As a Strength and Conditioning (S&C) coach or Personal Trainer (PT) you often find yourself critiquing another individual’s Dead Lift (DL) – whether that be an athlete with a relatively young or mature training age, or a recreational health and fitness enthusiast with minimal or vast experience of the power lift. You watch the biomechanics of their lift making a point to seek out any of the tell-tale kinematic deficiencies that would be symptomatic of poor lift execution – in turn yielding improper kinetic force production that, either dangerously stresses the muscles, joints and connective tissues or, is inappropriate for completing the lift at the desired load. If all the above are in action then you feel compelled to intervene and offer your expertise, with the only barrier being their ego or that doing so would put you in direct contradiction of the S&C coach that demonstrated this technical model. However the real problem comes when your own arrogance or impertinence doesn’t allow you to recognise the gaps in your knowledge. So is their DL technique wrong and/ or dangerous? Or, are they just using a variation of the conventional DL that you are unfamiliar with? One with different prime movers, synergists and injury risk parameters? One that more suits their training goals and is of greater dynamic correspondence to their sport? However, by that same token, you as the athlete or gym user should consider why you are doing that particular dead lift? If you cannot answer that by explaining; which variation you are using, what muscles you are targeting, what the injury risk parameters are, how it fits in with your training strategy/ goal then there is a very good chance that you are doing it wrong and or dangerously.
The different types of dead lifts
This particular factor is important for even MSc and UKSCA (UK Strength & Conditioning Association) qualified coaches because those qualification assessment sessions do not necessarily explore all known variants to this power lift, and instead focus (among other things) on the conventional DL and one other ‘mainstream’ variation i.e. the Romanian DL, even if in an indirect way. This is shown in figure 1, which is the assessment criteria for the UKSCA practical accreditation which is also mirrored by the MSc practical assessment.
Figure 1 (http://www.uksca.org.uk/assessments/)
The third criterion in figure 1 asks for a demonstration of the technical model of the Clean and Jerk or Snatch., both of which have a ‘start’ and ‘beginning’ phase (commonly known as the ‘set position’ and ‘first pull’) that are similar to the conventional DL with the ‘beginning’ phase mirroring the end point of the Romanian DL eccentric phase, as seen in figure 2,
hence the focus on those DL variations during the practical learning process. This centralised focus is most likely due to the fact that those DL can act as starting points for eventual progression into the Olympic lifts seen in figure 2 [2,5]. Moreover, once progressed to the Olympic lifts, the dynamic correspondence to the sporting skills found in the majority of mainstream UK team and individual sports is greater than those of the other variants e.g. the Hang Clean to the vertical jump [8,10], which for one are not incorporated in the technical model of the Olympic lifts, and are specified towards the sports for which they were created. To those outside the MSc academic process, this method may seem flawed and incomplete, but at masters level you aim to become a highly critical self sufficient scientist of the strength and conditioning field. Meaning wherever you see a gap in your knowledge you actively seek to fill it via peer reviewed literary sources, which is exactly what I have aimed to do with the DL.
Reviewing the papers of Bird and Barrington-Higgs (2010)  and Piper and Waller (2001)  presents you with a combined list of twelve DL variants. They are listed below;
Power Rack DL
Although these papers appear well researched, I would not go as far as to say that this is an exhaustive list, as sports and their training regimes evolve all the time. However, the sport specific variants appear to cover all major 1st world sports, leading to the reasonable conclusion that an S&C coach working in this part of the world can treat this list as pretty robust.
All DL exercises are predominantly designed to utilise (but not exclusively) some or all the posterior chain muscle from the knee joint up, as well as the arm musculature e.g. the forearms. But this of course varies dependent on the particular DL. This piece is not an exercise in describing the technical model for each DL, or determining if one lift variation is superior to another for x,y,z reason (to be addressed in a future piece), but a brief descriptive analysis of what the literature shows each to be specified towards in terms of muscle activation, sport specificity and rehabilitation applications.
