power from your legs is transferred directly to the load, driving the load in the desired direction (up) with as much acceleration as your legs can generate.
- If your back is soft and malleable like a sponge, power will be inefficiently transferred from your legs to the load. Before the bar moves, the slack in your back needs to be taken up as sponge compresses and your back flexes. Only then will the bar begin to move. In addition to inefficiently transferring power, a loose back also increases your injury risk and gives you less control over the load.
- Upper/thoracic region: The upper back can be tightened by creating a strong upper back contraction to pull your shoulder blades downward, ‘tucking them into your back pockets’.
- Lower/lumbar region: Strong bracing to create intra-abdominal pressure braces the lower back creating good stability. You do this by taking in a deep breath of air, allowing it to expand into your abdomen, then tightening your core and pushing down (hard) with your diaphragm like you’re trying to push out a turd.
Building a strong back, and learning to leverage it, can have a direct, significant impact on your lower body lifts.
Although ‘it doesn’t matter how heavy it feels’, there are times (particularly with deadlifts), a lift just feels impossibly heavy. When you review the lift’s instant replay, however, you find that it was in fact possibly heavy. All you had to do to finish it was to NOT GIVE UP…and now you want to kick your own ass for quitting.
Enter the Two Second Rule. I established this rule to curb the tendency to give up on a lift before breaking through the sticking point, and reaching the point where you’re sure to lock it out.
It’s quite simple: Even if a lift is obviously impossible, grind it out for (at least) 2 seconds before quitting on it.
I know what you are thinking – “are you fucking insane?!”.
Well yes, but that is beside the point. The Two Second Rule has a number of benefits:
- Even if you eventually fail the lift, you’ve just turned a failed lift into an isometric hold, and gotten some benefit out of it
- Even if you eventually fail the lift, you are teaching your mind and body to grind; this help you finish out the tough lifts in the future
- You may actually finish the impossible lifts
In the long run, you’ll be teaching yourself to grind through the tough lifts, and build greater mental as well as physical strength
Someone asked me the other day what the proper head position is during the squat and deadlift.
My preference is to keep the head up and fixate on a spot on the ceiling well out in front of me. There are successful lifters and coaches who use the neutral spine approach, fixing on the floor 10 yards or so in front of the lift. While this can be a successful approach, the body has a tendency to follow the head (have you ever looked at your passenger while driving and found your car drifting towards the ditch?). Looking down can lead to a tendency to lean, bringing the chest down and leaving the hips high.
While head up and head down/neutral spine have have both been (arguably) proven successful, let’s touch on a couple approaches that are WRONG 🔴🔴🔴
Don’t look straight up. You’re not a bird. Stop it.
Don’t move your head around during the lift – once you start the lift, rep or set, maintain the same focus point throughout the lift, changing your focus during the lift makes it even harder to maintain a consistent body position during the lift.
When I’m lifting, I treat my head as an extension of the spine. For squats I watch my feet to walk out then pack my head back into my neck and focus on a point in the ceiling in the middle of the room during the lift. Provided I keep the proper body angle, my head does not move.
On deadlift, again my head is an extension of my spine. As I pull myself into the bar, and my hips come down/chest comes up, my focus point rises with my chest. Once set, I again fix on a point at the opposite end of the room or ceiling at the far end. I do not change that focus point until I’m locked out.
Your head should be an extension of your spine, fixated on one focus point – don’t create a moving target to shoot at during your lift.
I coach the deadlift ‘by the numbers’ – every part of the movement has a distinct action and sequence.
The first action (can you hear your drill instructor on the first day of basic training screaming ‘<censored> ONE’?) is tightening the back and pulling the slack out of the bar. Katja demonstrates this clearly here in her pulls. As she starts her setup, you can see her entire back tighten up and flatten out.
