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Default Going Deeper into the Deadlift with Mark Rippetoe, Part 1 & 2, by Myles Kantor
by JTurner 01-13-2012, 10:25 AM

Going Deeper into the Deadlift with Mark Rippetoe, Part 1
Going Deeper into the Deadlift with Mark Rippetoe, Part 2

In the November 2006 issue of CrossFit Journal, Mark Rippetoe published, ďA New, Rather Long Analysis of the Deadlift.Ē He concluded this breakthrough article by identifying three criteria for a correct deadlift starting position:

The back must be locked in extension.
The bar must be touching the shins with the feet flat on the floor.
The shoulders must be out in front of the bar so that the shoulder blades are directly above the bar.
Rippetoe expands on these criteria in the second edition of Starting Strength and has refined his analysis in the Basic Barbell Certification course that he teaches through CrossFit. Iíve used Rippetoeís pulling model to improve my own deadlift and teach clients how to deadlift. The 58-year-old client I described in a previous article recently increased his deadlift from 340 lbs to 355 lbs using this model, and my 132-lb friend, Cathy, pulled 175 lbs after a couple of workouts following this model as well.

Rippetoe and I have recently been analyzing deadlifts by powerlifters such as Andy Bolton, Ed Coan, and Brad Gillingham. Without exception, these videos confirm his claim that the bar does not leave the floor on heavy pulls until the shoulder blades are over the bar with the bar over the middle of the foot. I recently spoke with Rippetoe about some specific points of his pulling model and how he has refined his analysis.

MK: In Starting Strength, you discuss the importance of the quadriceps in the beginning of the deadlift to produce knee extension. You state, ďThe quadriceps must participate in the deadlift properly in order for the movement to be safe and efficient.Ē In this regard, you have recommended weightlifting shoes to better utilize the quads. Powerlifters are nearly always found deadlifting in some kind of flat shoe because it reduces the range of motion and makes it easier to get on the heels and recruit the posterior chain. From a powerlifting perspective, would the benefit of extra quad recruitment with weightlifting shoes outweigh the extra inch of the range of motion (ROM) on the pull and diminished posterior chain recruitment?

MR: I have deadlifted heavy both ways. In my later lifting career, I switched over to weightlifting shoes and pulled my biggest deadliftó633 lbsóon two separate occasions. The shoes I wore were the old, Adidas weightlifting shoes that had a little heel (about 5/8-inch elevation from the ball of the foot to the heel).

When powerlifters think about getting back on the heels, theyíre putting the bar over the middle of the foot because when you start pushing on the ground with a heavy bar, thatís where itís going to be in balance. If itís behind the middle of the foot, youíre going to be off balance backward. If itís in front of the middle of the foot, youíre going to be off balance forward. So we donít really want to be on the heels. We want the bar directly over the middle of the foot. A better cue would be to push the middle of the foot into the floor. I like to think about the contact path directly under the bar and push it into the floor. That keeps me in better balance than doing it any other way.

If I have a little heel under my shoe, that places my knee in a position that is a little bit forward, maybe three to five degrees more forward than it would be in flat shoes. This increases the quadricepsí effectiveness off the floor because it increases the knee angle enough that it allows the quadriceps to open the knee up over a longer range of motion. Thus, the quadriceps has more work to do. It doesnít increase the knee angle enough that posterior chain recruitment is diminished at all. The only way to do this would be to have enough of the heel so the lift would produce a knee angle so acute that it actually shortened the hamstrings from the distal end. Weíre using the hamstrings from the proximal end to extend the hip. Thatís the action of the posterior chain on the hip. If the knee angle is made acute enough that you actually put slack from the distal end into the hamstring youíre attempting to use from the proximal end, you diminish the effectiveness of the use of the posterior chain.

If the heel is low enough, there is no compromise between posterior chain recruitment and quadriceps recruitment. You only get that when the heel is too high. The heel on the shoe, while taking a tiny bit of tension off the hamstrings and making it a little bit easier to get into that extended lumbar position, also produces enough increase in the knee angle so that you get a little bit more work out of the quadriceps off the floor. I think itís a reasonable compromise between that and the extra distance that the bar would have to be pulled. And the extra distance would be the height of the shoe directly over the middle of the foot, not at the end of the heel because you lock the bar out over the middle of the foot as well. Thatís the extra distance that youíre pulling.

