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The Deadlift: Form Replaces Fear

May 13, 2003 03:17 PM

The Unofficial FAQ

Over the years I've heard many people say that deadlifts are the worst thing for your back, or if you're going to do them you'd better use a weightlifting belt, and you're still nuts even if you do that. The last time I heard this, it was from a bodybuilder "old-timer" who is in his 50's, has won a number of championships in the past, and still looks "big". I respect the man for being in the iron game for so long and in it still, but I had to note that the man giving me this advice was wrapped like a mummy, wraps on both knees, both elbows, and wearing a weightlifting belt.

I had never considered doing deadlifts back in the day when I was doing bodybuilding workouts. I was too busy trying to get big arms and a big chest.

Then I met Pavel. He showed me his tension techniques and had me apply them so I could feel the difference it made myself. That meeting led me to and his book Power to the People! I was progressing nicely in my DL, using his tension and breathing technique, feeling stronger overall than I ever had, when I ran into a snag: excruciating back pain.

This was *not* due to the deadlift, but to a congenital vertebral disk offset known as spondylolisthesis and the corresponding disk degeneration from that combined with my S-curve scoliosis over the years. I ended up having spinal fusion surgery in my lower back (L5-S1) in December 2001.

First of all, one of the benefits of strength training that I had *never* considered, was the power of recuperation it gave to one in a situation like this. My surgeon, who has done literally thousands of these surgeries, said my recuperation was one of that fastest he had ever seen due to my level of physical fitness and overall health (I generally eat very healthy). Within 1 week I was walking around without a walker, and within 3 months I was back in the gym, albeit being very cautious in the amount I lifted.

I'm fairly thin at 155lbs at 5'9" and my max deadlift before surgery was not that great... 225lbs. At about 6 months post surgery I was cautiously doing 165lbs. I had some coaching from Pavel, who refreshed my memory about how to do the move properly, and within 5 minutes I had added 50lbs to my deadlift, 6 months after thesurgery.

Here are some of the tips that contributed to that instant increase in poundage, lifted with confidence (those of you familiar with Power to the People! already know a lot of this). Once you've squatted down to grab the barbell:
  1. Look up towards the ceiling, and *not* at the mirror. This will keep your back from "rounding".
  2. Reach back with your butt, like you're trying to sit in a chair that's too far behind you.
  3. In addition to this, try to imagine your spine stretching out. This will further straighten your back.
  4. Tighten your abs as if bracing for a punch, and *then* inhale. This will protect your back.
  5. Tighten the rest of your body, from head to toe: grip the ground with your feet, tighten your legs, glutes, arms... everything.
  6. Let out a very small grunt, as if bearing down one last time.
  7. Now, stand up slowly. Keep your shoulders down, imagine your arms are just cables holding the weight. Picture that you're pushing the ground away from you instead of lifting the weight off the ground. Just grind it, don't try to explode off the ground.
  8. At the top, lock out, let out some of the air and inhale again.
  9. Lower the weight with tension.
  10. Rest a few seconds, lather, rinse, repeat.
I've gone on and my 1RM is up to 275lbs (no belt), with my next goal being 3 wheels for 315. So remember that your form is paramount. Do it right and you'll be able to lift far more than you think you can, and when you receive unsolicited advice about your beltless deadlift, just smile and say "Thanks, I'll keep that in mind", and go grind away.