I know what you are thinking “Mike, don’t you promote Yoga, mediation and all sorts of other holistic shit? Why would you think being tense is a good thing?”
Being “tense” in certain aspects of life is actually fantastic, especially when it comes to training protocols. How many times have you heard a coach say “Engage Your Core?” Probably more often than I’d personally like to hear as this has zero actual meaning and to this day I have no idea how one would engage their core. Over the span of my training career, I have had the privilege of studying under some of the best coaches in the world.
I would constantly pick their brains and try to fully understand the “why” of what they were doing. I remember when I watched some monsters in the gym back when I was about 15 training their balls off, slapping each other in the face and pouring hot water on themselves prior to a big lift…. Okay! Maybe not the hot water part but I’m sure they mainlined Jack3d in the parking lot.
One of the guys said “Get those lats on fire, drive your heels and fuck the bar” Wait! What? Fuck the bar? Hmm I thought at 15, is this a new sexual industry I have not yet been exposed to or some of the sweetest broscience my virgin ears had ever heard? Well, it was the lather and I’ll do my best to explain how to keep tension in your body and understand the transfer to a big lift. Today’s example:
The Set Up- Before I even step up to the bar, I envision myself already finished with the lift. I try to visualize what I actually want to happen before it actually happens. You wont see me chomping on ammonia tablets and bashing my face off a mirror prior to a lift (anymore) It’s just such a waste of energy and find that if I relax my mind (thank Christ for Yoga) I’m able to focus and shift that internal excitement for a more methodical approach. If screaming and slapping yourself in the face with a stick of salami prior to a huge lift is your bag, please do not stop on account of me. But just know there are many other ways to still be a complete maniac prior to lifting and save some of that pent up aggression.
Upon stepping up to a bar, I like to stand roughly about an inch away with my shins far enough that I can stick my whole big ass hand between the bar and my shin. I favor a really narrow foot stance which will work for some, and not so much for others. The reason being that I’ve found to be far more powerful with a narrow stance in a conventional pull then I am with a “shoulder width” stance. Upon the ascending pattern from the ground, my knees tend to make external circles as I come to full lock out. I almost use my knees as a whip and in essence “fuck the bar.” But before I get silly on actually pulling the bar there are a few key things that I implement to make sure I have the best shot at actually having a solid lift.
Hand Placement- This is probably one of the most crucial parts of a Deadlift that can often times get over looked. I teach people to keep their arms GLUED to the sides of their bodies. In other words you should not be able to see any light from your forearm, inner bicep, rib cage, thigh etc.
Tension From The Bar- Many coaches have a different perspective on if it’s completely mandatory for someone to “pull the slack” out of the bar, or if the “jerk” is completely suitable and the answer lies around personal preference. Firstly, pulling the slack out of the bar has always given me far more control of how I want the lift to be. I’ve always felt that the jerk pull leaves me not feeling as satisfied with a lift. I hate not having complete control of the bar from the start and have always taught any intermediate to experienced athletes to pull with the slack out of the bar.
After you have approached the bar and your feet are in position, I like to take one hand (usually your non-dominant) to pull the bar’s slack and generate tension through out that side. Here I’ll take a massive inhale and pull my opposite arm to lock in on the other side dropping my ass and hips into place. I tend to do a rocking start and will pull the bar usually three or four times before I commit to the actual pull. When it’s go time, I let the bar rock into place, take a huge inhale, drop my ass, pack my shoulders and rip the bar off the floor.
Here’s what I typically look like when I pull *When backs playing nice*
Packing Your Shoulders – This is an old saying that generates or has generated with me since I was a wee lad. Once your set up is locked in, picture someone in front of you pushing both of your shoulders towards your ass which will help light up your lats. If the bar is light enough and this is executed properly, you’ll see that the weights hover the floor once your shoulders are set and in place. This will give you complete control of the bar and lock your torso in place for your ascend. One cue I love to use is “Pull Your Chest To The Bar” which will help develop the tension in your arms through your lats and the rest of your body. Once I do this, it’s game on. Some people prefer more of a rounded shoulders approach which totally works, but have found this method works best for my pulls.