Figure 3 (www.powerx.us)
As one can assume from its name there is a lot more literature on this lift, the biomechanical and EMG analysis performed in various papers, though not always being uniform in agreement, overall suggest that the predominant muscles activated are glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps and spinal erectors [2,3,6,7,9] To what degree each is firing throughout the movement is difficult to quantify because of the subject to subject variability in skill and movement pattern used even when aiming to adhere to a clear technical model. However, results do lean towards the understanding that quadriceps and spinal extensor muscle are/should be the most neurologically recruited muscles and the hip extensor muscles (glutes) recruited for the highest percentage of the movement time [2,3,6,9]. In terms of which sports this lift or any lift in fact is most applicable too is not necessarily a black and white matter. As although one could simply look at what muscles are predominantly used during the lift and seek for a similar correspondence with the skills used in a particular sport. It can be argued that in any cohort of athletes you will find different movement patterns to achieve the same skill outcome. This can be down to gender or ability level, this is well illustrated in the work of Chappell, (2006;2007) . Therefore a DL prescription that’s not considerate of the firing pattern of athletes chosen movement strategy would be counter productive. An opposition to this idea would prescribe the athlete the scientifically tried and tested movement strategies, effectively making the relearn the skill. However as an S&C coach you have ask yourself if this is an meaningful use of yours and the athlete’s time? If the athlete is able to achieve high levels of performance, than could it be better to prescribe DL lifts that complements his or her already learnt movement pattern? For example selecting a less quad flexion based DL like the stiff-leg DL as opposed to one more so like the conventional DL – for an athlete who doesn’t fully utilise their potential for increased muscle recruitment via hip and knee flexion during their Vertical Jump. Answering these questions fully is beyond the scope of this piece but illustrates well the importance of understand the different DL and how they work kinetically and kinematically when making exercise prescriptions for yourself and others. Saying that, there are sports that have long been associated with particular DL variations, and bee integral in producing elite level performance. Therefore not using that information as at least a compass on the journey towards effective training modalities and enhanced performance with be negligent. For the Conventional DL traditionally it would be applicable to the training regimes of (but not exclusively) Football, Rugby and Volleyball. From a sports rehabilitation perspective based on the muscle activation rates and patterns this DL could be used in athlete’s recovering from hamstring strains (depending on severity & location in hamstring muscle group), as it would allow continued conditioning of the upper posterior chain while placing lower stress on the hamstrings in comparison to stiff leg or Romanian DL[1,14].
Figure 4 (www.deadlifttips.net)
This DL varient appears to recruit more of the quads, both inner (Vastus medialis) and outer (vastus Lateralis), the upper trapezius and has a lower recruitment of the lumbar erector muscles than the conventional DL [9,10,11]. Although the studies cited have used subjects of different levels, whose skill at the lift would greatly differ, they have reached similar findings – in regards to muscle activation rates and patterns. Traditionally this variant has been employed with wrestling and American football, specifically linebackers [2,12]. Observing this lifts wide ‘set position’ in figure 3 it is intuitively obvious why. As with the previous lift variant the key to application is understand how the lift works (prime movers/ synergists) and then prescribing it accordingly. For example utilising the lower activation of the lumbar erector muscles in athletes with injury related weaknesses in that area but still seeking to strengthen other areas within this movement pattern. I couldn’t find any specific literature that showed the effectiveness of such an intervention, however I believe the logic to be evidenced based enough to give the rational credence.
Figure 5 (www.directlyfitness.com)
This particular variant stands out from the ones described so far as it’s set position is the ‘finish position’ of the conventional DL, with the first movement being the eccentric phase as opposed to the concentric like to Sumo and Conventional DL. In looking through the literature I have noticed that the term ‘Stiff- Legged’ DL also gets applied to what in fact is the Romanian DL. This most likely is due to the fact that both require the knee joint to remain still throughout the eccentric phase, however there is a reported 15-degree difference in flexion at the joint at the point of stiffness – which in turn significantly alters the firing patterns of the muscles being used . The EMG readings for this lift indicate that the predominant muscles activated are in the posterior chain (Lumbar spine extensors, glutes and hamstrings), with the quadriceps muscles- less involved in producing force for either concentric or eccentric phases compared to the previous variations [14,1]. Furthermore these papers found that the hamstring muscles and gluteal muscles have the highest relative time spent in activation. It’s practical application has traditionally focused on diving and gymnastic sports, from a rehabilitation perspective, other than obviously targeting the predominant muscles being activated in order to strengthen their resilience to eccentric stress i.e. hamstring strain prone thighs. They can also alleviate the stress on the anterior knee, lending to a possible application for those recovering from anterior knee injuries but still wanting to train the posterior chain via the DL.
Figure 6 ( www.mensfitness.com)
In this variation of the DL the muscular activation differences are very similar to those found in the Stiff-Leg DL, the main difference observed with muscle activation being instigated by the difference in the joint angle at the knee during both eccentric and concentric phases. This was alluded to in the previous section; however going deeper into this is a limited endeavour by comparison because there is very little literature on this. In fact most of the information I have gathered in the Romanian DL muscle firing patterns are found in bits and pieces within Stiff Leg DL research. With the authors making reference to the different knee flexion angles between the two and that this increased knee flexion shifts the work load higher up the hamstring musculature . The applications of this variant for sporting performance, training and rehabilitation are also in line with those used for the Stiff-leg DL. However this may perhaps change if and when more research has been carried out on this lift.
