Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Deadlift is NOT a back exercise… unless you pull rounded

The neutrality of your spine during a deadlift has big ramifications when it comes to your weak points, the force curve, and the utilization of muscle groups during the movement. In my opinion, the differences are large enough such that their rounded and flat deadlifts almost constitute two separate exercises. In this post we’ll talk about both separately, how they differ, and what that means for you as an athlete. I’ll say it before, and I’ll say it again: I do not advocate for either style. It’s up to you to decide what is best for you.

What I’m smoking

This might be a bit controversial and perhaps even rustle some jimmies. When I’m speaking in terms of associating musculature with a movement, I’m associating the prime movers with that movement. For instance, you could make a case that the Squat is primarily a leg and hip movement. Obviously these are compound movements and utilize a lot of musculature but again, I’m speaking of the prime movers and muscles that go through a range of motion during the movement.

Speaking in this context then, the flat-backed deadlift only works the back isometrically and is a much more hip-dominant movement. Conversely, if you pull with a rounded style, Spinal extension is part of the movement. You are literally working the Erector Spinae through a range of motion and must do so to finish the pull. This should mean that the back musculature of a rounded puller is much more developed than a flat puller. It’s not that pulling flat won’t develop the back but in my opinion it’s not to the same extent as rounded pulling.

Flat-backed Analysis

To illustrate the difference between the two, I’ve picked two extremely impressive examples of these two styles. While these two are on the more extreme ends of the spectrum, obviously some individuals will fall a bit more in the middle. Let’s watch Mike Tuchscherer as he pulls almost 800 pounds with a neutral back angle. I’ve chosen a side angle for maximum benefit (starts at 57 seconds in):

You can see that as he breaks the floor his hip angle is very acute due to his back angle. He’s slow off of the floor but quickly begins to accelerate. Once the bar passes his knees all he needs to do is extend his hips to lockout. Locking out requires no spinal extension because his back is already neutral.

Round-backed Analysis

To illustrate a round-backed style check out Eric Lilliebridge’s 900 pound pull (starts at 19 seconds in):

Due to his rounded back his hip angle is a lot more open as the bar breaks the ground meaning his hips end up closer to the bar earlier in the pull. Because of this, the bar breaks the ground with a lot more speed. Once the bar passes the knee the lift is finished with mostly spinal extension. Eric has built enough strength in his low-back that he can extend his spine even while holding 900 pounds.

How do you pull?

As you can see, the amount of spinal neutrality has a lot of bearing on the mechanics of your deadlift. It’s important to understand where you fall on the spectrum. I recommend you video your deadlift worksets from the side across several sets and compare to the two videos above. If you find that you are rounded but you’d prefer to pull flat check out my guide to transition to pulling flat.

How to adapt your programming to fit your style

I mentioned that there are some ramifications for your programming depending upon your style of pulling. If you pull with a neutral spine then the lift will probably be a lot more hip-dominant for you. To develop the muscles used in your style you should work on the hip extensors. Hip thrusts and hamstring dominant deadlifts, such as RDLs and SLDLs could be useful. Your weak point will be when breaking the weight off of the floor. Paused deadlifts (an inch from the floor) and deficit deadlifts could be useful in working on your weak point.

If you pull with a rounded back I think working on the musculature of the low-back could be of use to you. Specifically, Round-Back Extensions should imitate the lockout of your deadlift. You may also find Round-Back versions of hamstring dominant deadlifts useful. Your weak point will be the lockout and so you should emphasize this position. If you train Rack Pulls as a way to build the lockout you should be careful to imitate the same level of rounding that you usually encounter near lockout. Many tend to use a more neutral spine position when doing Rack Pulls vs their off the floor deadlift. If you want to be specific to your competitive pulling style you’ll need to ensure you’re not accidentally pulling flat. Pausing just below the knee can also be useful.

Own your style

If you find that you do pull rounded and don’t feel the need to re-work your deadlift then I encourage you to fully embrace this form of the deadlift. If someone asks you why you do it, explain to them your reasoning and don’t make excuses for why you pull this way. Use this information to adapt your programming to your style of movement, or inform your coach why you think certain exercises might be a better fit. Own your deadlift.

