Red alert, red alert! I haven’t been at Cressey Performance for all that long, but already I’ve noticed an all-too-common pattern. In both beginner trainees and seasoned veterans alike, pulling more weight seems to be a universal goal that everyone strives for – but oftentimes this happens at the sake of proper form. Many of us know that the deadlift is one of the more technical exercises out there. It’s always a good idea to have a knowledgeable coach watching you lift, especially as you near your max, as old movement patterns from the past may resurface and behaviors you thought you’d effectively eliminated may spring up again.
Keep your chest up. Tuck that chin. Pull your shoulders back and down. Push the knees out when you pull. Squeeze the glutes at the top. Don’t hyperextend. Look down. Sit back, sit back, sit back.
These are some of the more common coaching cues we like to use when walking someone through a deadlift, whether it be trap bar, sumo, or conventional. Unfortunately, it’s hardly ever that simple. Particularly with inexperienced folks or younger prepubescent teens just about to go through their awkward gangly-limbs phase, getting set up properly for the deadlift is about as easy as tying a cherry stem into a knot with just your tongue (can you do it?).
A quick story, if I may. I was taking a high school baseball athlete through his first training session at CP a number of weeks ago. Let’s call him Bob. Bob was 17 years old and was about as uncoordinated as you can get. But he told me that he’d lifted weights before at his high school, so I took that to mean that he had some experience with grooving basic movement patterns. I had him stand inside the trap bar and asked him to get into position as though he were about to pull. He hunched over and grabbed the bars, his back as round as can be. Yikes.
I cued him to get his chest up and he merely cranked his head up to look at the ceiling, severely hyperextending the cervical spine. I told him to flatten his back and instead he bent his knees more. I took this as a glaring sign that this kid needed a little more guidance as to what each cue looked and felt like. I poked and prodded him until he eventually had a proper setup.
From there, with 10lb bumper plates on each side of the bar, I instructed him to pull. Then I told him to reverse that exact same movement on the way back down, and again he hunched his back as he brought the weight to the floor. No bueno.
Do you understand what I’m trying to get at?
The hip hinge. This is, in general, any flexion/extension originating at the hips that involves a posterior weight shift. With the hip hinge, neutral spine is maintained as movement occurs at the hips as opposed to at the low back. This pattern relieves stress off of the lumbar spine and can prevent a whole host of injuries. Just watch any toddler bend down to pick up an object and you will observe a perfect hip hinge. It’s a shame we unlearn this movement pattern as we become adults.
You’re not allowed to do deadlifts – or cable pullthroughs or good mornings or even pick up heavy everyday objects – if you haven’t mastered the hip hinge.
There are a number of ways to go about coaching the hip hinge. One of the scenarios that I like to use when I feel like the client has good form for the most part but is squatting a little more than hip hinging is to tell her to imagine that I’ve got a string tied to her tailbone. Now, if I pull that string back, what will happen? She’ll break at the hips first, not the knees.
Sometimes this is hard to visualize, however, and if that happens, then I’ll walk her over to a wall. While she’s standing about 3 inches facing away from the wall, I’ll tell her to try to tap the wall with her butt. In order to do so, she’ll stick her butt out and hinge at the hips – or she should, anyway. Once this is executed successfully, I have her walk out away from the wall another 2 inches and repeat the same movement. Finally, she’ll walk out another 2 inches and execute a full hip hinge. Voila!
While I really like the above drill, it doesn’t always work. There have been times when I’ve coached a client to tap the wall with her butt and she will literally lean back with her whole body, thumping the wall with her entire back. This is not good.
Enter the dowel hip hinge. I like using the dowel because it provides the client with proprioceptive feedback and she can therefore experience the tactile feel of a proper hip hinge. With this exercise, place the dowel along the client’s back so there are three points of contact between her body and the dowel: the back of her head, the upper back, and the sacrum. From there, with her feet shoulder width apart and toes pointed slightly outward, instruct her to sit back with the hips, all the while maintaining contact at the three points. The movement should look like this:
I like to have my client perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions to start out with. The learning curve is pretty high and she’ll soon pick up the motor pattern. From there, transition to a trap bar deadlift and be sure to utilize the coaching cues mentioned above. A few key notes to be extra mindful of:
Maintain neutral spine at all times. Never, ever let the client move at the lower back while she’s carrying a heavy weight. This is a recipe for disaster and can lead to serious injury. I myself have tweaked my back a handful of times when I was being careless and didn’t pay attention.
Keep the chin tucked – even at the bottom. Many people for some reason have a habit of keeping their eyes up as they deadlift. As they lower the bar, then, their neck cranks all the way up. I’m confused as to why there are still personal trainers and coaches out there actually cuing this as the correct movement; they’re asking to be smacked in the mouth. Maintaining a neutral spine involves keeping a tucked chin. I’ve tried the ball-under-the-chin method, in which a lacrosse ball, tennis ball, or baseball is placed under the client’s chin and her job is to keep that ball there through all reps of the deadlift – but sometimes this can be distracting. A few other clients like to bite the collar of their t-shirt as it serves as a constant yet passive reminder to keep their chin down. As a general rule of thumb, however, I always recommend that the client look at a spot on the ground 4 to 5 feet in front of her.
Take the time to really master the hip hinge, as it will spare your clients’ backs over the long run. Also keep in mind that this movement pattern is not reserved solely for weight training but should be practiced in everyday life as much as possible. You owe it to yourself to take care of your back for optimal health and performance in the gym.