For this week's post I wanted to feature an article written by my friend Dr. Dan Pope of FitnessPainFree.com. This guy has some great ideas on functional assessments and correctives and this piece on the deadlift pattern is one of them. Dan has some of the best information out there on improving performance, optimizing programming, and increasing training longevity. Not to mention he's a beast of a CrossFit athlete himself.
We all know how important it is to keep a neutral spine while deadlifting. For most, just cueing to keep your back flat is enough to square things away and get the spine in a neutral position. For others it’s not so easy. If you’ve coached people in Olympic lifts or deadlifting for long enough you’ve probably encountered this.
For some athletes as they reach the bottom of the deadlift, their lumbar spine starts to round. It’s even worse with a snatch grip or deficit deadlift. Your first intuition is to tell the athlete to keep their back flat. Then their snatch or deadlift ends up looking like this:
So your next logical cue is to keep the knees back so the bar travels up in a straight line and doesn’t grind your patient’s knee caps off. So now the lift looks like this again:
The lumbar spine starts to round again. Despite all of the cueing you give your athlete, you can’t clean things up. If you’re looking for a more in depth explanation of why this happens and why it’s important to correct this, then read my article HERE.
This is where a bit of corrective exercise is going to be needed. However, the first thing that is needed is an assessment or screening tool to determine if there is a problem. If you’ve got an athlete like the one I just described above then you can bet that you’ve got some issues that need to be addressed. A major assessment I like to go through with my patients is whether they can keep a neutral spine on their way through a snatch grip deadlift. Here’s the test:
What you’re looking for is whether your athlete can keep a neutral spine while keeping a straight bar path throughout the lift:
If you have someone who fails the test then it would be wise to avoid any loaded deadlifting patterns that expose this fault. In the meantime, you can modify the patterns by deadlifting from an elevated position or performing your olympic lifts from a hang position.
Then it’s time to hammer away at this issue with some correctives. Here are my favorite corrective exercises to address this issue:
These exercises can be performed as often as you’d like (I tell my patients to perform them twice per day for best results with the exception of the eccentrics). Make sure you test your snatch grip deadlift before and after to ensure you’re making a change with the exercises.
Seth's thoughts: I love the systematic assessment and correctives laid out here by Dan. As he says, it is crucial to maintain a neutral spine throughout in order to optimize position and ensure efficient mechanics. Those who are able to maintain neutral spine under load are those who can lift more weight and maintain longevity, period. Loss of neutrality is a dead giveaway for performance loss and injury risk.
For more from Dr. Dan Pope check out his most excellent website at FitnessPainFree.com
P.S. My last post on grip training and hacking the nervous system was extremely popular - thanks for the readership fellow performance junkies! Expect more on how to hack the nervous system and optimize adaptation in future posts.
What is the target organ/system of training? While many think it's the muscular or cardiovascular systems, the true target is the nervous system. The brain exists to move us thru, and interact with, the environment. The sensory input our nervous system receives from interacting with the environment drives the motor output from the brain to the neuromusculoskeletal system. By altering sensory input, we can change and potentially improve neuromotor output. One way to hack the nervous system and increase stability throughout the system is through challenging the grip.
This image is a homunculus (literally meaning "little man") and it is both grotesque and informative - not unlike the founder of this website. It is essentially a representation of the processing regions devoted to each area of the body. The importance here is the tremendous amount of sensory and motor cortex devoted to the hands and feet (more on them in a future post). Our evolution has clearly indicated the importance of sensory input and motor output through the hands given it's large representation in the brain. We know sensory input is absolutely critical in the motor development of kids and those who struggle with sensory integration have some serious movement problems. So why not better utilize sensory input with our training and optimize adaptation?
By challenging the grip and maintaining a fist we provide a rich sensory input to the brain that allows us to produce more stability and a system-wide increase in force output (which is what we really want). The strength of this stimulus probably improves motor learning too. A big grip tells the brain that the position is a stable one and it is safe to generate a lot more force without risk of destabilization and injury.
Don't believe me? Try flexing your biceps without making a fist - it's really hard to generate much of a contraction. Then make a crushing fist while contracting your biceps. The result is a much greater biceps contraction as you are amplifying the motor output of the brain - often called irradiation or overflow. By augmenting the stronger parts of the pattern, we can facilitate improved neuromuscular activation thru the weaker parts.
Seriously, try making a fist as hard as you can - you feel the tension all the way up to the middle of your back as this overflow sets the scapulae and thoracic spine (spinal control is always crucial) allowing a stable platform for power generation by closing the circuit. Pavel has used this for years with the Soviet Special Forces and his Kettlebell training paradigms.
So how do we train grip and hack the system?
1) To initiate grip training I like to start with having the athlete grip the bar, club, or bat way harder than they think they need to. This is important to train initially as it helps to improve a strong grip pattern on demand in order to progress to more dynamic movements when rapid and powerful upper extremity stability is needed.
2) Challenge grip demands by varying the grip width of the bar - wrapping a towel around the bar is probably your cheapest route though you can buy various thick bars if you're sitting on some disposable income. By training the grip we can improve adaptation without adding more load to the system which may aide in recovery and lessen the odds of injury without losing performance (Charlie Weingroff has some great insight on the nervous system as well as minimizing system load).
3) For unilateral and one-arm movements (farmer's carries, kettlebell swings) maintain a strong, closed fist in the non-working hand. This is crucial. By stabilizing the system thru a closed fist the circuit itself is closed, the scapulae and spine are fixated, and increased force is transmitted thru the working arm and not lost via a limp wrist on the non-working hand.
4) Work more with kettlebells. The uneven weight distribution of the bell and the ballistic nature of many kettlebell movements really challenges grip and allows for some serious neural input and adaptation to occur. Kettlebell work really challenges the reflexive component of grip which is crucial for performance - generating a powerful, stabilized arm and torso on demand for maximum efficiency.
The best athletes can create tons of force AND control on demand and grip training is a way to tap into the nervous system and optimize adaptation. The more we can impact and alter the sensory experience the more we can improve movement quality.
Movement baselines, or the minimum movements necessary for human function and performance, are essential to efficiency and resiliency. The inability to perform basic movements set us up for failure down the road as I believe it lowers the ceiling on performance and movement efficiency. You can buffer large loads and high reps with poor movement for a while, sometimes even a long while, right up until you can't. Taking some time to work on these basic movements can improve system adaptability and ultimately improve performance.
A good starting stance is individual depending on each person's motor control and anatomical alignment.
Bottomline: Take 5 minutes to work on this movement pre-workout (just add it into your warm-up). Many will be surprised at how much of a struggle it is to maintain a neutral spine while flexing at the hips and maintaining vertical shins. Try it prior to a pulling or squat pattern and see if movement quality improves and pain resolves.