She does this by pulling her shoulder blades downward powerfully. This does a couple things:
– It tightens the back, creating a rigid lever; this helps to transfer power from the legs directly to the bar
– It reduces spinal flexion, stabilizing the spine and reducing the risk of injuring the back
– It sets the shoulders in place, so once the lifter stands up the lift is done – there is no need to lean back or attempt to pull the shoulders back at the end
– It creates tension between the lifter and the bar, which builds a better muscle contraction at the start of the lift
Maintain this tightness and upward tension on the bar as your drill instructor screams ‘<censored> TWO’!
A strong, tight back translates to strong pulls!
One of my guys, Joe, has very powerful quads but has had difficulty getting them engaged to initiate his pulls from the floor. He found an effective way to train this technique issue: box deadlifts.
When used for squats, the box can be used in a couple of different ways:
- Touch and Go: For touch and goes the box is simply used as an indicator that you’ve squatted to the desired depth. Once you feel the box under your glutes, reverse directions and lift the weight.
- Box Squats: Squat to the box and come to a complete stop before ascending. Starting from a dead stop helps you build more explosive power into the concentric portion of your squat.
Joe’s technique is a deadlift touch and go. He sits back down to the box, using it to find the right hip depth*. More importantly, he uses the box as a queue to reverse direction. Using this queue, he comes to a complete stop and allows a brief pause before beginning the pull. This lets him focus on driving down through the heels and engage the quads along with the glutes and hams to initiate a powerful pull. His hips, shoulders and the bar all initially rise explosively at the same rate – the hips do not shoot up leaving his posterior chain to do all the work.
* Every individual has different body mechanics, strengths and weaknesses. Proper hip depth will vary by individual, and is beyond the scope of this discussion.
“By the Numbers!” I heard my Air Force TI (Training Instructor) shout that more times than I cared to count during basic training. Marching maneuvers follow a set tempo, and ‘by the numbers’ is a reminder that each step in a maneuver is to be done to a set order and at a specific pace.
That is how I lift. Every movement in the lift is for a set purpose, and completed in a steady tempo. Steps in lifts aren’t be rushed, and unnecessary delays in setup are eliminated. Take the deadlift for example:
Taking too much time to set up your deadlift leaves you thinking about it. Nothing good can come from overthinking a deadlift. You will talk yourself out of the lift. If you spend more time than it takes to stop and reverse direction at the bottom of the deadlift you are wasting air (or you didn’t get your air before dropping your hips and therefore you do not have enough air in your lungs). By the time you step up to the bar you shouldn’t have to think about your technique, you know how to lift, it should come naturally.
If, on the other hand, you rush your technique you are much more likely to start your lift out of position.
Deadlifting by the numbers goes a little something like this:
- For the first rep, rotate at the hips keeping your knees relatively straight and grip the bar. For subsequent reps, lower the bar by rotating at the hips and keeping your knees relatively straight.
- Get ready for your pull by tightening your upper back and taking a deep breath of air into your lungs and abdomen.
- Drop into the starting position. Sit back by rotating around your knees to drop your hips down and bring your chest up.
- Come to a complete stop (like the ‘pause’ on your chest during the bench to prevent bouncing), and begin the pull. Your quads should fire strongly allowing your hips, shoulders, and the bar to come up at the same rate.
By the numbers – give it a shot. Make your lifts more deliberate and efficient!
The sumo deadlift is much more than a conventional deadlift with a wide stance. When setup properly you may find that the sumo deadlift allows you to get more leg drive into your pulls, and reduces tension on your lower back given the more upright starting position. Sumo deadlifts also can favor certain body mechanics (longer femurs, shorter arms) and strengths (dominant hip strength).
To leverage the sumo’s advantages, you need to set up properly for your sumo pull.
- Foot Position:
- You are going to take a very wide stance for sumo deadlifts. Although there are not set starting points for sumo as for conventional pulls, try starting with your shins at the rings on the bar and move in or out from there, depending on the length of your legs.
- Point your toes outward sharply. As your knees should track in the direction of your toes, with a wide stance you want your toes pointed out.
