5 Secrets of the Deadlift featuring Andy Bolton

Posted on 15 Sep 2015 23:08

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The first man to break through the 1,000 pound deadlift benchmark has listed some secrets to the deadlift and being a deadlift enthusiast, I have my views on the matter.

The Official Strongman YouTube channel recently featured Andy Bolton giving some advice and offering tips and tricks on the deadlift. In the video he is supposed to be listing 5 secrets of the deadlift – however no matter how many times I watch it, I am only able to count 4 big points. So I am going to list his points in this blog post and give you my thoughts on the deadlift.

5 Secrets of the Deadlift by Andy Bolton


Distance of the barbell from the shins

Andy prefers to keep the bar touching his shins so that when the lifter begins the movement the bar doesn’t drift away from the body. In principle I agree with this but I have found that keeping a slight distance of one inch between the barbell and the shins keeps the bar directly over the mid-foot and allows it to be best in line with the lifter’s center of gravity. If you watch the video you will find that Andy is doing the same thing – his shins are not directly in contact with the bar. If you get the bar close to your body (not too close) then you will be best able to put your shoulders ahead of the bar and the bar directly beneath your scapula. This will give you the best leverage to lift a heavy weight. If the bar is too far away from the body you will end up leaning forwards to counter the weight of the bar and in doing so you may raise your hips before the bar even breaks off the floor and this will put you at a big disadvantage.

Always remember to relate to the barbell. The deadlift is always about getting the bar to your hips as fast as possible. That is the best way to break down this movement and visualize your technique.

Hand Placement

Powerlifters really love to exploit every advantage they can set their hands on. Hand placement is a big issue because it can help (or hurt) the distance you need to move the bar. If you use the best narrow strong grip you can then you are making your lift economic for the effort you will put into it. I remember discussing the same matter with John Pinder, the owner of Iron Addicts Forums and we all agree that finding the right grip is a big deal. I do the same thing as Andy in having all beginners training under me practicing the double overhand grip for as long as possible. But inevitably this grip will give way because it is not an augmented grip and to prevent the rotation of the bar you will need to switch one hand into an under grip – and this will counter the rotation of the barbell. The over-under grip is a fantastic augmented grip.

I take this augmented grip one step further with my trainees. All of us have a personal preference when it comes to the grip we use at maximal weights. Some of us prefer a left over right under or a left under right over type augmented grip. But practicing just one type of grip will create a strength imbalance.

So, what I normally practice and what I have my trainees do is to stick to the pronated grip (over-over) for as long as possible during the warm-ups. Then when that fails I have them use the opposite grip of what they use for their maximal weights for the remaining warm-ups - so if someone prefer a left over right under for the big weights then they use a left under right over post the point at which the prone grip failed. Then with the heavier weights I have them switch their grip with every rep. Ofcourse at the tail end of the spectrum with 90% or more of their max everybody prefers just one grip but using this method of alternating grips and sticking to double overhand keeps the strength imbalance at a minimum. For anyone wondering why I do not recommend the hook grip even though it is also an augmented grip, please read this article and watch the video: The Hook Grip will add 50 lbs to your deadlift INSTANTLY

Back to the width of the grip: like Andy and John, I prefer keeping my grip as close to me as my comfort levels will allow. I don’t think this issue needs to be over analyzed because no two people are the same and sometimes with too narrow a grip the bottom part of the deadlift becomes difficult because your knees will keep crashing into the elbows. So I recommend keeping as narrow a grip as is comfortable for the lifter. I also recommend training the grip directly right from the get go. You never want to be at a point where your body can deadlift a heavy weight but your grip is limiting you to do so. I always insist and make sure my trainees are well ahead of the curve.

Head Positioning

Maintaining a neutral neck while doing the deadlift (or the squat) is a big factor and Eric Troy has detailed the steps you need to take to achieve that in his article: Neutral Neck

Andy is also a firm believer in maintaining a neutral neck and outlines one of the ways of doing so by finding a fixed point to stare at. A lot of people I have seen tend to look up at the ceiling and most of you know that is a horrible error. Another extreme is to look down at your feet and that is equally inefficient and although this is rare to see happen in the deadlift, it is a common occurrence with the squat. . A good target to keep your gaze fixed on is the ground somewhere in front of you – not too far and not too close either.

Another tip that I have is that between deadlift reps, a lot of us tend to look straight ahead (sometimes into the mirror) and do our breathing keeping our head bent forwards. This restricts the flow of air into our core. Instead, it is much better to tuck your chin to your sternum and open your mouth to breathe into your core before you brace it and begin the movement. Keeping your chin tucked allows the air to pass to your core in the most efficient manner since there is no obstruction in the windpipe.

