My good friend and fellow colleague, David Dellanave1, was kind enough to sit down and talk deadlifts with me today.
He’s just released a revision of his amazing resource, Off the Floor: A Manual for Deadlift Domination today with all sorts of add-ons and bonuses that will, well, help anyone dominate their deadlift.
Specifically, though, his goal was to write a manual that could be handed to a beginner, and it would help them get started with a deadlifting-based strength program.
Tony Gentilcore (TG): We’re both bald strength coaches who love to deadlift. We also both married up (for those who don’t know, David is married to Jen Sinkler making them one of the industry’s strongest – and most lovable – fitness couples). I think there’s a correlation there.
David Dellanave (DD): Basically what people can learn from this is that the quickest route to a smart, hot wife is by shaving your head and deadlifting a lot.
TG: I think what I respect the most about you is that you don’t fluff anything and aren’t afraid to call BS when you see or hear it. What are some of the things happening currently in the industry that grinds your gears? Or, if we’re going the non PG-13 route, drives you bat fucking shit crazy?
DD: Oh. Dear. I wrote about this recently but I think one of the most fundamental issues, that goes beyond the specific things that it’s applied to, is that people can’t seem to think of things in anything but black and white terms. I called it the false dilemma problem.
Note from TG: Ooooo, I like that. I’m totally stealing that.
Either you’re full-on Paleo and you’re convinced that it’s the end all be all of human nutrition, or you’re IIFYM and it’s pop tarts for every meal.
Can we please just acknowledge that everything between and including the two extremes of any topic are probably going to be exactly right for someone?
A couple years ago errybody was all like “all the fish oil all the time!” A paper came out last month that discovered that the Inuit have specific genetic adaptations in fatty acid metabolism which could explain the benefits of fish oil IN THOSE PEOPLE. One of the study authors literally said, “The same diet may have different effects on different people.”
Turns out fish oil might not be so good for people with other genetic phenotypes.
Could it also be that for some people a high fat diet is going to work better, and for others a high carb diet is going to be more suitable? That’s a rhetorical question. Every time we investigate these things we end up finding out that the answer is “both” (and/or all of the above) more often than not.
I think the point is we get deep in the weeds on stupid mechanistic explanations and arguments while forgetting the big picture that it all varies from person to person and THAT is a fact.
TG: Men’s Health ran a story not too long ago titled “Normal-Sized Guys Who Are Freakishly Strong Tell You How They Did It,” which featured you. 1. Were you pissed they called you “normal sized? And 2. It is pretty impressive how strong you are (deadlifting 3x bodyweight in three different deadlift variations)…has relative strength always been a priority for you?
DD: I hung up the phone with Michael (<– MH author who wrote the article) and immediately considered going to Sam’s Club to buy food and steroids in bulk, but turns out they don’t sell steroids.
The truth is I just don’t have the nutritional stamina or discipline to eat big like you need to really grow. There’s a part of of me, like any meathead, that always wants to be just a little bit bigger, but it seems like when it really comes down to it, it’s not a big enough priority to actually pursue it. That’s something I talk about with clients often.
Is losing that last little bit of body fat really worth not having a couple drinks a week or enjoying a macaroni and cheese pizza? (The latter is something I would actually never condone because I’m Italian and I think words like pizza mean something.)
That being said, yes, relative strength has also been important to me. To me both the physique and capability of the lightweight strongman (say 180-200lbs) is the sweet spot of form and function and is one of the most versatile and useful tools you can carry with you every single day.
TG: Lets talk beginner deadlift basics. Do you have any criteria as a coach that people need to meet before they can start deadlifting? What about deadlift order or progressions? Do you prefer to start everyone off the same way (trap bar vs. sumo vs. conventional) or do you have a specific system you like to stick to?
DD: This is one area where I take a bit of a different approach than many. As far as I’m concerned, with only rare exceptions, everyone can deadlift from day ones – it’s just going to vary what kind of deadlift they do.
TG: Nope, I agree 100%!
So for some people that may look like a single kettlebell suitcase deadlift, with yoga blocks raising the handle up above knee height to raise the pick height. For others it might be a classic two-handed kettlebell deadlift from the floor, between the feet.
And others yet might even start with the barbell right away depending on how they move.
One of my favorite movements for people who might not move very well and have had some prior back issues is to use a high pick with two kettlebells, but offset the weights. If you give someone a single 8kg bell in a suitcase position, there’s a 8kg asymmetrical load, which isn’t insignificant, but it’s not a lot of load in general. So you give them a 16kg in one hand, and 8kg in the other hand.
The offset is still 8kg, but now you’ve got a total of 24kg. It’s almost certainly not more load than they deal with in daily life, but it’s creating more total overload and demand on the tissue, plus you get more of an “anchor” effect from the higher load. This is one of those cases where less weight is not always better, and in my experience this is a neat trick for better results.
