Fix Your Deadlift

For good reason, the Deadlift is beloved by coaches everywhere. It is an excellent way to develop pure, total body strength as well as reinforce good posture and proper mechanics that relate to many other movements. Unfortunately, though, it is also a movement where strength can trump form – it’s too easy to do it the wrong way. You can execute a heavy rep with egregiously poor technique and we see this far too often with high school athletes who want to move big weight. The result can range from inefficiency to a legitimate risk of injury.

While the deadlift appears to be a relatively simple lift, proper execution often proves far more difficult. Here, we identify just a few of the major coaching points that we use when teaching to any of our athletes. We are constantly looking to perfect technique in order to maximize gains, while simultaneously minimizing risk.

  1. Perfect the Set-Up Position: Often, athletes have failed the lift before they’ve even begun. Improper set up for the deadlift can result in a host of technical errors during execution. One of the most common issues we see is incorrect hip and shoulder positioning. Some athletes set up with super low hip level, much like a squat – others do the opposite, treating it more like an RDL. We want to find the middle ground. With the bar just in front of vertical shins, the athlete’s hips should be above the knee (from a profile view), the shoulders above the hips (and in front of the bar) and gaze towards the ground (neck in a neutral alignment – no “eyes to the sky” here!). Correct alignment will help ensure athletes’ maintain proper back position and allow them to generate the most force into the ground.
  2. Teach it as a “Push”: While the deadlift is most often referred to as a pulling movement, we actually prefer to associate it with a “push” when teaching new athletes. Hearing “Pull” often leads to movement deficits – hip & shoulder disassociation during the initial ascent phase, loss of lumbar curve, etc. To combat these issues, we instead tell the athlete to focus on pushing the ground away with their legs. This helps to keep the hips and shoulders rising at the same time with a tight core.
  3. Work the Return: Even athletes with impeccable deadlift form off of the floor often have a tough time with the eccentric portion of the deadlift, or the “return”. When working consecutive reps within a given set, this half of the movement becomes vital to proper execution. Essentially we want to mirror the concentric half of the lift in reverse. First the athletes should push the hips back and “look out over the cliff” until the bar reaches the knee. Only then should the athlete re-bend the knee. Early knee bend is a fault we see frequently, and leads to both inefficiency moving weight and potential injury.


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Improve Your Clean: 3 Part Drill

The clean, and all of its variations, is an incredible tool for athletic development, as well as general fitness. When executed properly, this one movement can help an athlete improve in all of these areas.

  1. Overall Strength & Power
  2. Coordination/Full-Body Proprioception
  3. Balance
  4. Mobility

That being said, many coaches and athletes ignore the highly technical nature of the Clean. In order to reap ALL of the potential benefits, one must continually focus on proper technique and positioning. For example, an early pull (lack of patience to the jumping position, or bending the arms before hip extension) will drastically limit the athlete’s ability to exert and develop maximum power. On the other hand, a sloppy catch (low elbows or a wide “Starfish” position) will hinder strength gains and reinforce poor mobility and body control.

In order to ensure proper execution, we must continually practice movement and positioning before adding load. One way to do this is with the drill demonstrated in the video above. With a PVC, training bar, or empty barbell, the athlete will perform 9 different Cleans. First the athlete first finds position 1: a shoulder width stance, slight dip of the hips, arms long and loose, with a vertical torso. The athlete will then jump explosively, making the bar weightless, and meet the bar with a good front rack position in a quarter squat (or power position). The athlete then stands tall and resets at position 1. The next rep will be caught the same way, then the athlete will descend below parallel and complete a full squat. Resetting again, the athlete will finish by performing a full squat clean.

The athlete will perform the same 3 clean catch variations at each of our 3 positions (1=high hang, 2=hang just above the knee, 3=mid-shin or “from the floor”). This progression will drill all 3 positions, how to move efficiently between them, and reinforce proper catch technique for any load.

Add this drill into your warm-up anytime the workout calls for use of the Clean, and your athletes and their gains will benefit greatly!

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What is the Power Clean?

The olympic lifts are excellent tools for athletic development. That being said, they are also amongst the trickiest to teach. The first problem is a lack of understanding and adherence to clear and specific terminology. We recognize that many coaches and trainers use slightly different verbiage when teaching lifting technique, specifically with the olympic lifts. This often leads to heated debate for almost no reason – but we do still need to establish a baseline of common language regarding the movements themselves when training athletes. Your athletes should know exactly what you require of them on every single rep.

