I see this all the time. The deadlift is a push. No, the deadlift is a pull! Should I just call this site the false dichotomy site since I’m always talking about them? Still, if there is one thing I hate more than people always preaching one of two extremes in strength training it’s people teaching the deadlift who don’t know what they are doing.
In any type of physical training, verbal cues become mental cues. Mental cues slowly morph into mental imagery. Mental imagery becomes a visual mental schema of the lift. What am I saying in plain language here? I am saying that the words people use will eventually affect the way you “look” at an exercise with your mind’s eye. It will ‘become’ that word. If I say “wet” to you then you visualize water. You don’t think about the concept of “wetness” in some abstract way. Well, the same thing goes for most everything, whether you wish it or not and it certainly goes for strength training and lifting.
Push Versus Pull Exercises
Some of the most confusing bits of jargon in strength training are when people talk about lifts that are pulls versus lifts that are pushes. So squats are a push and deadlifts are a pull. This brouhaha gave rise to one of the worst “splits” known to strength training: The Push-Pull Routine. The push-pull was a split that was great for bodybuilders but it is more or less an arbitrary split where squats and deadlifts are concerned. Leave it for bodybuilders (even though a body part split is still better despite a lot of recent protestation) it’s a dumb way to organize your training.
Is the Deadlift a Push or a Pull?
The only reason to classify a squat as a push and a deadlift as a pull is so that it makes sense in your head to fit them into such a split.
The problem with this method of classification is that “instructors” take it too seriously and, in all earnestness, seek to qualify these words with confusing instructions to trainees. This most often happens with deadlifts when trainees are earnestly warned to not “pull” the bar but to “push” with their heels.
But, oh, wait. You not only have to push with your heels you have to drive the hips forward. See, it’s a pull but it’s better to push and then drive the hips because otherwise, you won’t get enough power and…deadlifts are not that complicated! You don’t need a long string of cues to complete a deadlift. They aren’t so technical. Just don’t let the “pull” thing confuse you. It matters not at all whether the lift is a push or a pull. Your body doesn’t care. Instead be aware of the actual movements taking place and the actual goal of the lift.
The intention in the deadlift is a pretty straightforward goal. Lifting a barbell from the floor to your waist – all in one motion. Why complicate this with cool sounding jargon? Deadlifts are the coolest anyway. They deserve a class all their own. The Deadlift class. Let Olympic lifters have their pulls.
The big movement with a capital M in deadlifting is hip extension. We also have knee extension and ankle extension. But the hip extension part is why deadlifts are called a “hip dominant” exercise (again, don’t get hung up on this). This movement is the bread and butter part of the lift.
Drive Your Heels Into the Floor
This is the most popular verbal instruction given to would-be deadlifters. They are told that the deadlift is a pull but that they shouldn’t try to pull the bar they should instead focus on driving their heels into the floor and pushing. Pushing. So is it a pull or a push? Would you find this confusing? Well, it’s worse than confusing. Remember what I said before about imagery and all that. I just told you that the most important part of a deadlift is the hip extension. So what do you think happens when you “focus” on driving your heels into the floor and this becomes your primary goal in the deadlift? That’s right, your schema for the lift fundamentally shifts. It becomes more a push with the legs rather than a violent extension of the hips.
The reason for this drive the heels instruction makes sense on paper. You push against the floor and your body extends. Well, sort of. Really what you are doing is trying to push down the floor. The body trying to extend is simply a counter to this. The primary goal is to move the bar from the floor to waist height. But we’ve just made our primary goal to push down on the floor. In fact, then we’ve made knee extension our primary goal and hip extension just an extraneous side-effect.
Since we are primarily focused on pushing the floor rather than lifting the bar we then have to divide our focus to the hips and to the back. Instead of doing one simple movement while keeping the torso relatively stable we have shifted our purposes. It is better to think of the deadlift as two stable points and one hinge.
Yes, it is important for the heels to be planted firmly and for the weight to be over the heel/midfoot rather than the toes, with the midfoot being what more experienced lifters will tend towards. But this is one of the stable points. The other stable point is the torso from the lumbar up. The fulcrum is the hips. So we plant the heels and lift the bar by violently driving our hips forward. By doing this we shift the focus of the movement onto the prime mover, the glutes. The glutes will then be valiantly assisted by it’s hip extensor assistants, such as the hamstrings. The hamstrings still must take on a greater share before the bar passes the sticking point, which is commonly from mid-shin to just below the knees, but knowing what the muscles do is not necessarily the same as efficient mental cues. We want to emphasize the most powerful muscle group but what we really should think about is the movement.
