By Dr. Zack Rushing
The “perfect” deadlift does not exist, if it did the person executing it would lift a weight so heavy that setting it back down would punch a hole in the earth and cause a major earthquake. This is no different than the perfect swim stroke not existing. Michael Phelps does a pretty damn good job of executing a swim stroke, but it was still never perfect. It doesn’t mean that he never stopped chasing it or never stopped getting coached on how to do it better.
That being said…the deadlift is so amazing for the posterior chain of muscles and for strengthening the back and preventing low back pain when it is DONE PROPERLY. When it is done improperly, people make their way into my office to fix them because of their poor deadlift technique. My goal with righting this article is to give you the latest information on how to do a proper deadlift, as close to perfect as possible, to reduce injury and enhance your performance.
For a while I was down on the deadlift. I may have even told you face to face that I was because it caused so many patients to make appointments to come see me. Luckily for me I have some amazing colleagues that put me on to some great information that allowed me to expand my knowledge that I can share with all of you.
While I was on vacation, celebrating my friend’s wedding (a fellow chiropractor), we got into a discussion about deadlifts. This is mostly because we’re nerds and that’s what chiropractors do on vacation. I shared my non-positive perspective and he, along with another chiropractor, dropped some knowledge on me that changed my whole view on the exercise. I went home, studied techniques after work (again, nerd) and compiled what I think is a pretty good summary on the topic. Let me know what you think and if you have any insights feel free to email me.
I was considering making a YouTube video to go along with this article but decided against it because 1) I promised a few people that I would get this article out as soon as I could and adding a YouTube video would’ve delayed that, 2) I realized that I’m new to the deadlift game and there are people out there who can demonstrate it way better than me, and 3) I might be pretty vain and delusional if I think people want to see my nerdy self execute this exercise in the middle of a gym.
Here are some of the keys to deadlifting and some videos you should check out on YouTube for further reference.
Key #1: Straight Lines
Of course I’m going to lead with the tip about how to help your spine. It’s kind of my thing. During your pre-lift setup your spine should be so straight that you could put a broomstick on your back and it would touch every single vertebra. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. This means no camel humps in the middle of your back or a dip in your low back. The lift should be executed with a “hip hinge” to keep your spine straight throughout the entirety of the lift.
You should also focus on pulling the weight up in a straight line. It should go without saying that this is easier that the alternatives. When you finish pulling up in a straight line your body should stop when it is, you guessed it, a straight line. No extra effort is needed or should be used to sway your low back and pelvis forward. When executing an amazing deadlift your body should almost lock or snap into this straight up and down position. You’ll see what I mean if you check out the YouTube videos below.
Key #2: Scrape Yo’ Shins
The closer you have a weight to your body the easier it is to lift and control. This is the same thing that is repeated in every ergonomics training session across the world. That means that as you are bringing up this weight on a bar, the bar should literally be scraping your shins. Don’t like scraped shins? Then make a fashion statement at your gym with some knee-high socks. Get some socks with tacos on them for a real ice-breaker, if that’s what you want.
Key #3: Lift Clean
I would rather you lift 150 pounds clean than 500 pounds looking like you’re riding the struggle bus. There is no reward for you lifting more weight awkwardly and hurting yourself in the process. With Deadlifts the mindset should be “perfect form, or nothing’. I know this is counter to you getting your “gains” in for the night but this will prevent you from needing an appointment with me.
Your pursuit of the perfect deadlift can keep your back strong in a world that constantly puts strain on it. If we want to continue sitting at work, driving, binge watching Netflix along with all the weekend warrior stuff we throw at our bodies, we’re going to have to do a little maintenance.
After going down the rabbit hole of trying to find some great examples I have found some people that I find to be worth following when it comes to exercise demonstrations. Eric Cressy seems to really know his stuff when it comes to biomechanics and how the body should operate. Jujimufu (real name Jon Call) is an insane person who not only seems to have a handle on the science of lifting through his own trail and error but can also do standing backflips in-between deadlifts. It’s hard to find a combination of someone who’s half Hulk and half ninja.
Jujimufu uses an extraordinary amount of ammonia smelling salts during his lifting routines. I do not have solid information on smelling salts and their effectiveness on lifting or the long-term impact they have on your brain. During his own video he says that the salts “stop your brain” which doesn’t really make me want to go out and start huffing them. I’m going on record saying that I DO NOT recommend you use smelling salts. He also uses the salts and then turns them around and sells them to you, likely there is financial incentive there.
Finally, Stewart McGill is the all time legend of how to lift and prevent pain. He’s pretty much the Godfather of proper lifting and how to avoid pain in your daily life. This dude packs so much research into his lectures it’s crazy. Maybe not as entertaining as the previous two but he is not to be ignored.
Here are the links to some videos that I have found that demonstrate the deadlift pretty well:
Eric Cressey: https://youtu.be/EbmS0VyZk-E
Dr. Stuart McGill: https://youtu.be/h3n8z1wy_SQ
Hopefully this was helpful, added to your education and gave you methods to improve your technique and your spinal health. Until next time!
Dr. Zack Rushing