Nark resurrects the dead(-lift)

Nark resurrects the dead(-lift)
By Corey Springer AKA “Narkissos”

Monday, June 8th 2009: The NarkSide

I’ve got to warn you guys in advance: This article started out of a pseudo-rant!!

There will be no beating around the bush… or hand-holding of any kind!

Anyway… let’s get to it.

Here are my primary assumptions:

1. Your deadlift sucks.

2. Your sucky deadlift both embarasses you and pisses you off at the same time. (as it should)

3. You’d like to fix your sucky, embarassing, and aggravating deadlift.

Here are my secondary assumptions:

1. You train hamstrings and glutes in the conventional manner (i.e. with laying leg curls and squats), yet you find it ‘impossible’ to make contact with your hamstring and glute muscles.

2. You have the posterior flexibility of an 80-year old. (No offense to any fit 80-year olds out there)

Muscles of the posterior chain (the glutes, hamstrings, calves, and lower back), being out of sight, seem to be those hardest to recruit.

It is also these muscles (yes, even calves) which are of primary importance during the deadlift.

My first attempt at correcting one’s inability to recruit them would be to prioritize them.

In other words, to build up your deadlift we’re going to step away from it for a bit.

1. Warm-up well.

This may seem like a no-brainer… but most trainees simply don’t get it right.

The point of warming up is to:
• Raise core temperature
• Prepare one’s target systems for repetitive and extensive use.

This should be done in a manner that utilizes the target musculature and related joints.

Most trainees neglect this however.

I’ll go one step further in saying this: Most trainees’ warm-ups make no sense… at all!!!

e.g. Joe average has pecs and delts today. He hops on a treadmill and sprints until the sweat is pouring off him. This isn’t bad in and of itself. However, it’s what he does next that I’d peg an epic failure.

Joe hops off the treadmill and goes straight to the Flat Bench press. He does two warm-up sets… and then 3-5 heavy sets. Pec day has started with a bang. The problem with ‘bangs’ is, they’re usually followed by shooting pain. Horrible pun… I know.

Anyway… the next day, Joe’s rotator cuffs are sore. And Joe attributes this to a job well done. No pain, no gain… right? Wrong!!!

The simple of the matter is that Joe’s shoulder complex was not ready for the heavy work-load at hand.

Joe failed in his attempted warm-up.

Let’s learn from Joe’s mistake(s)!!!

Here is my step-by-step posterior chain warm-up:

• 5-10 minutes aerobic work.

I use one of three stations for this exercise: the treadmill (inclined); the stationary bike; the eliptical. I prefer the stationary bike for this. Let me extrapolate as to the ‘why’ of my choice.

The ankle has the largest range of motion on the treadmill. This is because the foot disengages from the surface of the treadmill during both the plantar flexion and dorsiflexion. However, hip movement is minimal with this piece of apparatus… unless a significant incline is utilized.

The eliptical, on the other side of the spectrum, has a high degree of hip movement… but, the foot pedal being fixed, a low degree of plantar flexion.

The stationary bike represents the best of both worlds for our purpose.

The foot pedal on this piece of apparatus allows free movement through the mediolateral axis.

• Self Myofascial Release (SMR): aka “foam-rolling”

SMR is a somewhat simple technique that can be used to manipulate trigger points. Trigger points are areas of muscle that have become thick, tough and knotted. These areas are painful, or extremely tight, when stretching is attempted. Trigger points can restrict or alter the motion.

These restrictions and alterations can eventually lead to postural and range-of-movement degredation, chronic pain and injury… as well as less efficient motor skill performance. Studies have shown myofascial release to be an effective treatment for myofascial pain syndrome [1][2][3]… thus making SMR a potentially effective preventative measure.

• Lunges… with a twist.

**Most individuals are taught that lunges should be done with one’s torso complete upright.

This is all well and good if:

1. One’s hip and its flexors (et. al.) have full range of motion (i.e. there are no adhesions [due to previous trauma etc.], or muscular imbalances. Imbalances, for example, can

result in suboptimal opposing forces. These can lead to strain, or the reinjury of previously strained areas.)

2. The individual is fully warm. For the purpose of warming up, particularly where the individual already exhibits imbalances (or the inability to recruit primary musculature), a more appropriate manner of loading would be a torso angled lunge.

A forward lean, with no lumbar rounding, causes the pelvis to rotate forward… thus increasing the stretch (and subsequently, the range-of-motion), as well as glute recruitment and loading.

