The Deadlift – How to Assess Lifter Readiness
The Deadlift has been around for ages. Recently, the online community has discovered the immense value of this movement and has begun a movement to resurrect something that most fitness pros never forgot. The deadlift is a pretty straightforward lift. You bend over, grab a barbell full of weight and stand up with it. This is an oversimplification of the lift of course, but in the end, that’s what it is. There are however, a few key elements that will make a deadlift a quality lift or a piece of crap. Most aren’t trained well enough to know the difference and most who are performing it seem to do so with less than enviable technique. The deadlift, in all its simplicity, is a movement with a lot of variables that need to be just right in order to maximize the lift and ensure lifter safety. Readiness is the key. A good deadlift requires mobility in a number of joints including the ankles, hips and upper back, flexibility in the hips and back and core integrity to brace against a heavy object that is trying to stay on the floor as you attempt to pick it up. Collectively these factors mixed with specific movement patterns make up this old school lift and the more you know about its movement requirements the better prepared you are to determine your readiness for the deadlift.
For the purposes of this article, we will be talking about “The Deadlift” as it has always been called.
There are other types of deadlifts. This article will not discuss these specifically, but the movement assessments for all dead lifting variations will be virtually the same. Some common deadlift variations that rock, but that we will not be discussing are:
- Stiff Leg Deadlift (Romanian Deadlift or RDL)
- Jefferson Lift (see my article on this lift here)
- Suitcase Deadlift
- Sumo Deadlift
This article will focus instead on a number of assessments that can be done to gauge lifter readiness for the deadlift in its standard form.
The Functional Movement Screen (FMS)
This is the #1 assessment to gauge deadlift readiness. All others in my opinion come after the FMS which was developed by a gentleman named Gray Cook, a Physical Therapist and world-renowned expert in the assessment and training of human movement. The only real challenge you’re going to have is training and proficiency and knowing a couple of key landmarks on the body namely the ASIS (in the hip) and malleolus (in the ankle) bones. If you don’t know someone who can do the FMS for you, search for someone on the FMS website and go have it done.
I have been using the FMS for many years, but have found that most people aren’t proficient delivering the assessment until they’ve had at least 30 full assessments under their belt. This is a minimum. I have had really smart, motivated fitness professionals need to perform 70-80 FMS assessments before they were fully proficient. To do it by the book (and you should), you’ll need an FMS test kit which can be bought at the Functional Movement website or you will probably find one at your local health club. However, since you’ll only need two of the seven movements in the FMS to test for deadlift readiness you can actually accomplish these two tests with no equipment. These tests are called the Active Straight Leg Raise and the Truck Stability Push Up and I recommend you film them just as I have done and then determine their outcomes.
Instructions – FMS Active Straight Leg Raise & Trunk Stability Push Up (with clearing test)
Scoring – FMS Active Straight Leg Raise & Trunk Stability Push Up
Video: FMS Self-administered Active Straight Leg Raise & Trunk Stability Push-up
Toe Touch Assessment
This one is simple, really quick and while it doesn’t tell you as much as the entire FMS, it does tell you if a person has the flexibility required to deadlift. Whether or not they have the body awareness, core strength and stability, joint mobility and movement efficiency to do the lift will be determined as soon as you put the person in front of a bar. I personally love this assessment, it’s stupid simple.
1. Stand tall with feet together and hands overhead.
2. Keeping knees locked, bend over lowering your hands toward the floor.
3. Touch the floor then return to start position.
Video: Toe Touch Assessment
That’s it! If they can maintain locked knees and touch the floor, in theory, they can deadlift. If they can’t touch the floor you will either need to hold off on deadlifting until flexibility has improved or place the weight on a platform that raises it off the ground so that the lifting height of the weight is appropriate for the lifter’s current level of mobility and flexibility. There is no shame is starting to deadlift from an elevated weight position. When I see this being done, I am really impressed with the level of restraint and personal honesty the lifter is demonstrating to work within their means while still challenging themselves. Remember, the whole idea is to improve throughout your lifetime, not to be perfect. You’ll see plenty of movement shortcomings in every movement I do, but I am working to improve them and that’s what matters. So work at your personalized pace and capability and enjoy the progress you make.
Movement Tunnel or Start/Finish Position Assessment
The Movement Tunnel Assessment basically says that every movement has a start and a finish position. In between the start and finish is a movement pattern that must take place called the “movement tunnel.” The idea is that if you can get into both the start and finish position of a movement, you can begin to perform that movement. This is also a nice way to gauge deadlift readiness. The finish position is pretty simple as it’s basically standing straight up with a bar in your hands. There are some core activation considerations to ensure take place, but overall, the finish position of a deadlift is a standing position. It’s the starting position that gives people fits. Finding the correct position from which to pull the weight off the floor is essential to deadlift readiness. If a person cannot easily get into the start position of a deadlift, they should not be attempting the lift with weight and should instead be using a piece of PVC pipe of very light barbell until their start position improves.
Some considerations to look for in the start position of a deadlift.
1. Hip hinge – the deadlift is not a squat. The first movement is the hips going backward, not down as in a squat.
2. Tibia angle – it should be close to vertical. Everyone is shaped differently, but the shin should be somewhere near vertical for all deadlifts.
3. Neutral spine – this is somewhat relative, but we are looking for a tight, flat back with the core fired-up to support the lift.
4. Shoulders packed – the lats are pulling down on the shoulders and they’re packed in tight ready for a pull.
5. Arms vertical – from the shoulder, the arms should travel straight down to the bar which should be as close to the shins as possible. In many cases the bar will actually touch the shins throughout the lift. Battle scars! There may be slight angle variations, but your arms should be vertical.
Video: Start/Finish Position Assessment (Tunnel)
So there you have it my friends, three very solid, mostly simple ways to determine if you or another lifter are prepped and ready to do a deadlift.
There are some things that should be noted. You will from time-to-time find someone who cannot pass one or more of these assessments, but who has been deadlifting properly for many years and their body simply knows how to find the right position when the time comes to do the lift. This is pretty uncommon and even those people should work to improve their assessment outcomes as it will only improve the movement efficiency of their deadlift.
Secondly, remember that pretty much everyone can deadlift – it’s the ultimate functional movement. The key is to know where to begin. As I mentioned in the Toe Touch Assessment video above, there is absolutely nothing wrong with starting to deadlift with the weight elevated. Trying to deadlift from a position lower than your body is prepared to lift from will undoubtedly place you at unnecessary risk for injury. Work with the mobility and flexibility you have by raising the weight off the ground to a level that still challenges you, but that allows you to gain exceptional technique. If you pass the assessments, start pulling from the ground and work to perfect that. In the end, it’s all about progress and quality movement patterns.
These assessments are the starting points for deadlifting that most qualified fitness professionals are going to use when they begin working with clients moving toward this lift. The deadlift is fundamental and when done properly, helps to reinforce the body’s overall strength and integrity helping you to become a stronger, more physically capable person.
Now go get it!