** These are advanced techniques that lifters with good form and some serious training experience should try out. Please do not waste your time trying to implement these things with anyone until they have mastered the basics of the deadlift first.
Tip 1: Pack the neck. This tip comes courtesy of Charlie Weingroff. “Packing the neck” is actively keeping the neck & spine neutral throughout the ENTIRE lift, start to the finish. But what head position do we usually see when someone deadlifts? (this was also how I used to deadlift… before I met Charlie of course)
We see this….
Ugh. After using my amazing editing skills on paint, this picture hurts to look at. Now why do we lift with our necks wrenched back like this? I think for two reasons. 1. The old school thought says that when deadlifting, or squatting, by looking up and throwing the head back on the ascent the bar will follow allowing you to lift more weight and 2. I think it’s because everywhere you go in the gym your surrounded by mirrors! It is only natural that we want to look up see ourselves. What's my form look like? Do my knees cave in? Does this shirt make my arms look big? I think mirrors can be useful when first learning an exercise to check form or when you’re a coach trying to watch multiple athletes but even then I’d prefer an athlete learn how to lift without mirrors. This forces them to use kinesthetic awareness to perform the exercise. Knowing where your body is in space is an important skill in competition and remember there are no mirrors on the field of play. I have personally switched to facing away from the mirrors for all of my major lifts. It’s a little awkward at first but in the end I feel the benefits are worth it.
“Feel Your Alignment Instead of Thinking About It”
If you read Charlie's full article on neck packing, which I highly suggest you do, he explains how having the head in extension (see picture above) actually destabilizes the neck which trickles down to the lumbar spine. Not good.
By packing the neck, the spine is more stable, allowing for a stronger core. This in turn allows for more hip mobility and more free expression of hip extension (again, please read Charlie’s blog post on Packing the Neck he explains it much better than I can. Also, the most recent strength coach podcast #85 has Charlie talking about neck packing for about 20 minutes. I suggest you listen to it.)
This is what it should look like…
I think the best way to explain it to someone, and how Charlie explained it to us, is to tell your athlete they have a chain hanging from their chin. And from that chain there is a hook. Take that hook and wrap it around then bar. Then lift the bar with your neck. As you can see in the video I visualize this chain on my chin on every deadlift attempt to ensure my neck is in the correct position. Most of my athletes seem to understand this cue after hearing and seeing it a few times. Another good cue is if you stand up and you have an ugly double chin, then you’re doing it right.
**Note: When packing the neck you are NOT trying to touch your chin to your chest. When you first teach this to someone it has been my experience that the client or athlete will try touching their chin to their chest putting them into flexion thinking they are doing what you told them. Be sure they are bringing the chin to the back of the neck while keeping their head neutral throughout the lift.
Tip 2: Tongue to the roof of your mouth. Eyes follow the hip hinge
These two more tips also courtesy of Charlie. He calls them oral-facial drivers and they are enormous generators of hidden strength.
Lets start with the tongue. By placing the tongue in the roof of your mouth you put the jaw in a better biomechanical position. This action “closes” the neruo muscular gap of the jaw allowing for better stabilization of the neck and it actually makes it easier to get into & maintain our very important neck packed position.
Recently physical therapist & owner of the Mwod, Kelly Starrett, put out a phenomenal video on this very topic. He explains it 10 times better then I can…
Now, eye movement.
When performing the deadlift, squat, or the KB swing the eyes should follow the hip hinge. The eyes should look up to the ceiling on the ascent (starting position for the deadlift & swing, out of the hole for the squat) and they should drive downwards on the decent (the lowering portion of three). This means at the start of the deadlift you should look possessed… scare the damn weights off the ground!!!
Notice it says “eyes” up, not neck. Remember we want the neck packed at all times.
To even further back these ideas here’s an excerpt from Thomas Myer’s Anatomy Trains, “Thus, how you use your eyes, and more particularly, how you use your neck, determines the tonus pattern for the rest of your back musculature. This plays into number of postural patterns we see every day in our practice. Loosening the neck is often the key to problems of between the shoulder blades the low back and the hips”
(If you want to get the whole scoop on oral-facial drivers be sure to get your hand on Charlie’s DVD series)
Tip 3: Suck in like you’re breathing through a straw. Gotta thank low back rehab specialist Stuart McGill for this tip. I attended his hands on at the summit and he started the day off by having us take a normal breath and brace. Then he had us breathe in like you were sucking through a straw and brace. Wow what a difference! Try it for yourself right now before continuing…
I’m serious try it….
OK Thank you, you can now continue…..
Did you feel a difference??
Stuart McGill refers to this intra-abdominal tension created by the bracing of the abdominal as a “fluid ball”. A “fluid ball” is a natural and automatic response of the body under heavy load to support the spinal column. By “sucking air through a straw” the lungs are able to fill completely increasing the pressure even more.
Inhaling like you are “sucking through a straw” should take some where between 12 to 15 seconds. It may seem tedious but when performing max effort deadlifts, but the added tension you create I feel is worth it.
So lets review…
Step 1: Approach the bar and set your feet. Remain standing or grab the bar, whatever you prefer. I prefer to inhale before I pick up the bar. Begin to inhale like you a sucking through a straw and brace hard.
Step 2: You have a chain on your chin with a hook at the end. Wrap it around the bar and pack then neck.
Step 3: Put your tongue to the roof of your mouth, look up to the ceiling.
Step 4: Rip that sucker off the ground. Keep the neck packed as your eyes follow the hip hinge.
….and there you have it! 3 New deadlift tips you may have never heard of. These things can be a bit awkward at first so don’t be surprised if your weights decrease a bit at first because it is so awkward. Be sure to practice with lighter weights. You are trying to learn a new motor pattern, so it will take time, but remember to keep the end goal in mind: A healthy back & a big deadlift.
Try’em out and get back to me. Thanks for reading!
1. McGill, Stuart. Low Back Disorders: Evidence-based Prevention and Rehabilitation. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007. Print.
2. Myers, Thomas W. Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists. Edinburgh: Elsevier, 2009. Print.
3. Robertson, Mike. "Deadlift" Robertson Training Systems | High Octane Corrective Exercise & Performance Enhancement. 24 July 2011. http://robertsontrainingsystems.com/blog/deadlift/.
4. Starrett, Kelly. "Episode 289/365: Head Positioning and The Closed Jaw Circuit" MobilityWOD. 18 July 2011 http://www.mobilitywod.com/2011/07/episode-289365-head-positioning-and-the-closed-jaw-circuit.html.
5. Weingroff, Charlie. "Packing in the Neck” Charlie Weingroff, Physical Therapist. 14 Nov. 2010 http://charlieweingroff.com/2010/11/packing-in-the-neck/.