The deadlift is one of the most popular and demanding compound movements in the world of strength training. Ask anyone who has ever grinded out a new personal record or an intense and heavy high repetition set of deadlifts, and they will surely tell you it is a grueling full body workout. Well, here I am with my five favorite ways to augment your deadlift, and build more stability and strength throughout the key muscle groups that play a pivotal role in maintaining proper form throughout the entire range of motion. What I just said is very important. Yes, I am here to help you develop a deadlift that is the equivalent of picking up your eco friendly buddy’s Fiat when he insists he can drive in a foot of snow in mid January. A powerful deadlift is obviously a goal for many lifters and athletes. However, even more important than this is that these accessories will help you maintain a neutral spine throughout the full range of motion, and help you avoid the back injuries many people suffer due to poor form and positioning. Now, get ready to read and implement these accessories into your program before you head in for another battle with the barbell!
Bent Over Barbell Row
As I have mentioned in my previous article about building a better bench press, the latissimus dorsi (more commonly known as the lats), are also a significant factor in the deadlift as well. Properly engaging your lats before you even attempt to pick the bar up off the ground is key in not only aiding your power, but also giving you the ability to maintain a neutral spine. Engaging your lats helps transition torque created from your grip on the bar and externally rotating your shoulders down the remainder of the kinetic chain. Obviously torque is important (we will get to this in future articles), and getting bigger and stronger lats can go a long way in helping create torque while also protecting your spine. Now, if you have ever seen a barbell row performed in a bodybuilding sense this is a bit different. I have found that staying a bit more upright better mimics the movement of the deadlift. Essentially, I will hip hinge, getting my spine into a neutral position, and then perform the row. I have found this to be effective because the lats are often lost once the bar moves past the knees in the deadlift. So, performing the bent over row in a similar position and moving the bar in a range of motion that tracks your thighs helps place emphasis on engaging the lats throughout this portion of the lift.
Stiff Leg Deadlifts or Romanian Deadlifts
Firstly, I honestly have not found one official name to refer to these. Half of people know them as stiff leg deadlifts, and the other half know them as Romanian Deadlifts. When I write my usual programs I usually include both names so my athletes do not give me a blank stare of complete and utter confusion. Side note, my goal is to try and get that look as few times as possible. I will keep you all updated on how that is working out for me. Anyway, I digress. Performing Stiff Leg or Romanian Deadlifts are a great accessory to target the hamstrings, which are a primary agonist muscle during the deadlift. Basically, this means it is one of the main muscles to contract during the movement. Grab a barbell and with stiff legs, hip hinge with a neutral spine and lower the bar a little past your knee cap until you feel a great stretch in your hamstrings. One piece of advice I will give with this is that if you have never done them before, please use a lighter weight. I do not want you to compromise the position of your spine because without flexion in your knees it will be much harder to maintain a neutral spine position.
Face Pulls/Band Pull Aparts
Let me tell you this from experience. You could get your spine into a neutral position, and master proper torque creating techniques, but as you approach much heavier poundage in the deadlift it is very difficult to not round your upper back. You will probably be able to maintain a neutral position in your thoracic and lumbar spine (mid and lower back), but more often than not, the upper areas of your thoracic cervical spine (upper back) will be the hardest to maintain. This is caused by a lack of muscular strength and endurance in the scapular area, in particular the supraspinatus, rhomboid, and scapulae musculature. The average lifter avidly targets and grows their chest, and thus creates and imbalance between their chest and upper back strength, in addition to tightening their chest to a point where they ruin their posture. Face pulls and horizontal abduction (band pull aparts) are a great way to not only increase the strength and endurance of this musculature, but to also improve posture. For even better results, implement an isometric hold (a hold upon completion of the contraction and before you begin the eccentric portion of the movement).
Here again is another exercise that targets an important aspect of the deadlift. As I mentioned in my article for bench-pressing, sometimes the hardest part of a movement is the lock out. Many lifters can move through the first three quarters of the movement effectively, but get stuck at the top. For the deadlift, the glutes are key in achieving an effective lock out. Basically, position your upper back on a bench at a level right below your scapula. Place either a dumbbell on your pelvic area or use a barbell. Perform a basic bridge and be sure to squeeze your glutes and properly engage them at the top of the movement. You will not be sorry!
Last but not least, I give you a way to improve your drive off the floor if you struggle with that particular part of the movement. Perform a deadlift in the way you usually would, but stand on a slightly elevated surface (such as placing one or two plates under your feet). This will increase the range of motion in the movement and ensure that you create the necessary torque to drive the weight off the floor. By making the range of motion greater and thus the lift more difficult, you will increase your ability to improve any problems you have getting the barbell off the floor when you perform the deadlift conventionally.
Go get stronger and build a better deadlift!
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Gerry DeFilippo: ISSA CPT- CPPS, AAPS. Founder/Owner: Challenger Strength.