Numerous articles have been written on the technique of how to deadlift or clean a weight. These generally cover the posture of the body, foot spacing, hand spacing and grip, so I wish to focus on issues which refer more specifically to preparing the body to lift once you have gripped the bar and assumed your optimal posture prior to the beginning of each lift.
It is a little known fact that as much as a third of the time spent in executing a clean or deadlift can be devoted to the preparatory phase before the weight begins to move, so it is interesting to examine why this apparently excessive period is spent in getting ready to lift. We might guess that effective mental preparation necessitates this expenditure of time and we would be entirely correct in noting the vital preparatory role spent in focusing the mind before attempting to raise a very heavy load. However, there are also important biomechanical and physiological reasons involved.
In this respect, it has been noted that preliminary isometric tension has a positive effect on any subsequent dynamic work. Despite fatigue following isometric tension, the effectiveness of dynamic work increases, usually by up to 20% when compared with work executed without preliminary isometric tension. With the reverse sequence of work, results have been shown to deteriorate (Siff, 2000, Ch 3)
The after-effect occurs immediately after preliminary isometric tension. The first dynamic contraction still retains some trace of inhibitory influence, but by the second contraction, strength increases sharply compared with its initial level (remember this point when we discuss the double pre stretch start a little later). The data thus indicates that isometric tension under the appropriate conditions can serve as a stimulus for dynamic work and play an important role in developing muscular strength.
Now we know from experience that it is very difficult to execute a high vertical jump from a static half-squat position without any preliminary movement and that the task becomes far easier if you use a short sharp preliminary dip which pre-tenses the muscles of your legs and glutes. This is precisely the same sort of preparatory process that you can use to enhance one’s initial pulling strength (or even pushing strength, but that is an issue which will be addressed in this article).
The preparatory movement is different for each specific movement, depending upon the situation and the given motor task. However, the objective is still the same, i.e. to increase the working range and prepare the muscles for a more powerful effort. The latter is accomplished by stretching the muscles, which produces a strong motor impulse via the myotatic reflex and creates additional elastic tension. The fact that preliminary muscular tension precedes an effort requiring the intense production of strength has been noted in several investigations using EMG analysis (Siff, 2000, Ch 3).
Obviously one should not conclude that preliminary muscle tension is always necessary for the execution of exercises. Preliminary tension can be appropriate if it is well timed and immediately precedes the working effort, or if it is accomplished during the preparatory movement and its magnitude is optimal. Thus, it may be appropriate to use preparatory movements when it is necessary to produce great strength and speed, as well as to enhance the economy of a motor action.
Having discussed these scientific preliminaries, we can now apply this information to the clean, the power clean and the deadlift. First of all, it needs to be noted that there are two classes of start in the powerlifting deadlift and the weightlifting clean (or power clean), namely the static and dynamic starts.
- Static Start.
- Unprestretched Static Start. Hands gripping the bar, body fixed in fairly upright starting position, lifter applies a well controlled, steady upward pulling force.
- Prestretch Static Start. Hands gripping bar, butt/hips raised, lifter slowly lowers butt, pretenses all relevant muscles and starts a well-controlled upward pull as soon as the butt reaches its lowest position.
- Dynamic Start
- Dive Start from Standing Position. Hands not on bar, lifter aims grip at bar and tries to pull the bar rapidly off the platform.
- Dive Start from Crouching ("Get Set") Position. Hands on the bar, butt high, lifter dips the hips suddenly, strongly prestretches the quads, glutes, etc. and tries to pull the bar rapidly upwards.
- Rocking or Bouncing Start. Hands on the bar, the lifter powerfully ‘bounces’ the butt up and down for one or more repetitions in an attempt to strongly prestretch all muscles directly connected with the pull, such as the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps. Russian research has shown that a quick double prestretching dip tends to give the best results, but that timing of the bounces is vital (Zhekov, 1976).
Normal breathing is an involuntary act to which little attention is paid by the average person. However, the pattern, duration and rate of breathing are all factors that can have a profound effect on the production of strength in a given situation such as the start of any pull from the floor. For instance, the Valsalva manoeuvre associated with breath-holding plays a vital role in increasing the intra-abdominal pressure to support and stabilize the lumbar spine during heavy lifting. The importance of strong abdominal and oblique muscles acting as an anatomical corset then becomes obvious. It has been corroborated on many occasions that spinal stress is diminished during any movement against high resistance loading and that exhalation during lifting increases the risk of lumbar injury. Thus, it is unwise to follow the popular clinical advice that one should exhale during effort. While this may be appropriate for patients with cardiac disease or hypertension, such action by an athlete during strenuous lifting, squatting or overhead pressing can seriously compromise spinal stability and safety.
