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Do You Really Need to Stretch? Part One

Today we have the first part of a three part article series about stretching from Nick.  Check it out!

cat stretch

 

In a world where research and tons of practical experience has made it pretty clear that static stretching is overrated and often overused, plenty of people still go about wasting their time with it. In certain specific situations, it can be warranted but it often is not and many times can cause more harm than good.  Stretch lovers start hating but at least read on and try to learn something 🙂  (Note: we are talking about static stretching; i.e. holding a stretch for time.  Dynamic/active stretching is great to build functional mobility and we will discuss it later)

When might you actually need it?

If muscle tissue is truly shortened, some long duration stretching or at least frequent stretching may be warranted. This is not as common as you might think and if it is the case, soft tissue manipulation is usually much more effective than static stretching alone. The typical, 30 second to 1 minute stretch is generally not going to do enough to change the situation of truly shortened tissue. What areas do I see that typically DO need this? The calves, the chest and the lats come to mind (generally speaking of course). Notice I didn’t say hamstrings or back, which happen to be two very overstretched places in the body. Furthermore, when we are talking about shortened tissue, fascia (webbing that holds our muscles, organs, etc. in place and gives our body functional connections from head to toe, front to back, side to side and everything in between) is pretty much guaranteed to be involved and fascia is going to need more than a typical static stretch to make it change. The areas that actually do need work will also often be asymmetrical (i.e. left pec and right lat are pretty common)

Feelings can be Deceiving

I can’t tell you how many times I hear someone say to me “My ____ feels tight.” That space is often filled in with hamstring or back. Because something “feels” tight, does not mean that it is actually short and in need of stretching. If my shoulders are rounded forward, my upper back tissue is going to be pulled “taut” because it is being overstretched all day from my faulty shoulder position. This does not in any way mean that it is short and in need of lengthening. If we open up the pec muscles in front of the shoulders and restore a better shoulder position, then the upper back tissues can relax since they are in a better resting position. If we stretch the upper back tissue because it “feels” tight, we make ourselves worse and irritate the tissues even more.

So what is really going on then if I do have one of these deceiving feelings? We have more than one possibility….

Positioning vs “Tight”

If my pelvis is tilted forward, my hamstrings are going to be put on stretch automatically because of the position that they are in. They are being pulled “taut” just like my upper back example above. If my pelvis is rotated one way, my outer hamstring on one side and inner hamstring on the other will be pulled abnormally and might feel “tight” again. Neither of these situations require stretching. Stretching will pull me farther into my faulty position and irritate the issues worse. They will be even “tighter.” Repositioning the pelvis to a better position will take the slack out of those hamstrings, put them in a better resting position and relieve the “tight” feeling. Now, on some occasions, people actually do have shortened hamstring muscles and they might actually need some legit stretching, tissue work, etc. but it is not the norm; at least in my experience.   Check out the video featured on this article for repositioning drill examples.  On a side note, tight could describe tissue that is lengthened or shortened, which are two very different situations that require very different plans.  Rather than using the word tight, it is much more reliable to use stiff/short (still different in their own rights) and stretched/lengthened.

Kinetic Chain Issue

Carrying things further and going back to the aforementioned fascia, there is a line of fascia that runs from the bottom of our feet all the way up the back side of the body to the top of the head, connecting our calves, hamstrings, back, posterior neck and everything in between into one long functional line. In Thomas Myers’ Anatomy Trains, this is known as the superficial back line. Sticking with our hamstrings example and looking at this line, if we have tension in our calves or the bottom of our feet, our hamstrings can also be pulled due to this fascial connection. In an example like this, we probably need to get our feet and/or calves freed up in order to get the hamstrings to release. There are many examples of these relationships in the body.  A neat trick:  take someone who can’t bend over and touch their toes with straight knees, have them roll a la crosse ball on the bottom of their foot for a minute or so and then have them bend over again.  Watch them bend farther without ever touching their hamstrings.

