Exercise Science Friday: How to Lock Out the Deadlift – Part 2
In Part 1 of this article, I explained the difference between an incorrect lockout and a correct lockout for the deadlift. In Part 2, I’m going to explain how to improve your lockout with specific drills for your core and glutes. I’ll feature regressions that will help you to improve the speed and power of your deadlift while sparing your lower back.
- The faulty lockout overuses the spinal erectors and causes the lumbar spine to hyperextend.
- A proper lockout uses the glutes and hamstrings to snap the hips into a standing position.
- Moving the lumbar spine, either into flexion or extension, during a deadlift increases the risk of damage to the vertebrae
- Improper lockouts that use the lower back instead of the glutes can contribute to overdeveloping the lumbar erectors, a condition which can contribute to lower back stiffness and pain
How to Fix Your Lockout
This can get complex, so what I’m going to do is outline the general approach. I’ll include some of my favorite drills and the cues that have worked best for me.
Note: If your lower back is in pain, take the time to get an assessment from a skilled physical therapist. Don’t try to self-diagnose or hope that these drills will save you.
Step 1 – Learning the Difference Between Lumbar Hyperextension and Hip Extension
The first step is to feel the difference between moving through your lower back (in this case, lumbar hyperextension) and moving through your hips (hip extension).
Below are a list of exercises that I’ve used with different people to teach proper hip extension. I’m including multiple exercises because not all of them work for every situation.
Try them and find the one that’s best for you. Practice the drill often and until it’s easy.
For best results, perform the chosen drill multiple times daily with a focus on muscle endurance. Build to over 20 repetitions before progressing.
Method 1: Glute Bridges
As a first step, try the bodyweight glute bridge.
This will let you “feel” what the lockout should feel like: extended hips, a flat back, and using the glutes to hold the position. As “glute guy” Bret Contreras notes, elevating the feet on a bench can help you feel the glutes working. I recommend doing these with your hands resting on your glutes (butt muscles). This way you can feel the glutes contract.
Performing glute bridges daily (Bret Contreras has written extensively about the value of daily “glute activation work”) is key. The idea is to re-groove how you move your hips. 1-2 sets daily is helpful. Each of my clients performs glute activation work before they train. I often program bridges for 10 reps, each involving a 3 second pause at the top, for warm ups.
What to Do if You Feel Bridges in Your Back
If you feel bridges in your lower back, try moving your feet closer to your body. If that doesn’t work, try this next drill instead:
Prone Glute Squeezes
- Lie face down with your hips resting on top of a pad, such as a folded up towel, a small pillow, or a rolled up yoga mat.
- Press your hips down into the mat and hold for 3 seconds.
- Repeat for 10-20 repetitions.
If you still feel these in your lower back, rest your palms on your butt and try to move so that your gluteal muscles contract and stiffen. Also, make sure that your chest isn’t rising off of the ground.
If your press your hips forward and your chest rises, you’re actually using your lower back! Relax your lower back, slow down, and make sure you can feel your glutes contract and tighten.
Method 2: Stick Waiter Bows (Stick Hip Hinges)
Stick Waiter Bows are a fantastic way to re-learn the Hip Hinge (what many coaches will call a Bending motor pattern). The Hip Hinge motor pattern is key to performing the deadlift, kettlebell swing, and bridge correctly.
There are a plethora of great videos on coaching and performing a proper hip hinge.
This is a great video from coach Mark Snow of SG Human Performance that demonstrates the hip hinge.
I like to progress these one step further by adding a dowel rod to the back. Simply hold a dowel rod, stick, or PVC pipe so that it touches three spots: the back of the head, between the shoulder blades, and the tailbone. Keeping the stick touching all 3 points, practice the hip hinge.
If the stick comes off the tailbone as you stand up, practice keeping the core braced as you come up. Done correctly, you’ll feel yourself using the glutes more and the lower back less.
Before you begin squats again, use the stick method to re-learn the bodyweight squat as well.
Chances are, if you finish deadlifts with a faulty hip extension pattern that you use the same flawed hip extension when you squat.
Method 3: Tall Kneeling Squats
In the above video, Bret Contreras shows kneeling squats (done in the tall kneeling position), American deadlifts, and dynamic back extensions. On all 3, he shows proper hip extension with a major focus on the glutes (being the glute guy, and all).
I like using Kneeling Squats as a bodyweight exercise to practice correct form for teaching hip extension. Obviously, you can add weight to overload the movement as well but I prefer using a band for that.
Here, physical therapist Mike Reinold demonstrates a resisted kneeling squat variation that uses a cable column machine.
Step 2 – Train Accessory Exercises to Strengthen the Glutes and Improve the Deadlift
Once you’ve mastered the difference between lumbar hyperextension (bad) and hip extension (good!), it’s time to rebuild your strength
I prefer to focus on muscle endurance (12-20+ reps) before building back into regular strength training. My clients, especially those in a post-rehab setting, will often focus on muscle endurance for 3-4 weeks before moving into moderate or heavy repetitions.
