Deadlifting is HARD (and Dangerous)

Well, my first adventures with the deadlift were enlightening and a bit painful.
I was foolishly naive about the details of deadlifting form and just started into deadlifting without thinking too much about it. I only thought to keep my back in neutral position and then lift the weight. I started by trying the prescribed path in Underground Secrets to Faster Running by Barry Ross which suggests a series of weights to try in order to determine my maximum weights at certain repetitions. It starts at 50% of my body weight and works upwards from there, until you find your one rep max, or 1RM.
I got up to a rather wimpy 195 lbs for 2 reps and then trying 215 I could not budge it at all! This unfortunately strained my back, probably both muscles and my spine, for several days. I then had a session with my physical therapist who ran me through the intricate details of deadlifting form. In fact, around 155 lbs my upper back started to curl and my shoulders could not be kept in position as the weight dragged my upper body down. I should have realized this and not kept going.
I found out that deadlifting is more than what it seems. At first glance, it seems to be just a leg building exercise but it actually builds the entire upper body as well. You need to be able to activate a sequence of upper body muscles to not only lock the spine into neutral position but also to be able to perform the lift and get the weight off the ground and up into its final position.
I found out the hard way that I didn’t have the ability to activate my muscles in the right sequence, and also some of my muscles had “amnesia” which meant that my body had forgotten how to activate them when I needed their help in making the lift. This was a problem that had been plaguing me for my running – I know I have “gluteal amnesia” where my glutes would not fire and my hamstrings would get wiped out from running and ultimately cramp up during a race.
But first, the proper sequence, for the sumo version:
1. Take a wide stance, similar to the initial setup position of a sumo wrestler. The feet should be pointing about 45 degrees outward from center. Take as wide a stance as your flexibility allows; this will allow you to get the grip on the bar of the barbell as close to your body’s axis as possible, which allows the body to take the weight of the barbell with the spine as vertical as possible.
If you can, lift barefoot or in Vibram Five Fingers. Even the height of the sole can cause instability in the lift.
2. Push your shins up to the bar, touching it. You will want the feeling of scraping the bar up along the shins when you lift up, but also being that close to the bar means the weight is as close to your centerline as possible.
3. Squat down. The flexibility of the leg and hip muscles may prevent you from getting down really low into a low squat, but you want to get as low as you are able. Also, you may find that your muscles are not strong and/or activated enough to be able to lift weight from such a low starting position. You may need to start in a higher squatted position.
4. Hinge the hips such that your butt is sticking out and not curled underneath. If your butt is curled under your spine, that means your spine is not aligned near the bottom which is bad. Lots of bad pressure to your disks if not aligned!
5. Grip the bar. Use opposite grips with the hands, one with the palm facing inward and one with the palm facing outward. With the hands in opposite directions, you can actually lift more.
6. In preparation for the lift, do this:
a. Grip the bar firmly.
b. Load up to right before the lift by extending upward with the body, but maintaining a neutral spine.
c. In loading up, tighten up the core, the back muscles, and the shoulder muscles. This will lock up the body in position and prevent your back/spine from moving out of alignment which will increase the possibility of injury.
d. Grip the ground with your feet and press up to right before the lift, flexing the leg muscles and glutes.
e. Look up at about a 45 degree angle. This will help keep the body in alignment. Looking down could cause your body to curl.
Setting up for the lift is super important. You want to make sure your whole body is locked in for the ultimate effort to lift the weight off the ground.
7. Take a deep breath and hold it. Holding your breath during the lift will help get you maximum effort. Then, as if you’re going to force your feet/heels through the ground, press the weight up, rising up on your legs, while keeping your body locked from step 6 above.
8. When you reach full extension of your legs, expel your breath at the top of the lift. Pull your shoulders back slightly, and then shove your hips forward while flexing your glutes. This completes the lift.
9. While the books prescribe dropping the bar, this is nearly impossible in most consumer gyms. You have to be at a real muscle place like Gold’s Gym to be able to drop a heavy weight without people or the staff complaining, or even if the floor can take that much of a weight slamming down on it from knee height.
Instead, after expelling your breath, take another breath, lock your body into position and then slowly lower the bar with your legs back to the floor.
10. Repeat steps 1-9 until you finish your set.
Now I practice this with only 135 lbs. Over the last few sessions, I make sure I can do this absolutely right. It is an interesting muscle activation experience.
When I lift, I rehearse the sequence through my brain as it’s easy to just forget one of the steps if I move too quickly.
I must maintain control and flexing of a whole set of muscles during the lift. I find that if I lose concentration, I can lose the tightening of any set of muscles which lock my body into position. This is bad and can cause my back to be sore, or cause my disks to fire up other muscles like my hamstrings, glutes, or erectors (back muscles).
Early on, I could feel that certain muscles just weren’t firing at all, especially my glutes. I could tell because after the workout, my hamstrings were very tight. Now I also focus on flexing my glutes especially during the lift.
I also have to watch the floor. At the YMCA in NYC, the floor is a rubberized tile. But it is also slippery against the soles of my running shoes, which caused my left foot to slip outward during a lift – very dangerous. I finally just took off my running shoes and socks and lifted barefoot. My sweaty feet nicely gripped the otherwise slippery tiles.
I need to burn the entire steps 1-9 into my brain so that I do it all, in sequence, naturally and every time.
Once I get the steps into my nervous system, then and only then can I start increasing the weight I lift.
Other exercises that are helping:
1. Cable rows, pulling the weight with elbows low.
2. Using a functional trainer or similar (one of those things with weights and cables and adjustable big arms), I row low, pulling my elbows to my sides and then pull my arms downward for triceps extensions.
3. Single leg dumbbell deadlifts, great for glute activation.
4. Single leg supine hip raises, one leg at a time.
Such a simple looking move, but yet so complex! I look forward to advancing in my Russian strength building techniques, and hopefully my running as well.
NOTE: By the way, an amazing back book is this: Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance by Stuart McGill. It’s expensive but well worth the read.