Deadlifting for Performance and Athleticism
When it comes to developing the posterior chain of the body, the deadlift and its variants are some of the most effective exercises to include into a training program. Regardless of an athlete’s chosen sport (e.g., rugby, baseball, netball, soccer, etc.), judicious implementation of the exercise can do wonders for improving athletes’ overall strength, and may even play a role in enhancing other attributes such as power and explosiveness, reinforcing specific mechanics, and balance.
The Posterior Chain
The posterior chain refers to all the muscles located on the back side of the body, including both the muscles of the upper and lower body. In the deadlift, the main muscle groups that are targeted (as highlighted in red) are the:
- Hip extensors (glutes, hamstrings, adductors)
- Back extensors (erector spinae)
In any sport, neglecting the development of the posterior chain may translate to suboptimal performance on the track, court or field. Take rugby, for instance – regardless of playing position, rugby players require huge amounts of propulsive power to sprint, tackle, or take possession the ball in a scrum. The majority of this power will be generated by the muscles of the posterior chain, as they act to extend (straighten) the hips, knees and ankles. Given the actions of these muscle groups, it’s clear as to why posterior chain strengthening is a cornerstone of many athletes’ training.
Deadlifting to Strengthen the Posterior Chain
Simply incorporating the deadlift into one’s training program is not enough to guarantee the benefits of the exercise – the deadlift (or variants of the deadlift) must first be programmed correctly. Whilst programming and periodisation (that is, varying how much and how often you deadlift) falls outside the scope of this article, the basic takeaway of this point is that we want to ensure that including the deadlift supports the athlete’s development and sporting goals, whilst also making sure that it doesn’t detract from other elements of their training. For example, whilst having a strong posterior chain is important in rugby, it is not essential for rugby players to regularly lift maximal weights (i.e., a 1RM) as it might be for a powerlifter.
Assuming the deadlift has been thoughtfully implemented into an athlete’s training program, the second part of making sure the exercise yields the most bang for buck is ensuring optimal execution of the exercise. In the context of performance and athleticism, form matters, and it matters because it enables optimal muscle recruitment through full range of movement, and the honing of certain mechanics. Although the deadlift can be performed with a variety of implements (including laundry baskets!) we will be discussing the barbell deadlift as this is the most commonly used variant.
There are a few key things we look for when we get athletes deadlifting:
- The athlete is lifting through their optimal range of motion
- That they fully extend the knees and hips at the top of the movement
- That they perform the lift without excessive motion from other parts of the body (e.g., the lower back or knees)
If we tick all of these boxes, the deadlift should look like this:
Note that the bar moves smoothly in a straight line up and down, and that the majority of the movement comes from the hips rather than the knees. At the top of the movement, the torso, hips, knees and ankle fall in a straight line and the hips and knees are fully extended.
Common issues with the deadlift
So now that we know what a deadlift should look like, we’ll delve into some common issues we see when athletes perform the exercise and what this means for their development.
Excessive knee movement
Starting in or lowering to this position usually indicates that the athlete lacks the hamstring flexibility to maintain minimal knee bend – they end up bending their knees to “slacken” the hamstrings and end up doing more of a squat than a deadlift. Performing the deadlift to or from this position will mean that there is excessive quads use during the movement. Whilst this isn’t bad in and of itself, it defeats the purpose of the deadlift as a posterior chain strengthening exercise – we want to get the muscles on the back making money without splitting the profits with other muscle groups (and last we checked, the quads live on the front of the legs).
To address this, you can raise the deadlift onto a rack or blocks so that the deadlift is only performed to the limits of the athlete’s flexibility. In choosing the optimal deadlift height for the athlete, have them hinge through the hips whilst keeping soft knees and note the point at which their knees start to bend – this indicates the limit of their hamstring flexibility, and will also be their deadlift starting position. Although many think that deadlifting from the floor is a priority, we would argue that deadlifting within one’s abilities is far more important to ensure that we recruit the desired muscle groups during the exercise.
Injury risk discussion aside, deadlifting in this position can also be undesirable for performance and athleticism. Lifting with a rounded back, when compared to keeping a more neutral position, shortens the torso and also introduces excessive posterior pelvic tilt, or tucking of the hips.
This may happen for a couple of reasons, First, the back may round as a compensation due to the weight being beyond the athlete’s current abilities – the shorter torso means a shorter lever length, which means less hip extensor torque required to lift the weight. Second, back rounding may be related to hamstring flexibility issues. As the hamstrings cross the hip and knee joints, tight hamstrings may reduce the ability to bend at the hip and may increase compensatory rounding through the spine.
If your athlete looks like this, reducing the range of motion may be a useful strategy. It may also be good to check if the weights being used are appropriate for the athlete’s current goals, and check to see if the athlete is fresh or fatigued.
Locking out with the back instead of the hips
This happens when the athlete uses their back muscles to finish the movement instead of fully engaging the hip extensor muscles at the top of the movements, particularly the glutes. When locking out with the back, there is usually an observable curve or lordosis in the lower spine coupled with an anterior pelvic tilt of the hips (a.k.a., “duck butt”). Whilst the lift may look complete, the hips have not fully extended through their range of motion to achieve posterior pelvic tilt (a.k.a., “tuck butt”), which means that the glutes have not been worked through their entire range of motion. Given that research has shown that muscle gains are increased when muscles are exercised through full rather than partial range of motion, it is in the athlete’s best interests to ensure locking out with the hips rather than the back.
Locking out into the “duck butt” position can also be detrimental from a skills perspective, as it reinforces excessive lower back curvature and reduced muscle engagement through the front of the torso. This is especially relevant for athletes that have to sprint or run for their sport as excessive anterior pelvic tilt can result in energy leaks and reduced running efficiency or power output (read: makes you slower).
Not locking out the knees
Some athletes will have a tendency lean back to lock out the lift, and whilst they may achieve full hip extension, their knees may remain slightly bent. This is undesirable for two reasons. First, achieving simultaneous hip and knee extension has carryover into jumping and sprinting – powerful jumps and quick sprints are characterised by triple extension, which refers to the simultaneous locking out of the hip, knee and ankle joints. Allowing the athlete to continue deadlifting with a bent-knee lockout may interfere with this important movement pattern and affect their explosiveness in other tasks. Second, leaning back during the lockout removes the emphasis from the glutes, thereby reducing the amount of work required to lock out the hips.
In the context of performance and athleticism, there are some solid reasons for being more of a stickler for form and technique – we want to make sure that the exercises we choose deliver the results we expect in terms of hypertrophy, strength, and ensuring that the movement patterns we train transfer over to other tasks the athlete has to do.
In the next post on deadlifting, we’ll be looking at using the exercise in a very different population, and how this might change the way we perform the deadlift.