Focus on the movements not the muscles

As seen in The National Fitness News – May 2010


David Hare CSCS 

Focus on the movements, not the muscles, with the Deadlift

One of the all-time, great lower body exercises is the Deadlift – an exercise that forces you to use a hip dominant action to lift a weight, or just to move. Examples of a Deadlift movement are seen all around us in life, whether it’s picking up luggage or a very young child picking up a toy or even getting into sports specific positions.  Yet, the Deadlift is, sadly, one of the most underutilised movements seen in commercial gyms today. Like its close relation the squat, the Deadlift movement is something that we lose if we don’t maintain it. Proper hip and glute function garnered from hip dominant training is crucial for optimum performance in sport, back health and general wellbeing.

To perform the Deadlift in the correct manner, it’s crucial to get hinging from your hips; sitting for long periods is the enemy of all hip dominant patterns as we develop what I call “Gluteal amnesia” Ask yourself how many of you sit for more than 6 hours a day — probably quite a lot? Restoring good hip function will deliver huge benefits.

If you introduce these resistance training patterns into your training sessions, you’ll see massive improvements.

Let’s look at the reasons why the Deadlift movement is rarely seen in commercial gyms today:

  1. Its name is off-putting for a start.
  2. The stereotype of power lifters lifting Olympic bars stacked with weights puts people off.
  3. It’s hard to get right and some people get a ‘sore’ back.
  4. There’s no machine that does it for us.

But, if we look at the Deadlift as a pattern or a movement, and not just a means to lift really heavy weights, it opens up far more exciting and beneficial options. What we are trying to achieve here is good hip function. Typically what you will find is that people who can’t master the Deadlift movement are more likely to have sore knees or suffer lower back pain and poor Thoracic spine mobility. Getting your clients to master the movement at an appropriate level will really help them.

Option 1: Med Ball Chop

The med ball chop is an easy way to teach your clients how to fire or activate their hip and glute musculature. We use the med ball chop for warm-ups mostly and we use either a 3kg or 4kg med ball. What you want to avoid here is rounding of the lower back.

Picture 1: Med Ball Chop

Bottom of Med Ball Chop

  • Feet shoulder width apart and toes pointing forward;
  • Place the ball between your legs and bend your knees slightly;
  • Bend forward from the hip keeping your spine straight so that your shoulders are in front of your knees;
  • Swing the ball over your head, driving from the hips while squeezing your glutes and abs.

Option 2: Med Ball or Dumbbell Reaching Lunge

 This is one of our favourite protocols; the reaching lunge is great for nearly everybody. It’s especially good for people with ‘bad knees’ as they can do lower body training without putting pressure on the knee joint. We do this in our warm-ups or you can use this for your strength work with dumbbells.

Picture 2: Reaching Lunge

Reaching Lunge

  • Start in standing position;
  • Step one leg forward and reach with arms extended;
  • Keep your spine straight and stomach tight and do not allow your front knee to bend greater than 60? (knee should be bent no further than base of  toes);
  • You should feel tension in your upper hamstring but mostly your glute muscles;
  • Repeat this action now on the other leg.


Option 3: One leg Deadlift

The one leg deadlift is a great joint-friendly exercise. Patience is needed to perfect this exercise so don’t lose heart at the beginning. The one leg deadlift is used predominately to strengthen the glute muscles and improve balance; it can be performed with dumbbells or using your own bodyweight. It is a humbling exercise that will show up all your left and right side imbalances also. For example, it’s not uncommon to notice with your clients that they can’t do one side nearly as good as the other.  If we consider that nearly 80% of all sporting activity is done on one leg, I consider it logical that you should incorporate one leg training into your repertoire. What I mean is that sprinting, jogging, walking and going upstairs involves placing only one leg on the ground at any time.

Picture 3: The one leg Deadlift 

Bottom of one leg Deadlift

  • Stand on one leg;
  • Push your free leg in the air behind you and sit back on your hip;
  • Extend your arms forward (if you’re using dumbbells, keep your arms in a carry position);
  • You should feel the weight on your heel working the glute;
  • Stand up with your knee straight and glute tight;
  • Repeat 8 times on the same leg and then do the other leg.


Option 4: Hex bar Deadlift


 This is a more advanced manoeuvre; if we consider that sport or movement is essentially putting force through the ground, the hex bar Deadlift prepares the body brilliantly for this. One of the added bonuses with the hex bar is the additional upper body development. I love the hex bar because it puts far less stress through your lumbar spine than the traditional ‘straight bar off the ground’ Deadlift. The hex bar Deadlift is one of those exercises that is actually hard to get wrong. If you keep your spine straight and your hips up, you’re almost there.

Hex bar DL – picture 4  

Start of Hex Bar Lift

  • Bend down and grab the handles;
  • Lock out your arms and sit your hips back – most of the weight should be on your heels;
  • Stand up driving your glute muscles forward – keep your spine straight;
  • Bring the bar down the same way as you brought it up, keeping your spine straight.


Common mistakes with the Deadlift pattern and corrective strategies:

  • Lifting the weight with your arms;

Ask your clients to imagine their hands are like ropes and tell them to drive through with their hips.

  • Knees cave in with the lifting action;

Tell your clients to drive their knees out or keep them over their middle toes. The use of mirrors here is highly beneficial as your clients can see exactly what they’re doing.

  • Rounding of the lumbar spine region whilst lifting or putting down the weight;

Good coaching cues for your clients are to ask them to imagine a steel rod through their spine as well as the use of lifting blocks or pins to raise the weight up.


Good hip dominant exercises can greatly aid your  performance and health. You can implement them into your warm-up routine and the strength portion of your workout .Get your moving from your hips more and see the benefits for yourself.

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