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How I Coach The Deadlift – Pat Davidson

With the obvious theme of this week centering around the big three lifts, I am pleased to bring you another look into the mind of Pat Davidson. As I mentioned before, Pat is a bad-ass, innovative, bull strong, wealth of knowledge. Thank you, Pat for sharing this article with me and with others. Enjoy!

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As a person, I try to examine everything that I choose to incorporate into my own life in my own way. Certainly I listen to other experts, and try to learn from those who came before me, but I’ve always taken the mindset that I don’t necessarily want to do things exactly the same way as everybody else. If I simply use the same technique that everyone else does and follow the same programs as everyone else, I think I’d probably end up with the same results as everyone else. I don’t want the same results as others, I want to beat them. I’m not saying that this approach will always be successful. There have certainly been occasions where this has blown up in my face; however, in life there are examples where examining the same task that everyone else has been looking at and coming up with a totally different method for accomplishing that task have proved to be surprisingly better.

In sports, the example what comes to my mind is the Fosbury Flop for high jumping. Dick Fosbury probably wasn’t more physically talented than the other jumpers at the 1968 Olympics, but he won the gold medal decisively because he approached the jump in an entirely different way than anyone ever had before. In this article I’m going to present to you the way I deadlift and the way I coach the athletes who I work with to deadlift. I’m not saying that others don’t deadlift this way. Maybe other guys do. Honestly, I wouldn’t know, because I don’t spend my time reading the tactics and methodologies of other lifters and coaches. I study anatomy, and I try to learn from physical therapists who try to correct the biomechanics of people who end up in pain syndromes. So as far as I know, nobody else coaches the deadlift the way I do, and nobody else approaches the technicality of the deadlift from the same perspective that I do.

Prior to explaining all the technical cues that I utilize, I’ll say that the primary objective I’m trying to accomplish with all the cues is to position the athlete with a higher hip height starting position, with the hips farther back behind the center of the barbell’s mass, with a vertical tibia, and as close to a neutral spine that is being stabilized by the chains of muscles that run across the anterior thorax of the body.

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From the ground up, here is my quick list of coaching cues that I want athletes to find and feel when practicing the deadlift from a technical standpoint (note that when my athletes pull heavy weight, I don’t want them thinking about anything except for pulling hard). I’ll explain these cues in more detail in the coming paragraphs. At the bottom of the deadlift position prior to the start of the pull, find the lateral part of your heel first. Perform a slight isometric knee flexion hamstring curl. At this point, find the big toe of each foot and press it into the ground. Find the ischial tuberosity of your pelvis (your back pockets). Tense the proximal hamstring fibers and pull them down (pull your back pockets down to towards the back of your knees. Find your hands on the bar. Push your upper back away from your hands (push yourself into thoracic flexion). Find the roof of your mouth with your tongue. Find your eyes and look up. Using the tongue on the roof of your mouth, pull your head backwards with a retraction based movement. Find your hips again and sit them back.

This is the starting position that I am desiring.

When in this position, blow out as much air as possible and keep pushing your upper back away from the bar by reaching as far as your can with your arms. Continue to find and feel all the body pieces previously mentioned and sitting your head and hips back. Now inhale via the nose into your back (inhale into your spine and between your scapula). You are now ready to pull the bar. Grip the bar as tight as possible. Push through the medial arches of both feet. Keep the bar close to your body with your hands. Keep your ribs tacked down in an inferior direction as you pull. To finish the lockout, pull the pelvis into a posterior tilt. Stand up tall, but avoid arching your lower back and leaning back.

 Yeah, I know, that’s a lot of crap to think about.

What I would like to reiterate is that I am only advising this as part of technical practice. This isn’t a list that I believe is appropriate to try to pull off during actual training sets with work weight.

For the remainder of this article, I would like to explain why I choose to utilize those cues. I’ll explain this in the order of the sequence that I use when setting myself up for a practice pull.

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1. First thing I do is grab the bar. When I grab the bar, I push my upper back away from the bar, which rounds out my upper back. I think about reaching my hands forward as far as I can. Because there is a bar in my way, my hands don’t move, so my upper back gets shoved away from the bar. I do this for a couple reasons. First, by reaching, I activate the serratus anterior via posterior translation of the rib cage and protraction of the scapula. Muscles do not work in isolation. Instead they tend to function in patterned chains. The serratus anterior is part of what some anatomists call the anterior functional line structurally (Thomas Myers being a prime example), and functionally it is part of a chain that creates what’s called The Serape Effect (Porterfield and DeRosa). This chain of muscles starts with the levator scapulae, which merges with serratus anterior at the ventral side of the scapula at the superomedial border. The serratus travels on the inside of the scapula laterally until it finds the ribs, where it spreads out on the rib cage and wraps around to the front of the body. The serratus then interdigitates with the ipsilateral external obliques. These fibers will ultimately cross midline and merge into the contralateral internal obliques, which continue on in an inferior direction until they merge into the adductors. Essentially this chain sweeps from the back of your head and neck to the opposite leg on the front side of the body. When the chain is activated bilaterally it looks like an “X” pattern, or a Serape. This chain of muscles provides an outstanding stabilization property for the thoraco-lumbar-abdominal-pelvic-femoral complex of the human body.