By no means are we trying to say that what follows is the hard and fast rule when it comes to talking movement and technique, but it is the way we approach it here at PLT4M, and we think it works pretty well.

Let’s use the Clean as a starting point in our discussion. The clean (as part of the clean and jerk) is one of only 2 “Olympic” lifts. For reference, the squat, bench press, and deadlift are considered “Power Lifts”. As an olympic lift, the clean has a few different pieces, as well as multiple variations. In order to discuss and prescribe the clean in our workouts, we need our athletes to understand all of the relevant terminology.

As defined by the IWF’s rules for competition, a clean is when a barbell is “pulled in a single movement from the platform to the shoulders, while either splitting or bending the legs.” Simply put, a clean is a lift that moves a barbell from the floor to a front rack position at the shoulders.

This is often misunderstood right from the get-go. For example, too often we have coaches or athletes saying “Power Clean” as a direct counter-point to the Hang Clean (to refer to cleaning from the floor as opposed to an established hang position). In fact, any clean is from the floor unless denoted otherwise, the power actually refers to the catch position. While this may not be detrimental in the sense of harming the program or athlete, it does make for confusion that can lead to inefficiency or improper loading. So first we must establish a concrete understanding of the starting position. Here are the three most basic.

  • Clean = From the floor
  • Hang Clean = From an established hang anywhere above the knees
  • High Hang Clean = From the pockets, or jumping position

Next up is the receiving position. It must be acknowledged that there is some discrepancy amongst coaches and trainers as to what constitutes a clean rep, regardless of starting position. Many coaches claim that a full clean requires a full squat. Some coaches simply abide by the IWF definition and believe that depth of the catch does not matter (even a split catch, like on a split jerk, is accepted in competition but is rarely used). Crossfit has popularized specifying the full movement in detail to be completely clear on any rep. A squat clean requires a catch with hips below parallel, while a power clean requires hips above. If the clean is labeled by neither, the athlete is allowed to perform the movement with either catch (often determined by the load).

Here at PLT4M, this is also the stance we’ve taken for clarity of movement prescription. We’d much prefer the load determine an athlete’s depth. Thus, a light warm up set of cleans would likely only require a small power catch, while our heavy 3×1’s will often result in a full squat. The beauty of teaching the power position catch is that it naturally allows for the athlete to continue dropping into a fuller squat without changing anything.

To summarize – here at PLT4M, we ascribe to a terminology model that works in 3 pieces. Let’s use the Hang Power Clean as an example.

  1. Hang (Initial Position of the Barbell, in this instance above the knee, or position “2”)
  2. Power (Catch Position, in this case in a quarter squat, or anything above parallel)
  3. Clean (The base movement at hand, to be modified by the 2 words, or lack thereof, before it)

This model allows for very specific instruction when so desired. It also allows for the opposite. If all we say is “Clean,” we mean for the bar to be taken from the floor (because that is the definition of a standard clean), and intentionally do not specify a catch position. This allows the athlete to catch in whatever way they need to at the given load. If we do want to specify a catch position, we simply add it. This gives us the ability to be very specific when prescribing our workouts.

We are sure some coaches have strong feelings about the terminology they use, and we are by no means saying that you are doing it wrong. We are simply providing a cohesive approach you may use teaching and informing your athletes when using the olympic lifts. We’d love to hear any and all thoughts!

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The Squat: Range of Motion Before Weight

One of the biggest issues we see on a regular basis is athletes sacrificing depth and form during the back squat in favor of loading up the bar with heavy weight.

By shutting down the range of motion to just a partial squat, athletes are minimizing many of the intended benefits that can come from improving baseline strength. First, they eliminate one of the biggest athletic advantages there is – movement. They are completely neglecting one of the most foundational movements in life, let alone athletics. For our money, an athlete will see far greater results perfecting an air squat than working with heavy partial squats. Especially at their age – they need to establish good habits or it will hold their progress back in the future, poor movement begets strength plateaus. Second, they are wasting their time. Sure, partial squats can play a role in a good performance training program, but not as a Core Strength lift. They are literally performing less work (work is a product of force and the distance traveled) in any given set. Those sets are crucial for increasing time under tension and metabolic stress which are responsible for all of those things you’re working towards: muscle hypertrophy, strength gain, conditioning, etc.

