For many reasons, the deadlift is one of my favorite exercises. I can’t think of a movement that is more functional than picking something up. Yes, a strong argument can be made for squats, but I still give my personal nod to deadlifts.
The caveat is that deadlifts have to be done right, otherwise, they are the devil. Picking up a heavy barbell, without being in a good position to start = risky business. Over the years, I have made it a personal habit to make sure that I am in a safe position before picking up a barbell.
Every time I approach a barbell I go through the following bracing sequence:
1. Pin shoulders down, and slightly back (this engages your lats and upper back muscles.)
2. Take a deep breath, hold it, and squeeze your abs.
3. After squeezing your abs, an often over looked part of bracing your core is to draw your abs in close to your spine. If you’re wearing a belt, this changes things. You would then want to push out against the belt (I highly suggest learning to lift without a belt in order to build a stronger core). Building a strong core does not come from planks and crunches... Strong cores are built from squatting and deadlifting without belts.
4. Tighten you hips. If your hips are loose and supple, you are in the minority. Tightening up your hips will set your pelvis and neutralize any anterior pelvic tilt that you may have, which puts your lower back into a safe position.
5. Slowly and methodically hinge at the hips, while making a conscious effort to maintain all of the tension you just created. This will put you in a safer position when you grab the barbell.
6. Take the slack out of the bar before attempting the lift. To do this apply enough force into the bar until you feel it click (if the gym is quiet, you’ll hear it.) The sleeves on the barbell will pop up and click against the plates on the bar. It is very important to ensure that you maintain a neutral spine when you do this. We have already set your lower back, and upper back. Taking the slack out while maintaining a neutral spine sets your spinal erectors in place, preventing you from jerking the barbell off the floor. Jerking the barbell from the ground, increases the likelihood you will fall out of good positioning.
7. Set your starting position, and go. Everybody’s starting position is different, and is determined by anatomical features unique to each individual. Someone with long arms and short femurs will have a different starting position from someone with short arms and long femurs.
Initially, it may seem like a big waste of time to break down the setup of a deadlift, but it is a worthwhile investment. Eventually, steps 1-4 will happen simultaneously, and steps 5 and 6 will happen automatically. The whole idea here is to create good habits that your 60 or 70-year-old self will appreciate!