Posted July 11, 2016

Maybe You Shouldn’t Deadlift From The Floor

A few months ago, I wrote a piece that outlined a lot of the individual variances in hip structure, and how they could affect your ability to squat to depth or lack thereof. It was very well received, and I’m happy it got a conversation started about individualizing stance width, depth, and even asymmetric set up to account for an individuals’ unique biomechanics and alignment considerations.

One consideration that speaks to this concept of individual abilities based on hip anatomy is the ideal of deadlifting from the floor. For instance, pretty much everyone does it, whether they have the requisite mobility to do it or not. Everyone seems to think that if you can’t deadlift from the floor without problems that you just need to work on your mobility, suck it up and be a man, or hang your head in shame for being an unevolved human being. These are reasons why the internet sucks holy hell, because people will actually talk to each other like this.

bad-deadlift

Sure, some people will see improvements in their ability to pull wheels off the floor with some focused work on mobility and core control, plus they may just have to learn the positioning and the ability to be there while developing tension in that position to succeed.

But some people won’t.

To set up for a deadlift, depending on the individual’s height you may require anywhere from 115-130 degrees of hip flexion. This is also dependent on torso length relative to leg length, and also in whether the individual sets up with a high hip or low hip set up, but suffice it to say the hip flexion angle is pretty sufficient. In a conventional stance, that angle occurs in an almost entirely sagittal plane alignment, which is also a common zone of hip impingement.

FADDIR

Image credit: http://www.physioanswers.com/2015/12/a-deep-investigation-into-safety-and_24.html

If an individual happens to have more of a retroverted acetabulum that limits movement into deep flexion past 110 degrees, more of a center-edge angle that could predicate bone to bone contact in this position compared to less of a center-edge angle, which would allow more motion before bone to bone contact occurs.

Screen-Shot-2016-06-29-at-9.32.28-PM-768x659

Free-drawn by yours truly. Hold your applause.

Because of this potential structural limitation through hip flexion, some people may not be able to get into position to pull the weight from the floor without trying to find motion somewhere else. The great thing about the body is it always finds a way to do the job, but there’s always a cost of doing business.

One way the movement can occur if the person runs out of hip flexion range of motion is to add in some lumbar flexion range to make up the difference. This is a common situation where the low back looks like it’s rounding, or even developing a hinge at one or two vertebral segments. When looking at the low back directly, it looks like wings or fins riding along the spine or like instead of a smooth bend the spine has a sudden kink in it at one spot.

Photo credit: https://bretcontreras.com/how-to-increase-your-deadlift/

Photo credit: https://bretcontreras.com/how-to-increase-your-deadlift/

Bret Contreras wrote an awesome article on how involving upper back rounding was different from low back rounding, especially for powerlifters, and also covered a lot of other major and minor details in setting up and execution.

There’s a couple of reasons why rounding the low back on set up could be a bad idea. First, if the low back is flexing to meet the bar, one of two things will happen when you pull the bar off the floor: the low back initiates the first phase of movement to get back to neutral, or it doesn’t and stays in that position, or potentially slips further into flexion. A downside of the low back initiating movement against load while in flexion is it’s now taking over the responsibility of the prime movers in the hips, making the lift slower or weaker than it should be, and also making the low back do considerably more work than it likely ever should do, which can predispose it to potential tissue failure, especially if in the presence of fatigue.

If the spine stays flexed through the movement or drifts further into flexion, the vertebral body and disc are now exposed to a magnitude of shear force 10 times greater than if it was in more of a “neutral” position (which I know is a contentious term to anatomy geeks). Shear force can cause some damage to discs, vertebral ligaments and other connective tissue, plus also tends to decrease activity of the lumbar erector spinae when in a forward flexed position. Essentially, a stretched muscle under load won’t be able to flex as hard as a shortened muscle under the same load, and in time the risk of the muscle not being able to hold the joint together goes up significantly as the magnitude of that force increases and as the reactive moment of those muscles decreases.

So the big question comes up: should someone who doesn’t have the hip anatomy to allow them to grab the bar without compensating with low back flexion even worry about pulling a bar off the floor? The plates used are typically a set height, meaning if you’re 5’0″ or 7’0″ tall you have to bend down to the same position. The person who is 5’0″ tall will pull from a position that’s almost at their knee, whereas the 7’0″ tall person will essentially be tying their shoes at the start position. No one would say someone who was a 7’0″ basketball player should deadlift from the floor since it’s such an aggressive hip position and doesn’t warrant the risk for their ability, so why do we figure a 5’10” accountant named Dave should have to pull from the floor versus from an elevated position?

