Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Pushing For Power Part Four - Bill Seno

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The Deadlift


“The meet doesn’t begin until the bar hits the floor.’ These words have been said or thought by many great lifters, all of them great deadlifters. Among many great lifters the deadlift is the deciding lift; most subtotals are close going into this final lift of the meet. Some lifters realize they do not have the capabilities to win a meet on the last lift, so they had better gather a great sub-total, great enough to defeat the opponent or at least, to apply pressure on him during his last attempt. However we look at the competition, the lifters with good or great deadlifts are at an advantage. They can wait out the opponent, and when he is through, they can choose the numbers they need to win.

All of the powerlifts, when lifted to maximum effort, give a feeling that the body is in a vise, there is agony, pain and discomfort all attempting to escape from the head, but you won’t let it until the lift is achieved. It may sound masochistic, but the lifting athlete enjoys this, especially when he defeats the weight after having gone through such torment.

The deadlift, especially, is pronounced with this tormented feeling. I usually tell a novice lifter, who so often quits as he senses this feeling, that when the lift begins to get hard it will feel as though your insides want to come out, but hang in there, keep pulling until the lift is completed. Then, the exhilaration is acute because the lifter never experienced extending so much effort in such a way before. I have seen happiness came from the acknowledgement that they can tolerate the pain, thus getting a better picture of their inner selves. Besides, it opens up a whole new mode of attainment – heavier numbers on the horizon.


The deadlift strengthens the hips, lower back, upper back, trapezius, latissimus, abdominals, forearms and even some of the bicepital group. As you can see, most of the aforementioned is the back, and the back and hips are most of the three powerlifts. The back is even used during the bridge in the bench press; therefore, it is essential that the back is worked and rested for proper efficiency. Also, since the back is being used so much in the training of the three lifts, one is always building a strong back and should be cautious about overworking such a critical area.


First, let’s explore how the lift is done and the proper methods of performing the deadlift for the rules and for each individual. As the bar sits on the floor, the shins of the lifter should be up against it. The width of the stance and the hands are up to the discretion of the lifter; he will know not only his most comfortable body position but also his posture of advantage. Usually the lifter assumes a shoulder width stance with his hands, one hand pronated and one hand supinated grasping the bar anywhere from the beginning of the knurl to 3 inches out.

I once saw a demonstration of the deadlift on a video tape by a well known lifter. The demonstration assumes that all lifters are built like the demonstrator and, therefore, should deadlift in the same manner. The demonstrator’s hands, first of all, are inside of his knees. This is not advantageous for all lifters because their backs may be stronger than their hips and thighs when they are placed in the deadlift position, especially if body structure is considered. It is not feasible to believe that any position can be made stronger than the natural position of strength for a particular human structure. Everyone’s anatomy is different, and the lifter will eventually feel the most comfortable positions of all of the lifts; also, he will become stronger and avoid injury more if he does not go against his natural structure.

The demonstrator on the video tape also claimed that the best way to lift the bar is by keeping the head and back upright. The theory is certainly believable. If one wishes to go up, then keep straight and look up rather than down, but not all bodies are built or work the same way. First of all, by keeping the back entirely vertical, the brunt of the lift os placed on the hips and thighs, similar to an upright squatter. As some people cannot squat in this manner, neither can they deadlift in this way. If their backs are their leverage, they should use them. The head also need not be kept back during the entire lift. Sometimes the angle of the back and hips of a back lifter will not allow this, and it is not time for a back deadlifter to concentrate on the head, yet, anyway. Very often the back deadlifter will bring his head up as the bar moves up. He will thrust his head back when the bar hits his particular critical point somewhere above the knees. Even though the back deadlifter may not keep his back in a vertical position, it will, at least, remain flat; that is, the back will not be concave. It will remain as straight as possible until the acute part of the lift, at which the back will become concave.

Who knows? Maybe the demonstrators are instructing this way to protect themselves from law suits. After all, any doctor or health pamphlet that instructs on how to pick up any object will convey it as the video tape does. But an athlete is not interested in propriety for propriety’s sake. How he lifts the most weight tells him he is doing it right.


Now that we have established that form is in accordance with the nature of the individual, we can attend to elevating the bar from the floor. The rules state that the bar must be constantly in motion during the pull, no stopping, and that no hitching or resting on the thighs shall occur, to paraphrase. To avoid that agonizing feeling, novice lifters will start tot hitch or kick the bar up with their thighs, or they will pull it to a point on their thighs while they attempt to lower the hips and squat the bar past the critical point. Not only is this method not a competitive lift, but strength is not being developed in the back where it is needed. Another reason for not kicking the bar around is to prevent injury to the vertebral column.

