by Timothy Piper (2001)
The use of the deadlift (DL) and its variations by strength and conditioning professionals is widely accepted as a means of strengthening leg, hip, back, and torso muscles. However, an explanation of the different styles used and available for training programs is often overlooked. This article is a short overview of the different DL techniques beyond the standard and sumo-stance deadlifts.
The DL is typically associated with the conventional and sumo styles, commonly used by powerlifters. The conventional style is characterized by a shoulder width stance of the feet and the arms outside the thighs. The sumo style differs primarily by the wide stance used and a handgrip that is between the thighs. The conventional style emphasizes the lower back muscles more than the sumo because the trunk is flexed forward, increasing torque about the lumbar area. Due to the more erect back alignment throughout the sumo style lift there is a decreased potential for dynamic involvement of the lower back muscles, thus requiring greater recruitment of the hip muscles to move the load.
These two styles are the basis of all other deadlifts, which are similar, at least in part, to the sumo or conventional technique. All styles strengthen the hip and knee extensors, spinal erectors, abdominals, back and forearm muscles to varying degrees depending on the style.
The STRAIGHT OR STIFF LEGGED DEADLIFT (SLDL) is used for the specific strengthening of the lower back and hamstring muscles.
Setup: Stand with feet shoulder width apart and an overhand or reverse grip just outside the thighs. The scapula should be retracted and the head in a neutral position.
Execution: Begin the exercise with hip flexion allowing the hips to move posteriorly. The knees remain straight, but not locked out at full extension, throughout the movement. The spine maintains its natural s-shaped curvature as the bar descends. The path of the bar has a SLIGHT arc moving away from the legs as the hips are progressively flexed. The bar ends directly below the shoulders. Downward movement ceases when a strong stretch occurs in the hamstring muscles. The lifter then reverses motion. The completion of the lift occurs when hip and back extension raises the trunk to an erect standing position with the scapulae retracted. Relatively inflexible individuals may not be able to go down very far before the hamstrings are strongly stretched. It is important to stop the exercise at that point rather than lose the arch in the lower back in an attempt to descend further before the lifter is able to without causing problems.
Take note that there is greater torque on the hips and lumbar areas because of the horizontal distance from the bar to the base. The use of near-maximal weights can compromise form by pulling the lifter forward or causing spinal flexion increasing the chance of injury. This is not a round-back lift and should not be confused with the round-back version of the exercise. They both have their specific purpose. A slow rate of bar movement will also reduce the chance of injuries. Don't just drop down into the bottom position. Or, if you feel like it, load the bar to double your maximum and do just that. Slow learners realize truths only by doing. Rapidly in most cases.
The bar may descend to the floor, or having the lifter stand on a box can increase the range of motion of the exercise. Do this carefully and gradually. Even with proper form this is a higher-risk exercise that should only be performed if the lifter has no back restrictions, history of injuries, as well as adequate hamstring/low back flexibility, but even then caution should be taken.
Round-back lifting, known as kyphotic lifting posture, during this or other lifts should be avoided unless its purpose is understood. An advanced lifter with an established base of strength will sometimes undertake this lifting posture to emphasize the spinal erectors. However, it is not recommended for beginners. This is a common type of deadlift viewed in many gyms but is commonly a contraindicated exercise because of the potential risk to the invertebral discs. If you aren't certain of what you are doing, don't do it until you are.
Other common technical errors in the SLDL include hip flexion beyond a lifter's ability, byperextension of the knees, overly rapid execution, and attempting to pull more weight than the muscles have been trained to accommodate
The ROMANIAN DEADLIFT (RDL) is primarily used for the strengthening of the lower back, gluteus and hamstring muscles with decreased low back stress relative to the SLDL because of the technique.
Setup: The stance is similar to that of a conventional deadlift with an overhand or alternating grip. The spine is fixed in a naturally arched position both at the beginning and throughout the entire lift.
