Deadlifting Will Not Get You Laid But It Will Make You Awesome: 8 Common Deadlift Mistakes

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by DAN RUNION|Coach at CrossFit 77

Deadlifting Will Not Get You Laid But It Will Make You Awesome: 8 Common Deadlift Mistakes
I have a love/hate relationship with the deadlift. On one hand I love it for its simple brutality — no other lift has the potential for generating more work output in one brutal workout. Yet all one does is pick a weighted barbell up off the floor from a full stop to full extension.  It is absolutely beautiful in its simplicity: pick it up, put it down. It’s simple…but it ain’t easy. Besides the heavy weights involved, there’s a lot that can go wrong, and this is why I also hate it. I look around my gym or at a CrossFit competition and see folks making some common mistakes that put themselves at risk of some serious injuries. And why? Ignorance might be a legit excuse, but that’s little solace while recovering from hernia surgery…or worse.

I’ve been deadlifting for a while and I’d argue that I’m pretty good at it. It’s “my jam,” you could say. Still, I consider myself a beginner yet so I’m usually surprised to see others making some very basic mistakes. Therefore I feel compelled to compile the things that I’ve learned over the years that have helped me increase my deadlift weights and remain injury free (knock on wood). I consider these tips to be the “The Basics.” You should know these too, and you should be preaching it to your clients with the vigor of a cheetah chasing a gazelle.

1. Pulling Heavy Weights Without a Stable Neutral Spine

You need to make the lift safely or not at all.
Contrary to popular belief, the spine is built to handle heavy loads so long as it is in a neutral position. What it is NOT built for is to handle heavy loads while not in alignment and/or while in flexion or extension. What this means to a deadlifter (and a squatter, for that matter) is that it is critically important to get set up in a neutral position and HOLD IT THERE for the duration of the lift. When the spine moves under load is when bad things happen. If you can’t hold your core/spine while performing the lift, then you need to stop. Check your ego. Lower the weight and don’t go up again until you can hold your core stable at the higher weight. Talk to your coach about how to get there. You might be strong enough to make the lift, but that doesn’t mean you should. You need to make the lift safely or not at all.

Speaking of setup, one thing that I see a lot of folks doing that drives me bonkers is that whole “look where you want to go” thing. They get down in their setup, which includes a gaze toward the space where the ceiling meets the wall. What this does is immediately put their cervical spine (the neck area) in nearly full extension, and as we just discussed we want the spine neutral right? Right. Why do it? Don’t. Just…don’t. Instead, let your gaze be about 5-6 feet in front of you on the floor and allow it to move up to straight in front of you as you perform the lift. This will keep your cervical spine neutral for the duration of the lift.

2. Jerking the Weight Off the Floor

Jerking the Weight off of the Floor
How many times have you seen someone set up for their deadlift, and then bear down before violently ripping or jerking the weight from the floor? They get down, grab the bar, set their gaze, take a breath…then in one VIOLENT movement they drop their shoulders or raise their hips suddenly before ripping up on the bar and letting out a grunt and/or yell while pulling from the floor. You’ve seen it. It’s a train wreck and literally it frightens me every time I see it. In your gut you know it doesn’t look right, and it’s not!

The problem is twofold: not only are they moving out of their setup position (which may even have been a good one), but then they are applying force to their body in this now suboptimal starting position. You work hard for your setup for a reason, so don’t ruin it! Moving out of your presumably good setup then violently ripping the weight from the floor puts massive amounts of shear force on countless parts of the body while in a bad position. I’m not an anatomy expert, but you don’t have to be a doctor to know that this is a recipe for disaster. Slipped/herniated discs, hernias, muscle strains/pulls/tears; none of it is fun. Find your setup position and stay there as you begin the lift.

Folks that do this violent bear-down-and-rip-it technique are playing Russian roulette with their bodies. Something’s going to break and break badly. The secret to deadlifting for a long time without injury is getting the body into the correct position and KEEPING IT THERE while applying power.

I approach the deadlift like drag racing a car: I want to apply as much horsepower to the wheels as I can without burning the tires off or breaking parts. If I pull up to the starting line in my car and just mash the pedal to the floor, I’m only going to spin the tires all day long; if by some miracle the tires hook up, then parts on the car are going to break. Deadlifting is much the same: I get down in my setup, take a breath (more on that later), and I apply force in a smooth yet fast manner. It starts as a little and QUICKLY increases until the weight starts moving. Once you get the bar moving from the floor you can put the pedal to the metal and hold on for dear life. But if you apply all that force all at once, smoking tires or blown up spines are what you’ll reap. Neither wins the “race.”

3. Incorrect Breathing

When it comes to breathing, I incorporate two methods depending on the rep scheme. For example, if I’m going for a 1-rep max, my breathing technique is different from a heavy set of 5. That said, the goal of each is the same and that is to breathe only when I’m not straining to pull the weight from the floor. Why? Well try this: Take a deep breath and hold a tight core. Now let the breath out. What happened? As soon as you let the breath out your core became less stable, right? And what do we need to hold our spine in alignment and avoid nasty injuries? That’s right, a tight core. This applies to more than just deadlifting, obviously, but with the heavy loads of the deadlift it’s just that much more important.

[I]f you’re going to let out a little bit of air (however you choose) just make sure that you do so in a way that doesn’t relax the core, but rather tightens it up even more.
For 1-rep max attempts or heavy singles, the lift starts before I even approach the bar. I start to take some deep breaths and get myself moderately hyperventilated. Not to the point of passing out or feeling light headed, but just enough to have a slight excess of oxygen in the bloodstream. This insures that I’ll have enough air in my body while performing the lift without having to take a breath until I’m complete. Only then do I approach the bar and get set. Once I’m set I take a breath and hold it until I begin the lift.  My diaphragm will not relax again until I’ve completed the lift and set the bar down. This keeps my core tight, helps me stabilize my spine, and keeps any number of possible places in the gut that could get herniated from moving unnecessarily while under load. There are no guarantees, but why increase the risk unnecessarily? For an added “crunch” of the core I find it helpful to let out a grunt/groan, or a slight, controlled, or “pursed breath.” You may not realize it, but your core tightens when you grunt or yell. That’s the goal here. Remember under no circumstances should the diaphragm relax. So if you’re going to let out a little bit of air (however you choose) just make sure that you do so in a way that doesn’t relax the core, but rather tightens it up even more.

For sets of multiple reps I follow the same breathing method as above, but since the weights are lower I allow myself to take a breath at the top of the lift only. You can take a breath at the bottom if you want, but I feel that takes too long and increases the likelihood of resting too long. This is particularly important if you’re a CrossFitter, but is still appropriate for strength training. Wherever you choose to take your breath, just make sure to utilize the tips above before starting the next rep. Safety first!

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