2. Isolate those puppies!

The conventional deadlift is characterised by a moderate to high level of muscle activity in the hip, knee, and ankle plantar extensors. As a lot of individuals are unable to properly recruit the required musculature, isolation work becomes necessary.

Isolation work helps to reinforce the mind/muscle connection, by teaching an individual what he/she should be feeling when the musculature is contracted.

You would benefit from feet-elevated glute bridges, swiss-ball reverse hyper-extensions, or close-stance kneeling squats. With regard to feet-elevated glute bridges: The elevation of the feet allows you to incorporate hamstring recruitment in addition to your primary objective, which is glute activation.

3. Get your jump on!

To improve my deadlift, I started to do an explosive plometric movement prior to each set to ensure that the target musculature was firing correctly.

Jumping squats fit perfectly here, since the musculature recruited in the deadlift is so similar to that recruited in the squat.

I prefer to jump through an angled plane… i.e. a vertical leap with horizontal movement (preferably to the rear, to prioritize the ‘up and back’ pushing movement), so I usually utilize a 6″ platform set up behind me.

You would benefit from a similar approach… I would suggest instead however to use said exercise to further ‘warm-up’ the target musculature. (i.e. instead of doing 1-3 reps prior to each set of your main exercises, do 2-5 straight sets to warm up)

4. Go solo with unilateral work

The typical trainee sticks to the standard lifts… because that is what he is taught.

The typical trainee thinks uni-lateral work is ‘shaping’ work.

But this is far from the truth. (btw: i don’t believe in ‘shaping exercises’.. but that’s another discussion for another day)

When i get the typical trainee in the gym for one day… He normally brags about what he can bench, squat, and over head press.

So… I deconstruct his training… and in the process of doing so, expose the weaknesses.

Most do not have the stability or strength to execute a single-leg deadlift.

Most have huge discrepancies between the weight that they can overhead press on a flat bench (with no back rest) v.s. what they can on the ‘standard’ bench… and again what they can press over head with dumbbells.

“Duh Nark… that’s the way it SHOULD BE!”

I think not.

The above shows that his secondary-support musculature is weak, and/or simply under-utilized.

Most cannot make contact with said musculature.

So my solution?

Prioritize unilateral work…and, in so doing, eliminate secondary weaknesses!

(NB: Unilateral work: Where your target musculature is concerned… that would be walking lunges, single-leg deadlifts, single-leg hyper-extensions.. etc.)

5. Bury the deadlift… resurrect its relative.

Yea… that’s right.

Drop the deadlift! Bring in a substitute.

“What should I sub it with” you may ask?

A more glute/hamstring-dominant variant of course: Stiff Leg Deadlifts FTW!

  • With the standard deadlift, characterized by extensive knee-bending, glute and hamstring recruitment is reduced [4]. Conversely, the slight (15-20 degree) knee flexion involved in the stiff-leg deadlift heavily recruits the muscles of the hamstrings and glutes [5][6][7].

Individuals with poor deadlifts tend to make two primary mistakes:

• Initiating the lift with their hips too high… thus pulling with the erectors as opposed to the hamstrings and glutes.

• Initiating the lift with their hips too low… thus turning the lift into a squat, as opposed to a deadlift.

Both of these patterns are habitual where posterior weaknesses exist. Thus, swapping an exercise with reduced hamstring & glute recruitment for one where these muscles are heavily recruited is only logical.

6. Step up to the platform!

Yes.. that’s right.

Add a platform to the lift… increasing the Range-of-motion (ROM).

Greater ROM = greater motor unit recruitment.

Don’t worry about what’s on the bar.

If you compared a 500 lb quarter squat to a 350lb ATG squat… which one do you think recruits more musculature?

Exactly: The 350 lb ATG squat!!!

It isn’t rocket science.

Increase the ROM!


Caution should be paid to the limit of one’s posterior flexibility.

Let your back dictate the depth of your ROM.

Additionally, avoiding rounding of the back.

This will require conscious effort on the part of those with posterior weaknesses.

Conscious, but necessary effort.

Most fall in to the pattern of looking down at the bar… thus flexing their neck.

This is inappropriate.

I often tell my clients “Don’t look at the bar… It isn’t going anywhere.”

This is to say, basically, don’t fall into the pattern of following the path of the bar with your eyes. Instead, stick your chest out (thus contracting your spinal erectors) and tilt your head slightly upward while you descend.

7. Supra-Isolation!!

Isolation… with a difference!

“Um… what Nark?”

I’m talking about heavy static holds and exaggerated negatives at the end of each glute/ham work-out.

Here’s where we turn things a bit.

I can see you just sitting there thinking “What the hell are you babbling about Nark?”