Neck Placement – I absolutely do not teach a hyper extension while pulling. I find that this again is personal preference and though it’s not “bible” I like to have or prefer to have people pull with their chins packed towards their collar bones. Typically, once the shoulders are set, your chin would follow and lock in place prior to your pull. Line up your head with your spine and find a spot on the floor NOT your feet. Now, I’ve seen some world class lifters that pull with a hyper extended neck and that’s their given style. Totally okay. For me, I like to save my neck hyper extension for an all else fails approach for a huge lift. The most crucial area on a deadlift is to get past knee level, once you get that, you should in essence be able to finish the lift. If for some reason you are a struggle bus that day and need a little more force to get that damn bar up, you can throw your chin towards the ceiling to help generate your lockout.
Glutes, Hips & Heels –You hear people saying all the time “I don’t think my glutes are firing” or “How can I fire my glutes” Again, I don’t know where most of the terminology comes from, or why it sticks, but this is another standard that I think has no placement in training. You either feel it in your ass or you don’t it’s really that simple. But if you want to really understand proper pull mechanics and how to utilize your glutes, think about it like this.
If you were set up at the bar and I asked you to push your ass as far back as you could to try and hit either the wall behind you, or the dude doing judo chops on the subway, you would “feel” that tension in your glutes and hamstrings. Now, obviously that’s not how I want you to set up, but when you can start to understand how certain movements feel, you will understand how to utilize the tension and placement within your entire body to utilize for a bigger pull. When the weight transfer is set up on your heels, I like to think as if I were screwing my heels into the ground to lock them in place. Once this occurs and my glutes are “firing” *see what I did there* I drive my heels to the ground and depending on how heavy of an external load that’s on the bar, I will grind through it without allowing the weight transfer towards my toes.
Typically, you’ll see a lot of people raise their ass up before they pull which instantly transfers their weight to their toes, which leads to more of a zig zag like response on the ascend. If you are having this problem, go back to that image with the guy judo chopping on the subway and fight through that ass raise, and let your hips take over on the pull. Do not squat your deadlift for the love of all things holy. I see this more and more and it blows my mind. Hips should be higher than parallel and a half way squat, that’s it. Just because you are a limber freak and have noodles for hips does not mean your ass should be below your knees. Stop it… Like now..
Breathing & Lowering The Bar – Breathing is probably one of the biggest forces to generate a solid tension deadlift. Breath into your diaphragm and belly, that’s it. If you notice you go more into a “shrug” when you inhale, learn to breathe before you deadlift.
I’ve trained with a variety of deadlift breathers and here is my two cents. Breathing at the top works well for highly experienced lifters, and you’ll find that you can build a bigger breath without being in an awkward in the bottom end. This does not work for me when I pull conventional, in fact, it makes me feel unstable and unsure of the pull. The only time I breath at the top is when I’m training speed work for Sumo pulls. With my conventional, I rock the bar a few times, raising my ass up, and locking it into pull position. I inhale when the bar is away from but while its in transition to my shins. Once the bar hits my shins, I stay in the pocket for no more than a second. Anything over 2 seconds, step away from the bar and reset. The more time you spend in position, without actually pulling, the more likelihood that you will psych yourself out. Get down. Get up. Get Down.
Lowering the bar is the key to a blown out back. If you see people descending really slow because they heard it makes you stronger, I promise you this will not lead to any type of strength transfer, and only put you at greater risk of injury. I don’t lower the bar, I guide the bar down. After I lock out, I loosen my grip as I’m descending back to the floor, once the bar hits, I reset my grip, raise my ass and pull the bar into my shins for the next rep. I am the biggest advocate of resetting in between reps. I think touch & go’s (Unless in a wod / comp) are a complete waste of time. Earn your reps. Don’t momentum them.
Bottom line, these are just a few things that I personally like to implement for myself and for some of my athletes. If you’ve been wondering about trying a few new variations with your deadlift, try working on some of these tips and let me know how you make out.
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Tear It Down