It is vital to protect your back when deadlifting, or doing any exercise in a bent-over position – such as bent-over row, clean, snatch.
You need to maintain a tight, flat back position.
However, many people struggle with this, especially if a lift starts from low down on the floor, like a deadlift or a snatch.
You may not have the mobility or strength to get into a safe position close to the floor.
If that sounds familiar, then there is a method to help you train the body to maintain position right from the floor: the pre-load method (or pre-tension method).
This will protect your back when deadlifting, or lifting any kind of heavy weights off the floor.
Have you ever noticed that in a set of deadlifts, the first rep feels the hardest off the floor and then you get into a rhythm?
That’s because in the first rep your muscles start from a relaxed state, whereas subsequent reps already have tension from the rep before.
In the pre-load method, you start by holding the bar at your hip and lower it into the start position. Why do that?
Because when you hold the weight at the hip and start to lower, your muscles have to contract, so that by the time you reach the floor, your muscles are already contracting hard and holding your body in the correct position.
The easiest way to do this is to set up your bar in the rack at mid-thigh height, so that you are not starting from the floor – like this:
To make the exercise more challenging, slow down the tempo of the descent. I suggest a slow count of five.
The downward portion of the lift (also known as the negative or the eccentric phase) is easier because you are going with gravity. But slowing it down makes it more challenging for the body. And because it is more challenging, you will get stronger in this position.
Protect your back when deadlifting from the floor
How can you get to the point where you can deadlift straight off the floor in a good position and feel strong?
Once you’ve built some strength and movement pattern by using the pre-load method, you can then work on generating muscle tension straight from the floor. This is done using the pre-lift routine.
Deadlift Pre-lift routine for a flat back
The pre-lift routine is just the actions you go through just before you actually lift the bar off the floor. This is where you set your body position and start to generate muscle tension.
You can use many different cues (the ones I use myself are below), but the end result needs to be that the muscles/limbs that are about to do the lifting feel ‘stretched’ and tense – like a rubber band about to be flicked – and the muscles/limbs that are keeping the body stable are tensed and ‘locked down’.
Along with this ‘lock and tense’ procedure comes the breathing. At the moment you lift a heavy weight off the floor, you should be holding your breath, to create maximum tension in the body. You don’t have to hold your breath throughout the movement, but for that immediate off-the-floor period, take in a big breath of air and hold it.
Here is my 4-step pre-lift routine for the deadlift:
Step 1: Deep breath and brace your abdomen – drawing air into the diaphragm to create intra-abdominal pressure, protecting the spine
Step 2: Shoulder blades in your back pockets – a cue to pull the shoulder blades back and down, engaging the lats and traps to keep the spine stable
Steps 1 and 2 in action:
Step 3: Take the slack out of your arms – a cue to pull up on the bar so that there is no bend in the arms and there is already upward intention
Step 4: Push the floor away – a cue to drive through the heels. It’s important to be thinking about driving with the legs, not lifting with the upper body.
I use this exact same routine for the snatch and the clean as well.
Deadlift Shoulder Position
A quick note on shoulder positions for deadlifts. Shoulder-blades should be over the bar when the bar leaves the floor.
If you position your shoulders above the bar it doesn’t work. Your hips will be too low, your knees and shins will come too far forward. You may even hit them on the way up because they’ll now be in the way of the bar.
Try to keep your shoulders relaxed, don’t think about shrugging or rolling them at the top of your Deadlifts. You don’t need to.
Your traps already do the hard work keeping your shoulders in place. Shrugging or rolling is unnecessary and bad for your shoulder joints. Simply let your shoulders hang while your legs lift the weight off the floor.
Maintain flat shape in the first phase of the lift
The last thing to watch out for is what happens as soon as the bar comes off the floor – or ‘breaks’ the floor.
You can have the best set-up shape in the world, but if it collapses as soon as you take the weight of the bar, you won’t be able to protect your back when deadlifting.
As the bar breaks the floor, think about pushing through the heels (“push the floor away”) and feeling the legs doing the work until the bar has passed the knees.
Keep your upper body over the bar until the bar has passed the knees.
If you try to come upright too quickly and the bar is still below the kneecaps, your knees will push the bar forwards. This not only makes the lift feel harder but you are much more likely to start rounding the spine (see picture right).
Over time, the muscles that hold your body in the correct shape will get stronger.
If you put in the work to protect your back when deadlifting, it will open the door to much bigger deadlifts – while staying injury free!
For more tips and tricks, check out my video on improving your deadlift strength:
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