First of all, Annie Sakamoto is no slouch. She is one of the original hand trained CrossFit athletes by Greg Glassman in the Santa Cruz days and a phenomenal athlete and trainer. In this photo sequence, she demos a series of Deadlift positions to help ascertain what is good and not so good at an old CF Level 1 Cert.
Photo 1 – Actually a nice set up as far as I am concerned. The feet are directly under hips for maximal power transmission. The toes are turned out slightly to allow natural movement of the knee and subequently the hip. The bar is close to the shin, over midfoot, and is directly under the armpit. This places the bar directly under the scapula. For scientific reasons I’m not going into here, the bar will not come off the ground until the bar is directly under the scapula. From a sideview this will have the appearance of being under the armpit. From the athlete’s view, this will have the appearance of the arms being angled back slightly. The hips are up a bit adding some tension to the hamstrings and changing the impetus of the movement being too quad driven. The lower back is set nicely with the chest up and shoulders pulled back to maintain a strong thoracic spince which in turn transfers to maintaining the lumbar spine. The overall weight of the athlete is set at midfoot in the start position and upon starting the pull, will drive off the heel. The only thing I’d change here is to put the head in a neutral position. This will enhance the rigidity of the erector spinae muscles which in turn creates better power transfer up the kinetic chain and keeps the spine super stable. Some folks have referred to this as the “Texas Style DL”. It is a very good all around position to pull heavy weight from.
Photo 2- The bar is out in front of the shoulder and the torso is more upright. This position is similar to what many Oly lifters will use in their deadlift starting position, although the bar still wouldn’t be quite that far up the shin and out front and there would be some other subtle positional changes to help the bar path move more efficiently into the second pull of an Olympic lift. Annie’s not in an Oly LIft DL set-up, she’s kinda caught in a funky limbo of two styles with points deducted for form, but it raises the topic. Allow me to digress.
The more upright position of the Oly lift DL will place more empahsis on the quads and hips driving the pull and less on the hamstrings kicking it off. The toes will be out a bit more and so will the knees. Also, in the Oly DL, the head will be looking forward more. This actually won’t be a big deal if the torso is more upright to begin with since the head will actually be neutral and in line with the spine. Looking forward instead of down in this position also helps with balance and weight distribution throughout the Oly lift. This means the bar will usually “come up and over” better, whereas with a downward gaze you will find your bar and weight going out front more often than not.
Another thing to note in regards to difference between DL set up styles is the “bar under the scapula” thing. As Mark Rippetoe pointed out, the bar does not leave the ground until directly under the scapula. Now that means that in a upright Oly lift style DL, in all but the strongest lifters, the hips will rise up to a point similar to photo 1 which allows the body to get over the bar so it is directly under the scapula. So, in order to cut out wasted effort and energy, cut out the middle man and start with the ass up a bit. Get the hammies loaded up a bit sooner and contribute to the pull. Don’t forget, hip height will vary from person to person, dependent upon limb & torso length. So don’t put someone with long limbs in a position where the set up is “right”, but their lower back is compromised. But, I don’t want to start an argument here. Either way is fine, just be strong and strict with it and find a way that suits your athletic endeavors best. If you want to develop a strong high back Oly DL, start pulling from on top of a pulling platform. It’s a treat…
But going back to the picture, the way forward of center bar placement will pull the athlete forward onto the toes and may affect the bar path up. We want the bar to stay close to the body, as close to center line and the axis of rotation as possible, so it keeps lumbar torque low. With the knees out front and the bar tracing way out around them, force on the low back increases. Also, it appears the shoulders in the photo are “soft”, they are not set in a nice locked in position. This leads to a loose thoracic spine which will cause a loss of the lower lumbar arch under heavy loads.
Photo 3- This looks very typical of a heavy deadlift where the shoulder get “stapled” to the ground by the weight of the barbell. Just by looking at the photo, I would say the initial set up was probably okay. Then the athlete started their pull, the 400 Lb bar started to come up and lack of strength across the upper back, erectors, and lumbar spine caused the hips to rise up and the shoulders to get pulled down. Of course the hip set up could have been optimal, but lously flexibility in the hams and back could have caused the person to set up and start their pull looking like this. If they had a coach in the room, I would suggest hitting them in the head with a tack hammer for inability to see and fix the problem before their athelte blew a disc. Either way, the end result would result in a seriously flexed lumbar spine under load. This is not good. The unequal pressure on the discs causes some bad stuff to happen and other soft tissue injuries are not far off either. This athlete will look like a cat in a sandbox and pull the weight up using the erectors and hammies now that the legs cannot contribute anymore since they are straightened out. The torque on the low back and spine will be gnarly and something will probably explode. The head’s in better position though!
Exercises like barbell rows, ring rows, pull up variations, stiff leg DL’s and halting deadlifts will help develop strength across the upper back, erectors and shoulder girdle so you don’t end up looking quite like this. Emphasis of “big chest”, locked in arch in the low back and retracted shoulders are the key to developing strength in these positions during the aforementioned exercises.
Photo 4- I don’t know how Annie got there, but let’s say she did. If it were the case, then the bar was started waaaay too far out front of the body and/or the athlete did not engage the lats to keep the bar in and close on the way up. The lats have a major role in the DL as they apply force against the bar to keep it close to the body. So many muscles are involved in the DL that you may not notice their contribution, but if they weren’t working you’d probably be in a wacky position like the photo as the bar drifted out and away. This bar in front position would absolutley kill your low back at any weight of note. Hell, you probably wouldn’t be getting up any weight of note since you’d be weak as hell in this position and no one in their right mind would let you in their gym to lift with this form.
There are probably other little things we could sit here and talk about all day. I geek out on this stuff, so don’t tempt me. But, suffice it to say, there are definitely a couple ways to set up a DL but both of them rely on solid back and spinal position, solid midline stability, and maximal power transfer from the lower body on up. The deadlift is highly systemic, meaning it taxes a lot of muscle groups. It takes a few days to recover from really heavy deadlifts, so don’t get stupid with them. Lift heavy and recover before doing it again, but always work on the previously mentioned form points to build a solid, strong body. How do you get good at deadlift? You do deadlifts…. And of course some ancillary movements to assist in the process.
The deadlift is like no other for bullding strong people. Like Mark Rippetoe says, “Strong people are harder to kill and more useful in general”.