Neurological Issue (In all actuality, everything is)

Another source of stiffness is neurological. If I have an antagonistic or synergistic muscle that is not doing its job, then the muscle at hand can be overfired/overused by the brain (trying to use layman’s terms here), leading to a neurological “stiffness.” Staying with the hamstring example, if my synergistic glute muscles (they share function with the hamstrings) are not being fired or utilized appropriately, my brain will tap into my hamstrings excessively, causing them to be overactive. Again, stretching them will not help in this situation. Getting my brain to use my glutes correctly will help balance out the firing process, unlock the hamstrings and everybody will be happier. Its kind of like having a lazy member in your work group who doesn’t do their fair share with the project. When he/she doesn’t do their part, the other group members get upset. When one muscle doesn’t do its fair share, the other muscle or muscles get upset. There are tons of examples of this that happen in the body and ironically, the positioning issue mentioned above is usually related to these neurological firing patterns. Everything goes back to the brain.

Expanding on this point: Take someone who is stressed out, on edge, and is constantly in fight or flight mode.  Their muscle tone can be overactive all over just because they are stuck in a sympathetic fight or flight state and their body can’t relax.  Simply breathing properly (exhale!) and getting their system back towards a parasympathetic rest and relaxation state, can help calm down muscle tone and improve mobility and posture without touching or moving a single thing.  This can carry over to every other point made in this article.  Stretching and torquing on a system that is already on alert can pull it farther in that direction, which is not what we want.  Another neat trick:  take someone who can’t touch their toes like the example above, put them on their backs with their feet on the wall and have them inhale through their nose and exhale through their mouth into a balloon for 3 to 4 cycles of 4 breaths or so while getting air and movement into the front, sides and back of their trunk and chest.  Have them bend again and I betcha they get farther.  Simply calming the system down and releasing the “clenching” that is going on can improve motion instantly.

When I explain these things to some people, I often get the common argument “but it feels so good to stretch it.” Well, it must not feel good for very long and it must not be working because you are still sitting in my assessment room complaining about ongoing issues and pain. If stretching were the answer, you wouldn’t still be having the problem. (too blunt? 🙂 Get the correct muscles firing with the correct corresponding muscles inhibited in combination with restoring proper position, movement, breathing and nervous system state and the whole team will be much happier.

 

Stay tuned for part 2!

 

Bonus section:  Why shouldn’t you static stretch before physical activity (in most cases)?  Statically stretching a muscle causes it to inhibit or “turn off,” and also puts the muscle at a resting length that is less than optimal for contracting how we want it to for optimal performance.  We want to get our  muscles actively moving through controlled ranges of motion in order to appropriately prepare those muscles and our nervous system for the upcoming work.  Save the static stretching for later if it is truly needed.  More on this in part two.

Behavior Is King.

Today we have a special article from in-house Sports Nutritionist and Strength Coach, Alex Rosencutter, discussing how to simplify behavior change to meet your goals.  Take it away Alex.

Whether you were prepared for it or not, the New Year is here, and with that territory comes all of the newly dedicated New Years resolution fitness fanatics with the goals to look like 70’s Arnold or the latest Victoria Secret model.  That is until they don’t grow the gorgeous chin or lats of Arnold or the bodacious booty of the most recent Maxim cover girl within the first two weeks. 

Two Weeks? 

Your body is not a chia pet.

BEHAVIOR IS KING

The first thing that gives out on these people is their mindset, and that mindset is what drives an individual’s behavior.  The problem here is that most individuals do not have the mindset or behavior to even start the journey toward achieving their goals.  We all start with the end in sight and wanting to reach the mountain top overnight.  We all do things we know we shouldn’t do and we all know there are things we should do but justify not doing.  We have all decided to sleep a little later and skip breakfast to get to work on time.  We have all chosen to eat the scrumtrulassent (SNL reference) chocolate bar instead of the bowl of greens.  We have all chosen to skip a workout to go out with friends.

The one thing that any individual with six-pack abs or any person that steps on stage all have in common is the mindset to get them that lean body they want and need.  The more advanced your goals become, the more your behavior needs to advance.  Developing this behavior takes time and should be done in steps. 