I use a linear periodization model when I progress clients after an injury, meaning that we progress from basic technique → muscle endurance → muscle size → muscle strength over a 3-4 month block of time. This allows us to spend time on strengthening muscles and tendons before jumping right into heavy weights. It also allows more repetitions to be practiced.
The “rule of 10,000’s” is in effect: it generally takes 10,000 hours (or 10,000 repetitions) to master a movement. It’s going to take some real effort to learn a new technique so that it is automatic. Progressing too quickly and going too heavy too soon increases the likelihood that you’ll reuse poor technique.
For each exercise, I’m going to list a regression and a progression. When in doubt, spend 3-4 weeks on the regression. Some exercises, like romanian deadlifts, are better suited for low to moderate reps. Others, like barbell bridges and pull throughs, work well at high reps. More complex exercises are also towards the end of the progression.
Pick the one that matches your skill level and experience and go from there. There are many listed and you certainly don’t need to do each. My goal is to provide a wide variety of options.
Cable Pullthroughs → Good Mornings or Kettlebell Swings
Bodyweight Bridges → Barbell Bridges
Bodyweight Hip Thrusts → Barbell Hip Thrusts
Kettlebell Deadlifts → Trap Bar Deadlifts → Conventional Deadlifts*
Romanian Deadlifts → Rack Pulls → Conventional Deadlifts*
*I like both progressions here and use each with different people. Kettlebell deadlifts are great at grooving the entire deadlift for people with good hip mobility. People with limited mobility are well-suited for romanian deadlifts. Romanian Deadlifts and Rack Pulls are also great for improving lockout strength, making them a very specific accessory exercise. To each their own.
Accessory Exercise Tutorials and Video Links
**To reduce page loading time, I opted for links instead of embedding each exercise video. Here are the links:
- Cable Pullthroughs – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZFRe50WzpM
Tony Gentilcore features a few great technique tips here.
- Good Mornings – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6SVzzXKsdg
Around ~5:10, he demonstrates the difference between an arched back and a flat back Good Morning. For the purpose of this article, I recommend the flat back Good Morning.
- Barbell Bridges – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTqhhHfooxg
Learning to posteriorly tilt correctly will help you to use your glutes. Not necessary to posterior tilt during a deadlift lockout, but is beneficial for some.
- Bench Hip Thrusts – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCm-70-9_XE
Long video but well worth it. Very detailed.
- Kettlebell Deadlifts, Hip Hinges, and Kettlebell Swings – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYHbu2LRqD0
She also does a great job coaching hip hinge regressions and proper kettlebell swing techniques.
- Trap Bar Deadlift 101 – Elite FTS – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNmGkfMhma0
Great video for learning the entire setup for the Trap Bar deadlift.
- Romanian Deadlifts – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPD4KbE0_A4
Here, Nick Tumminello specifically coaches the difference between back extension and hip extension. Extra reinforcement!
- Rack Pulls – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_vzh4MxVeM
Again, another video comparing bad form to good form. Bret Contreras talks a lot about working the posterior chain (glutes and hammies) more with the rack pull. That’s exactly what we’re talking about doing in this article!
He also does a great job coaching vertical shin and knee position. You can really see the difference in how he uses the hips.
Step 3 – Strengthen Your Core
Simply put: get brutally strong at anti-extension core exercises. Follow the list of regressions in my article below.
I specifically recommend training up to the barbell rollout series.
Conclusion and Continued Reading
Thanks for sticking it out and reading the third article in the Exercise Science Friday series. Remember, this series will be published every Friday. You can subscribe to my newsletter HERE to receive updates.
Also, if you’re in the Franklin, MA area and want me to review your technique in person, contact me through Optimize Fitness & Performance at www.optimizefp.com
I’ve also included a list below of some great additional resources. I’ve learned a ton of great information from these links. Many of these coaches’ videos were featured in this 2-part series.
In particular, I recommend learning more from Eric Cressey, Mike Robertson, James Smith, Tony Gentilcore, Bret Contreras, EliteFTS, T-Nation, and Mark Rippetoe if you’re serious about improving your deadlift strength and technique.
Deadlift Technique – How to Coach the Set-Up for Strength & Safety – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qB2tEzZTr3w
www.ericcressey.com – Sign up for his newsletter and receive a free deadlift tutorial series
Tony Gentilcore – www.tonygentilcore.com – sign up for his newsletter and receive a free deadlift tutorial series
Jim “Smitty” Smith
Cool Tip to Improve the Deadlift: http://www.dieselsc.com/cool-deadlift-tip-best-way-to-lockout-the-deadlift/
How to Deadlift – http://www.dieselsc.com/how-to-deadlift