Execution: The RDL is similar to the SLDL, with the exception of the 15 degrees of knee flexion that is employed. All movement is achieved via a rotation at the hip joint. The bar descends slowly and closely to the thighs, instead of being directly underneath the shoulders. This reduces the torque on the upper body by placing the load closer to the axis of rotation and over the base of support. The bar descends until it is inferior to the knee joint, the lifter feels the need to round the back, or he has the urge to further bend the knees, or they may have reached their maximal range of motion without compromising lifting posture. The key is to focus on rotation about the hip joint as you push your gluteus back, while holding the knees at about 15 degrees of flexion. When ascending, hip and knee flexion should occur simultaneously while maintaining some shoulder retraction and the spine's natural curvature.
Common mistakes during the RDL are not flexing the knees or extending the knees prior to hip extension during the ascent. Many lifters comment that they can actually feel stress is placed higher in the hamstrings if the knees are kept flexed to 15 degrees, whereas they feel more stress at the hamstring insertion if the knees are straightened during the lift. Other errors include allowing the lower back to round, kyphosis to occur, pulling the bar against the thighs, and excessive extension of the back when completing the lift.
POWER RACK DEADLIFTS (PRDL), also called lockouts are sometimes used by powerlifters trying to strengthen a particular upper portion of their deadlift. A high load is used to overload the back muscles and increase motor recruitment. Different grips and stances can be applied to this exercise, but the conventional form will be described here.
Setup: The height of the spotting bars or boxes should be such that the loaded bar sits superior to the knee joint when standing erect. This may be adjusted depending on the specific objective and the preference of the lifter. Power straps or lifting hooks can also be used for this exercise to prevent the fatigue of the forearm muscles before the back muscles have been stressed to their potential. The lifter flexes at the hips , slightly retracts the scapula, maintains the back's natural curvature, and grasps the bar approximately one to two inches outside of the thighs.
Execution: The lift begins with hip extension followed by knee extension. The lifter completes the lift with slight spinal extension. The spinal erector, gluteus maximus, and quadriceps are the primary movers during lockouts, but its counterparts, the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and trapezius have an even greater role in stabilization of the upper back. An established back and leg strength base is necessary for this exercise due to the very high loads used. This type of deadlift can benefit anyone who requires a great deal of back strength in the final phase of hip and back extension.
MACHINE DEADLIFTS (MDL) have been added to some manufacturers' line of plate loaded and selectorized equipment. This style not only can be done on specifically designed machines but also non preexisting equipment such as the smith rack. Both an advantage and disadvantage is that the plane of motion is fixed, dictating the movement pattern. Although, this could prove benefit for those who have difficulty maintaining the correct motor pattern and arrive at the gym in a short bus. It can easily force the lifter into potentially dangerous positions. The need for muscular coordination is reduced so the lifter will not reap the full benefits of the synergistic muscle involvement they would using barbells or dumbbells.
The SNATCH-GRIP DEADLIFT (SGDL) places emphasis on the thora-columbar fascia, erector spinae, and the shoulder girdle muscles that stabilize the scapulae. The positioning of the torso causes a great deal of hip flexion, which increases the load on the lumbar region and hip extensors. This is similar to the RDL, but the wide grip makes this exercise advantageous to lifters requiring increased upper back strength and scapular and spinal stabilization. The wide grip creates a lower (deficit) start position.
Setup: The conventional stance is used, but the lifter uses a wide snatch grip. The distance between the hands in the snatch grip is determined from measuring the distance from the lateral side of one shoulder to the fist of the opposite arm abducted to shoulder level.
Execution: The lifter pulls the bar off the floor using the hips to lift the bar instead of the back. Throughout the lift the back is held tight and fixed. The bar is kept close to the legs to reduce the amount of torque on the lumbar region. Scapular retraction continues throughout the exercise but is not exaggerated when movement is completed.