MISCONCEPTIONS

1. No matter if you are just getting started or if you are a seasoned vet, people often develop the “I worked out today so I can have that cheesecake” mindset.  With this mindset, comes the misconception that with just a few tweaks to one’s exercise regimen and diet, 6-pack abs and a eye popping booty is sure to come.  This justifying gets individuals in trouble.

2. You have to make HUGE changes all at once to get to where you want.  WRONG.  Truth is, one change at a time will do much more for you in the long run versus trying to overwhelm yourself with the castle all at once.  Small steps will build the right mindset in the long run.

3. You must restrict and sacrifice the rest of your life.  Wrong again.  It is not about placing huge restrictions or sacrificing important parts of your life, it is about finding the right balance.

DO MORE OF THIS AND LESS OF THAT

In order to develop the right mindset to support our training and goals, we must make changes to our individual behavior.  This may mean waking up 1 hour earlier to fit in our workout for the day, eating more vegetables and less cookies, or drinking more water and less soda/alcohol.   Do more of this and less of that.

Results take time and hard work.  Ask anyone, Rome wasn’t built overnight.  Make one behavior change at a time and make up the right mindset to support your training and goals.  After all, if we want to reach the top of the mountain, we have to climb it first.

DEVELOPING YOUR BEHAVIOR
No, I am not talking about spanking yourself in the ass like your parents use to.  Or, perhaps I’m just crazy and none of you were even thinking that…awkward.  Follow the tips below to help yourself make small behavioral changes to your nutrition and training and get after your goals in the new year.

1. Focus on one change at a time and make it become habit.  It takes roughly 14-21 days to make something new become habit.  With this practice you’ll most likely just find it to become routine.

2. Drink more water and less soda and alcohol.

3. Practice eating slower and listening to your body.  It generally takes 15-20 minutes for the brain to signal satiety.  Therefore, the faster you eat, the more you will consume.  The slower you eat, the better chance you give your body to register the food intake while feeling more satisfied and consuming less.

4. Increase your training slowly.  Don’t go full blast if you’re just starting.  Start with 1-2 workouts/week, adjust your schedule accordingly, and build from there.

5. Eat 1-2 palm sized servings of protein with each meal.

6. Eat more vegetables than fruit and only eat processed carbs/desserts once every 1-2 weeks.

7. Balance out your omega-3 fatty acid intake with a high quality fish oil supplement.

8. Use a support system.  The more people you surround yourself with who have similar goals and lifestyle aspirations is beneficial to you.  Hanging out with the local Oscar in a trash can will only detriment your goals.  Those with similar goals will help keep you motivated and on track.

9. Focus on each of these tips one at a time for 14-21 days.

10. COME SEE US =)!!!

 

10 Things You Should be Doing to Improve Your Race Performance but Probably Aren’t

caitlin running

Running is an extremely popular form of exercise these days; however, not many people understand the effects that it has on their bodies or the prerequisites that are needed prior to engaging in this activity.  I always say you need to be in shape to run and not the other way around. If your goal is fat loss, then you are barking up the wrong tree as there are many more effective ways to train for fat loss than distance running.  If you are a competitive runner and just want to destroy competitors on race day or if you simply enjoy running, here are some things that can help you with your performance and keep you healthy.

 

1. Develop adequate muscular support.  Every time your foot strikes the ground while running, 5-7 times your bodyweight of force goes through your joints.  Without adequate support, injuries will come.  It is of utmost importance that you strength train appropriately if you run a lot of miles.  It will help with maintaining posture, staying erect, increased force production and speed, better movement control, better running economy and the list goes on.

Long distance activities release excess amounts of cortisol, which tends to promote muscle atrophy.  If you don’t build some muscle to balance out and assist all of the long duration activity, its not a matter of if but a matter of when an injury will occur, and your performance will not be what it could.

2.      Address muscular imbalances and movement faults. With repetitive activity such as that involved with endurance races, imbalances and patterns are bound to develop.  When muscles that work with one another are out of whack and/or movement along different joints is impaired, certain areas will become overloaded; leading to injury and decreased race times.   Movement faults and imbalances must be assessed and then addressed through appropriate exercises and tissue work to make sure that loads are distributed evenly among the kinetic chain.  A very common and often overlooked problem that I see is a lack of big toe extension on either one or both feet. When the big toe can’t extend far enough, push off stresses are overloaded in other areas of the foot and the rest of the way up the body.  It can have effects all the way up to the head. Muscles such as the adductor and flexor hallucis can often be released to help improve movement here along with some mobilization drills and retraining push off patterns with gait.