When we try to push down on the floor with our legs, on the other hand, what is the prime mover? I’ll give you a hint, it’s the same as in the leg press. Yes, there is more than one prime mover in a complex movement involving more than one body segment but I am talking here about the focus of the “heel drive” cue, which is pushing on the floor. Yes, you got it. The prime mover is the quads. They are trying to extend the knees and therefore move the floor. The hamstrings are braking muscles. The floor “pushes back” with an equal force. The hamstrings are the counter for this force, trying to keep the knees from flexing once more.
There is a heavy weight hanging from your hands. What is the path of least resistance, then, if you try to push down the floor? Easy. Your hips shoot up as your legs extend. And the bar? It doesn’t go much anywhere. In fact, I think that this instruction has resulted in many many trainees performing the deadlift as a sequential, rather than simultaneous, lift.
The Deadlift is a Simultaneous Lift: Results Versus Intentions
Beware of wolves in lab coats. I mean the kind of wolves that analyze really big guys doing really big deadlifts but have never ever actually lifted a heavy weight nor do they have any experience in instructing others on lifting heavy weights.
There has been at least one ‘study’ reporting that, after observing powerlifters in competition, that the deadlift should be viewed as a sequential movement. This is the height of ignorance as any decent trainer can tell you that if you try to do the deadlift as a series of movements rather than as one continuous lift, you are much more likely to fail. What these researchers saw were the superficial results of heavy lifts. You can analyze results but you cannot analyze intentions. The idea is that since it “looked” a certain way and the lifts were successful, then this must be the best way to go about performing the lift. When, in reality, lifters are often successful, if barely, even when looking like they are having a very difficult bowel movement rather than lifting a weight. There is always something to be said for sheer brute force and determination when speaking of maximal lifting. But this does not mean that what a lifter looks like when doing their best effort corresponds to how a lift should be classified.
Record-breaking lifts sometimes appear to be sequential even though the lifter had every intention of moving the bar to the waist all in one go. Having said that, record-breaking lifts just as often appear to be simultaneous. At least if you don’t film them with a high-speed camera and play the lift back Hollywood style.
Despite this, many trainees end up performing the deadlift as a sequential movement even when lifting light weights. They are then told they are doing it wrong but given instructions that are just as likely to reinforce these tendencies..such as “drive the heels into the floor.”
The hips shoot up first. This is because the lift has become “all quad”. Then the lifter has run out of quads, as I say, and they have a hard time initiating a powerful hip drive to complete the lift. The load tends to transfer to the lumbar. So there are two choices. Finish the lift with mostly lower back or do a little “scoop” whereby you slightly bend the knees while leaning back so as to put the hips and knees in a better position for “pulling”. What happens then is really a hitch as the bar is rested on the thighs and then inched up to complete the lift in any way possible.
Top Down Deadlifts
No, I am not talking about Romanian Deadlifts, which have been called Top Down Deadlifts by others. There is no such thing as a deadlift from the “top down”. The Romanian is simply a “deadlift” initiated from the rack position and technically is not a “dead lift”. It’s just a name for posterior chain assistance exercise. A very good one.
What I am talking about is what happens when the “pull” part of deadlifting goes to a trainees head. Earlier I was complaining of turning the deadlift into a push. Well turning it into a pull doesn’t really help much either. It is quite instinctive for many trainees to want to simply pull the barbell off the floor. They reach down and simply start hauling on the bar and instead of trying to extend the hips against the weight of the bar they are doing “top-down” pulling. They are initiating the lift at the shoulders instead of the hips…simply pulling up with their upper back.
What tends to happen is the bar does not move, the back begins to round, and the hips eventually move upwards without the bar moving. Then when the pull begins the load is placed entirely onto the back, which must move from flexion to extension to move the bar.
So we have two extremes. The deadlift as a push. Which doesn’t work. And the deadlift as a pull. Which also doesn’t work.
One Simple Thing: Straighten UP!
The solution, as should already be clear from the rest of this article, is to view the deadlift in terms of the primary movement that is happening and to be clear on the primary goal.
I really should not have to explain that pushing down the floor is not the same as lifting up a bar. So be clear that your goal is to lift the bar from the floor to the waist.
It should also be clear that your body, or I should say brain, does what it needs to get the job done. The part of your brain that hands out work assignments does not classify lifts as push versus pull. It simply fires the muscles that can best get the job done in a given situation. The best muscle(s) to get the deadlift done is the glutes and the hip extensors as a whole. The deadlift is a “hip dominant” exercise and is a movement centered on the posterior chain.
Once you get into the proper position your real job is to simply straighten up so as to move the bar to the waist. It’s all in the hips and everything else is there for support. I feel so strongly about the hips, in fact, that my article on how to do a deadlift has the word hip or hips in it 31 times.