Strategies For Movement Development: The Reverse Halting Deadlift
The Deadlift consists of four basic phases, the set up, pull, lock out and descent. There are plenty of articles, teaching progressions and information about the first three portions of the lift but much less interest and emphasis on how to properly lower the bar back to the ground. Despite this lack of information, properly bringing the bar back down has tremendous importance for both safety and performance. The two most common faulty scenarios are where the bar is either dropped from the lock out position or the athlete, satisfied with “completing” the lift allows gravity and the weight of the bar to pull them back down in an uncontrolled and haphazard manner. The former scenario is more an issue of gym culture and context. In our gym, a test lift doesnt count if the bar is dropped from lockout, plain and simple. A dropped bar might be tolerated during the last rep of a conditioning workout or perhaps at the end of a warm-up rep before some heavy work sets but this scenario is the exception and not the rule. Dropping your bar is generally considered bad etiquette and a missed opportunity to train your back.
The latter scenario, wherein the bar held but allowed to free fall pulling the lifter out of ideal positions is much more insidious. When I see this, I think that lifter probably doesn’t have the strength, positional awareness and self respect to properly finish the lift. Lets first discuss the dangers of not controlling the descent then discuss how to properly organize it.
Hazard 1: Spinal Flexion Under Load
When you allow the bar to pull you down you are by default not engaged in controlling the lift anymore which pulls your spine out of alignment and into flexion. This is often made worse by the downward acceleration which decreases your ability to control the momentum of the barbell. Any and every time you have carry a load with your back rounded you are performing some insult to your spine. Even if you think you’re off tension and “riding” the bar down until the floor absorbs most of the energy, damage may still be occuring in the soft tissue of your back. Rounding your spine on the way down is dangerous for all the same reasons it’s dangerous on the way up. Even if flexion doesnt occur, you will most likely be pulled forward off balance creating a mechanical inefficiency that your back will have to compensate for. Don’t be stupid, protect yourself.
Hazard 2: Lack of Positional awareness and weakened spinal erectors
Hinging at the hip is one of the most basic and important movement skills everyone should know how to do. Lacking this ability, whether due to weakness or awareness will inhibit every single thing you do inside and outside of the gym. Every time you rush a descent you’re losing an opportunity to reinforce this motor pattern and develop strength in your spinal erectors. If you have a hard time keeping your back on the way up, lowering under control is one of the best ways to develop your ability to maintain a neutral torso. I’ve used this “top down” approach countless times to fix people’s Deadlifts. This hip hinge awareness and strength will make you a much stronger lifter all around.
Hazard 3: Botching the set up for your next pull
Ideally the descent of the Deadlift is the identical inverse of the pull. When you bring the bar back down you should end up in the exact position you’re supposed to pull it from. If you have to “reset” your back position every time you pick it up you’re not deadlifting correctly. The bottom should be a moment to rebreath and retension, not reposition. For many people, finding extension can be very difficult at the start position. Add a little fatigue from previous reps into the mix and each rep will look worse throughout your set. It’s much easier to take the time to organize from the top down where the demands of flexibility and awareness are much less inhibitory.
How to fix your Deadlift
There are a handful of cues and movement drills that can teach you how to properly hinge at the hip but we’ll keep things simple and stay with the Deadlift itself. In the video above you see a “Reverse Halting Deadlift”, (you can call it whatever you want). In this drill the bar is picked up in the conventional fashion however on the way down we add a brief pause just below the patella. It is extremely difficult to pause at this portion of the lift in an incorrect position. If you’ve allowed your weight to drift forward or you’ve lost your back the bar will pull you down and crash on the floor. By initiating your descent with the hips pushed back and torso reaching forward you can keep the system in balance and train your spinal erectors to work they way they’re supposed to. Finish the lift by placing the bar down as slowly and under as much control as possible. It might be helpful to imagine Deadlifting onto a thin sheet of glass you’re attemptingt to not break. Especially as the weight increases, doing this under control will be brutally hard but I guarantee doing this will make your Deadlift pulls rock solid. Tomorrow you’ll see these intentionally programmed into class, but feel free to perform them on all your early warm-up sets whenever you Deadlift. I’ve been controlling my descents since I started Deadlifting and have never (ever) had issues with spinal flexion because of the strength I’ve gained from it. If I miss a lift it’s always because I lack the strength to complete the pull, never because I lost position.
Deadlifting incorrectly is dangerous. I’d rather see someone not do it all all than do it incorrectly. That being said, a well performed Deadlift is the best way to build a strong and safe back. Take the time to learn how to do it right every single time. When in doubt, ask a coach, and again, don’t be stupid.
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