I also think wrestling shoes almost make it harder to get into the correct position because of the increased tension that the straighter knee places on the hamstrings. Itís harder to get the lumbar spine into an extended position against that hamstring tension. The pelvis is in a war for control between the muscles of the low back and the muscles of the hamstrings. If youíre going to pull the bar off the ground and not eventually hurt yourself, the lumbar spine needs to be in extension. That means the back muscles have to win the war.

In fact, the reason some deadlifters and most Olympic lifters rock forward onto their toes before they pull is because this takes the tension off the hamstrings and allows the low back to get into an arched position more easily. But it also means that the bar has to travel back to the mid-foot during the pull. This explains the ďhookĒ in the bottom of the bar path in a clean and snatch, which is light enough compared to a deadlift that the bar can actually leave the ground in this position. They can be done this way, but a heavy deadlift wonít leave the ground very far in front of the mid-foot.

The bottom line is that I donít want less muscle in the movement. I want as much muscle in the movement as I can get. I need them all because Iím going to use them all. Whether Iím at my one rep max or on my third attempt, I need as much stuff helping me out as possible.

MK: When you mention a compromise with the extra distance that one pulls the bar with weightlifting shoes, one could likewise say that flat shoes create compromises regarding quad recruitment and proper lumbar position.

MR: Yes, you could. There are compromises on both sides that have to be appreciated before you can make an informed decision about it. I did it both ways, and I like a little bit of heel better. I understand that many people are doing sumo deadlifts right now and that might change the equation a little bit. I never did sumo. Sumo is used because it produces a more vertical back angle, and the wide stance reduces the effective length of the femur. There are mechanical differences between conventional and sumo that might favor a flat shoe. I donít pull sumo though so I donít know. I donít know anybody who does pull sumo and doesnít wear flat shoes.

Now, it very well might be that somebody pulling sumo might find a benefit out of a little bit of a heel in the same way that a conventional puller would, but Iíd be pulling things out of my ass if I said that I knew for sure.

MK: If weightlifting shoes facilitate greater quad recruitment from the floor, it seems flat shoes are more advantageous in deadlift assistance exercises like Romanian deadlifts and good mornings that seek to exclude the quads. In deadlift assistance exercises like pulls on blocks and pulls with 35s entailing greater knee extension, weightlifting shoes seem more advantageous.

MR: These all seem to be reasonable conclusions.

MK: What is the maximum heel height that you have found to be compatible with keeping the bar over the middle of the foot?

MR: I like somewhere between 0.625 inches and 0.75 inches. Thatís the difference between the height under the ball of the foot and the height under the heel. We have investigated this at length, and we donít think that you can get somebody in position with the bar over the middle of the foot with a 1.75-inch heel.

MK: You mentioned the sumo deadlift. What are your thoughts on the sumo deadlift as opposed to the conventional stance?

MR: As I said, the sumo is a way to increase the verticality of the back angle. This shortens the moment arm between the hip and the bar by effectively shortening the length of the femur when the stance width is increased and by shortening the moment arm between the hip joint and the scapulas when the back angle is made more vertical. It is interesting that there are some people who canít deadlift efficiently with a conventional stance. For example, some people have femurs and tibias that are so long relative to their back length that they canít get their back angles much above horizontal without a stance that sufficiently shortens the effective femur length. We found a woman at one of our seminars whose femurs were four inches longer than her back. She had never been able to deadlift conventionally without having the bar ten inches in front of her mid-foot at her start position. When she was in the conventional stance with the bar over her mid-foot, her hips were actually much higher than her scapulas. We put her in a sumo stance, and she got her back at what would be a normal angle for a more proportioned person. She set a PR in her deadlift by 10 kg that day.

MK: In order to have the bar over the middle of the foot, what variances have you found in the distance the bar is from the shins in the set up with people of different foot sizes?

MR: Essentially none. I teach 35 people at least twice a month to deadlift using this model. Iíve seen everyone from a girl with a womenís shoe size of four to a guy with a menís shoe size of 17. All were in essentially the same place with the bar about an inch away from the shin when the shin is vertical. Itís surprising that thereís that little variability. But, nonetheless, if you line up about an inch from the bar when youíre standing straight up, youíre going to be in the right place. Human foot and leg proportions are remarkably consistent no matter how big or small they are.