Some lifters are strong off the floor and some are strong at the finish of the lift. One would work his deadlifts off blocks if he is weak from the floor to the knees. The lifter stands on plates or wooden blocks of various heights, usually a height that places the feet about two or three inches from the bar itself. The development starts in the very lowest part of the back when lifting the bar over a great distance whereas a deadlift from the knees up will develop the upper back. Sets of higher reps should be used off the blocks. They will help condition a weak area and prevent injury and staleness – about 5-8 reps, no more than four sets once a week. Since the lifter is reaching so low for the weight, the poundage should be much lighter than his ordinary maximum for 5-8 reps of the regular deadlift.

If your problem is a sticking point above the knees, the power rack is the key. At this advantageous point, since the distance the bar is lifted is short, more weight than the lifter usually handles will be used. The weight used for reps will be well above the maximum single from the floor. The system that seems to work best here is doing triples all the way up to a maximum triple. This is done once a week, but since the load is so heavy, the alternate weeks may be taken lighter because of recuperation. This is left up to the discretion of the lifter. He may go heavier if he feels he can take it or stop at a point below last week’s triple if he feels he can’t go on. Very often, if a heavier set is taken when the body is saying no, either a set back in training or an injury may occur.

Some lifters will work the rack from various pin positions during the workout. I don’t believe this is necessary. Choose a position that is all encompassing for power. We are dealing with too small of an area, so the overload will take care of the few inches of deadlifting the lifter thinks he is missing. Simply lower the pins the few inches and keep it there, or don’t lower the pins but add more weight. Don’t be capricious, give the body a chance.


Should auxiliary lifting be incorporated into the routine? Sometimes powerlifters will do floor deadlifts once a week followed by rack or block work or other assistance lifting such as stiff legged deadlifts of bentover rows. These exercises may be done either immediately following the regular deadlifts or on the light training day.

Personally, I believe doing too much deadlifting will weaken the back and interfere with the other lifts, also. But it is always worth a try to find out individual to the most effective routine. Each lifter will have to find his own range of efficiency. He will know if he can’t lift what he previously lifted when working another routine.

I have observed lifters who need so much back rest that the only way they can expect to lift anything in a meet is to hardly ever touch a deadlift. On the other hand, some lifters have been known to work the deadlift heavily four times a week or more. Ernie Frantz, of Illinois is the latter case while Brian Wadie of Texas is the former. There are, of course, extreme cases. Most of us are somewhere in between.

We have explored the deadlift from the rack and off the blocks, but what good are stiff-legged deadlifts or bentover rows? The stiff-legged deadlift is a concentrated erector spinal exercise; not much weight should be used because the legs are not being used. It is exactly how most doctors will tell us not to lift – reaching down and lifting with all back and no legs. Yes, it is possible to become injured working this exercise, but it is also possible to become strong and have a muscular back. I used to work 3 sets of 15 in this exercise 3 times a week for one year. The disc between my fourth and fifth vertebrae is as flat as a pancake. I am still capable of extremely heavy deadlifts, but I no longer can work the extreme stiff-legged deadlift. It may be that a more moderate routine may have worked better, but I was young and indestructible and didn’t realize the consequences. There is, however, no real way of knowing that this, specifically, was the cause of any of my back problems because of 24 years of doing all kinds of exercises.

If one is going to incorporate the stiff-legged deadlift into his training because he wants those large cable-like muscles on either side of his vertebral column, it is wise to be cautious and work it periodically, not continuously over a prolonged period of time. The reps should be around 10 and not more than 3 sets once a week. After a six week period, I would test out the floor deadlift. Either way, if the results are good or not, I would not continue the stiff-legged deadlift for some months to come.


The bentover rows aid the lower back because it is the low back that must hold the body in a bentover or flexed position for the duration of the set. The upper back is worked when the lifter pulls the weight into the chest or abdomen. This exercise is done with heavy enough weight so that it can alternate as a deadlift workout every other week. Some lifters find heavy deadlifting every other week palatable. Bentover rows would suffice for the off week.


Some problems occur with grip. The back may be strong enough to lift the bar, but the grip is not strong enough to hold it. A controversy continues among the lifting ranks whether it is wise to strap the hands to the bar. The opponents of strap use claim that their hands are already weak and allowing straps to hold on for them will only weaken the grip further. The proponents of the strap affirm that by not using the strap, the back can go no further in strength development, and why should an entire back suffer strength gains because of weak smaller muscles in the forearm and fingers? I maintain that the grip is still being worked with straps for two reasons: one, the weight used will be heavier because of the straps, and two, the hand will still have to hold on for the duration of the set, thus building power in the hands. Besides, just in case the grip is overworked, the straps allow the grip to tighten to capability of the grip power for that day and still allow the back to be worked separately without the burden of a weak grip.


The deadlift tends to show the natural power of a man, for in men who have never lifted a weight before, if they have body power it will show in the deadlift. Many items are lifted from the ground to the hanging position of the arms, everything from furniture in a house to bales on a farm, so it does pay to have longer arms for a structural advantage in the deadlift.

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