After this, the alternative DL mentioned in the list becomes even more specified towards sports, activities and training/rehabilitation interventions, moreover they are often iterations of the ‘mainstream lifts’. This subsequently results in very limited peer reviewed research, with the S&C scientific community focused on the ‘mainstream’/parent (more commonly used in practice) DL. For that reason I’ve decided to describe those lifts superficially in terms of how they are often applied in an S&C setting, leaving scope for more detailed analysis in the future. Saying that, it should be recognised that a deeper understanding of the ‘mainstream lifts’ will provide a solid foundation upon which education rationales and biomechanical inferences can be postulated about which muscles these other alternative DL use predominantly recruit and their applicability.
Power Rack DL
Figure 7 (www.menshealth.co.uk)
This DL allows for heavier loads to be lifted with a focus on the low-mid back spinal erector muscles. Good prescription for those with flexion limiting back/lower limb weakness/injuries.
Figure 8 (www.jerseygirltalk.com)
The Machine DL is simply a machine-assisted way of performing any of the DL variants, usually utilizing a Smith Machine. And as such will have a similar applicability as the unassisted DL version-minus the functional trunk and total body stability/strength gained from balancing a load as you lift. The main benefit of this DL is the ability to lift heavier than possible unassisted.
Figure 9 (www.stupideaspaleo.com)
The Snatch DL is a Conventional or Romanian DL with a wider Snatch grip. This variation has been predominantly used for conditioning the body for the Snatch Olympic Lift. It can also be used for individuals with longer arms or hyper flexible hamstrings in order to increase the eccentric loading in those muscles at a higher point in that phase of the movement.
Figure 10 (www.mensfitness.com)
This iteration of the Conventional/Romanian DL is made different by the use of Dumbbells as opposed to a barbell, again research on the kinematic and kinetic differences this would induce are extremely limited. However the change of size and shape of the load will stress the muscles differently due to differing stability demands.
Figure 11 (www.gymowl.com)
The One-arm DL has been implemented traditionally to increase the demand for trunk stabilisation from the inner and outer core unit in conjunction with the spinal erector muscles, very useful for athletes in sports requiring bilateral throwing or swinging motions i.e. discus, golf, baseball and cricket. Anecdotally it would be fascinating to research what corrective affect this would have on individuals with imbalances in their lumbar spine musculature due to scoliosis and/or injury.
Figure 12 (www.ironmind.com)
This DL, essentially is used to condition the same muscles as a Conventional DL, but with the focus being on lifting loads of unconventional size and shape something I eluded to with the dumbbell DL. These can range from tires to actual vehicles to large logs. With even a rudimentary understanding of physics one can intuitively see how lifting loads of different three dimensional widths and lengths but equal mass can change to intensity, difficulty and muscular recruitment pattern of a lift.
Figure 13 (www.rouguefitness.com)
The Fat-bar DL utilises a thicker bar to increase the stress placed on your phalangeal flexors aka your grip, with a view to strengthening said musculature and improving grip strength when using the regular (thinner) bar. This is not the only method of improving grip strength and its effectiveness over other methods such as the Hand Strengtheners is not clinically proven. So its uses come down to personal preference, anecdotally implied efficiency and intuitively recognisable appropriateness.
Figure 14 (David Yeung -Youtube.com)
Athletes in sports that require high levels of isometric finger flexor strength, most commonly employ this specialised grip version of the DL variants. Sports such as rock climbing, archery, basketball and gymnastics .
In conclusion when selecting which DL to use your rational for using the exercise is the key. A rational based on a profound understanding of the biomechanics of each variation and the physiological adaptation of those kinetics and kinematics will favour. If that cognisant process is thorough and robust then it is far more likely that you are in fact doing it right. A caveat to this, is that the S&C practice is an ever evolving one, and as an S&C coach you have to be prepared to put your ego aside and adapt the training prescriptions accordingly. As a professional or recreational athlete do not be afraid to seek expert advice on your training regime no matter your training age and whether or not you believe you are performing the exercise correctly. Both parties can often benefit from the proceeding discourse. Furthermore, highly experienced trainers will be able to spot minute flaws in your DL execution with nothing more than several cursory glances; so do not be offended if advice is offered. We are all here to dominate the dead lift.
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By Alpha Maurice Cidade Cauwenbergh
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