Moreover, common sporting actions such as jumping, throwing, pushing against an opponent, striking a ball, standing from a squat or kicking usually elicit involuntary breath-holding, since this serves to enhance performance and accuracy of control in short duration movements. In archery and pistol shooting, stability and accuracy are intimately connected with brief phases of breath-holding. Other research has shown that speed strength actions are optimally enhanced if the volume of air in the lungs is maintained at an optimal percentage of their maximum capacity. This Russian research also shows that trying to fill the lungs as fully as possible with air is not the best way to pull - it indicates that lungs should be around 75% full (Vorobyev, 1978). There are at least the following different ways of filling the lungs prior to commencement of any heavy lift :
- Taking one even and smoothly controlled inhalation in the low starting position
- Using a series of successive short "sips" of air
- Filling lungs to comfortable maximum, then forcefully expelling some air in little puffs to attain the best feeling intra-abdominal pressure
Obviously, it is not possible in a contest to measure 75% of lung capacity, so what one does is to fill the lungs comfortably to what feels is an undistended belly maximum without raising the shoulders (to force in more air with the accessory muscles of respiration in the upper chest)? By experimenting in training sessions with too little and too much air, you will eventually be able to inhale in all of the competitive lifts and many other exercises to just the optimal amount without even thinking.
Of course, even if you have over-inhaled (beyond the optimal), you can soon enough judge this and correct this by humming or hissing out just a little air during part of the lift, though you do not want to do this to any marked extent, because trunk stability and force production have a lot to do with optimal breath holding.
In addition, breath-holding under these conditions leads to the muscles of the body automatically and reflexively becoming optimally recruited at each stage of the lifts to suit your individual physical characteristics, so that any conscious attempt to activate muscles such as transversus abdominis (TvA) becomes entirely redundant and inadvisable. In fact, the very scientists whose work has been invalidly extrapolated by some therapists from the clinical setting to the world of uninjured athletes have now stressed that advice to recruit TvA has not been shown to be appropriate in any dynamic sporting situation.
Consequently, it may be recommended that breath-holding should precede and accompany maximal efforts, which should be followed by brief exhalation-inhalation, unless technical adjustments have to be made, in which case breath-holding must persist. Exercise with lighter submaximal loading may be executed with longer phases of normal exhalation-inhalation and shorter phases of breath-holding. It should be noted that neither rapid, short hyperventilation breathing, nor forced maximal inhalation is desirable for production of maximal effort during any phase of lifting.
In this regard, the wearing of a belt can offer very useful proprioceptive feedback about the degree of intra abdominal pressure - one feels the amount of outward pushing of the belly against the belt and tells you how "full" of air you are. Of course, those who universally condemn the use of a belt, may be unaware that the belt may be used in several different ways and that not all of these ways are for direct support of the trunk, as I have discussed in other articles. Moreover, research has shown that greater force can be produced when one is lifting with a belt, and in lifting competition, any extra advantage is desirable. Correctness of breathing often tends to be a very neglected part of the lifting preparation stage (Siff, 2000).
If anyone has misgivings about using the standing dive start, then try one of the other techniques of dynamic start, which eliminate the problem of aiming the hands at the bar - not always easy for those with poor aim or poor eyesight!
Adjacent Tissue Contact
Finally, something that no clinicians or scientists have yet examined is a little-known very crafty and very useful facilitation process that experienced weightlifters and powerlifters use to help themselves rise from the lowest position in the clean, deadlift and squat - namely the tensing or bouncing of the lower abs against the upper thighs (See Fig 1). Not only does this contact between the adjacent muscle regions enhance stability and prestretch, but it can also offer hydraulic or elastic contact recoil during the crucial beginning stage of any lift where one has to produce great starting strength under isometric conditions. This invaluable aid to lifting efficiency is lost if you make any attempt to “draw in your abs” or exhale, so, if you are attempting to lift maximal or very heavy loads in the Olympic style lifts, the deadlift or the squat, avoid any tendency to utilise this type of well-meant, but potentially dangerous advice - especially in competition.
Figure 1. Photograph of the author snatching, where the contact between the lower abdominal region and the upper thighs can clearly be seen. Although the movement involves the overhead squat, the same sort of contact facilitation is used during the start of the pull in weightlifting and powerlifting.
Since the preparatory phase of the clean and deadlift relies heavily on neuromuscular facilitation and proprioceptive processes, it can sometimes be helpful to learn the correct “feel” for the above actions by eliminating visual input and covering the eyes with a lightly closed eyes or blindfold (I use those eye covers that are handed out to you on aircraft) while you learn to “address” the bar correctly and begin to exert force during this earliest stage of the lift. This method can be especially helpful in teaching you how to optimally fill your lungs; feel the pre stretch in the thighs, hamstrings and glutes; and use thigh-abdominal and upper arm-latissimus contact to enable you to stabilize and lift heavy loads more efficiently and safely from the floor.
- Siff M C Supertraining 2000
- Vorobyev A Textbook on Weightlifting 1978
- Zhekov IP Biomechanics of the Weightlifting Exercises Fizkultura I Sport, Moscow, 1976