Another thing that we have recently begun to understand about this is the necessity for most peopleóand especially bigger guysóto point the toes out to activate the hip and make room for the gut between the femurs in order to express the correct back angle. The correct back angle is, of course, where the scapulas are directly over the bar. Generally, the thinner you are, the less important it is. But the heavier you are, the more important the toes-out position is.

What we find is that if you take your vertical jump stance right under the bar (relatively narrow stance), place the middle of the foot under the bar, and then point your toes out maybe 15Ė20 degrees, you make it much easier to express the correct back angle when youíre in thoracic and lumbar extension. It also enables you to place a little bit of tension on the adductors with that external rotation. To a certain extent, you can call them into hip extension because the adductors are hip extensors. Theyíre part of the posterior chain. When you point your toes out and point your knees out a little bit, you actually tighten them up and get a little bit of help out of those muscles. If you look at old videos of Vince Anello, he figured this out.

MK: Among the videos we have looked at are Naim Suleymanogluís snatches and clean and jerks. Youíve observed a very interesting compensatory sequence that he engages in before beginning his pulls.

MR: What youíll see is that he takes about two or three pulses of pull in order to get his weight from his toes back onto the middle of his foot before the bar leaves the ground. In other words, heís using those little tugs to pull the slack out of his hamstrings after he sets his lumbar spine. Thatís essentially whatís going on. What you find is that good lifters are people who are very good at reproducing that complex sequence of events. They know how to do it because this is the way they have done it for fifteen years, and this is what feels right. Those people arenít who Iím concerned with. Iím not concerned with experienced lifters who have gotten used to doing it a bit inefficiently. Itís not inefficient for them because theyíre able to deal with the inefficiency and predict it and control it. Thatís not who I deal withóI deal with people who donít know how to do this stuff.

When I teach people how to pull, what Iím trying to do is teach novice lifters the easiest way for them to produce a pull according to that standard model. So what we do is we place the middle of the foot under the bar where the system will be in equilibrium. In doing so, we therefore take out a lot of the variability that would occur were the bar to be pulled from a slightly different point on the floor every single time and then the variability involved in getting it back over the middle of the foot during the first part of the pull. My method is a way for people who have either had trouble doing it or have never done it before to do it correctly the first time according to what I have observed to be the standard model for pulling heavy weights off the floor.

Now, you can attempt to pull the bar off the ground anywhere you want to. My point in this whole discussion is that the bar is going to be in equilibrium when it is directly under the scapulas and when itís directly over the middle of the foot. That means the lighter the weight youíre pulling, the more likely you are to be able to get away with doing it inefficiently. The heavier the weight that youíre pulling, the more the mechanics of the system are going to require that you be in that position. And thereís a continuum between light weight and heavy weight that exhibits these characteristics.

MK: When we looked at Brad Gillinghamís deadlifts from the 2007 IPF Worlds and the 2008 Arnold Classic, you described his technique as ďthe most perfect one Iíve seen.Ē Please explain.

MR: What most powerlifters do is they place the middle of the foot under the bar. They donít drop forward, and they donít rock forward. Gillingham does this perfectly. What he does is he puts the middle of his foot under the bar, turns his toes out a little, and places his knees in the position where he wants them. Then, he squeezes his chest up and gets the lumbar into extension right before he pulls the bar off the floor while the hamstrings are already tight.

MK: Turning to Ed Coanís 837-lb deadlift at the 1996s IPF Worlds, what are your observations?

MR: If you stop the video at 33 seconds, youíll see that Ed gets in a position where his arms are vertical and his back angle is in a more vertical position than when the bar actually starts off the ground. This places the scapulas behind the bar. When the plates break off the ground at 34 seconds, you can clearly see that the back has assumed an angle that places the scapulas directly over the bar and that this back angle is maintained until the bar gets to the knees.

The movement that occurs prior to the bar actually leaving the groundóthe movement that produced the change in the back angleówas unnecessary in terms of its contribution to the pull because you can clearly see that the pull begins in exactly the same place that the standard pulling model predicts it will. The difference is where does Ed think he starts his pull versus where the bar actually leaves the ground? My point here is that itís possible to just place the bar in a position over the middle of the foot and assume the start position in such a way that the back angle is in the same position that itís in at 34 seconds so there isnít any motion that adjusts the back angle before the bar leaves the ground. This is like Brad Gillinghamís pulls.