The second reason I do this is because when I ultimately go to take my pre-pull inhalation, I will have opened up the mediastinum, which will allow air flow into the region of the lungs that inhabit that area. Air flow into this region will push my posterior ribs into a position where they will be adjacent to my scapula, and it will put air under my scapula. Air under the scapula is the mechanism that leads to reflexive firing of local stabilizer muscles for maximal scapula stability. The third thing that this move does is provide me with the chance to start my deadlift with a higher hip position that will ultimately translate into a longer lever arm and better mechanical advantage over the load.   2. Find the lateral part of the heel on the ground first, then find the big toe, then pull on the floor mimicking the action of a hamstring curl. Just by finding the lateral heel on the ground and then pressing the big toe into the ground simultaneously, you should feel your hamstrings start to fire. When you start pulling with your heels on the ground in an isometric knee flexion pattern, you should really feel your hamstrings kick on. It becomes very difficult to continue to find and feel your big toes pressing into the ground when doing this, but maintenance of the big toe is critical. You should feel activation of muscle tissue in the midfoot and under the ball of the big toe on both feet when you do this. Your feet should begin to feel like cement on the floor. Midfoot stability is critical if you want to be able to demonstrate proper dorsiflexion and hip flexion mechanics above the chain from the midfoot. Pay a little extra attention to the left foot while practicing this.

3. Find the ischial tuberosity on both sides of your pelvis and attempt to pull each ischial tuberosity in an inferior direction. Another way to think about this is to find both back pockets, tense them, and pull them down towards the back of your knees. This movement activates the hamstrings from the proximal attachment site. When step three is combined with step two, the hamstrings should be creating tension from both attachment points. Anatomically speaking, this action is creating ischium flexion, which is a required biomechanical action to be able to inhale air into the posterior mediastinum. This movement will also create an opportunity to cause reflexive firing of the muscles of the pelvic floor. This will cause pelvic floor ascension and provide an opportunity for creation of optimal intra-abdominal pressure for lumbar spine stabilization.

            At this point in time, if you were to examine the biomechanical positioning of the lifter, you would think that they look like a jumbo shrimp and that they should not pull the barbell. You would be right. We need to do a few more moves so that we create a desirable kinematic situation for proper deadlifting form.

4. Find the roof of the mouth with the tongue, open your eyelids wide, look up with your eyes, and retract your skull. Finding the roof of the mouth with the tongue provides a reference center from which you can create stability in your face/head/neck. The tongue and throat are also part of what Myers calls, the deep line of the body. The deep line of the body ultimately travels from head to the bottoms of your feet, and it should be the primary stabilizing chain for the human body. When you are stabilizing the body with the deep myofascial line, the superficial and distal muscles do not have to participate in stabilization as much, and they are free to create force as prime movers. By looking up with your eyes, you are telling the body that you are planning to perform an extension based movement. Now, I did not say hyperextend the cervical spine or anything like that here, and I do not want to see the occiputs touching the the mid-neck or anything crazy. I’m looking for a neutral neck with the eyeballs looking up. It may be that your vision is actually seeing what’s straight in front of you depending on where your head is. Finish the #4 coaching cue by retracting your head. A lot of people screw this up by bending their neck into extension. Just imagine pulling your skull back like a dumbbell row with your tongue. The tongue would be the hand that would be attached to the dumbbell. The maxilla and skull would be the dumbbell. Drag your head straight back with the tongue as the reference point.

5. Sit your hips back. This is something that most lifters should already be familiar with as a motion. Picture that there is a wall behind your butt and that you are trying to touch the wall behind you. Keep your heels anchored and your big toes anchored while you are doing this. If you pull the hips back and retract the skull, all of a sudden, you won’t look like a jumbo shrimp anymore, but instead you will look like somebody who should be pulling a barbell from a traditional viewing standpoint.

