For some reason, the deadlift is still popularly described as a squat from the floor with the main difference being how the body is loaded: pulling vs. pushing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. You need to perfect one movement before tackling heavy deadlifts.
There are basically two main movement patterns when it comes to the core of your strength training program: the squat and the hinge. There are some similarities between the squat and hinge patterns. You should be predominantly loaded through the back half of your foot and maintain a stiff, rigid torso throughout execution of each movement. That’s pretty much where the similarities end. While the pulling vs. pushing argument is not wrong (each presents different challenges), it’s not the same black and white difference that exists between bench press and cable rows. Deadlifting and squatting each train the posterior chain… they just do it a little differently.
Let’s take a look at a good squat pattern:
As you can see, the weight is loaded through the back half of his foot, allowing his knees to safely track froward to achieve the desired depth. His torso is relatively upright and the head is up to maintain a neutral spine during the repetition and keep the weight loaded over his body’s center of mass.
Let’s take a look at a good hinge pattern:
Once again the weight is loaded through the back half of his foot but there’s a big difference in torso positioning. Because he’s pulling from the floor, his knees need to remain stable to keep the load as close to his center of mass as possible. In order to accomplish this, he has to reach back with the hips and forward with the torso while maintaining a stiff, neutral spine throughout the repetition.
For contrast, let’s take a look at a poor hinge pattern:
There’s a few things wrong with this picture. While he has the hamstrings loaded and is maintaining pressure through the back half of the foot, the load is way too far from his fulcrum (hips). His near-hyperextended knees have placed a greater load on the hamstrings. His longer lever arm places a less than ideal stress on the spine, as does his rounded lumbar. At a greater load, this is a recipe for a future back problems.
The sounds leaving his body make MY back scream.
Lifting heavy things and putting them down is all about leverage. The further the load is from the fulcrum, the greater the stress placed on the lever arm. Whether you’re squatting or hinging, it’s incredibly important to keep the load as close as possible to your body’s center of mass. If you’re squatting with the weight too far forward, you place an increasingly greater stress on the knees and lumbar as well as lose your stable base. Keep the load to far back and you risk a different stress on your knees. When squatting, you can make a small adjustment of weight distribution to correct this issue.
With deadlifting, it gets a little trickier. Because you would literally have to place the bar inside your legs to keep it over your center of mass, it is always going to be slightly ahead of it, particularly during the beginning of your pull. The key is to set yourself up in the best possible positioning to succeed. My athletes know this as “keeping the bar over the shoe knots.” This places the load as close as possible to your center of mass. Whether you’re in the concentric or eccentric phase of your rep, you’ll be placing the least amount of negative stress on your spine (lever arm) by keeping the weight as close as possible to the fulcrum (hips).
Not quite a squat from the floor, huh?
It pays dividends in the long run to focus on drilling the hell out of your hip-hinge before attempting heavy pulls from the floor. Here’s an effective learning progression to get you started:
- KETTLEBELL SWING
While predominantly used as a conditioning exercise, the kettlebell swing is a great tool for teaching the hip hinge. There is a clear checklist for a successful swing. Because each item on the list is visually and kinesthetically apparent to both the athlete and the coach, it is an excellent conduit to mastering this important skill.
- GOBLET DEADLIFT/ GOBLET RDL
Goblet pulls allow a slower, more deliberate execution of the hinge pattern but it grants immediate success to those who have less than ideal levers, aka really tall people. Longer limbs places a greater stress on the affected lever arms. By allowing a dumbbell to travel vertically between the knees, you can learn to lower the load toward the shoe knots while focusing on the hinge pattern learned with the KB Swing.
This should be the first foray into barbell pulls, especially if the athlete’s hip mobility is somewhat lacking. It will give you a taste of what is required of the body’s levers as you attempt to keep the bar over the knots.
- PULLS FROM THE BLOCKS
If you have the required hip mobility to get into an ideal starting position from the floor, ignore this step and jump right into deadlifts. If not, begin by setting up the pulling blocks so you can learn to pull the bar from knee height. Over time, gradually take away layers until you are able to pull from the floor.
No further explanation necessary, right?
Once you’ve mastered the concept behind the hip hinge, it all becomes a question of hip mobility. If you can execute an efficient hinge pattern while maintaining a good neutral spine throughout the movement, you have a strong foundation to build a massive deadlift. If you keep squatting from the floor, you’ll wind up with chronic pain and a few medical bills.