A Guide to Applying DNS/PRI Principles to Powerlifting (Part 3: Deadlift)

How should you apply postural training principles to the powerlifting deadlift?

If you haven’t already seen Part1 and Part 2 to this series, I strongly recommend reading that first as it lays down the groundwork for what we are diving into here.

Today’s installment in the PRI/DNS to Powerlifting series will focus in on the deadlift.

Before we dive in, I just wanted to make a quick note on this article series: I am making this series to help lifters and coaches understand how to use these trains of thought as tools and some scenarios where it might be helpful. It is by no means the only tool that you should have in your toolbox. PRI and DNS don’t solve every problem that you’ll encounter in powerlifting, but they can be a good starting point to work from.

As much as I’d like knowing how to do powerlifting and these modalities together to be the silver bullet to perfect, efficient movement and absolute injury prevention, they aren’t that, and if they were… I’d probably be a lot richer by now.

That being said, let’s get down to business.

Today’s article will be broken down into 2 main sections:

  1. Addressing the positions of the deadlift, particularly in the setup,
  2. Transferring the foundation you lay with the set up into an efficient deadlift

Part 1: Set Up For Success

Not wanting to make this article a deadlift tutorial, let’s assume if you’re reading this article, you have some experience deadlifting and understand some basic principles like bracing, a hip hinge, and working to shorten the range of motion effectively while playing to your leverages.

The most common “error” that we see in the deadlift is that of a rounded back, particularly when the lifter’s spine actively bends under load (as opposed to starting in a rounded position and maintaining it throughout the lift).

Addressing how the lifter gets to the bar is the easiest place to start. If you have a tendency to round over in the deadlift, rounding your back in your set up probably isn’t helping things. Instead, imagine bracing and doing a deadlift/hip hinge to get to the bar in the first place instead of rounding out and then trying to straighten out after the fact.

Hinge vs bar setup video

If it feels like your hamstrings are holding you back and are “too tight” to get to the bar and your hips are still bending to 90 degrees, your back/hip flexors might be holding you back by over stretching your hamstrings. As you can see below, an anterior tilt in the hips will place the hamstrings on stretch which means that as you bend down to the bar, you can’t go as far without your back needing to move to pick up the slack. If you start in a more neutral position, you’ll feel like your hamstrings are “looser” and you can keep your spine in a more favorable position.

tight hip flexors

The less common issue that I see pointed out in a proper deadlift set up is a protracted ribcage/overly retracted shoulders which forces a bigger range of motion on the deadlift as well as more stress on the lower back.

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people saying to lift the chest up and pull the shoulders back in the deadlift. I dislike this cue for a few reasons, but the biggest ones are that it discourages keeping a good pelvis/ribcage position by pushing the ribcage forwards relative to the hips and overusing spinal extensors to set the back position instead of using intra-abdominal pressure to brace and hold “neutral”.

When the ribcage gets elevated and protracted like this, it can pull the lower back into flexion, especially when there is lots of load on the erectors in the first place like you would see in a deadlift or squat. This can look like a lower back weakness, but in reality, it starts with putting the muscles into a strong enough position to do their job.

As you can see here in my client Mike’s first video, he can’t set his ribs and hips into a good position and ends up pulling from a rounded over position even though he is obviously trying to straighten out, which doesn’t happen until the top of the lift.

Dealing with a protracted and elevated ribcage, we want to start with some breathing work to reposition, followed by loading it with an exercise that helps reinforce the pattern in order to retrain.

For repositioning in this scenario, let’s use a modified diamond bear hold on a foam roller. With a long soft exhale, you should feel your floating ribs pull into your torso and your [internal] obliques holding them there. In the mid and upper back, you should feel a big stretch through the lats and upper traps.

In the second frame, we are working the same position, but inverted. If you struggle to find a relaxed lower back position while opening up the mid and upper back, this one’s for you.

After we’ve repositioned, our next step is to train the hip hinge pattern with the new ribcage position. A pancake Romanian deadlift is an excellent choice here as it will get the lats off just enough where your pecs, abs, and hamstrings can all help to hold you in a better position.

Finally, we want to take these new positions and skills and carry them back over to the deadlift. For this, I recommend keeping it as simple as possible and to try one of the following cues:

  • Pull your armpits into your front pockets
  • Silverback gorilla shoulders
  • Long arms
  • Squeeze your armpits like you’re being tickled from the front

Ultimately, we’re looking for you to be able to get your lats tight while keeping a moderate curve in your upper back and some protraction in the shoulder blades so your abs can work well and you don’t overextend. Not only does this help to create a better position for you to brace from, but it also helps to reduce the range of motion of the exercise, which helps to reduce how much work it takes to move the same weight.

Once we’ve addressed the positions in the saggital plane, we also want to make sure that you aren’t hip shifting to one side or favoring one leg substantially more than the other.

A few things to consider with a hip shift is whether it is mobility or stability related. As the deadlift tends to pull you closer to end range hip flexion, we can see a lot of mobility related shifts happen.

Assuming that there is a shift (we will use a right hip shift/right valgus as an example), we would work on creating more AF external rotation on the right side (to “push” to the left) and facilitating the left adductors/medial hamstrings (“pull” to the left) with some Left Sidelying Knee-To-Knee work.

The next step after addressing frontal plane control in the hips is building up some strength in a more deadlift-specific pattern. A left stance 1-arm KB deadlift is an awesome way to get all the aforementioned muscles working hard in a pattern that more closely resembles the deadlift.

Part 2: Moving Through the Deadlift

Now that we’ve laid a good foundation for a setup, it’s time to look at the more dynamic components of the deadlift, particularly which joints drive the motion.

Ask any successful powerlifter and they’ll tell you the glutes and hamstrings are big players in the deadlift along with the lats, back, and abs.

Where a lot of powerlifters will go wrong is over emphasizing getting their “back tight” to the point where they create an exaggerated curve in the back which prevents them from keeping a good canister position for their ribs/hips. In turn, the hamstrings are put into a weakened position where the back has to take over and the lifter will either round their back as the bar leaves the floor because the load isn’t being put through the glutes and hamstrings (bigger muscles) as much as the erectors (smaller muscles) or they will start with a relatively straight back and then as they leave the floor their hips will extend quite slowly but the spine will extend quickly to lift the bar.

If you can set up in a good position as outlined in the previous section and create a good rib/hip relationship and brace well, the full movement is much simpler. As such, I would start by cleaning up the set up and then fine tune your deadlift with the second part of this article afterwards.

If you’re still running into issues through the pull after working on your setup, working on keeping your hamstrings/adductors/abs through a fuller range of motion is in order.

To do this we would start with a full exhale Romanian deadlift. By working the full exhale into the setup of the lift, we can facilitate a good spinal position via the abs, which in turn gets the hamstrings working harder in the pull. As you go through the lift, maintain the exhale and then inhale at the top once you’ve finished the rep.

*I don’t recommend doing this exercise with more than ~15% of your max deadlift as the lack of abdominal pressure leaves a very small margin for error with spinal position.

The next progression on the full exhale RDL would be to simply work some pauses or tempo work into your warmups so that you could pay attention to the positions you are in and correct if need be to ensure you aren’t falling back into old patterns.

Hopefully this helps to point you in the right direction with creating positive technical changes in your deadlifts. Regardless of how strange it can look at first glance, these drills really do work and I have used them and variants of them on my own powerlifting athletes with great success.

Have any questions about the content of the article? Want to learn how to incorporate this work into general powerlifting training? Send me an email mentioning this article for a free consultation at [email protected]