With an issue like pelvic and rib rotation, forces will not be distributed appropriately along the kinetic chain which means compensations, overload and injury will occur.  These are just a few issues out of many.

Be sure fundamental movement patterns and basic stability patterns can be performed effectively as well: squatting, hip hinging, half kneeling, quadruped, etc.  If you can’t control your body effectively in a quadruped position, I can guarantee its not going to be pretty when you are running on two feet.

3.      Address postural issues-  With impaired posture such as rounded shoulders or posteriorly tilted ribs, breathing will be less than efficient, which means your body has to work harder to deliver oxygen to your tissues; which means that you will not perform as well as you could.   Get the rib cage level (often tilted back excessively in many people), and breathing will be much more efficient which means that working tissues will have better oxygen supply, which means that fatigue will not set in as easy.  If there is any pelvic rotation or shifting in play, excessive energy will be wasted fighting the body wanting to rotate, which means you will fatigue easier than you really should. Postural issues such as this straight up make running gait less than efficient, which can lead to injuries and wasted energy with each step.

4.      Develop Max Strength- The nervous system must be trained to tap into a wider variety of muscle fibers and to do so more efficiently.  The more force you can put into the ground with each strike, the faster you will be.  The stronger you are, the easier your body has to work with each step.  Its like giving your body a bigger engine; a v8 vs a v4.  To do this, heavy weights must be lifted for multiple sets of 2-5 reps (specifics will depend on the athlete) in big bang exercises like squats, deadlifts, rows and presses.

5.      Develop Speed Strength- Training the nervous system to activate more fibers faster will make you faster and take time off of your race. This can be done with exercises such as speed squats and speed pulls,  for multiple sets of 2-10 reps.  For straight speed strength, the lower rep range will be used.  For speed strength endurance, the higher rep range will be used.  Unlike powerlifting speed work, where only the lower rep range for speed work is usually needed, endurance athletes will also need endurance speed work to be programmed in for optimal carryover to race performance.

6.      Perform Free Motion Functional Movements with Strength Training To train for performance, muscular coordination, balance, stabilization and movement patterns must all be addressed with exercise.  This means that squatting, pulling, pushing, rotation and locomotive variations all better be addressed within a runner’s strength training program.  (Unless you run while sitting down on a pad while the rest of your body is stabilized for you that is).

7.      Develop Other Energy  Systems-  Endurance activities primarily train aerobic endurance; however, all energy systems are active to some extent.  Developing anaerobic capacity, anaerobic power and aerobic power will assist the aerobic system and will make you faster, more durable and will give you that extra kick when you need it.   Anaerobic capacity can be trained by performing high intensity intervals with an activity such as a sprint for a long period of time.  This trains the body to buffer substances such as hydrogen ions more effectively and trains the body to perform at higher intensities for a longer duration of time without gassing out.  Rest periods will be long enough to allow the body to generate sufficient intensity but not long enough to develop full power, which is mentioned next.

Anaerobic power can be trained with a similar activity but with a longer rest period between rounds.  This trains the body to perform as fast and powerfully as possible while utilizing the fastest of the fast twitch muscle fibers.  Each individual round is more important here.

Training for aerobic power trains the heart to pump blood stronger with each beat and betters the aerobic system’s ability to work effectively (i.e. deliver oxygen) towards higher intensity ranges and heart rates.  Increasing the heart’s performance here will make aerobic endurance work feel like cake.  This is done with fairly high intensity activities with the heart rate towards the upper end of the aerobic range but below  anaerobic range. The intensity and heart rate is not quite as high as anaerobic work (which can get up to 180+) but it is significantly higher than typical aerobic endurance work (150-160+ vs. 120-140) and the work to rest ratio is generally 1-1 to 1-0.5.   Sprints, prowler work, sled work, jump rope, kettlebell drills and battle ropes are all good options to train these qualities.  I highly recommend checking out Ultimate MMA Conditioning by Joel Jameison and Block Periodization by Vladimir Issurin to learn more about specific energy system development.  Bill Hartman also has tons of great info on specific energy system development.  Priceless sources full of great information!

