Ladies First

That is a video of my friend Antoinette deadlifting 250 for a single. A couple of weeks ago she e-mailed me telling me that her deadlift PR was 230 for a double, so 250 ain’t too shabby (she did it after being sick for two weeks too). I think Antoinette’s video has good timing for two reasons; it dispels some myths about girls who lift and let’s us have a talk about lifting mechanics.

Girls and Lifting
I’ve written about this before, but it’s still difficult to convince girls that lifting is not going to make them “bulky” or “big”. On one hand, it sounds ridiculous to the informed, but on the other hand, the strongest women are also the biggest women. As with men, the strongest lifters get the most publicity, so it’s natural for the average gal to see the bigger gals lifting. What they don’t see are all of the other weight classes lifting either, and these girls are usually in great aesthetic shape (like the gals here).

Girls always want to be “toned”. I don’t know what the hell the definition for “toned” is, but it can be deciphered as “I want less body fat and although I don’t know it yet, I’ll need some muscle underneath it to look how I want to.” Even girls who participated in sports in high school grow soft after not doing anything athletic for a while, and thus they don’t have much decent muscle mass. That’s just how the body works

Enter barbell training. Squatting, pressing, and deadlifting helps girls get stronger (which is never a bad thing) as well as developing a nice, shapely body (i.e. the appropriately curvy body they are wanting anyway). Nobody wants to have a flat butt, right?

Olympian weightlifter Melanie Roach (center) is a good lookin' 53kg lifter

Aside from the aesthetic results of lifting, girls are usually thrilled with the improvement that they can make with their strength, enjoy the challenge, and a few will go onto compete. Competing isn’t just a man’s realm; anybody can benefit from preparing for a contest and performing in a structured and high adrenaline environment.

In this instance, Antoinette picked up lifting and has a Paleo-type diet, and she has leaned out, dropped bodyfat, and gained muscle. She told that me that her friends think that she has lost weight, and then she tells them, “No, I’ve gained about 15 pounds, but lost fat and inches and my pants are falling off.” Sounds like crazy talk, but hopefully we can make it sane. Nice job, Antoinette.

Pulling Mechanics
Ah, now that we got that out of the way, we can scrutinize her lift. It’s important to note that this is a max or near maximal attempt for Antoinette. Form is not only expected to break down, but it should if you’re doing a maximal rep. As Rippetoe always says, if you are able to do it with perfect form, then the weight isn’t heavy enough and it isn’t your max. With that being said, I’m not sure how Antoinette lifts on her training sets because I don’t coach her (so I don’t know if this form fault is habitual or appearing on the max).

You can see that she has a good starting position (chest squeezed up correctly, bar underneath the scapula, bar over midfoot, etc.), but the first thing that happens as she pulls the bar off the ground is she loses tightness by raising her butt a little bit. This angles her chest down which helps round her lower and upper back round as a result. If your butt raises as you pull off the floor, then your knees extend just a little bit. This is a problem for two reasons:

1.Your quadriceps are the muscles that extend the knees, and if the knees extend and the bar doesn’t move up, then the quads haven’t done any work on the bar. This means that you are removing them from helping, and lifting with less muscles isn’t as fun..
2. The hamstrings are the muscles that flex the knee and extend the hip. They attach up under the butt cheek, and when your knees do their job correctly (in this case, correct would mean not extending early like they are here to help lift the bar) then the hamstrings would stay tight, and that tightness helps hold the back angle in place. Antoinette’s butt raises because her hamstrings do not maintain tension, and then the quadriceps don’t help the bar off the floor. This means that the low back will carry the brunt of the load if the bar is going to be lifted in this mechanically disadvantageous angle. It’s important to note that if you’re in a meet situation, bad form is not a sign that you should just stop the lift, and she does a good job of continuing to pull the bar.

Now here’s how we can improve in the short-term.

A good concept to think in Antoinette’s situation is “push the bar away from the floor with your feet”. She’ll set her back angle by squeezing her chest up like normal, and then she’ll think about pushing the floor away with her legs to eliminate the butt raising first. The simple, short cue is “push the floor away” (which is what she could think about or told right before the lift). This cue does a good job of not getting into the minutia of mechanics (which confuses the majority of lifters — or at least confuses their body), and gives the lifter a vague concept to think about and their body will usually get it right. I don’t take credit for it, I learned it from observing Rip (who is good at creating conceptual based cues to not confuse the lifter with little details – a necessary skill for a good coach).

Alas! Not all cues will work with all lifters. People think differently, learn differently, conceptualize differently, and know how to move their body differently. I take all of these variables (and tons more) into account when I coach to figure out what I say next to a lifter. In Antoinette’s case, if we stick with cuing her knees, we could try another cue. The next cue could be “make your knees go back as the bar comes off the floor”. This would make the knees extend off the floor appropriately, and the short, simple version is “knees go back”. I like the first cue better for a few reasons, namely because it simplifies and doesn’t direct the lifter’s attention to one little detail.

If those cues didn’t work, there are plenty of other things to try. I was cuing her knees here, but I could also cue her butt or shoulders since they are different points in the system. As with all things, I use the method that works the highest percentage of the time, and then if it doesn’t work, I figure something else out. It’s like a little puzzle waiting to be solved, but it’s a puzzle that the lifter cannot solve on their own (only a few can). If you’re shitting your pants worrying about what you may be doing when you deadlift (or squat, or press, or snatch, or clean), then you should find a good coach to help you out. There is no substitute for a good coach.