I firmly believe in the reality of lifting heavy weights. This means that I am not a stickler for form nor will I nitpick someone when they compromise form under maximal loads. So if your back rounds a little I won’t be the one discrediting your lift or making some asinine remark like “with good form you will be able to lift more.” So I acknowledge that sometimes when you are grinding through a super heavy rep you might look up at the ceiling (or the stars) to fight gravity and this is the reality of lifting heavy weights. But, the intention must never be to compromise form or keep it loose.

Hip Positioning

This is the crux of the movement: getting your hips right. Eric Troy has elaborated on this in his article: How to do Deadlifts: Hips Too High, Too Low, or Just Right

If you keep your hips too low you will end up moving them before the bar breaks off the floor and you will try to squat the weight up. This is highly inefficient. For some reason guys like Brandon Lilly have been advocating squatting the weight up while deadlifting and it is some of the worst deadlift advice I have ever come across. Squatting the weight off the floor only works with light weights because the light loads counter the flaw in the movement. The deadlift is a pull – not a squat. So you must not equate the two lifts and combine them. I agree completely with Andy on this point because keeping your hips just above the level of your knees and below the level of your shoulders gives the lifter the best mechanical advantage. Not only that but this is a guideline and within this guideline there is sufficient room for individual differences to exist and to be exploited to lift the most that you can.

Andy has provided a great example of Misha Koklyaev because this monster is known to sink to the deepest position of the squat before beginning the lift. I don’t think any lifter’s form on maximal weight (let alone in a competition setting) should be taken as gospel. However, keeping this in mind, Misha is NOT “squatting” the bar off the floor. Despite what it looks like, if you observe Misha’s lifts closely you will see that although he initiates the movement from the deep squat position, the only time the bar breaks off the ground is when his hips are well passed the level of his knees and well below the level of his shoulders. This is the same sweet spot that everyone should be beginning their movements from.

Another important point to make note of is that in trying to hone in their technique people make the mistake of breaking down the movement into sub-movements. Andy also touches on this topic because the mistake people make is thinking of this as a leg then back movement: first you use your legs then you use your back. But the truth is that you need to use both in sync and not break the movement down into mini-movements. This is also why I don't like to attribute strength movements to specific muscle groups.

I know a lot of you deadlift enthusiasts will recall those moments in the gym when someone comes up to you and asks you why do you perform the deadlift? Which muscles will it improve? And you don't want to be a wannabe bodybuilder and promote it for back development and at the same time you don't want to be stuck up and claim it works the full body. In that same vein of thought you shouldn't break the movement down into sub movement - and people are especially susceptible to this when they are analyzing their sticking points. When you isolate a sticking point in the range of motion you tend to make the deadlift into two movements: the movement before the sticking point and the movement after the barbell has passed the sticking point. This is a gross error.

Andy Bolton has mentioned exercises similar to the deadlift and I have a couple of points on the matter. Andy has equated the deadlift to the half-squat and I agree with him completely. Infact, I will take this one step further and say that my buddy Joe Weir was way ahead of the curve when he promoted the Anderson Squat as a great tool to get the body used to lifting heavy loads from a dead stop position. You can read more about this exercise out here and here. Also, I want to point out – and this is based purely on anecdotal experience and observations: a good way to get the deadlift moving is to work on exercises that strengthen the quads like split squats, lunges, etc because the beginning of the movement is all about firing your quads and breaking the bar off the floor.

Conclusion

I am very impressed with Andy Bolton’s take on the deadlift. I know this might sound pompous on my part, but I was really disappointed with his book Deadlift Dynamite. I expected to see something spectacular in the book, something that nobody else is willing to say but everyone is doing behind the scenes. I was hoping Andy would come out and say that to deadlift heavy you need to deadlift heavy and you need to train within maximal strength ranges (90% and more of your one rep maximum) very often. But the book was a general introduction to powerlifting and the deadlift – and best suited for novice lifters or beginners.

But this video is fantastic. He has listed some key components of the deadlift. I want to break this down for everyone so they have a quick to-do mental checklist while setting up for the deadlift.

1. When you step up to the bar and bend down to grip it, make sure you keep the bar placed just a short distance away from your shins.
2. Make sure your shoulders are ahead of the bar (your scapula will naturally fall just above the bar).
3. Use a grip that is best suited to your shoulder width and knee placement. Try to keep it as narrow as is comfortable.
4. Tuck your chin to your chest or sternum and try to take a deep breath using your mouth.
5. Brace your core.
6. Make sure your hips are above the level of your knees and below the level of your shoulders.
7. Actively squeeze the barbell with your hands throughout the entire duration of the rep.
8. When you begin the lift the barbell must move at the same time as your hips – the deadlift is one single movement.

These steps will help you visualize the movement and get you ready to lift some big weights!

Articles related to breathing and bracing the core:

Valsalva Maneuver

Belly Breathing? Is This the Correct Way to Breathe?

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