But hereís an interesting observation. Where is evidence of absolute strength in a snatch or a clean? It is at the instant that the bar leaves the ground because speed-strength does not come into play until the pull accelerates, which means upstream from breaking the bar off the ground as the bar accelerates into a velocity that gives it a momentum component. Itís only after that point that speed-strength is a factor. However, breaking it off the ground is a function of your absolute strength, your ability to break the bar loose from a dead stop, and to hold your position over the bar isometrically until the second pull starts. The stronger you are, the lighter that snatch and clean will be relative to your absolute strength and the more weight you can get off the floor in the proper position to accelerate.

You accelerate both a clean and a snatch. You donít accelerate a deadlift, at least not appreciably. But the instant at which the bar leaves the ground is the point at which your absolute strength is the major factor in Olympic weightlifting. And the higher your absolute strength relative to the load youíre pulling in the snatch and the clean, the more likely youíre able to evidence an inefficient technical pull off the ground. You can get away with it if itís light. This is part of the continuum I was talking about earlier.

MK: Coanís pulling style is the strongest example of Ernie Frantzís idea of ďthe Frantz Rocker.Ē As he describes it in The Ten Commandments of Powerlifting, ďÖkeep your head up and rock forward then quickly go back into a full squat and blast upward. Your momentum will practically lift the weight by itself. All you have to do is keep your shoulders back, head up, and drag the bar across your shins up to your thighs.Ē This advice suggests that the stretch reflex in the squat can be duplicated in the deadlift.

MR: Thereís a stretch reflex in the squat because itís loaded. In the squat, the load is the bar on your back eccentrically lowered causing a loaded bounce out of the hole that not only is a stretch reflex but is also elastic energy stored during the eccentric phase of the movement in the extensible components of the muscles and tendons of the hips and legs. This is in direct contrast to the lowering and raising of your naked ass over the barbell without any contribution from any eccentric anything. So the two situations are not equivalent examples of the use of the stretch reflex.

MK: Who taught you how to deadlift?

MR: I learned how to deadlift from Bill Starr, but he never analyzed it at this level. For that matter, I hadnít either until about two or three years ago. I just knew where the bar needed to be, but I didnít know why. I got to thinking about it because we would start having arguments about it. ďI think we need to pull with our backs more vertical.Ē ďWell, no, we donít, and I canít tell you why right now, but Iíll get to where I can.Ē And so I did. I just started thinking about it. Why do we pull this way? Why does the bar want to be in this position?

And it just dawned on me one night in August of 2006 while I was talking to Dr. Barry Prestridge, one of my members here at the Wichita Falls Athletic Club. It was one of these slap yourself in the forehead things. Itís the scapulas. The scapulas are over the bar. Look at the anatomy of the traps and the rhomboids. Look at the position that the scapulas are in to receive the force transmitted up the spine. Itís right there in front of you. That is the structure that receives the force transmitted across those broad muscles isometrically and then down the arms to the bar. Thatís it. Just look at the anatomy.

The trapezius has the broadest muscle origin in the human body. It goes all the way from the base of the skull down to T12. It receives the force that the rigid spine transmits, the force generated by the muscles that open the knees and the hips. That force is then transmitted across the traps and the rhomboids to the scapulas. What hangs from the scapulas? The arms. And then if youíll look at it, every single time you see somebody pulling a heavy bar off the flooróevery single timeóitís the scapula that is plumb to the bar, not the arms. Why would that be? Because the scapula is the thing below which the bar hangs. The tensional force of the weight in the hands is transmitted between the scapulas and the grip by the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that anchor the bones in place isometrically. The traps and rhomboids transfer the force to the scapulas; the triceps, biceps, forearm muscles, grip muscles, and the ligaments and tendons form the chain from which the weight hangs; and the lats act on the humerus to keep the arms at the angle they have to be to place the load directly under the scapulas.

But you have to remember that the bar is hanging from the scapulas and therefore the force is tension. The bony skeleton doesnít transmit tension. It only transmits compression. It is the connective tissue components that transmit tension. So you have to look at the connective tissue components of the arms and the structures that suspend the arms to see exactly how that force is transmitted.

MK: It seems our anatomy is telling us what it wants us to do if we only respect it.

MR: Thatís exactly right. This stuff is merely the normal physical expression of muscular force transmitted through skeletal anatomy. Thatís the way the skeleton moves the bar when the muscles generate enough force to do it. Itís the way the skeleton operates. And itís important to know this because it determines the best way to teach people how to train with barbells. Thatís really what weíre trying to do.
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