The amount of training that should be spent training these different qualities will vary by individual but in general you don’t need to spend more than 3 to 4 weeks at a time hitting anaerobic work.  Aerobic training can be done for longer time periods as there is more room for development and less negative stress on the body.

8.      Develop Fast Twitch Oxidative Fibers-  Your body has different muscle fiber types.  There are two fast twitch types.  Although primarily used for high intensity power movements,  one fast twitch type has quite the potential to assist with endurance, known as fast twitch oxidative fibers.  Developing these fibers can go a long way with assisting your performance.  These will be developed pretty well with anaerobic capacity and aerobic power training discussed above (there will usually be some overlap between training with these two qualities).  To develop these specific fibers, performing activity that is intense enough to activate the proper motor units must be done over and over again for long periods of time. A couple examples that I like to use include the following.  Prowler pushing with a decently heavy weight is done for ~8-10 second trips every 20 seconds for up to 20-25 minutes.  Squat variations in the 80% intensity range are done for 1-2 reps every 20-30 seconds for up to 20 minutes. This is brutally hard work but will pay off in huge dividends for any endurance athlete as developing the oxidative capacity of these fibers will give lots of assistance to the slow twitch fibers that are usually relied heavily upon during a race.

9.      Develop Slow Twitch Fibers-  These fibers are heavily relied upon with endurance activities.  Specifically training them in the weight room can make them stronger and help them to reach their full potential.  Many people don’t realize that these fibers can actually be developed outside of endurance activities.  A great way to do this is by using a fairly slow tempo with exercises.  Performing an exercise such as a row or squat with a 5 second eccentric and 5 second concentric phase and adding in pauses will train these fibers; thus, helping them to perform better when called upon in a race.

10.  Do Something Other than Your Usual Events-  If you do anything at all, at least perform some other form of training, as doing the same activity and nothing else will limit your progress.  Adaptation is one of the most basic laws of performance.  Your body will adapt to what you do.  If all you do is run, bike, etc. you will only improve so much.  Developing all of these other qualities will provide your body with the variation that it needs to improve and will give it the true help that it needs from all of the appropriate systems.

Remember, random training equals random results. Planning and programming training of these specific qualities at the right times of the training season can make or break your running performance.  Create your goal, develop a plan to reach it and work hard.  Want to run? Then do everything you can to run as effectively as possible.

Congratulations Greendale- Conference Champions Again

This has been our second year of working with Greendale High School’s football team and we want to congratulate our boys on winning their second straight conference championship last night.  These guys worked hard all year WELL before the season was even close to starting and it certainly shows. Both varsity and JV won titles.  Keep getting after it and lets get back to state for a second year in a row.  Great job Greendale!

In Season Training Tips

overtraining pic

Don’t let this be you

Its that time of year when football and volleyball season are in full effect and basketball and wrestling are just around the corner. While (hopefully) many athletes spent plenty of time training during the off season to showcase their optimal performance on the field or court this season, a lot of people get stuck when the season starts. Once practice, games and tournaments start, time in the weight room seems to go right out the window. Many of the strength and power gains that were developed all off season start to fade away and performance suffers. While athletes should not spend too much time in the weight room and definitely should not do many extremely taxing workouts during a competitive season, there definitely should still be something getting done. Its all about finding a healthy balance to the equation. Its all about looking at the overall stress that is put on the athlete’s system and making sure that it stays in a positive and healthy range.

In Season Training Rule 1:
Don’t try to make crazy improvements in the weight room during this time.
With all of the stress going through the system with multiple practices and games every week, there is not going to be tons of reserve left to fuel strength gains in season like there is in the off season when it is the top priority. Doing enough quality work to maintain the gains that were made during the off season and prevent injury should be the top priority during this time. If you are trying to go all out with lifting and conditioning at this time, you are going to burn yourself out for the times that you need to perform. This is not to say that some improvements can’t be made; it just won’t be extreme.

