How To Fix Your Deadlift Lockout

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.

How to Properly Brace in the Squat

In my opinion the two biggest mistakes/misconceptions with bracing is that the bigger the breath the better and that the belt does the work for you. A bigger breath usually just means less intent for how the breath is used, and most likely results in a nice big chest breath and shoulder shrug. The second issue tends to be even worse, as a belt does not contract your abdominals. If all you are doing is breathing into your belt, you are just expanding your stomach, not bracing. I like the analogy that we are filling up a balloon. When you fill up a balloon it is not done by one big breath, it is done my multiple small breaths. So what I like to do is 3 small breaths. Each small breath expands the lungs and diaphragm further, and after each breath is taken you contract down with your core. It is almost like the abdominals are being use to try to crush the “balloon” being blown up inside of you. Now what does the belt’s purpose in all of this? An external cue to breathe into and for core contraction. We need 360 degree expansion into the belt, so that belt acts as a cue for the intent of each breath, as well as and external stimulus for muscle contraction. Think about if someone pushes their fist into your stomach. The natural reaction is to brace. That is what the belt is doing.

So putting this all together, here is the step by step bracing pattern/setup I use. After the walkout, contract their abs and lock down the ribcage. From there, take a small breath into the diaphragm to slowly fill that “balloon”. After that breath, lock down again with the abs. Then again, take another small breath to fill the ballon even further, then tighten the abs again. Then lastly, take a medium size breath to finish, which combined with the other two breaths in reality is a large breath, lock down the abs one final time, and squat. Sounds like a lot, but all of that should take less than 5 seconds. Its quick and small breaths. Not a relaxed meditation breath. Give this a try and let me know how it goes!

A Year In Review: Deadlifts Need To Improve

Looking back over the last year and my athlete’s progress, I can see some patterns in the progress of each one of the 3 lifts. By far the most progress has been on squats. Almost universally the athlete’s I coach have made significant increases on their squat, and while I will never stop learning and trying to expand my knowledge, I think I have a pretty good system in place for how I coach and program that squat.

For bench press, results have been pretty good, but not great like squats have been. I think a lot of that falls back on my hesitancy sometimes to push volume on bench like I need to. It doesn’t mean going from 2 days and 10 sets a week on bench to 4 days and 25 sets, but it does mean to have consistent and slow progression to build volume tolerance over time. This very well could fall back on more hypertrophy emphasis blocks for bench press.

The difference I feel like I have noticed on squat and bench press is that while both technique and volume are very important, comparatively technique matters more on squat and comparatively volume matters more on bench press. Don’t take that as volume matters more than technique on bench press, technique is always more important. But what I am just saying is that comparatively volume matters a bit more on bench press than squat, at least in my observations with my athletes. Where I think this idea is proven is in the average gym bro. You won’t see an average gym bro walk up to a squat bar and hit 500lbs. to depth, but go to any local commercial gym and you will find plenty of guys benching 315lbs.

For the last lift deadlifts, that is where I am just not happy. I’ve had people make progress, but not as much as I’d like. And more importantly, I am not seeing correlations between those who have seen good progress, at least on the programming side. I believe most of the progress my athlete’s have made on deadlift has been from technical adjustments, but not near as much from the programming side. I spent the last 3 weeks reading everything I could on deadlift, especially from sources/coaches who have excelled in coaching the deadlift with their athletes, and also reading from a lot of sources/coaches from prior generations that I may have overlooked before. There are so many differing opinions out there, so what I was looking for was the couple key points that seemed to be consistent across the board. Principles that I saw across multiple programs and that had stood the test of time from past generations of powerlifters to our current day. I found two main things:

1.) The coaches that seemed to excel with deadlifts did a lot of lower back accessory work. This may seem kind of obvious, but the fact is that modern day trends lead a lot towards just deadlifting for lower back strength. But looking at the programs and articles detailing keys to progression on deadlifts, I saw over and over the use of a large amount of accessory work to build the lower back, and that is something I have not been doing.