Worse, it’s during these misguided attempts that we see the “ugliest” reps – you know the ones we’re talking about: knees driving down and in, the chest dropping forward, bar rolling towards the head, lower back and neck compensating for poor form. This is where injury happens, it’s just common sense. You’re at a far greater likelihood of failure and injury when the weight on the bar is something with which you could never perform a full rep.

It’s our job, as coaches and teachers, to make sure we are holding athletes accountable. Make sure they know the benefits of perfecting their movement first, reinforce good habits, and set them up for success!

Fit for life

Fit 4 Life: Teaching Fitness, Part II

Last time we talked fitness in education, we focused on how to teach movement – from coaching cues to proper scaling options. Today, we’re tackling student engagement. As any teacher knows, the biggest hurdle in education is getting students to buy into what they are learning in class. This can be especially difficult when it comes to physical education.

Sweating during the school day can be a tough sell for many students, even the most active ones. It’s on us as PE teachers, then, to try and find ways to draw our kids in – to motivate them into wanting to be healthier, fitter versions of themselves. How can we do this? Let’s take a look at just a couple of the ways we try to enhance engagement in our own fitness curriculums here at PLT4M.

Variety is the Spice of Life

When it comes to high school kids, it’s all about keeping things fresh. Students have minimal attention spans and a lot on their plates – the moment something becomes consistent, regular, or “boring,” it drops to the bottom of their priority list. In order to get them interested in workouts on a daily basis, we must make sure to keep each class experience as unique as possible.

First, make sure you utilize the full breadth of foundational fitness movement. Though physically effective, if all you do is push ups and air squats, kids will lose interest quick. It doesn’t take much to keep things interesting, however, if you use all of the movement variations at your disposal. The physiological demands of the air squat, for example, can also be achieved through the PVC overhead squat, or Med Ball thruster. Variation and added complexity makes it more interesting to the students. At the same time, not only do you get the foundational squat movement, you gain mobility development through the overhead squat, or pressing strength and full body conditioning through the thruster. 

Next, don’t always approach the class workout the same way. If kids know exactly what to expect, they will eventually get bored. You can create workouts that operate within a specific timeframe, or workouts that work to achieve a total number of reps. Workouts can be done as individuals, or in teams. You can also rotate in pure circuit training or full-class challenges. The key is to try and prevent regularity in they way the workouts unfold every class.

Long story short, the goal is to make sure that a program built on a linear progression of teaching and difficulty doesn’t feel as such to the kids. From the outside looking in, classes should feel as random and unpredictable as possible. Mix in as many different movements as possible, change the class structure from individual workouts, to team workouts, to circuit training – all the while fitting it to the overall curriculum structure.

Competition is Motivation

When it comes to motivation, one of our go-to’s here at PLT4M is adding competition. It’s no surprise that kids will try just a little bit harder when progress is tangible or they know there is a winner involved. In regards to our own foundational fitness program, we use two different elements of competition to increase engagement.

First, we make kids compete with themselves. Personal progress is a wonderful motivator. Consider setting up performance indicators for your classes. For example, at PLT4M, we test 5 performance areas: Max Push Ups (base strength), Squat Therapy (mobility/flexibility), Mile Run (aerobic endurance), Max Burpees in 2 minutes (anaerobic endurance), and Metabolic Conditioning (blend of all 4). We inject baseline, mid-term, and final testing of all 5, allowing both students and teachers to see overall physical progress over the course of the program. One of the most rewarding instances in teaching is seeing a student begin to realize personal growth and take ownership of their continuing progress.

We also try to keep class interesting by injecting competition into the workouts themselves. In one workout we have all students competing individually against one another to complete a given set of movements as fast as possible. The hope of winning, as well as the “threat” of losing, provides a powerful incentive for students to work hard and push their limits. In another class, we have students grouped into teams of 3, attempting to achieve as many rounds of the workout as possible in 10 minutes. Not only does this naturally promote teamwork and communication, it also adds an element of responsibility. Students will feel pushed to work harder since they have others relying on them. In the end, competition can raise student effort level across the board.

Fit 4 Life

Competition and variety are but two tools physical education teachers can use when teaching fitness. There are plenty of other ways to improve student engagement. Bottom line, we just want to make kids interested in fitness and healthy living. We want to help students take ownership of their health, and give them tools to be happier, fitter versions of themselves when they move on from our classes. 

Want to see how we teach fitness? Check out our introductory programs: Fit101 and Fit201.