One of the biggest misconceptions in powerlifting is in regards to the lockout on deadlift. When someone tends to fail at lockout, the first thought usually is that the athlete needs to strengthen their lockout, but unfortunately that should not be the initial thought process. But at the same time I am not going to completely disregard that, and will circle back around at the end on why people have found benefit in “lockout work”.
What it come down to is pelvic and lumbar positioning off the floor. How you start the deadlift will dictate how you finish the deadlift. If you start with a very neutral back and pelvic position, most likely breaking the floor is the hardest part of the deadlift, and the rest is cake. Whereas if you start in a posterior tilted pelvic position and lumbar flexion, lockout is going to be your problem. And this just all comes down to biomechanics. Take any lifter with a “lockout” problem, have them do a rack pull from just below the knee, and they probably can hit that for probably 110% of their normal deadlift max. So they don’t have a lockout problem, they have a positioning problem. When they perform a rack pull at the knees, they can start with better positioning, allowing for more efficient force transfer from the hip extensors. But when they start from the floor, by the time they get to the knees, their butt is tucked under and their lower back is rounded.
Let’s breakdown the biomechanics of this and why it makes it so hard to lockout when in this position. We have two things going on, posterior pelvic tilt and lumbar flexion.
1.) When we go into a posterior pelvic tilt, 3 things happens with our hips extensors. Our glutes are shortened, our hamstrings are shortened, and our spinal erectors are lengthened. A muscle is the weakest at its lengthened and shortened position, and strongest in its middle range. So with the glutes and hamstrings, when we start with our butt tucked under and continue that position, as we get to lockout those muscles are greatly underperforming. They are in a shortened state and creating significantly less hip extension force than if they were stabilized in a neutral position. So as we get to lockout, 2 out of the 3 main muscle groups trying to extend the hips and lock out are basically “shut off”.
2.) The lower back, as mentioned above, is lengthened if we start in the posterior pelvic tilt and lumbar extension position. As we get to lockout, the main mechanics that are now happening is lumbar extension. If we started with a neutral back to begin with, the goal of the lumbar spine is to aid in hip extension and isometrically stabilize its position through lockout. But when our starting position is off, the spinal erectors are now having to pull the lumbar spine out of flexion and into extension, doing way more work than usual.
Now, with all that being said, I want to circle back around to “lockout work”. People have sworn by it for decades, so it must work, right? Yes it does, but not for the reasons they typically think, nor should it be the priority. The number 1 priority is always improving positioning off the floor on deadlift, with a secondary goal of strengthening the lower back. When doing lockout work, people thought if they overloaded the range of motion they failed in, they’d get stronger. The issue is when you do a 4″ block pull or rack pull from just below the knees, you are not performing the same movement as your normal deadlift. And that is due to what I mentioned above, as your positioning is completely different. When performing the rack pull, most likely your are not tucking your pelvis and rounding your lumbar spine in the same way, so you are not training the sticking point in the same manner. What you are doing is training the lower back though. And as mentioned, the lower back is going to be called upon to a much greater degree when you suffer from this bad positioning. So that is why this “lockout work” helps, it strengthens the lower back.
My argument against this though is I believe there are better ways to strengthen the lower back rather than overloading lockout work, due to heavy overloaded rack pulls putting a high demand on the body. Instead, we can target the lower back with some less aggressive accessory movements such as back extensions, good mornings, safety bar squats, and bent over rows. So if you have a lockout problem, I’d recommend a two step approach:
1.) Improve your positioning off the floor to achieve neutrality in the pelvis and lumbar spine.
2.) Strengthen the lower back with more conservative exercises such as back extensions, good mornings, Safety Bar squats, and bent over rows/pendlay rows.