Monthly Archives: May 2011

Deadlifting is HARD (and Dangerous)

Well, my first adventures with the deadlift were enlightening and a bit painful.
I was foolishly naive about the details of deadlifting form and just started into deadlifting without thinking too much about it. I only thought to keep my back in neutral position and then lift the weight. I started by trying the prescribed path in Underground Secrets to Faster Running by Barry Ross which suggests a series of weights to try in order to determine my maximum weights at certain repetitions. It starts at 50% of my body weight and works upwards from there, until you find your one rep max, or 1RM.
I got up to a rather wimpy 195 lbs for 2 reps and then trying 215 I could not budge it at all! This unfortunately strained my back, probably both muscles and my spine, for several days. I then had a session with my physical therapist who ran me through the intricate details of deadlifting form. In fact, around 155 lbs my upper back started to curl and my shoulders could not be kept in position as the weight dragged my upper body down. I should have realized this and not kept going.
I found out that deadlifting is more than what it seems. At first glance, it seems to be just a leg building exercise but it actually builds the entire upper body as well. You need to be able to activate a sequence of upper body muscles to not only lock the spine into neutral position but also to be able to perform the lift and get the weight off the ground and up into its final position.
I found out the hard way that I didn’t have the ability to activate my muscles in the right sequence, and also some of my muscles had “amnesia” which meant that my body had forgotten how to activate them when I needed their help in making the lift. This was a problem that had been plaguing me for my running – I know I have “gluteal amnesia” where my glutes would not fire and my hamstrings would get wiped out from running and ultimately cramp up during a race.
But first, the proper sequence, for the sumo version:
1. Take a wide stance, similar to the initial setup position of a sumo wrestler. The feet should be pointing about 45 degrees outward from center. Take as wide a stance as your flexibility allows; this will allow you to get the grip on the bar of the barbell as close to your body’s axis as possible, which allows the body to take the weight of the barbell with the spine as vertical as possible.
If you can, lift barefoot or in Vibram Five Fingers. Even the height of the sole can cause instability in the lift.
2. Push your shins up to the bar, touching it. You will want the feeling of scraping the bar up along the shins when you lift up, but also being that close to the bar means the weight is as close to your centerline as possible.
3. Squat down. The flexibility of the leg and hip muscles may prevent you from getting down really low into a low squat, but you want to get as low as you are able. Also, you may find that your muscles are not strong and/or activated enough to be able to lift weight from such a low starting position. You may need to start in a higher squatted position.
4. Hinge the hips such that your butt is sticking out and not curled underneath. If your butt is curled under your spine, that means your spine is not aligned near the bottom which is bad. Lots of bad pressure to your disks if not aligned!
5. Grip the bar. Use opposite grips with the hands, one with the palm facing inward and one with the palm facing outward. With the hands in opposite directions, you can actually lift more.
6. In preparation for the lift, do this:
a. Grip the bar firmly.
b. Load up to right before the lift by extending upward with the body, but maintaining a neutral spine.
c. In loading up, tighten up the core, the back muscles, and the shoulder muscles. This will lock up the body in position and prevent your back/spine from moving out of alignment which will increase the possibility of injury.
d. Grip the ground with your feet and press up to right before the lift, flexing the leg muscles and glutes.
e. Look up at about a 45 degree angle. This will help keep the body in alignment. Looking down could cause your body to curl.
Setting up for the lift is super important. You want to make sure your whole body is locked in for the ultimate effort to lift the weight off the ground.
7. Take a deep breath and hold it. Holding your breath during the lift will help get you maximum effort. Then, as if you’re going to force your feet/heels through the ground, press the weight up, rising up on your legs, while keeping your body locked from step 6 above.
8. When you reach full extension of your legs, expel your breath at the top of the lift. Pull your shoulders back slightly, and then shove your hips forward while flexing your glutes. This completes the lift.
9. While the books prescribe dropping the bar, this is nearly impossible in most consumer gyms. You have to be at a real muscle place like Gold’s Gym to be able to drop a heavy weight without people or the staff complaining, or even if the floor can take that much of a weight slamming down on it from knee height.
Instead, after expelling your breath, take another breath, lock your body into position and then slowly lower the bar with your legs back to the floor.
10. Repeat steps 1-9 until you finish your set.
Now I practice this with only 135 lbs. Over the last few sessions, I make sure I can do this absolutely right. It is an interesting muscle activation experience.
When I lift, I rehearse the sequence through my brain as it’s easy to just forget one of the steps if I move too quickly.
I must maintain control and flexing of a whole set of muscles during the lift. I find that if I lose concentration, I can lose the tightening of any set of muscles which lock my body into position. This is bad and can cause my back to be sore, or cause my disks to fire up other muscles like my hamstrings, glutes, or erectors (back muscles).
Early on, I could feel that certain muscles just weren’t firing at all, especially my glutes. I could tell because after the workout, my hamstrings were very tight. Now I also focus on flexing my glutes especially during the lift.
I also have to watch the floor. At the YMCA in NYC, the floor is a rubberized tile. But it is also slippery against the soles of my running shoes, which caused my left foot to slip outward during a lift – very dangerous. I finally just took off my running shoes and socks and lifted barefoot. My sweaty feet nicely gripped the otherwise slippery tiles.
I need to burn the entire steps 1-9 into my brain so that I do it all, in sequence, naturally and every time.
Once I get the steps into my nervous system, then and only then can I start increasing the weight I lift.
Other exercises that are helping:
1. Cable rows, pulling the weight with elbows low.
2. Using a functional trainer or similar (one of those things with weights and cables and adjustable big arms), I row low, pulling my elbows to my sides and then pull my arms downward for triceps extensions.
3. Single leg dumbbell deadlifts, great for glute activation.
4. Single leg supine hip raises, one leg at a time.
Such a simple looking move, but yet so complex! I look forward to advancing in my Russian strength building techniques, and hopefully my running as well.
NOTE: By the way, an amazing back book is this: Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance by Stuart McGill. It’s expensive but well worth the read.