In Season Training Rule 2:
Pick 1 to 2 days to strength train.
If you are practicing and playing hard 4 to 6 days a week, you will not be lifting 4 days a week anymore. You need to pick one to two days where practice is lighter and spend 30 to 40 minutes in the weight room hitting the most important movements that are needed. For example, pick 2 big bang strength movements and pick 2 to 3 accessory and prehab exercises and get out and rest.
Example:

1. Front Squat
2. Floor Press
3. One leg rdl
4. Pullup
5. Half Kneeling band hold
6. Cobras
7. breathing drills

In Season Training Rule 3:
Pick one week per month to lift heavy
We can generally maintain max strength and power capabilities for up to 4 weeks (residuals) after ending specific training of these modalities (Issurin, Block Periodization). This means we will not lose our improved neural drive that we developed during the off season if we don’t train heavy for a few weeks. The trick is doing what is necessary to maintain this development. The answer is to do a microcycle once a month where we hit our main lifts hard and heavy. This will basically prolong the effects of our off season development rather than letting that wonderful force development capability fade away. The best week would be a week where you have an easier practice or game schedule. This would allow you to dedicate more energy towards getting your lifts in.  You might be able to do this more often depending on your overall schedule and stress load.  Using the exercises from before, the workout might look like this:
1. Front Squat 4×3-5 leaving 1 to 2 reps in the tank
2. Floor Press 4×3-5 leaving 1 to 2 reps in the tank
3. One leg rdl 3×8
4. Pullup 3×5
5. Half kneeling band hold 2×8
6. Cobras 2×12
7. breathing drills to get parasympathetic after all of the sympathetic stimulation from the season and the heavier lifting

In Season Training Rule 4:
Any extra conditioning work should be Aerobic.
While you probably don’t need to do extra conditioning work during a season as you are naturally getting PLENTY during practice and games, any that you might do should be strictly aerobic. Extra anaerobic work is way too taxing for your system and you are already getting more than enough with your sport. Trust me. Some extra low intensity aerobic work can actually help with recovery and help you perform better by balancing out the anaerobic workload that is already being given to your body. This will also help maintain the residuals of aerobic development from the off season (at least there should have been some) similar to the max strength week talked about earlier. Activity should be low intensity and generally continuous. Heart rate at 120-140, 20-30 minutes. An example would be:
1. Light airdyne bike
2. Light jump rope
3. Med ball tosses
4. Quick steps
5. Light kettlebell swings

The possibilities are pretty endless here as long as the intensity is low. Pick a lighter day of workload to do it.

In Season Training Rule 5:
Spend some time getting parasympathetic.
With the psychologically stressful nature of an intense season with competition, practices, games, etc. it is very easy to get pretty sympathetic, aka in fight or flight mode. Getting stuck in this state will lead to plenty of problems that we don’t want. When we step off of the field or court, we need to shift back towards our parasympathetic sides, aka rest and relax mode so that our body and mind can recover. Practicing breathing drills getting full inhalation through the nose and full exhalation through the mouth (BLOW all of your air and tension out) is a great and practical way to do this. Go home, lay down, put your feet up on a chair and breathe for 10 to 15 minutes if you can. At the very least, take 10 to 20 breaths to give your nervous system some kind of relief. A full body relaxation massage is also a great way to accomplish this goal. (I know someone who is decent at this 😉 Foam rolling and mobility work is also a good way to go.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it should give you some good tips to help fuel your in season training and keep you performing at an optimal level on the field or court.  Get to it!

 

-Nick

Subtle Technique Considerations for the Deadlift

dan deadlift

Today, we have an awesome article on deadlift technique from our coach Dan Zwirlein.  Dan is a phenomenal coach and trainer and is a great deadlifter, having pulled over 700 lbs on multiple occasions in sanctioned competition.  If you want to improve your deadlift, hes a pretty good person to listen to.  Get your notebooks ready:

 

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Between the three powerlifts (squat, bench, deadlift), the deadlift is the least technical of the three: Get mentally prepared and just grip and rip. While I will concede that this is somewhat true, it would be a mistake to not approach the deadlift with the same technical mastery as the other two lifts. Now, there are already many comprehensive articles and videos on the internet about deadlift technique and programing, so the scope of this article is to try to present some different things to think about that will help in your technical approach to the deadlift.

