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A Tale of Two deadlifts

There's something about deadlifts. Every time I sit down writing a small rant about them, I end up writing a seemingly larger piece like this one. It gets to a point where I have to literally hold myself from writing more. 

Today, we distinguish between two forms of deadlifts, often confused to be one and the same by most lifters, and how we can use them to our benefit to the maximum

But first.....

"What the hell is a deadlift?"

Simply said, it is the act of picking up a heavy object from the floor. 

Like this:
 Or This:
Or maybe this(especially useful in case of wrongly parked cars):
Again, something like this:
 So, you see...picking up something heavy from the ground.
 Now, just replace all those heavy objects in the pictures above with a barbell, and what you get is:
Yes, exactly. A deadlift. See how similar the big major lifts are to real life senarios? That is just one of the reasons why any individual should incorporate them in order to improve the quality of life.

So, this is what we will be calling a deadlift, or more precisely, a regular deadlift from now on.

"But still Rahul, would I need to deadlift?"

Well, if the pictures above weren't able to convince you on why a regular individual might need to get strong in deadlifting, here are some more benefits of this magnificent lift which carry over so well to real life:
1. Cure from back pain
2. Strong grip, fingers and digits. 
3. Better posture
4.  Boost in confidence because of seemingly very heavy weights which can be lifted
5.  Relief from disorders generated due to chronic sitting(since the deadlift reverses the sitting maneuver)
6. Turns you into Wolverine.
 In other words, to be awesome, you gotta deadlift!

Now, when it comes to deadlifts, there are these two sister exercises which are often also two of the most confused species of this lift. These are 

The Straight Legged Deadlift
and...The Romanian Deadlift

While both these movements biomechanically train the same actions of hip extension, what separates them is the knee angle maintained, the spinal alignment and the amount of hip drive done during their executions resulting in a relatively different loading curves for the gluteal complex, hamstrings and the spinal erectors.

 The Straight Legged Deadlift.

Simply said, you pick up a barbell only moving at your Hip joint and keep the angle on your knee joint constant throughout the execution of this exercise. There are two ways in which you can begin this exercise: with the barbell placed on the ground, and with the barbell placed on a power rack pin or a stand at about hip height. Quite naturally, the hip high start position presents an advantageous starting point since the additional work done while lifting the bar from the floor during the start gets eliminated.

Here's how you would look during the start of the exercise:
   In other words, grip the bar with a double overhand grip. keep your shoulders squared and your scapulae packed back and down. Keep your knee angle as close to 180 degrees as possible. Which means that your legs remain as close to straight as possible throughout the course of the exercise.

Grip the bar tight, squeeze your hip muscles, or the Glutes, and initiate the movement in a tight and controlled fashion by bending only at the hips (the knees stay straight, remember?)

Very importantly, keep your spine in a neutral position throughout the movement. I mean, THROUGHOUT the entire movement. Like, even during the bottom-most position of the lift. 

Which asks the question, where exactly is the bottom position of this exercise? Is it when the barbell reaches all the way down touching the ground? No, not necessarily. The bottom is marked by the point where you can no longer keep folding at the hip joint without either rounding your back, or bending your knees. Withstanding most folks' hamstring and glute flexibility, the point resembles the instant when the bar is almost at your mid-shin level. 

 Here's how the bottom position would look like:

The bar should land in a position slightly(only sliiiiightly) ahead of you. We'll see shortly why this point is important.

Use the tight contractile force generated by the contraction of your hips, hamstrings and the spinal erectors and reverse the movement to unfold at the hips until you are standing back in the starting position.

On the other hand, we have...

...The Romanian Deadlift (RDL)

That's quite an exotic name for a lift, no? This exercise was so named after Nicu Vlad, the Olympic and World champion weightlifter from Romania, who used the RDLs as a staple in his training.

Nicu Vlad
Here's how you execute this exercise:

The beginning of this exercise might look pretty much the same as its straight legged cousin. You can either start with picking up a barbell from the ground in a deadlifting fashion, or pick it up from the hooks placed at about hip height.

Here's the difference.

While setting up for the movement now, carry out some flexion at your knee joints, so that there is a slight bend in our knees. This bend will stay constant throughout the execution of the exercise. At the same time, maintain a deliberate arch in your spine while driving your hips somewhat towards the back and upwards. From here on, with the bar gripped in a double overhand grip, start folding at the hip joints to a position where either the bar reaches the mid-shin level, or your hamstring flexibility gives in.

From here, generate a powerful contraction of the glutes and the hamstrings, reverse your way back to the starting position at the top to complete one rep.

Now, the differences, subtle as they may seem, are profound. 

The straight legged deadlift has your knees almost straight. You are also working on keeping your spine neutral. This requires your paraspinal muscle groups such as the erector spinae to work overdrive in maintaining this alignment. In fact, this precisely is what renders the straight legged deadlift, more of a spinal erector exercise than a glute, hamstring specific one.

Now, this is not to say that there is no gluteal and hamstring contraction involved in this movement. In fact, if you attach and EMG electrode to both these muscles, you may find really significant degrees of contraction. However, the emphasis here, compared to RDLs is more localized along the spinal erector muscles lining your vertebrae. 

The involvement of the para-spinal muscle groups gets compunded by the fact that you lower the bar not touching or sliding along the body but at a distance from the body. This increases the distance between the vectors of force acting on the bar, downward, equal to its weight, and the normal reaction force acting parallel to it from the feet up.

 Notice the distance between the two parallel force vectors represented in the pic above. The greater is this distance, the more is the shear stress produced on the spine to break it out of its neutral alignment and the more the para spinal muscles have to fight to resist it. 

Now, coming to the RDLs, the very first point of difference can be observed as a bent knee joint, the more arched spine and hips pushed significantl back, all leading to shortening of the distance between the line of force acting on the barbell as its weight, and the normal reaction force acting through the center of the feet. The resultant vectors are something like this:

Notice how both the forces are acting almost among the same line. This results in a very less amount of shear stress on the spinal column and generates a need for force generation at the hip joint to produce extension. This forces the glutes and hamstrings to work in synergy producing a powerful hip extension torque.
The advantage of such a set up is that an incredibly large amount of weight can be lifted in RDLs compared to the straight legged deadlifts. More muscles worked can also improve the metabolic results of this movement. 
Low shear stresses also make this a good choice for trainees rehabilitating from flexion based back pain.

While the straight legged deadlift remains a great choice as an assistance drill for strengthening the para spinal muscle groups which can carry over superbly to other exercises such as regular deadlifts, squats, bentover rowing etc, the RDLs are a glute and hamstring strengthening choice.

Of course, the iconic benefits of a strong grip, strong trapezius and overall strength boost will be some really lovable side effects you will experience as you keep advancing in both of these exercises.

Well, folks, enjoy utilizing these potentially game changing accessory strengthening drills in your training program and reap the benefits. For any questions on how to program them in our current routines, or issues faced with them, drop your comments below.

Thanks so much for the read and keep sharing.