The SMITTY or DEFICIT DEADLIFT is a variation of the snatch grip deadlift, which is performed on a 4-6 inch platform, and movement ceases when the bar is inferior to (situated under or beneath) the patella. The technique is otherwise the same, emphasizing hip flexibility and back strength in the limited range of motion. This exercise can also be used to build increased strength in the shoulder girdle stabilizers.
The ONE ARM DEADLIFT (OADL) is one of the most difficult DLs to execute in terms of muscular coordination. The OADL can provide an extra stress to the muscular and nervous system, and the variations of the OADL are numerous.
Setup: The most common OADL is performed with a sumo stance while grasping a dumbbell between the legs. The torso should be erect and the lifter should be discouraged from looking at the dumbbell as this would lead to poor lifting posture.
Execution: The weight is lifted as in any other DL but requires a great deal more stabilization from the lifting arm and the entire torso and back. An effort should be made to maintain an erect and controlled lifting posture.
Pulling a dumbbell from this position keeps the line of force within the base, and lateral balance in the wrist is minimal. For a greater challenge a barbell can be used, thus decreasing the stability of the base and increasing the muscular strength required in the forearm. This is also the case when using a conventional stance and pulling the weight from the side of the body (suitcase style), which increases opposing abdominal and back strength. Due to loading characteristics of all styles of the one arm deadlift, there is an increased stabilization demand on the contralateral muscles of the abdomen, spinal erectors, shoulder girdle, and forearm muscles to overcome the different application of force. A light load is first used for this exercise, focusing on the technique until mastered. The torque that the muscular system applies to it can easily put the spinal column at risk for injury. The OADL can, however, be a challenging exercise for advanced lifters, allowing them to balance an uneven load while maintaining body alignment.
Grip and Implement Variations
10-SECOND PULLS are performed similar in fashion to a conventional or sumo style deadlift, the only difference being the duration of the ascent and descent, which take 5-10 seconds each. The duration of the ascent and descent may vary depending on the level of the lifter and his ability to maintain proper lifting posture. Strict form is required throughout the lift to decrease injury potential. This is a very demanding exercise designed to increase the overall endurance and stabilization of he torso, and should be used sparingly.
Dumbbell Deadlifts can be used with any of the previous styles. A major benefit of DBDL is the need to stabilize each weight separately. These lifts allow for a greater range of motion than the other DL styles performed on the floor with large-diameter plates, and decrease the amount of time needed to change resistance. One or two dumbbells may be used.
FAT BAR DEADLIFTS (FBDL) are gaining popularity with lifters searching for novel ways to train grip strength along with back strength. Any style deadlift may be utilized for the FBDL. This form of deadlifting places a lot of stress on the wrist flexors and should be used sparingly at first to prevent any overuse injuries in the forearms and elbows. Adapt over time.
FINGERTIP DEADLIFTS as well as RING DEADLIFTS require a great deal of finger and forearm flexor strength. The U.S.A. All-Round Weightlifting Association uses these two deadlift variations in competition. They both may be used with any style of deadlifting. These two styles are excellent finger and grip strengtheners. Grip on the bar may be either opposing or in the same direction. Caution must be taken when attempting these deadlift styles, and they are commonly associated with a high degree of delayed onset muscle soreness, as well as deep soreness along all of the joints in the fingers. These exercises should be utilized according to the lifter's rate of adaptation.
All sane variations of the deadlift are beneficial exercises, but the application of each should be based upon the goals, needs, and abilities of the individual lifter. The deadlift must be treated with respect. All its forms have the potential to be overall strength developers, or a source of risk to the lifter. Individual limitations of the lifter, technique, load, volume, order, and recovery are some of the factors that must be considered when determining the ratio of benefit to risk. Maximal loads need not be used at all times to obtain a training response. Deciding to do a given number of sets and reps with a suggested percent of max over a given number of lifting sessions simply because you saw it written somewhere is a bit of a daft idea, eh. Design training programs with your own individual needs and abilities in mind, and remember, the human body has been known to rebel against overly ambitious directives of the mind.
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