That last paragraph might sound accusatory or make it seem that I’m on the side of flat-backed deadlifting. I’m really not. I’ve just seen too many claim that their back is flat (or that it’s only their thoracic rounding) when it’s pretty plain to see there’s rounding in the lumbar as well. I think we should keep the younger lifters in mind and be truthful when speaking of the pros and cons of both styles.

I would be very much open to any comments on the matter.

What I would do differently as a novice

Novice Chad, 4 years and 40 pounds ago...

Novice Chad, 4 years and 40 pounds ago…

I thought it would be an interesting thought experiment to think about what I would do as a novice if I had the chance to do it over. What follows is the official forceXdist Novice Program (TM). It’s superior to Starting Strength, StrongLifts, Ice Cream Fitness 5×5, etc. /sarcasm lol no. As I said, just a thought experiment.

The main difference this time around would be that I know that I’d want to eventually compete in Powerlifting. This changes a lot. A lot of novice programs are very general. But this makes sense. Most people use them to just put on muscle and general strength. Most individuals don’t start a novice program with the intent to transition into Powerlifting. For this experiment we will plan with that thought in mind. This is also probably what I would do were I to train someone from the ground up.

The Squat

A lot of novice programs have the trainee squatting 3 times a week. Why? Most explanations include hand-wavy justifications about growth hormones or some such. I think a twice a week frequency is perfectly fine for beginners. This will be an adequate frequency to get practice with the lift and to allow for some room to “grow” into a higher frequency.

I personally wish I had started out at two times a week or at least the same frequency as the deadlift. By beginning with a 3 times frequency (and thereby a higher volume) with the squat any reduction in frequency means a decrease in volume and most likely a drop in strength. I think it’s better to leave room to grow into the volume.

The Bench Press

Most novice programs rotate the Bench Press and the Press frequency every week. We can just Bench 3 times a week. This will ensure we’re getting a lot more practice than we would if we were rotating. We don’t need to worry about Pressing or any other sort of assistance work yet as the Bench will be plenty of stimulus for now.

Another important change I’d make would be to start out pausing all Bench work. Most trainees start out doing touch and go bench and then have to retroactively learn the pause for competition. I think it’d be a good idea to start pausing from the get-go and then add in variations from there.

The Deadlift

There’s a pretty significant decision when it comes to the deadlift. Should the trainee focus on the conventional or sumo deadlift? I think a good way to figure this out is just to try both and see which one responds the best. Once there arises a clear winner we can drop the other variation and focus on the stronger one which will become the competition form.

Since we’re going to be utilizing both forms of the deadlift there will be a second movement pattern to learn. In the best case scenario the trainee following this program would have a good coach to oversee their use of the two movements and attempt to decide which their body type is suited for. We’ll start with a twice a week frequency and rotate both of the movement styles.

The Template

Monday
Squat
Paused Bench

Wednesday
Conventional Deadlift (rotate with Sumo)
Paused Bench

Friday
Squat
Paused Bench
Sumo Deadlift (rotate with Conventional)

So this is what the template looks like. The exercise selection is vanilla on purpose. The trainee is learning the movement pattern. Friday, they’ll practice all three movements which will improve their conditioning. Monday and Wednesday only have two movements which also makes the program a bit more schedule friendly. This will probably help with compliance and motivation.

Rep and Set Scheme

What rep/set scheme should we use? 5×5, 3×5? 8×3? All of them! I think Greg Nuckols is right on the money with this article where he suggests that a beginner program incorporates periodization. I think the traditional drop X pounds and work back up is unnecessary and often doesn’t work. You’ve built up a lot of fatigue, dissipate some and continue to get stronger!

RPE

I think trying to utilize RPE in a novice program is not going to work very well. If you’re a coach observing a novice in real time, you can use the concept of RPE, along with the trainee’s bar speed to get a feel for how close the trainee is to failure. But it’s unlikely that the trainee will be able to utilize it functionally.

One thing the trainee can do is practice calling the RPE post set. They should include the RPE along with the rest of their workloads in their trainee log. Their coach can help by comparing their bar speed correlated RPE with the trainee’s subjective RPE and inform them how accurate they may or may not have been.

Conclusion

It’s always fun to say “what if”. This is my attempt at going back and imagining what I’d do with the knowledge I possess now.