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6. Putting air into the posterior mediastinum. If you can reach with the arms, create thoracic flexion, internal rotation of the ribs, and flexion of the ischium, you will have opened the pathway where you can potentially get air into the posterior mediastinum. This is a big deal because this will provide you with the necessary ingredient to be able to obtain scapula stability. You will also give yourself the chance to gain reflexive stabilization of the spine via the local deep stabilizer muscles acting on individual spinal segments. Perhaps you are familiar with seeing someone who squats and their knees cave into valgus. What do we do to correct this? Throw a band around their knees. This is a trick that Gray Cook came up with and called Reactive Neuromuscular Training (RNT). If a bony structure keeps moving into a poor biomechanical position, use an external force and push it further into that position. When you, “feed into the dysfunction”, the right muscles kick on and push back against the external force caving it in reflexively, and in the case of the band around the knees, the femoral abductor muscles fire to push the knees out. Think of the breath in the same way. If I fill zones of the lung that border on the ribs that are adjacent with the scapula, the ribs will push outwards on the scapula. The stabilizing muscles of the scapula will reflexively push back on the ribs…voila, no more winging weak scapula, and guess what that is that you’re feeling now…your lower trap…say hello, it’s probably the first time you guys have met. Putting air into the posterior mediastinum will also feed into gaining greater intra-abdominal pressure. Intra-abdominal pressure provides an RNT principle for the deep local stabilizers of the lumbar spine. Getting a human to be able to create the highest possible force production requires years of training. If you’re planning on training with heavy loads for years, you better have high levels of stability, or you’re going to get hurt. Air pressure is perhaps the greatest driver of stabilization of anything in the body.

7. You’re ready to lift the bar. Grab the bar as tight as you can with your hands. Gripping tight will trigger the irradiation phenomenon. Irradiation is where the activation of one muscle electromagnetically leads to the activation of other muscles. When you grip with the hands, you are creating electrical activation along the brachial plexus. This increases the electrical flow to all the muscles innervated by the nerves coming off this plexus. Of particular interest to us here are the stabilizers of the scapula, such as the serratus anterior and lower trapezius. A stable scapula creates a nice congruency with the thoracic spine. In addition to scapula stability coming from grip, as we discussed previously, the serratus anterior is part of the muscles involved with the Serape effect, so by gripping we are actually increasing the stability of the scapula, thoracic spine, lumbar spine, pelvis, and femur with one simple move.

8. Lift the bar. When lifting anything off the ground, you have to get your feet to maximally interact with the ground, and you have to push into the ground. I want you to maintain the points of contact that we found and felt earlier in this article (lateral heel and big toe), but when you push the ground to lift an object, push through the medial arch. If you push through your medial arch, you will make glute max your primary extension force generating weapon. From the anatomical perspective presented in the book, Anatomy Trains, by Myers, the medial arch is a bony landmark for the Spiral Line. This line is one that in many ways interweaves the front of the body all the way to the back of the body. If both sides of the spiral line are activated simultaneously this can turn your body into an incredible tight braced structure.

A highly tensed body is a highly desired outcome for maximal deadlifting.

The medial arch of the foot can act as a point of reference to create stability around. Since we have already established midfoot stability by finding and feeling the lateral heel and the ball of the big toe, this push through the midfoot is a safe practice, and you won’t have to worry about knees crashing into each other while lifting heavy loads. A stable foot with a point of reference to push through will be a powerful tool that will help the body maintain a neutral pelvis during the deadlift exercise. A pelvis positioned close to neutral will be one that will have glute max held at the right length-tension relationship for maximal firing potential.

9. Seal the deal. Lockout the bar with a stable, neutral pelvis where glute max is the driver, the rib cage is held in a “tacked down” position, and the lumbar spine does not hyperextend. I view the flared rib, shoulders way back, lumbar lordosis lockout as a position that people with ineffective hamstrings and deep abdominal stabilizing muscles go into at the top of the deadlift. There is no reason to go into the position, and repeatedly doing this will stress the vertebrae and other associated structures unnecessarily. I don’t necessarily think there is any reason to focus on posterior tilt of the pelvis for lockout, but if that is the only way for some lifters to avoid excessive lumbar lordosis and compression, then that can be an effective cue.

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Perhaps you believe that this article is too detail oriented and it will screw up your deadlift by giving you paralysis through analysis. That was not the point here. I’m not trying to turn people into basket case lifters who worry that if any little thing goes wrong that their body will fall apart. I’m trying to coach my athletes with every bit of attention that I can possibly give to them. I want them to be able to deadlift as often as possible. The more often you can deadlift heavy loads, the stronger your deadlift will be. If you possess better biomechanics, you will not stress the wrong tissue at the wrong position at the wrong time in the deadlift motion, so you won’t be as beat up, broken down, and inflamed on a daily basis.

From my perspective of knowing the body, this is the most biomechanically sound way that I can see to pick things up and then not be too concerned about putting them down. Perhaps you disagree with my approach. That’s fine with me. You do your thing, I’ll keep doing mine. Other people’s input is something that I consider, but rarely does it automatically affect the way that I ultimately decide to do something. So here’s to the deadlift, and may your numbers go up.

Let me warn you that you should take all this very seriously and in theory you should better consult with a chiropractor before you start the exercise. I choose to consult chiropractor Boynton Beach when I plan some serious exercise.

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Thanks for checking out Pat’s article. Remember: “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, in Irving Good, The Scientist Speculates (1962)

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