Nutrition & Health OnLine Magazine
By Davey Dunn
A commonly used phrase in the sport of powerlifting is that "the meet is not over till the bar hits the floor." The truth of this statement becomes evident time and again as meets are decided in the closing minutes by the deadlift. Understanding the importance of the deadlift in relation to powerlifting is relatively easy. Outlining the intrinsic elements needed for success in the deadlift is another matter all together. The purpose of this article will be to examine the deadlift in order to identify the various elements that are needed to make both strength and muscle gains.
Compared to other forms of human performance the deadlift is a relatively simple event. The rules of powerlifting state that the lifter must pull the bar from the floor in one continuous motion until the lifter is standing erect. The actual method employed to complete the lift is left to the discretion of the individual athlete. In the sport of powerlifting there are generally two distinct forms used for deadlifting. The forms are popularly known as Conventional style and Sumo style.
The Conventional style deadlift has been the mainstay of powerlifters since the inception of the sport. The popularity of the Conventional style is shown in the majority of World Records set using this form. The lift itself is relatively simple. Some have described the process as "simple bending over and pulling like hell." While such a method might yield some limited results it is evident that the top lifters have developed well-coordinated techniques
An athlete using the Conventional style starts by aligning their feet in reference to the bar. The actual spacing of the feet depends upon personal preference but is generally shoulder width or narrower. The feet should also be placed so that the shins are touching the bar. From this position, the athlete bends at the waist and the knees and grips the bar just outside the shins. An alternating grip is recommended with one hand facing outward and the other hand facing inward. Such a grip allows a greater ability to hang on to heavy weights. The final step the athlete takes is to sit back looking outward and up. At this point the athlete is in the starting position.
From the starting position, the athlete begins the lift by pulling the bar from the floor using both the legs and the lower back. The initial pull should be slow and deliberate in order to maintain a relatively flat back. An abrupt movement at the beginning causes the hips to rise too quickly and puts the athlete in a position where their back is rounded and their legs are nearly straight.
After breaking the bar from the floor, the athlete uses primarily their legs to raise the bar to their knees. Care should be taken to keep the bar as close to the body as possible (the use of baby powder helps greatly). As the bar reaches the knees the emphasis of the legs decreases and the lower back becomes the primary mover. The athlete should concentrate on keeping their head up and on pulling the bar up their thighs. The lift is completed when the athlete pulls their shoulders back and assumes an erect position.
An analysis of the muscle involvement during the Conventional deadlift reveals that there are three distinct phases of muscle involvement during the lift. The first phase occurs as the athlete tries to initially move the bar from the floor. Contrary to popular opinion, the initial drive is done primarily by the back (erector spinae) and not the legs. If the athlete tries to move the weight using their legs instead of their back the result is a premature straightening of the legs and an unwanted curvature of the back.
Evidence to support this theory is found in the research done by Dr. Tom McLaughlin.1 McLaughlin compared the deadlift styles of top powerlifters at the time such as Jon Kuc, Bill Kazmaier, and Vince Anello. His results showed that all the lifters had similar styles exhibiting back extension at the beginning of the lift. McLaughlin felt that the reason for this is because the total force of the legs is inadequate at the start of the deadlift for most individuals.
The second distinct phase of the deadlift begins shortly after the bar breaks the floor. As the initial pull from the back begins to lessen, the legs begin to take over. Knee extension and hip extension account for most of the movement until the bar reaches the knees. The primary muscles involved in this phase are the gluteals and hamstrings in hip extension and the quadriceps in knee extension.
The third and final phase is the lockout. As the bar passes the knees, the effect of the legs decreases and the lower back again becomes the primary force. The final position is assumed as knee extension, hip extension, and back extension complete their range of motion. The muscles involved in this phase are the quadriceps, gluteals, hamstrings, and the erector spinae. The preceding descriptions have been an attempt to outline the sequences of muscle involvement in the deadlift. It is important to remember that all the muscle groups contribute to complete the lift.
The Sumo style deadlift is an alternative form of deadlifting, which involves more muscle mass than the Conventional style. While not suited for everyone, the athlete who properly masters this style can achieve some outstanding results. The key to the Sumo style lies in the increased ability of the athlete to take advantage of leg strength to aid in performing the lift.
An athlete using the Sumo style begins in much the same way as they would if they were going to deadlift conventionally. The first step is to properly align the feet and legs in reference to the bar. The placement of the feet can vary from a fairly narrow stance to an ultra wide stance. The actual placement of the feet again depends upon the preference of the athlete. Generally speaking, the wider the stance the greater the involvement of the legs during the lift.
Once the athlete has positioned their feet the next step is to bend at the knees and the waist and grasp the bar using the previously mentioned alternating grip. The spacing of the hands should be about shoulder width but may be wider because of the requirement to grasp the knurling. The final step in the setup is to sit back and look outward and up. Care should be taken not to set the hips to low. Doing so causes the hips to shoot up at the beginning of the lift and puts the athlete out of position to complete the lift.