Probably not doing him any favours here.

Probably not doing him any favours here.

In all honesty, there are only 2 sports or activities which would require deadlifting from the floor: powerlifting and olympic lifting. In both of those sports, the weight starts on the floor and you have to lift from that position, regardless of your body dimensions, height, hip anatomy, etc. For any other sport, activity, training goal, or lifestyle, deadlifting from the floor may not be necessary and could actually be counter-productive to the relative risk to benefit ratio for the individual.

In many people, a floor pull is actually a deficit pull.

So let’s say you’re in a situation where you round your low back when you go to grab the bar in a conventional stance with your feet under your hips, but you still want to deadlift off the floor. There’s a couple of potential options you could work with. One is to take a slightly modified sumo stance approach. This means setting up with a foot width stance slightly wider than shoulder width, or for many around the width of the grip you would use for bench press, grab the bar inside the feet, and pull from that position. In many cases, this more lateral stance tends to allow a more free hip motion through flexion, but also has the added benefit of shortening the lever length of the thigh acting on the low back.

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coan-sumo

You could also use a trap bar, which has a higher handle height and situates the bar more easily underneath your center of gravity and over your base of support compared to a traditional barbell.

Occasionally, because we all have some level of asymmetry in our pelvic structure, it may even warrant turning one toe out further than the other, or even having one foot set up behind the other.

Let’s say that either of these options are still not enough to counter the lack of hip mobility to grab the bar without flexing the spine. Setting the weights up on risers on the floor, either with some pads or other plates, or simply using a squat rack to do a rack pull from an elevated position would still allow the individual to train the movement within their abilities and see some overload that could develop a training effect similar to pulling from the floor but without exposing the spine to unnecessary and potentially detrimental forces.

Who knows, maybe you do just need more mobility and control over your end ranges of motion to help you get into that position. You know I got you on this:

To summarize, don’t get hung up on having to do an exercise a specific way that may not work well with your specific body anatomy, abilities, or limitations. Sometimes a slightly reduced range of motion or an altered stance can give you the same training effect you’re looking for but without the same risks. Still work on improving your abilities to expand on the potential repertoire of activities you can do, but understand there’s many different paths that can lead in the same direction.

  • Christian Gotcher

    What is your response when a trainee is able to get into the proper position at a moderate load but loses it as the weight increases? Do you switch exercises?

    • deansomerset

      Usually it would be prudent to train at a resistance where they can maintain form versus going heavier and pushing their limits. For most people looking to just move and feel better, this is adequate, but for someone who is training for sports, they may need more stimulus. This is where a belt may be useful, and also doing some accessory work to strengthen the low back in that range to avoid driving into flexion would be a good idea as well.

  • Ioseba Aloirra Zednánreh

    Awesome article! I feel I have this problem, rounding my lower back even before starting to pull, and I am only 5’6″. How can I find out if its due to lack of core control, lack of mobility or just due to hip anatomy?

    • deansomerset

      Try doing a core exercise like planks or dead bugs before a set and see if that helps out. If it does, using a core exercise before you pull to turn on the core muscles would be beneficial. If not, try doing some of the hip mobility drills in the article and see if they help. If they do, use them as your warm up. It could also be a concept of getting tension at the top of the movement and then maintaining it as you bend down to grab the bar. If none of those work, put the weight up on a small riser, plate, or rack to see if it helps out.

  • Tavish Bochek

    Have you had any success beginning the movement from a hang position? Kind of like a eccentric deadlift.

    • I usually don’t start that way, simply due to people having a hard enough time getting into the position without any loading to consider giving an eccentric load much value, at least until they can own the starting position. We can then work up to a pause lift on both concentric and eccentric with light loading to ensure they have the positioning locked in.

  • Well said Dean, thank you for another awesome article.

    On the push-up knee tucks why do you recommend only holding for about 2 seconds? Because it would become a static muscle stretch and not a dynamic warm-up?

    Thanks! Love your work!

    • Because 2 seconds is about the length of the average adults attention span these days 🙂
      Honestly, it’s to make sure people aren’t blasting through the movements and are spending time thinking about those end ranges of motion, while not existing there for an excruciatingly long period of time.