- Keep the bar very close, within an inch of your shins.
- Create a solid base. When the lift is completed, your legs angled outward form the base of a solid pyramid.
- Since you do have a wide stance and there can be significant lateral force on your feet, you will want to make sure that you perform sumo deadlifts on a non-skid surface, and that your shoes are clean and free of any materials that may make them slip.
- Hand Position:
- In most cases your sumo hand position should be identical to your conventional hand position. Your arms should hang straight down to the bar giving you the maximum distance between your shoulders to the bar. This creates an advantageous starting position by further reducing the the lift’s range of motion (ROM). It also reduces non-productive lateral forces created by taking a wider than shoulder width grip.
- Grip: Your grip will be the same for sumo deadlifts as for conventional deadlifts
- Double overhand grip – Grip the bar with both hands pronated (overhand). This is the toughest way to grip the bar. As the bar weight increases, the bar will begin to roll out of your hands. It can, however, further lengthen your arm span shortening the deadlift ROM.
- Alternating over/under grip – Grip the bar with one hand pronated (overhand) and one hand supinated (underhand). Which hand you use is your preference, but generally speaking it’s more effective gripping with your dominant hand pronated. Using the over-under grip prevents the bar from rolling out of your grip.
- Hook grip – Grip the bar with both hands pronated. Instead of wrapping your thumbs around the bar, lie them along the bar and wrap your fingers around your thumbs. This is a very effective grip, locking the bar in and preventing it from rolling or slipping out of your grip, but it can be exceptionally painful.
- Setting up for the pull: I promote a three step setup for sumo deadlifts, as I do for conventional deadlifts. This allows you to tighten up before the pull and create muscle tension that will help with your pulls.
- Hinge at the hips to reach down and grab the bar. Squeeze your shoulder blades downward to tighten your back. Think about tucking them into your back pockets. Take a deep breath into your lungs and abdomen, and force it downward to create a very tight and stable core.
- Bring your hips down and chest up. Drive your knees out so you can push your hips forward toward the bar – try and drop your sack on the bar [a reference I stole from Dave Tate]. When you are set for the pull, your torso should be more erect than for a conventional pull, allowing you to drive straight up.
- Notice from the videos below that you will drop your hips much lower than you do for conventional deadlifts.
- Drive the bar straight up to lock out. Shove your knees out, and push against the outside edge of your shoes.
- Sumo deadlifts are notorious for coming off the floor very slowly. Don’t get discouraged and quit on the lift if it is stubborn off the floor. Keep pulling and you’ll find the lockouts to be stronger.
The deadlift is a technical lift whether you pull conventional or sumo. To be successful pay as much attention to your setup as you do to your weight, sets, and reps. Simple corrections to your setup and technique can add a lot of additional lbs to the bar.
A good deadlift, as with all over big lifts, starts with a good setup. There is more to the deadlift than grabbing the bar and standing up. Here are a few quick pointers to effectively find your setup position.
- Feet should be hip width apart. Line up the outside of your feet with the outside of your hips. Your legs should be perpendicular to the floor.
- Grip the bar just outside your hip width. If possible your arms should also be perpendicular to the floor. If you have relatively wide hips, your arms may angle out slightly.
When you drop into the setup position to begin your pull, here are a few markers you can use to find that good starting position for a strong pull.
- Your shins should remain perpendicular to the floor. As you rock back into the starting position, rotation should be around your knees, bringing your hips down and your head and chest up.
- Your shoulder blades should be directly over the bar. Keeping upward tension on the bar and your arms straight as your rock back, continue rocking back until your shoulder blades rotate back over the bar.
- Keep your back straight and flat. You can do this by taking a deep breath into your lungs, tightening your core, and squeezing your shoulder blades tightly downward – try and tuck them into your back pockets.
Don’t waste time thinking about your setup. Once you get your grip on the bar immediately take your breath, tighten your back, and rock back into the starting position. As soon as you are in the starting position immediately begin your pull.