Once the athlete is set, they begin the lift by simultaneously pulling with the back and driving with the legs. As in the Conventional deadlift, the athlete should try to ease the bar from the floor avoiding the "jerking" movement associated with the power clean. As the weight leaves the floor, the athlete should concentrate on driving with the legs and try to keep the bar as close as possible to the body. During this phase the athlete should also try to keep their head up and their back as flat as possible. Once the weight passes the knees, the athlete should begin to use primarily the back in order to raise the weight to an erect position. During this part of the lift the athlete should slide the bar up the thighs and think in terms of throwing the chest out and pulling the shoulders back. In the majority of cases the top part of the Sumo lift is the easy part. Most athletes seem to have little trouble completing the lift once they get past the first couple of inches.
The muscles involved in the Sumo deadlift are basically the same muscles involved when deadlifting conventional style. However, the way the muscles are used varies greatly between the two lifts. As before, the primary muscles responsible for movement in the Sumo deadlift are the quadriceps, gluteals, hamstrings, and erector spinae. Unlike Conventional style, however, the Sumo appears to have only two distinct phases of muscular involvement.
The first phase begins when the weight breaks the floor and ends as the bar reaches approximately knee level. It is clear that Sumo style lifters use a great deal more leg drive at the beginning of the lift than do Conventional style lifters. However, there is uncertainty as to the extent the back helps in the initial pull. McLaughlin's research indicates that Sumo lifters generally use their legs as the primary force to move the weight from the floor to the knees.2
An interesting point to remember is that Sumo lifters have much more trouble breaking the bar from the floor than do their counterparts using the Conventional syle. Many Sumo lifters explain that if they can get past the first couple of inches they can usually complete the lift. The problems associated with the begining of the Sumo pull tend to support the theory that the legs are the primary mover.
As explained earlier, the total force of the legs was found to be inadequate at the start of the conventional lift. That was why the back was the primary muscle used at the beginning of the lift. Since Sumo style lifters experience so much trouble at the bottom it makes sense that the legs are most likely the primary mover at this point. The reason that Sumo stylist are able to move the weight at all is because their legs are positioned in a much more efficient position than they are in a Conventional deadlift.
Does this mean that the lower back is unimportant in the beginning phase of the Sumo lift? On the contrary, while the erector spinae muscles are not involved in vertabral extension at this point they still are vitally important. Their main function during the initial phase is isometrically. As the athlete exerts force with the legs, the lower back must be strong enough to maintain the same relative position.
The second, and final, phase of the Sumo deadlift is clearly dominated by the lower back. As the bar reaches the knees, the hip and knees have almost reached full extension. Back extension takes over to move the bar toward completion of the lift. The final lockout is achieved with a coordinated effort of knee extension, hip extension, and vetebral extension.
Which is the better deadlift style: Sumo or Conventional. That is a question that has to be determined individually for every athlete. Just as some people are better suited for the Conventional deadlift others excel using the Sumo style. While it is almost impossible to tell which style will be the best there are some guidelines that might indicate success or failure with a given style.
Athletes that possess long arms, a short trunk and medium length legs usually excel using the Conventional style.3 For athletes that do not possess these natural levers for success with the Conventional style the Sumo is a viable option. Generally speaking, the smaller lifters are usually the most adept at lifting Sumo style. Most large athletes have a hard time positioning themselves because of their large bulk and limited flexibility. Since Sumo style does require a much greater amount of flexibility it is clearly not for everyone.
The main advantage of using Sumo style, as was discussed earlier, is that the lift employs more leg strength than the Conventional deadlift. As a great Sumo deadlifter once explained, "the Sumo deadlift is like doing Squats with the weight in your hands." Another advantage is the distance the bar must travel. With the legs spread wide, the athlete begins the lift with less overall distance to move the weight.
The most important point to remember when choosing a style is that neither is magical. Only hard work, or as legendary coach Vince Lombardi once stated, "Blood, Sweat, and Tears" will lead to a really big lift. There are many great deadlifters who have been able to overcome bad genetics to excel in the lift thanks to their dedication to hard work. Therefore, when choosing a deadlift style, the best policy is to choose the style that the athlete is most comfortable with and train that lift as hard as possible.
In the earlier descriptions of technique the importance of maintaining a relatively flat back was repeatedly stressed. Another important consideration discussed was the equal importance of keeping the bar as close as possible to the body while completing the lift. What is it that makes these two elements so important in achieving success in the deadlift? In order to answer this question it is necessary to examine the various loads that the back undergoes while deadlifting.
In a study done by Nachenson and Elfstron4 the approximate loads on the lumbar vertebrae were measured. The results of their study are shown below:
As can be seen, the force on the lower back is much greater when the back is bent than it is when the back is kept straight.
Another important consideration is the "Flexion/Relaxation" phenomenon. As outlined by McLaughlin, "during flexion of the trunk there was complete relaxation of the erector spinae muscles." McLaughlin further explains that the point where this effect occurs is usually "from about 45 degrees from vertical position to about horizontal relative to the floor."5 What this means to a lifter is that when they engage in an exercise like the stiff leg deadlift they are using mainly the vertebral ligaments instead of the erector spinae muscles. The implication here is that when bad technique is employed in the regular deadlift and the back is not kept straight the lifter is effectively removing their lower back muscles from assisting in the lift.
