Figure 2: Unlike conventional deadlifts, the movement stops just below the kneecaps.
Figure 3: The top pull of the Smitty Deadlift as viewed from the side. Note that the lower back is flat and the shoulders are in front of the bar.
by Kim Goss (1983)
Many powerlifters insist that findings in Olympic lifting in no way relate to their sport. I disagree. To support my position, this article will show how an Olympic lifting exercise can prevent low back injuries in powerlifting.
Every muscle has an antagonist to complement it, and balanced development of each muscle pair stabilizes the joints. For example, the knee flexors contract to bend the legs, while the knee extensors contract to straighten the legs. To protect the knee joint, athletic trainer Dan Wathen recommends that "knee flexor development should be at a level no less than 65% of knee extensor development at slow speeds and no less than 80% at high speeds." [Wathen, Dan. "Prevention of Knee Injuries." Ohio Conditioning Quarterly, Vol 2:3, Spring 1982, p.16.] Along the same lines, many world-class Olympic lifters practice bench presses to complement the pulling movements. [Miller, Carl. "Bulgaria - Part III: Training Methods." International Olympic Lifter, Vol. 2:3, March 1975, pp 17-22]
This 'muscle balancing' principle also applies to a singular muscle. Dr. Tom Baechle illustrates the importance of this relationship with athletes who perform the parallel squat: ". . . the form required of the parallel squat will probably produce a shortening effect in the involved muscle groups and a concomitant reduction in the range of movement permitted in the joints being crossed by them. This condition, therefore, renders the athlete somewhat inflexible and more prone to injury if appropriate exercises are not included" [Baechle, Tom. "Implications of the Parallel Squat to Assistance and Flexibility Exercises." National Strength Coaches Association Journal, Vol 2:6, December 1980, pp 52-54.]
Deadlifts can also cause asymmetrical muscular development. Dick "Smitty" Smith, head coach of the 1979 and 1981 U.S. Olympic weightlifting teams, believes most American Olympic lifters "get too thick in the erector muscles about 4-6 inches above the hips." Smitty contends this often results from pulling with a rounded back. ["Coaches Corner." Weightlifting USA, Vol 1:1, March-April 1983, p.3.] Besides developing injury-prone erectors, pulling this way is biomechanically inefficient in Olympic lifting.
Conventional Lower Back Exercises
To handle the heaviest poundages in the deadlift many powerlifters must pull with a rounded back. Consequently, these athletes require a remedial exercise which concentrates on the lower attachments of the erectors. Many common assistance exercises for the lower back are hyperextensions, good mornings, reverse hyperextensions, stiff-legged deadlifts, and platform (deficit) deadlifts.
The major drawback to doing hyperextensions is finding a way to do them! This exercise requires a comfortable bench, high enough to permit a full range of motion, and a way to anchor the feet. To accomplish this, the Soviets often utilize a buck horse, padded with two cushions three inches apart and parallel to the athlete's spine, and a padded gymnastic ladder. [Holbrook, Tom. "Specialization." Strength & Health, ND p. 41.] Unfortunately, few lifters have access to such equipment.
Good mornings and stiff-legged deadlifts provide a good range of motion and require no special equipment, but the stresses on the lumbar and their supportive tissues during these exercises may irritate the lower back. [Kraemer, William; Clark, Mike; Schmotzer, Pete. "The Good Morning Exercise." National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal, Vol. 4:1, February-March 1982, p.44.]
In choosing a remedial exercise for the lower back, powerlifters must consider stress-line properties. According to Wathen, the best injury-prevention exercises involve forces that "approximate stress lines encountered in actual competition within the limits of safety." For example, because they more closely match the movements encountered in sports, Wathen prefers standing leg curls to prone leg curls. Therefore, an 'ideal' assistance exercise for the deadlift must resemble a deadlift.
An exercise that comes close to fulfilling all the aforementioned requirements is the deadlift ton a raised platform. Close, but no cigar. For powerlifters this movement is too specific; that is, it so closely resembles the classical lift that it may alter one's form in competition. Furthermore, the long stroke of platform (deficit) deadlifts makes it difficult to perform high repetitions, thereby limiting variety in the repetition cycle.
The 'Ideal' Exercise
Having scrapped most of the favorites, I'd like to acquaint the readers of PLUSA with Smitty's variation of the snatch-grip deadlift.
To perform this exercise, stand on a 4-6 inch platform with the feet slightly narrower than shoulder width and the toes pointed out. Using a snatch grip, pull the bar to just below the knee caps, returning it to the floor during each repetitions. (See Figures 1 and 2.) Throughout the movement arch the back and keep the shoulders down to protect the spine.
This deadlift is performed just like the first pull of the snatch; however, the hips need to be very low because it's hard to pull from this position. Finally, Smitty suggests lifting in front of a mirror, to ensure proper form and holding the final repetition of each set at the knees for 4-6 seconds.
To recap, here are the major advantages of the Smitty Deadlift:
1) Using a snatch grip and standing on a platform allows for specialized development of the erectors at their lower attachments.
2) The stress lines are similar to a regular deadlift but not so much as to alter competition styles.
3) Its short stroke allows for variety in the repetition cycle.
4) The back remains arched during the exercise, concentrating the stress on the muscles rather than the supporting structures.
Olympic lifting offers powerlifting more than just exercises. For example, powerlifters can benefit from the research the Olympic lifting community has conducted in restoration and mental preparation techniques. Likewise, Olympic lifters can learn from powerlifting research.