If you walk into any new mixed martial arts gym, which seem to be popping up everywhere these days, you will see some similarities in training styles, conditioning equipment and exercises. Large tires are being repetitively flipped and hammered, snorkels are worn during intense cardio intervals and kettle bells are being lifted, all in an attempt to emulate the latest fad workout that was seen the night before on a UFC countdown program or YouTube. Fitness and conditioning, like the fashion industry, often succumb to the latest and ‘sexiest’ new trend. This leads to the replacement of “exercise science” with “exercise fashion.”
When designing exercise programs for a particular sport, especially combative sports, it is important to stay focused on the main goal, which is to build an improved athlete. In order to achieve this goal we must remember to develop a solid ‘base’ in order for the body to deal with the stress of practice and competition. Although the newest catch phrases, such as “sport specific training,” and “functional training”, are in ‘fashion’́, proper and effective sports conditioning programs must ensure the development of the basic tenets of athleticism: strength, speed, agility, and power. It is only after a person has developed a solid base in all of these areas that they can focus on training geared towards a specific sport or discipline. This article will therefore focus on just one of the basic tenets: strength. Specifically a single exercise that is more effective than any other in building pure, raw strength, the deadlift.
Cases of injuries and false claims of danger often lead to the absence of the deadlift from strength and conditioning programs. However, this exercise has been a staple of ‘serious’ power lifters from the dawn of their sport and is often termed the “King of Exercises” by some of the strongest men and women.
The deadlift is considered a “full body” exercise as it stresses the legs, lower back and core, the upper back, shoulders, arms, and even forearms, all simultaneously. In terms of transferring skills from the weight room to the MMA gym, the primitive act of lifting weight off of the floor can be related to any combat sport. Perhaps most importantly, the deadlift conditions the lumbar spine to remain rigid during movement, which allows power to be transferred through the trunk.
Take for example the act of throwing a punch. Any savvy heavy handed fighter will tell you that the generation of a powerful punch begins in the legs, hips and pelvis, travels up the lumbar spine and core, through the shoulder, and out the arm. A weak core or lumbar spine causes a break in this chain (termed the “Kinetic Chain”) which causes power to be lost before it reaches its target. The deadlift fortifies several links in the chain allowing for a smooth transfer of the improved strength to the competition floor.
Performing the Deadlift
As was previously mentioned, proper deadlift technique takes time to master and is frequently performed incorrectly; and an incorrect deadlift is a potentially dangerous act. It is advised that you seek the guidance of an experienced trainer before you load up the bar and start lifting. In addition, many full books have been written outlining the proper mechanics of this lift, which may help you along the way. This short article is in no way going to cover all of the minor details of the deadlift. I hope to outline some of the basic mechanics of the lift.
Equipment – One of the best qualities of this exercise is the fact that it doesn’t require any fancy, expensive machinery, like all effective exercises. All that is required is a standard long bar with some plates. Even wearing shoes is optional! In fact, I recommend performing the lift bare foot in order to ensure maximum force transfer from your feet to the ground during the lift.
If you can’t fathom going barefoot in your gym, wrestling shoes will work almost just as well. Avoid using shoes with a great deal of cushioning as it will lead to a loss of force which means you will not be able to lift as much weight.
Breathing – There is much controversy that exists about breathing patterns during exercise. Somewhere along the history of conditioning, someone must have falsely exaggerated the cerebrovascular accidents (eg. strokes) that occur in the weight room.
This led to the misinformed concept that holding your breath during lifting is dangerous as it causes a spike in peak blood pressure during exercise. Furthermore, it led to the idea that it is safer to inhale on the lowering eccentric portion of the exercise, and exhale on the lifting; pushing the concentric portion, in order to keep your blood pressure low.
In terms of strength, studies have demonstrated that during a lift, you are the strongest if your breath is held, followed by an inhalation during the lift. Thus during exhaling you are at your weakest. Therefore, inhale before the lift and hold onto it until the lift is done.
Posture – Your feet should be approximately shoulder width apart with the feet pointing out slightly. Stand with your feet under the bar such that when you look down the bar is over the middle of your foot (Figure 1). Bend your knees and hips to grip the bar from this position. This approach should place you in the proper position. Some of the important aspects of the proper start position are as follows:
• The bar is touching the shins with the feet flat on the floor (Figure 2)
• The bar is directly over the middle of the feet
• The back is in good lumbar and thoracic extension (DO NOT ‘round’ your back….EVER)
• The spine of the scapulae is directly over the bar (the bony ridge on the back of your shoulder blades)
• The elbows are completely straight (and remain that way for the entire lift)
Pre-loading – the deadlift requires the generation of force from a “dead” stop (hence the name). This is one of the reasons why this exercise is so effective in the development of ‘raw’ strength. However because of this fact, there is a tendency for people to want to ‘jerk’ the weight off the ground. Not only will this decrease your chances of lifting the weight, it will also ensure you a trip to the emergency room for spinal surgery. This exercise is intended to be performed slowly and deliberately.
Before you attempt the lift, take your breath as has been discussed, tighten every muscle in your body including your grips, then gradually exert a slowly increasing force on the bar until it leaves the ground. If you perform the lift in this fashion, you will significantly decrease the chance of a lower back “blow out”.
The Lift – The sequence of opening (or straightening) the hip and knee angles is of utmost importance. In a correct deadlift, the knee angle is the first to change as the bar leaves the ground. From the floor to the level of the knees the bar should remain in contact with your shins. The hip angle should remain fairly constant until such time that the bar clears the knees. After the knees are cleared, hip extension becomes the major movement for the rest of the lift until you are vertical. When viewing the lift from the side, the path of the bar must be in a straight line from the beginning of the lift until the end (Figures 3a & 3b).
Lowering the bar – The bar lowering does not have to be controlled, so long as it is done safely. Rapidly lowering the weight while maintaining your grip is acceptable considering that the amount of weight used during deadlifts is often high and would strain the lower back.
Lowering of the weight should be done in the opposite fashion from how the lift was achieved in terms of hip and knee angles. When lowering, ensure that you ‘close’ the hip angle first, and then the knee angle (which is the opposite of the lift). Obviously one must ensure that the gym floor is built to withstand such a force, although using a power lifting platform is always best if available.
Building a base of athleticism should be the first goal in any sports conditioning program. Strength is one of the basic necessities in high level sports performance whether you are hitting a ball at the end of a racquet, projecting a ball over a great distance, or lifting an opponent in the air during a double leg takedown. A strength-building program that omits the deadlift, as one of the main exercises, is simply a less effective program.
Words by Andreo Spina