How to hip hinge and move into powerful deadlifts
Deadlifting is my favorite thing to do in the world.
Okay, maybe besides other less noble (but no less valuable) pursuits (anime, cooking, discovering sauces, Netflix and chill, making a dent on my never-ending reading list, exploring). And things I do that are slightly more noteworthy (forming a bond with a client and watching them get in touch with themselves and feel powerful enough to try a new exercise/food/outfit/experience for the first time is about as dope as it gets). But, as far as things that put me immediately in the zone go, deadlifting tops them all.
Many of us are wildly intimidated by the deadlift. Probably due to the advent of the internet fitness celebrity who puts 78 plates on each side and screams like a Viking while chalked up. There was even a radio commercial where I live in NC that said, “I’ll try anything once. Except deadlifting. The name makes me uncomfortable.”
We’re warriors over here, you guys. We’ve done a zillion hard things in this life already, so we know we can accomplish difficult tasks. What’s one more? Especially if it means expanding our skill set, building strength to prevent injuries, stepping into our power, and giving others around us permission to do the same?
There’s literally nothing I love more than the camaraderie amongst true fitness people in the gym. I’m not talking about the meatheads that slam things around (although I do my fair share of that) and bicep curl all day (in the squat rack…that’s not what it’s for, bro) and grunt and slam NO-Xplode and rub orange self-tanner all over the bench you wanted to use.
Not to knock them, because, do your thing, but my people are the ones who strive to improve every day. Who see the gym as a training ground for life, and who are there to motivate themselves and celebrate the accomplishments of others. They’re there – I promise! I know, because I’m one of them. And I have a few people that come at my same time of day, and every time we’re there together, we ask how the program is, how the goal is, how work is, how life is…everything.
And when one of them hits a new PR? Or has a business success? Or proposes to his girlfriend? FIREWORKS, MAN. We’re on this Earth to cheer each other on in this relentless pursuit of expansion. We’re all trying to do better, have better, and be better, so it’s important to find the ones who support our mission and push us to keep on loading, reminding us every time we stop or burn or almost quit that we are powerful and worthy of growth.
Few lifts will prove this as thoroughly as the deadlift.
To me, it’s the most honest lift: there’s a weight on the ground, and I can either pick it up, or I can’t. With a squat or bench, the eccentric phase (lowering) is the beginning, and, in most lifts, that’s the easier part, because it’s working with gravity (like, have you ever had trouble sitting down? Even if it means collapsing into the couch? Didn’t think so.). With the deadlift, the part that’s working with gravity is returning to start. The portion of the lift that counts is overcoming the weight – the gravitational pull on that bar – and getting it off the floor. There’s no momentum to help us.
Which could be scary.
Or, we could change our minds, and realize that that is badass AF.
In my opinion, EVERYONE needs to deadlift. There are a bunch of variations, so – just like life – beyond a couple of rules there for safety, there are many ways of getting to the same end goal, and we can each find one perfectly suited for our anatomy and current level of fitness.
So, let’s take the intimidation out of it, shall we?
The basic of the movement is a hip hinge. This, my friends, is an activity of daily life (and most of the population does it incorrectly! Hence, back injuries. We aren’t “most” here in this tribe, are we? So, let’s get this ish down.). Bending to pick up your daughter, or move a box, or see what your dog has in his mouth so he doesn’t die, is a thing we all do a few times a day (at least). Doing it correctly will ease the end-of-day aches and make our workouts more efficient.
Put simply, a hip hinge is maintaining a neutral spine (straight back) while loading the hips and moving them from an anterior to posterior position. So, not just bending over, but having the load of the bend be centered over our hips, so that our hips (not our backs!) bear the majority of the weight.
For my visual learners (that’s me, too!), Tony Gentilcore has a great video/technique to tell if you’re doing this properly, and it’s a diagnostic I use on all of my clients before we jump to heavy loads…or when we’retired and doing it improperly. You’ll basically put a dowel (or other straight object) on 3 points of contact: back of head, thoracic spine, and tailbone. And hinge. Check the video he links here (for real, don’t skip it- it’s 13 seconds.).
There are three major take-home points here:
1. The dowel (or whatever) should not break contact with your head, T spine, or tailbone. If it does, you’re bending, not hinging.
2. Your hips should always be above your knees. If they’re not, you’re squatting, not hinging.
3. You should be counterbalancing the movement of your hips backward by letting your torso lean forward. Keep a soft bend in your knee, and maintain a tight core. If you’re 0/3, you’ll be falling forward, not hinging.
Hip hinging is the gatekeeper to deads; if we can’t do that properly, do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not step behind a 300lb bar and try to pull it off the floor. It’ll hurt. Probably. Some people are lucky, but let’s not risk it.
Moving on from there, several deadlift variations exist to help us move pain-free through a range of motion that allows us to feel better and stronger. Deadlifting from the floor is a powerful move, but many variations are better-suited to different populations. Don’t think just because you’re “old” / have been injured / don’t want to slam some iron around super loudly that there isn’t a variation for you. There is, and it’ll get you stronger, more mobile, and more confident. Some of these variations include trap bar deadlifts (easier on the spinal column), rack pulls (shorter range of motion), sumo deadlifts (torso stays more upright, so best for those with a tendency to round the upper back; hips in a better position for those with a more bony anatomy), and/or landmine deadlifts (the load is anterior, so best for those who have trouble keeping their core engaged), to name a few. In all variations, protect your armpits (squeeze your lats to your triceps, raise your ribcage, keep your neck in line with your spine, and hold this position throughout the movement). Maintaining full body tension is key to safely lifting anything appreciable, and the visual of putting your shoulder blades in your back pocket (another Tony Gentilcore trick I learned over the years) helps to keep all the stuff in the parentheses wrapped up into one motion easy to keep in mind throughout the duration of the lift.
As far as #WonderWomanLoading philosophy goes, in which we get stronger physically as a catalyst to get stronger mentally, the deadlift is the granddaddy of them all. We’re proving to ourselves that we can do hard things, so that when the next life challenge comes our way, we’ll remember that time we echoed the radio commercial (“the name makes me uncomfortable”), laughed in its face, and learned how to breathe and brace, load our spines, and pick up heavy things anyway.