Keeping the bar close to the body during the lift may be as important as keeping the back straight. Scientific research in this area revealed that many had underestimated the importance of minimizing outward swing. The studies show that for every inch the bar swings out during the lift the effective load is actually increased 25 percent. Since even experienced lifters let the bar swing out as much as a couple of inches it is apparent that everyone can improve in this area.
The best way for an athlete to avoid the above problems is to train in a manner consistent with good technique. The athlete would maintain a flat back throughout all of their training weights in order to do so with heavy weights. Likewise, the athlete should train using baby powder in order to become experienced at sliding the bar up the legs. Training in such a manner follows the principle of specificity and helps to greatly reduce the problems of a curved back and outward swing.
The key to making gains in the deadlift lies in adhering to proper training methods. The muscles of the lower back fatigue easily and require a great deal of recovery time. It is not uncommon for many competitive lifters to take as many as nine days between deadlift days. The problem most powerlifters face is in working their deadlift days in with the squat workouts. Both lifts employ basically the same muscle groups and should be considered equal when planning a training program.
A good training program should employ some kind of periodization cycle as was explained in last months feature article Periodize Your Training for Maximum Results. The advantage of periodization is that by varying the load and intensity the athlete is better able to avoid overtraining. When dealing with the easily fatigued lower back muscles avoiding overtraining is a primary concern.
An example of how a peaking cycle is actually set up for the deadlift is given below. One important note to remember is that the training poundages given are for the first set. The additional sets should be reduced 10-25 pounds in order to maintain the same intensity.
A problem that arises in training for powerlifting is the necessity to simultaneously train the Squat and Deadlift. Since both lifts employ basically the same muscles the chance of overtraining the back is relatively high. When developing a program it is necessary to equate the lifts in order to provide enough rest to allow the muscles to recover. Below is an example of how you might do this:
The above example shows that either the squat or the deadlift are trained heavy in a single week. This gives the lower back muscles a full week to recover between lifts. The light days are added for several reasons. First, they help to maintain the neuromuscular pathways that might otherwise deteriorate since the main lifts are done only once every two weeks. The second reason is because they follow the principle of variation that says to follow a heavy day with a light day. In many ways the light days are as important as the heavy days. They give the athlete a chance to work on technique and provide a psychological boost after the heavy day.
Assistance exercises for the deadlift can be beneficial but should be limited to the early stages of the cycle. The reason for this is because the later stages of training alone put enough stress on the recovery system of the body. Additional exercises at this point are not helpful and will most likely result in overtraining.
The most popular assistance exercises for the back are rack deadlifts and straight leg deadlifts. Rack deadlifts are beneficial because they allow the athlete to use loads that can not normally be handled. Straight leg deadlifts are popular because they isolate the lower back and help to strengthen the vertebral ligaments. Both exercises put extreme stress on the lower back and should be carefully used alongside of regular training.
Perhaps the most important assistance exercise for the deadlift, abdominal training, is probably the most neglected. Most athletes fail to realize the important role the abs play in back extension. Strong abs help to increase the intra/abdominal pressure. Increasing the pressure serves two important functions: (1) the pressure pushes back on the spine in the lumbar region which helps stabilize the spine and keep it straight; (2) the pressure helps to counteract the high compression caused by contraction of the erector spinae.6 The end result of having strong abdominals is that they help in reducing the stress on the lower back which, in turn, allows more weight to be lifted.
By now you should realize that the Deadlift is a much more complex exercise than it initially appears. The complex muscle interaction and the extreme loads that can result on the lower back make it imperative that an athlete and coach have a basic understanding of all the intrinsic components of performing a deadlift. Hopefully this article has thoroughly covered all of these components. When performed properly the Deadlift is an awesome exercise for increasing both muscular strength and size.
1McLaughlin, T. "The Biomechanics of Powerlifting: The Deadlift," Powerlifting USA, Jul. 1981, p. 15.
3Gotshalk, L. "Analysis of the Deadlift", NSCA Journal, Jan. 1985, p.76.
4Nachenson and Elfstron, "measurments of Forces in the Human Spine and their Clinical applications", Perspectives in Biomedical Engineering. ed. R.N. Kenedi (Baltimore:University Park Press), p. 114.
5McLaughlin, T. "The Biomechanics of Powerlifting: Low Back Training," Powerlifting USA, Jan. 1982, p. 31.
6McLaughlin, T. "The Biomechanics of Powerlifting: Abdominal Training," Powerlifting USA, Sep. 1981, p. 27.
See Thermo Phen-Phen

Editors View | Q's & A's | Lastest Research | Weight Loss Corner | E-Mail NHO
Front Page | InterNUTRITION
Copyright ©Nutrition & Health OnLine Inc. All rights reserved. Disclaimer

This article was originally published by:
Nutrition & Health OnLine Magazine

All articles available at Nutrition & Health OnLine Magazine may be re-published without prior permission as long as this box is included somewhere in the article and the article is unchanged and published in it's entirety. For further information contact:

InterNUTRITION OnLine Store
Click to Purchase Thermo Phen Phen NOW!