The Deadlift is the most simple lift, right? Just bend over, grip the bar, then pick it up. Wrong.
It is solely a lower body movement, right? Wrong.
The Deadlift can be simple, but only if you know the anatomy at play and how to strengthen it and developing the upper back is essential for a solid pull from start to finish.
You’ve seen them… those deadlifts when the athlete has the barbell above the knees, but they are slumped over like a dirty dish rag. They begin to bounce a little and knees push forward until the barbell is nearly resting on the quads. The athlete inevitably tries to hitch it up his/her legs. Two things happen at this point… someone smart in the gyms tells them to abort since it not a good lift anyway. Or a bunch of ignorant folks cheer them on.
Part of the problem is how most coaches teach the Deadlift. The obsession with “maintaining the lower lumbar curve” has led to the misconception that any rounding, or even flattening, of the back equates to weak erectors in the lumbar region of the spine. I won’t go down the wormhole that is rounded back vs. arched back pulls (rounded back pulls are too specific for CrossFitters, but yes, there records set by guys who purposely pull with a rounded back), but it is worth noting that there is such a thing as too much arch in the lower lumbar. Most of the strongest lifters in the world pull with a relatively “flat” back for no other reason than this is where most humans are the strongest. Let’s get back to fixing the excessive rounding that ruins pulls…
The answer for many coaches is to put their athlete(s) on a regimen of back extensions… which are really hip extensions that do nothing to correct the problem. Most athletes experience failure of the upper back before the lower. The failure at the top of the chain leads to failure in the mid back and ultimately disallows the glutes and hammies from finishing the lift. Learning the difference and how to fix it will make all the difference in your clients’ deadlifts and pulls.
If an athlete’s lats (latissimus dorsi) and traps (trapezius) cannot hold the shoulders back and in position, the shoulders round forward and the breakdown of the entire back begins. With many athletes it begins with the set up. They reach… i.e., extend the arms and protract the shoulders when they address the bar. They have to be taught to pull the lats down and rotate the humerus back to completely lock in the upper back and shoulders. IT IS NOT just pull the traps together. That que typically leads to an athlete pulling the traps up and therefore pulling the shoulders up and out of position and releasing tension on the lats. A proper set up corrects the problem in most athletes.
For those who do have weak lats, traps and upper back intrinsic muscles and for the athlete who has progressed into a weight range that is pulling him/her out of position, the bent over row, shrugs, t-bar rows are essential to building the strength required to hold the position throughout the pull. Many CrossFit gyms, do not program these movements. It is one of the reasons why so many CrossFitters can pull 405 (males) and 250 (females) but we see few pulls over 500 and 350 respectfully.
Set your athletes up for success by strengthening the entire posterior chain. Instead of doing rows on upper days, adding them to deadlift days helps instill what their purpose really is. No matter how you program them, program them. There’s no amount of kipping pull ups that can improve your deadlift.