Using a top down approach to set up
Setting up for the conventional deadlift is very individual depending on factors mostly revolving around your anthropometry and weight. Taller and heavier lifters probably need to start farther away from the bar to get into proper position than shorter and smaller lifters. A good way to play around with proper starting position is to stand with a bar and perform a top down deadlift. This should be done with a neutral spine position that can be maintained throughout the entire range of motion. As the bar gets to the knees, the shins should be vertical, from there you can play with how far your knees go over the bar as you bring it down to the floor. Test and retest where you place your feet and find a position that you can get into while simultaneously maintaining a neutral back position to pull from. This is similar to what Mark Bell calls “reverse engineering the deadlift”. Other things to play around with are how much you externally rotate your feet and how wide you grip the bar. A place to start from is a slight toe out and hands wide enough so that they aren’t rubbing against your legs as you pull. The key is to find a position where you have an slight arch in the low back and as close to a neutral position as you can get in the mid to upper back.

Create tension throughout, not just in the upper back
A lot of articles on the deadlift mention pulling “slack out of the bar” but don’t mention how that should be done at the same time as your hips drop into position. If you just pull slack out of the bar without using it to build tension throughout the body, it’s not going to do much in the way of helping to break the initial inertia of the bar. You should use the “slack” to help drive your feet through the floor while building tension through the lats and upper body so the entire body is under the tension of the bar. This helps take away any feedback from the bar and ensures a proper position at the start of the pull. I think the best display of this is to watch Mike Tuchscherer set up for the deadlift. As he swings his hips down his chest opens up wide and his lats tighten down pulling the scapula into a depressed but not retracted position. The bar never pulls him out of position because he uses the natural bend in the bar or “slack” to create tension throughout his entire body from his starting position. However, for bigger and taller lifters this becomes a hard position to get into. As mentioned before, you need to find a position that works for you but still puts you in a good position to pull from. A lot of times this means some rounding in the upper back, which is a lot less dangerous than flexion in the low back if you can maintain the same curvature throughout the spine from start to lockout.

Use a “First Pull” to maintain tension
Once tension is built in the starting position, a first pull needs to occur in order break the initial inertia of the bar off the floor. A lot of times people will just try to rip the bar off the floor and it will move quickly until mid-range, slow down, and then the lockout will be very difficult. This also pulls the back out of a neutral spine position and forces the lifter to lockout with his hips too early, and then they finish the lift with all back extension, hence the reason the lockout becomes difficult. The approach should be to lift fast but not to the point where the upper body loses tightness and a neutral position. I have suffered from this problem myself but have gotten away with it by being able to generate enough speed off the floor to carry all the way to lockout. This is where getting setup properly will help. Speed will suffer from the floor, i.e. the bar will move slower, but proper alignment and tension in the set-up will make the midrange and lockout easier. This is where playing around with your alignment can help too. The goal is to find the sweet spot where you can generate enough speed off the floor but not pull yourself out of position.

Midrange to lockout considerations
Midrange to lockout is simplest in terms of technique. Bring the bar into the body, squeeze the glutes, and pull the shoulders back. Where people get into trouble is when the hips and or knees lockout before the torso is upright. Like in the example I talked about before with the hips driving up too fast, it’s really difficult (and dangerous) to lockout heavy weights with just back extension; especially when the back is in a flexed position. Ideally, all three should lockout together. Once again, if you set-up correctly and maintain relatively the same upper body position throughout, then the lockout becomes easy because you are in a position to extend the hips, knees, and back at the same time.

If your deadlift progress has stalled, the initial reaction is to assume another special exercise needs to be added but most of the time the simplest answer is usually the right one…your technique needs improvement. Hopefully I gave you some small but profound things to think about from setup to lockout that can help in your technical mastery of the deadlift.

-DZ