That being said, the single biggest thing I’m looking for (besides being pain free) is the ability to maintain back position from top to bottom of the movement.
Lots of people can’t pull from the floor because if you watch their back position as they go down to meet the implement it changes. Likewise if it changes on the way up, but the problem starts at the bottom. If you can maintain that, we can progress. If not, we have to figure out how you can do that first before moving on.
TG: I always love listening to other coaches explain or articulate their approaches to coaching the deadlift. I know it’s a topic that entire books have been dedicated towards – you’ve written one (hint, hint, nudge, nudge) – but what are 2-3 of your “BIG ROCK” cues you feel carryover to most individuals?
DD: These probably aren’t going to be groundbreaking, but time tends to prove out what works best, and these have been around for a while.
Chest up – let me read the writing on your shirt.
Pull the bar into your shins, you’re going to keep contact with your body through the entire pull.
Take the slack out of the bar by making it “clink”.
Pull your shoulder blades down into your back pockets.
Push the floor away, and stand up tall.
Optionally, if someone over-extends or arches, I like to explain that you want to try to cinch your ribs down to your pelvis. I don’t like “ribs down” as this never seems to make sense to people.
That’s it. I found that those five or six cues fix 99% of the issues I see.
TG: For me, the best way to get better at the deadlift is to deadlift. A lot. That being said, we’d be remiss as coaches not to appreciate that accessory work plays a huge role in addressing/improving technique flaws in various portions of the lift. Can you elaborate?
DD: Agreed. Practice, practice, practice. Both for technique and volume overload.
But I’m also a big believer in upper back exercises to improve the ability to keep the spine stable so it moves at the fulcrum of the hips. Zerchers, front squats, and even specific upper back exercises like Bret wrote about in THIS great article.
One of the biggest reasons I think people fail at the upper end of deadlifts is because the back starts to flex or round and driving the hips forward harder just makes that problem worse right up until the moment you fail.
A more specific simple drill I really like for the common issue of letting the bar drift out away from the body is to setup bands on rack to pull the bar forward slightly. In that way you can practice generating a little more shoulder extension and tension with your lats to keep the bar in tight.
TG: Awesome stuff, I love using that drill too. What do you feel are the biggest faults in trainees who have issues off the floor, mid-range, at lockout?
DD: Off The Floor – Either you lack the mobility to be pulling off the floor in the first place (you can usually find out if this is the case by using biofeedback testing) or you’re just weak in that range. Personally I don’t think you can do better than deficit deadlifts to improve strength off the floor, but you ONLY need an inch and a half or two of deficit. A standard iron 25lb plate is the perfect thickness.
Mid-Range – I think this is where the glutes really come into play, and Bret’s favorite hip thrusts and glute bridges can help a lot. The caveat is always that if the back isn’t strong enough to keep the lever acting as a lever, it doesn’t matter how strong your glutes are.
Lockout – This is where you really see the back strength issue become the point of failure. When the back starts to round, you only have a certain range of motion before you get too close to end range and the body just shuts down power output. Driving the hips forward harder here just causes failure more quickly as you push the spine to end range. So this is where the upper back extensions and upper back rack pulls can help you both overload and learn to maintain back position through the finish of the pull.
TG: What would your cousin, Dellanavich, say to anyone who states the deadlift is bad or dangerous for their spine?
DD: In Russia, deadlift is not bad for back, back is for deadlift.
I’m so over beating the dead horse on this topic. The back pain statistics in the U.S. are absolutely outrageous, and the vast majority of these people certainly aren’t doing any deadlifts.
The point you’ve correctly made before is that doing crappy deadlifts is bad for your back. Using your body as it was intended to move and doing it against progressive resistance is exactly what keeps you healthy, not hurts you.
TG: I know you’re a big advocate of using biofeedback to compliment programming strategies. Do you have any new thoughts on this topic? How can people use this to better improve their deadlift performance?
DD: Biofeedback has been such an integral part of training for me and the people in my gym it’s hard to even know where to begin. Last year Jen basically won a powerlifting meet because she used biofeedback to decide how to change her stance during the meet.
Here’s my suggestion: use biofeedback to test a couple variations every time you deadlift. Go with the one that tests the best for 4 weeks, and see what happens. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
For people who have pain or functional issues, biofeedback can be even more useful because it really allows you to see what you can and can’t do.
Go back to the mobility example earlier in this post. I find tons of people for whom deadlifting from the floor doesn’t test well, but raise the bar 2-3” and suddenly it tests great for them. Lo and behold, they usually have back pain now and then before, and after a few sessions of doing what tests best they have no problems at all.
TG: Okay, outside the box, but I have to ask: favorite movies you’ve seen this year?
DD: I should be asking you, so I’d know what to go see. I legit think I’ve only seen one movie in the theater this year and it was that crappy Amy Schumer one. Was Lone Survivor this year? That was pretty good.