2.) Opposite stance deadlifts. If I have someone who sumo deadlifts, I mainly have had them sumo deadlift, and vice versa. But looking at all the material I found, there was a correlation to coaches training multiple stances in the deadlift and their success. We do that in bench press with no questions asked. Close grip, medium grip, competition grip, and wide grip. But for deadlift I was just training one stance. In particular, it seemed that coaches with high level sumo pullers were still having them hit conventional deadlifts heavy, which goes back to point #1 and strengthening the lower back.

With all that being said, this has just been information gathering to this point and now I need to put these ideas into practice. Time will tell if these hypothesis are correct, which I am confident they will be, but if not it is back to the drawing board to reassess and continue to build.

How To Keep Your Butt Down On Bench Press

For the longest time, I could never keep my butt down on bench press. I used the excuse of my extremely long tibias making it about darn near impossible, and while they do make it a bit more difficult, there was a fix. I tried different setups with my foot position, I worked on increasing my arch, I tried flat shoes versus heeled shoes, lifted on commercial gym benches versus competition benches, but none of that seemed to really matter. The route cause was the cueing of my leg drive. Two main things were wrong:

1.) I would drive through my heels, pushing straight up.

2.) And even when I fixed that, I would still think of leg drive as this push with my legs as I pressed.

 

So what did I do to fix the issue?

1.) First and foremost, constant tension was critical. Leg drive should not be something you initiate just as you press, but instead something that is present through the entire lift. From the time I start the downward motion until the moment I rack the bar, I am always driving with the legs. The only small change is I may be driving at 50% effort during most of the lift, but during the press I increase to 75%. And notice I didn’t say 100%. You are not trying to heave the bar up with your legs. The two main things you are trying to accomplish with leg drive is increasing tension and creating inertia moving back, not up, which leads me to the next fix…..

2.) Leg drive is back, not up. What you are trying to essentially do is slide back into the bench. But because you are holding weight and have your upper traps dug into the bench, what happens when you drive back is those traps stick into the bench, drive down into the bench, which then has the opposite reaction of driving the bar up. Just like the feet pushing into the floor on squat and deadlift to create the force to drive the bar up, the upper back drives into the bench to apply force in the opposite direction to move the bar. Your legs do not move the bar, they just create the tension and inertia to drive the upper back down. So when I drive with the legs (reminder from point #1 that this is a consistent drive throughout the entire range of motion), what I am thinking about is trying to slide my feet forward and out. Almost like I am trying to push my pinky toes through the front of my shoe. This force in return should cause your body to want to slide back into the bench. If done correctly, the butt really shouldn’t move, as there should be little to no vertical force with the leg drive, but rather horizontal force.

Weight Cutting for Powerlifting

When weight cutting for powerlifting, the goal is to be able to cut the desired amount of bodyweight without losing strength or having to take drastic measures. I personally I am not experienced or knowledgeable enough to comment or give advice on more drastic weight cutting measures. But the below protocol easily takes care of about a 3-5% drop in body weight, which for the vast majority of competitors should be the top end of how much they should cut for a meet. Optimally if you are under a 2 hour weigh-in process, it would be best to not really have to cut at all, but if the time calls for a cut I have a fairly easy go-to plan that has worked for many. The below article in my opinion is probably the best there is on weight cutting, but it is fairly detailed an all encompassing. I instead want to give a simplified version for the very specific approach of a 3-5% body weight loss, as well as add some information gained from other sources and that has worked extremely well through experience.