I’ll tell you!

Neuroplasticity… aka cortical re-mapping!

Research shows that repetitive action fosters the development of neuromuscular control.

One of the primary reasons people’s deadlifts fail, is due to poor muscular recruitment… i.e. the lack of neuromuscular control.

Ask the average gym-goer why his hamstrings lag, and the general reply would be “I can’t feel ’em”.

Watch the average gym-goer deadlifting, and you’ll see a clear and marked posterior weakness in most… that is, providing that you can the few that actually attempt to deadlift that is.

That being said:

better neuromuscular control = more (and more fluid) musculature recruitment = better deadlift form = stronger deadlift.

I find that the best execise for hamstring negative work is the leg curl…either laying or standing (single-leg leg).

Basically, start with 110% (or thereabouts) of your 1-rep max. Have your training partner assist you in curling the weight to the point of max contraction.

At this point, hold the contraction for a 10-count. Next, lower the weight under complete control for a 10-count.

8. Hit those calves!

The deadlift involves some degree of plantar flexion. So, logically, a program geared at improving one’s deadlift should prioritize calf-training.

Here, we’ll try a calf movement with a difference however. We’ll be using the Barbell Calf-raise. There will be no smith machine… no calf-block, no heel drop. Only you, balancing under a barbell.

While machine calf raises are invaluable, they really do less for the development and maintenance of ankle stability. As a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, we’ll be fortifying this one!

My final suggestion for now:

9. Stretch.. Stretch… Stretch!

Your hips are your power center, much like your core is said to be.

Stretch your hams during training (between sets), and after your complete your workout.

If you do PWO-cardio… stretch again after this.

Stretch the Adductors during training (between sets), and after your complete your workout.

Stretch the Psoas PWO.

Remember: Your system is a some of parts… A constant interaction of opposing forces.

Think about this when you structure your stretching regime.

If one area is tight, it pulls against another… negating its ability to properly fire.

So… stretch, stretch, stretch!

Putting it all together: A sample Deadlift-building work-out

General warm-up:
• Treadmill: 5 minutes (moderate incline, moderate speed)

• Hyper-extensions: 1 set (10-15 reps)

• Seated Bent-knee Leg-lifts: 1 set (10-15 reps)

• Reverse Hyper-extensions: 1 set (10-15 reps)

• Bodyweight Lunges: 1 set (10 reps each leg)

The workout:

• Hip abduction Machine**: 2 sets: 20 reps

(**NB: This exercise can be substituted with ‘clams’.)

• Glute Bridges: 2 sets: 15 reps (or reverse hyper-extentions, or kneeling squats)

• Jump Squats: 2 sets: 10 reps (using 6″ platform placed behind you)

• Single-leg hyper-extentions: 2 sets: 10 reps ea. set (Should this exercise be too difficult, swap it for standing single-leg leg-curls)

• Stiff-leg deadlift: 3 sets: 10 reps (standing on 6″ platform… lowering as far as you can go without rounding the back)

• Standing Barbell Calf-raise: 3 sets: 15 reps

• Laying leg-curls static holds and negative work: 2 sets: 100% 1RM… executed in this manner:
10-count hold at max contraction… 10-count negative

Directly Post-workout:

• Stretching. I’d suggest a standing single-leg stretch utilizing the swiss ball, positioned directly in front of you.

Good luck all!

Corey Springer
Owner of The NarkSide
Owner of Apollo Fitness Barbados


1. Hanten, W.P., Olson, S.L., Butts, N.L., Nowicki, A.L. Effectiveness of a home program of ischemic pressure followed by sustained stretch for treatment of myofascial trigger points. Phys Ther. Oct;80(10):997-1003. 2000

2. Hanten, W.P. et al. Effects of active head retraction with retraction/extension and occipital release on the pressure pain threshold of cervical and scapular trigger points. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice. 13(4). 1997

3. Hou CR, Tsai LC, Cheng KF, Chung KC, Hong CZ. Immediate effects of various physical therapeutic modalities on cervical myofascial pain and trigger-point sensitivity. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. Oct;83(10):1406-14. 2002

4. Tsatsouline, P. Full Range of Motion or Joint’s Demolition Project?, February 1999.

5. Chek, P. Scientific Back Training. La Jolla, CA: Paul Chek Seminars, 1994.

6. Goldenberg, L. Strength Training Q&A. Ironman Magazine. June 2000, Vol. 59, No. 6, pg. 150.

7. Piper, TJ, Waller, MA. Variations of the Deadlift. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 2001, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 66—73.

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