Depending on who you ask, deadlifts can be thought of as a controversial movement. You'll find those that are in favor and view it as a "super" movement and those in opposition seeing it as an easy mechanism for back injury. Personally, I lean towards the super movement side while respecting the potential risks that come with this compound movement.
With the risk of injury being high, I understand why this movement is sometimes labeled as controversial. However, as with all exercises, you have to weigh the benefits versus the risks. For me, the benefits of a deadlift outweigh the risks ONLY when there is proper coaching, competent client awareness, and practical regressions/progressions. When this is achieved, the deadlift can be advantageously programmed to decrease low back pain, improve hip/full body strength, and increase power.
The goal of this three part series is to gain a better appreciation of the deadlift and understand potential harmful compensations at the feet, hips, and upper body. As a result, you'll unlock your ability to understand and perform this skillful movement.
Starting at the Feet: The feet are often overlooked when coaching or performing a deadlift. Usually, the strength of the hips and protection of the low back are the center of attention. However, when you start to understand the importance of the feet, you'll begin to appreciate how they may be the exact point you need to focus on to decrease pain and improve performance.
Preserve the Arches: When most people perform deadlifts, their feet usually default to the picture on the left (low arch) or the right (high arch). This unintentional compensation creates a myriad of pain and problems spanning from the foot all the way to the head. On the contrary, the middle picture (normal arch) shows what is required to perform this movement correctly, effectively, and pain-free.
Fix the Arches: I understand that some people have an anatomical or functional predisposition to having flat or high arches. In addition, they're usually quite familiar and informed of this dysfunction. However, the familiarity and awareness ends when a neutral arched position is demonstrated.
So, before we can add strength and mobility to the arch, we need to first develop awareness and overall sensation of what a neutral or "normal" arch feels like. As sensation improves over time, this neutral arch position can be introduced back to the deadlift. Maintaining this position is imperative during a deadlift to remain in the ideal position for the entire body to be primed, ready, and engaged.
For example, when we assume more of a collapsed (flat) foot position prior to deadlifting, what happens at the knees? You get a valgus response (inward position) at the knee that creates a vulnerable position to injury at the knee. Now the weight is lifted with excessive pressure through the medial aspect of the knee.
Ever wonder why the inside of your knee hurts after a deadlift? To sum up, this optimal position keeps us out of compensatory movements, which tends to decrease pain and improve performance. For a specific arch awareness exercise, check out the video below!
Understand Weight Shift: We now understand the importance of preserving and becoming more aware of the arches of our feet. In addition, we understand a normal arch helps bias an overall advantageous position. This point must not be forgotten when we change our focus to weight shifting. Although a simple weight shift may not seem like a big deal, it will dictate which muscles we engage depending on the direction we shift. Moreover, understanding how combining the position (foot arch) and muscle activation (weight shift) are critical to performing a deadlift safely and correctly.
A forward weight shift is the most frequent compensation when we initiate a deadlift. When this occurs, there's increased pressure through the ball of our foot. Our toes sense and feel this increased pressure and turn on our anterior chain muscles (front of the body). Since the quads are the primary lower extremity anterior chain muscles, the hip hinge movement of a deadlift begins to change to a more knee dominant exercise. This results in increased pressure throughout our knees and a change in the entire movement pattern.
Instead, we should strive to create a posterior weight shift through the mid-foot and heel. This results in activation of the desired posterior chain muscles (glutes) and is a prerequisite to keep this exercise as a hip hinge movement while continuing to challenge the appropriate muscles. I suggest pausing before you stand during a deadlift. When you're in this position, move front to back from your ankle and feel the difference in weight shift. Feel how when you shift back, you automatically turn on the muscles of the glutes compared to the quads. This sensation and muscle bias is what is needed prior to standing.
Put it to Action: So, what's our overall goal for Part 1? Setting up and initiating a deadlift with enough posterior weight shift while maintaining a neutral arch. Although it's easier said than done, when this is successfully achieved, you have unlocked one aspect of your deadlift - the ability to recognize poor foot position that results in full body compensation. Stay with me for part two as we move up the chain focusing on the hips to improve your deadlifts!