https://www.powerliftingtowin.com/cutting-weight-for-powerlifting/

So if you look at that article, one of the first charts is the water loading process, which is the same for 24 hour and 2 hour weigh-ins for the most part. The weight cut I use is a combination of this water loading process and a gut cut, emphasis on the gut cut. When all that is needed is a 3% or less body weight loss, many times I will only do a gut cut only, as that is where most of the weight loss comes from. What is a gut cut? Basically it is getting rid of all the “poop” that is in your intestines. Gut weight does not have any effect on strength, so if we can limit the amount of built up food in your intestines, then we can achieve a fairly high amount of weight loss (2-3% of body weight) with no impact on your performance. If we need more than a 2-3% loss, then I will also add the water loading process. The scientific detail of the exact physiological processes of why a water load works is beyond my scope of knowledge, but if you are interested in the actual mechanics of it, take a listen to The Strength Athlete Podcast Episode 15, where Reid Reale goes into detail about that (TSA Podcast Episode 15). Basically you drink excess water than you need, which then tells your body to start to urinate more, and then once you cut water back you continue urinating at the same rate yet your aren’t drinking as much water. So since we’ve got the details of what is happening physiologically, let’s lay out the actual plan.

Gut Cut

3 Days Out 2/3rds of your calories from Protein Shakes and Almonds, and 1/3rd from very calorically dense foods and zero fiber foods (most likely high sugar foods with low weight). Maintain your normal caloric intake. For example if your intake is 3,000 calories, what you will do is account for 2,000 calories, or 2/3rds, to come from protein shakes and almonds, and the other 1,000 calories to come from sugary/zero fiber foods.
2 Days Out 2/3rds of your calories from Protein Shakes and Almonds, and 1/3rd from very calorically dense foods and zero fiber foods.
1 Day Out 2/3rds of your calories from Protein Shakes and Almonds, and 1/3rd from very calorically dense foods and zero fiber foods.
Weigh-Ins

 

Water Load

2 Weeks Out 1 Gallon a day for a minimum of a week prior to the water load.
4 Days Out 2 Gallons
3 Days Out 2 Gallons
2 Days Out 1 Gallon
1 Days Out .5 Gallons
Weigh-Ins

The protein shakes and the almonds are the key to the gut cut. Protein shakes have basically zero gut weight to them, and almonds are super calorically dense and also are dense in all 3 macro-nutrients. The is no real need to do this for more than 3 days prior to weigh-ins, as longer is not better. If someone only needs to lose 1-2lbs., I may even only have them do this for 2 days instead of 3. But this 3 day gut cut should yield around a 2-3% loss in body weight. I actually have most people used salted almonds, as sodium is still important and if all you are eating is protein shakes, unsalted almonds, and sugary foods you are also accidently doing a sodium cut as well. In cases where we may have a large weight cut, then I will go unsalted so that we cut down on sodium as well, but otherwise I keep it as salted almonds.

For the water load, it is a must that at least a week prior to starting the load that you consistently consume 1 gallon a day to get yourself acclimated to that intake. At 4 days out you will start loading with 2 gallons, which by the second day of that you will most likely be urinating non-stop. 2 days out you drop to 1 gallon and then 1 day out is .5 gallons. Make sure this water is accounted for within the protein shakes. That last day you have to be pretty sparing with water, and most likely every drop will be used for your protein shake consumption.

Now for some caveats to this:

  1. Make sure to weigh every single morning, with the most important days being 2 days and 1 day out. Based on where you are at, you can adjust. In particular what commonly happens is that 1 day out an athlete has already hit weight, and if that is the case I will increase the water intake to .75 or maybe even 1 gallon so that they do not have to suffer as much.

  2. The gut cut is the main priority and where the majority of the weight loss will come from. You MUST weigh and track your food. Do not eyeball. The small details are extremely important, and 20 almonds does not necessarily equal 28 grams of almonds. Same goes for water loading. Make sure to measure out every ounce/liter you drink.

For a 200lb. athlete, typically I can expect about a 6-7lb. loss from this protocol, with times where I have seen up to 11lbs. and other times as low as 4lbs. So what that means is try this well before a competition. If you have never cut before, don’t let your first time be the week of the competition. Typically I will have new athletes practice this during a deload week a couple months out just to see how their body responds. If done correctly and with precision, this is a very effective protocol that is much easier on the body and strength levels than subjecting yourself to a sauna for hours on end.