The Deadlift Debate - Just a Heads Up...
When setting up for a deadlift, there are some universally standard set up and technique cues to remember in order to perform a safe and effective lift. Bar over mid-foot, hinge from the hip, brace your core and so on… What’s not performed as such standard practice however, is the slightly more controversial (and perhaps ignored) topic of cervical extension - something you’ll see in deadlifter’s everyday in every gym.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve seen the deadlift performed with no real regard for head movement – with many even encouraging the upward head drive as a means of getting the bar up. Does it matter though? Is it just down to preference? In my opinion (and according to a lot of science), the head should always remain either neutral or slightly tucked in when deadlifting. This should be rule number 1 for all hip hinge movements if your goal is to optimise muscular hypertrophy, and you’re about to find out why.
Time for a quick human biomechanics 101…
Let’s start with the spine. The spine is effectively a chain of links. If something happens at one end of the chain, it’s going to have a ripple effect leading to adjustments and compensations having to be made throughout the rest of the chain. Forcing your head up into such an unnatural position will lead to extension of both your cervical and lumbar spine (called a lordotic curve/lordosis) and flexion of your thoracic spine (called a kyphotic curve/kyphosis). When deadlifting in this position we will also load the neck in a manner that can cause a lot of discomfort and increase the risk of injury.
Another consequence of shifting our spine into this position of hyperlordosis is the resulting anterior pelvic tilt (APT), which in turn creates a major problem for those of you looking to make some posterior gains. When in a state of ‘APT’, our ability to maximally contract our glutes is hugely inhibited and therefore so will the extent to which we’re able to stimulate them - exactly what you don’t want if you’re using deadlifts as an exercise to build them!
One of the mistakes you can make (however easily correct) is to deadlift in front of a mirror. This is because in order to maintain eye contact from top to bottom your head will have to lift, and as soon as this begins to happen our cervical spine will enter into extension. The reality anyway, is that you are going to see nothing of any relevance when looking forwards in the mirror whilst deadlifting. Everything important is going to be happening out of view, so if you want to assess your form simply place a camera side on and record your set, allowing you to see what’s going on around your hips, spine and head.
“But I see a tonne of crazy strong powerlifters on Instagram performing deadlifts with cervical extension” I hear you cry... You probably have, I have too. Two things worth baring in mind however are that: 1) a powerlifters goal does not stretch beyond moving the heaviest weight possible weight from A to B, therefore the fact that their technique could be reducing the hypertrophic benefits would likely be of little to no concern to them; and 2) if you’re reading this article you are probably not a 350lb powerlifter and therefore your training goal will likely be different.
What’s also important to remember is that just because you or someone you know has experienced relative success with a technique or training method does not necessarily mean it’s optimal and does not mean that there isn’t a better way of doing it. While I’m not going to hit up Eddie Hall and offer to tidy up his deadlift technique (he’s the reigning Worlds Strongest Man FYI), for those of you chasing a physique and wanting to really reap the rewards of the deadlift, keeping your head tucked in will not only reduce your risk of injury but will also give you a rear end of the Gods.