Total Immersion: Learning the Early Vertical Forearm

A few weeks ago, I had another coaching session with the elusive Coach Shinji, who is flying all around the world promoting Total Immersion but I managed to catch him back in the Bay area!
This time I asked about Early Vertical Forearm, or EVF. I had thought I was trying to do EVF and wanted him to video me to see how it looked. But it turns out I wasn’t even close!
When you look at this sequence of photos of Grant Hackett and Ian Thrope, you can see that their forearms are perfectly and fully vertical, well before the arm starts stroking back. Wow. I atempted to visualize that and put it in practice, but underwater video of me trying showed my technique nowhere near theirs.
Shinji taught me two very important things, which were:
1. My spear was way too low, even though it was not wrong. I was spearing at an angle down which is appropriate for typical Total Immersion style swimming. However, trying to get EVF when the elbow is so low is very hard, if not impossible because you have to lift the elbow up to get your forearm vertical and that is super hard, given the weight of water pressing down on the elbow. However, spearing low is great for balance in the water and keeping your hips up.
So I needed to spear straight ahead which is hard considering I had been spearing forward and down for months now, perfecting my balance and keeping my hips high. To spear horizontal, the feeling of the trajectory of my spear is almost that I’m spearing out of the water! Thankfully, my water balance was good such that my hips didn’t drop when my spear was much higher.
Now that my spear was horizontal, my elbow was in a very high position and thus I could just bend my forearm down to EVF.
Theoretically. More on this later.
2. There are two surges of power in the actual stroke. The first surge happens when you bend the forearm down and the surge of power is in the forward part of the stroke. Then there is a lull as the arm moves back past the shoulder. The second surge happens when you engage the lats and press through to the end of the stroke.
This was hard to grasp; I had to work on other things first. At this point, I was hoping that once my form was looking good, that the 2 surges of power would happen naturally.
Then I went to a Total Immersion Tune Up with Dave Cameron who taught me another critical part of EVF. For details, check out his post High Elbow Catch Introduction. Basically, he showed me the sequence of moves to shift from recovery to spear and EVF. The video in that post shows the practice sequence – see it below.

You stand upright and one arm is speared while the other is preparing to recover. Then as your hip comes around (you take a small step to simulate), you keep the speared arm forward and bend the forearm to EVF position as you spear with the other arm.
I melded this with Shinji’s tips, especially on spearing high and horizontal, while in the pool. I had two video cameras on me at the edge of the pool, videoing underwater and above water. I tried swimming fast but I felt that I was getting messy and that my elbow was dropping. However, I felt that I was getting a lot more power – I could get across 25y in only 13 strokes when it was taking me 14+ with regular TI style low spearing. But it was very tiring.
Shinji did tell me that he almost never does EVF style swimming unless he is sprinting or in a short race. Otherwise it is too tiring to maintain over long distance.
I tried slowing down a lot. This helped me focus on mimicking Dave’s upright practice movement while lying in the water. I felt that I was making strides in practicing EVF as I was still reaching 25y in 13 strokes.
Analyzing the video showed a bit otherwise – I certainly did not look like Grant Hackett or Ian Thrope in that post! I thought I was spearing horizontal, but I was still angled downward. I did not bend my forearm down early enough as my nervous system is too programmed to start stroking. I need to keep my upper arm horizontal as my forearm drops down and resist the temptation to stroke before my forearm is vertical. I also need to turn my forearm/elbow so that my elbow is pointing up – this is a move I can do on dryland but I have not noticed happening in the water as too much is happening. But turning my arm like that means I can bend my forearm downward. Still, something interesting was happening as I could get more stroking force ahead of my shoulder whereas before there was not as much and I could get across 25y in at least 1-2 less strokes.
More work to be done here for sure, but at least now I know the secret of EVF!