How To Customize The Deadlift To Fit Your Body

By Dr. John Rusin

deadlift rack pull

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Stronger, Leaner, Healtier, FOREVER

Introducing Functional Strength Training: 
The Monthly Membership Training Solution For People Who Want To Look, Feel And Function Their Very Best, Forever.

Join FST NOw

Deadlifts Aren’t Hurting You, The Way YOU Deadlift Is Hurting You.

The hip hinge movement pattern often times gets confused with the traditionalist barbell deadlift exercise. What’s the difference? The hip hinge is the broad umbrella movement pattern which all exercises, such as the conventional barbell deadlift, fall under.

When you step back and view training and programming as challenging movement patterns instead of force feeding specific exercises, your mind and body will open up to something they are in dire need of… individuality based on your specific presentation as a lifter.

With the incidence of chronic lower back pain as high as it’s ever been among the active population (even higher than the sedentary population) we must confront the origins of this epidemic. One of the most prominent characteristics that differentiate an active vs. a sedentary population is, you guessed it, physical activity.

Through the loads of research and anecdotal study on injury prevention over the last few decades, one thing is clear… the only true reliable way to minimize the risk for sustaining an injury is to be physically active through some means of exercise.

But here’s the million dollar question… if physical activity has shown to create a protective mechanism against injuries, why is the active population falling through the cracks in terms of lower back pain and injury incidence rates?

From my professional experience, this discrepancy is due to a lack of sound prescription of the proper variation of movement patterns that can be executed with proper form and technique while not exacerbating pain in the process.

Not Everyone Was Built To Deadlift The Barbell From The Floor

Force feeding the conventional barbell deadlift  off the floor straight into pain and/or dysfunction is one of the most common faulty practices by both athletes and coaches across our industry. But luckily, slight modifications upon setup and execution based on individuality of the deadlift exercise can provide us all the simple ability to train this movement pain-free.

It’s worth mentioning that unless you are a competitive powerlifter, Olympic lifter or CrossFit athlete that is ONLY focused on sport specific training. There’s no hard and fast rule that makes it mandatory for everyone to “man up” and deadlift only off the floor with a barbell. And no, you’re not more of a man because you can butcher the deadlift with poor spinal positions and ugly form. This type of mindset is dangerous, as it neglects one of the most important aspects of pain-free training… addressing individuality.

If you’ve been struggling with the deadlift (as most everyone has at some point in their training career), here’s the simplest and most effective way to optimize your setup based on your body type, your skill level, your past injury history and your goal set. It’ time to take the parking brake off your movement, and allow you to load heavy, challenge yourself and stay pain-free in the process.

The Perfect Deadlift Setup To Meet Your Individual Needs

Pain-free strength training is all about optimizing movement patterns to individually fit an athlete or clients body, skill level, and goal set.

Many lifters, especially those with predisposing injuries, anthropometrics which classify them as outliers (super tall athletes, or variations of limb lengths), or who just lack the motor control of skill level to execute a conventional barbell deadlift off the floor do extremely well with the rack pull variation.

The rack pull can be executed in one of two ways:

  1. In a power rack off the safety pins to achieve optimal pulling height
  2. Placing the weight plates on blocks, stairs or other plates to elevate the bar into position

No matter the setup, the perfect pull height is determined by the athletes ability to maintain a neutral-ish spinal position throughout all aspects of the range of motion in this loaded movement pattern.

Most athletes can inherently “feel” their spine moving into too much flexion or extension, especially under load. So qualify the athlete’s pull height not only from testing the position, but also how it feels to them taking into account that a person’s perceived internal tension and stability is something that even the best professionals cannot see with a fine tuned coaches eye. No notable work will be getting done if a lifter remains apprehensive during training.

For those athletes who truly struggle to coordinate tension and control of the pillar (shoulders, hips and core integrated as a functional unit) and cannot optimize spinal position even at an elevated pulling height, that is an indication that further testing, screening and assessment should be performed to determine the next steps for training this pattern safely.

Three of the top “screens” to qualify an athlete for the deadlift variation are:

  1. The Active Straight Leg Test (ASLR), as popularized by the Functional Movement Screen.
  2. The Toe Touch Test (TTT), an old school orthopedic range of motion assessment tool.
  3. The Hinge Back Test, which tests the athlete to coordinate a hinge from the top down.

Based on these findings, determine the proper course of action which may include:

  1. Training the hip hinge pattern with another loaded tool (or bodyweight).
  2. Contraindicating loaded hip hinging until pattern improvement has been made.
  3. Referral to a licensed healthcare professional is symptomatic pain has been identified.

It’s important to realize that a vast majority of athletes and lifters who have strugged with the conventional barbell deadlift in the past will respond extremely well to optimizing the deadlifting height. But for those few who continue to present with pain or inabilities to deadlift with sounds movement patterns from any height, use your professional judgement as a coach in next steps in training.

Programming The Rack Pull Deadlift

The individualized pulling height that has been determined based on the ability to maintain a neutral-ish spinal position can be programmed very much the same as the conventional barbell deadlift off the ground.

In many of our modified pain-free programs including FHT, we use the rack pull in order to allow our athletes to train through non-compensated ranges of motion while also having the ability to load this foundational movement pattern heavy with high relative intensities with confidence.

So if you indeed are in need of a individualized deadlift pulling height that elevates the barbell up more than the arbitrary 8.75 inches off the ground, you can simply plug and play the same schemes into this deadlift variation as your primary hip hinge lift based on your training goals.

If you are an athlete that presents with the ability to barbell deadlift soundly from the floor, the rack pull is also a novel variation that you can incorporate into training to supra-maximally load the barbell through a shorter range of motion. Simply put, by minimizing the distance which you must pull from the ground into lockout, many lifters will be able to load heavier than in the off-the floor position.

Strategically programming pulls from various heights over the course of a training block can be hugely advantageous to learning how to handle heavier loads while also blasting through weak points in your range of motion.

Again, the possibilities are endless here with the rack pull variation. But remember, the biggest determining factor that allows us to both enhance performance and prevent injuries is maintaining the ability to execute any deadlift variation with sound movement execution, and intelligent programming which yields longevity in deadlifting and your resilience in general.

About The Author

Dr. John Rusin

Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.

Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in smart pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week Functional Hypertrophy Training Program that combines the very best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative physical therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.

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