As I spend more time in the industry, I notice how sorely it’s lacking educational content that transcends the classic “lifter’s body type”.
For some reason, we’ve found it normal to appeal to the average proportions and dimensions and let the outliers fend for themselves as far as fumbling for the right form and technique, let alone avoiding injury.
As an anatomical outlier myself (you’ll see what I mean later), I realize the need for this content since we occupy a greater percentage of lifters than most are willing to acknowledge.
Instead of force-feeding lifts with a body type and technique that begs for modifications to be made, it does us well to take a step back and analyze just what these variations should be.
And don’t worry – you can thank me later.
A Closer Look at Body Types
People need to get over the idea that body type variety ends at being taller or shorter, or wider or narrower. A lifter’s proportions are what’s in true control of the outcome where your deadlift is concerned and your starting setup can be affected by the following things:
- Your limb length
- Your torso length
- Your pelvic structure
Conventional deadlifts may not be the answer for these issues, and what may be perceived as “immobility” or a lack of flexibility could actually be your body’s anthropometry blocking you from achieving certain positions in a much more black and white nature. Let’s troubleshoot one by one.
Problem 1: Long Legs
If you’ve got a pair of spider legs, it’s going to make things difficult when deadlifting a straight bar is the task at hand. Reaching down to pick the bar up will send the knees far forward over the toes, making it tough to find the ideal back position.
From a geometrical perspective, it’s worthwhile to remember that we need to set ourselves up to allow the shoulder blades to be positioned directly over the bar. For a long-legged lifter (who will usually have a short torso by default), that will result in a higher hip position, a more horizontal back, and a very posterior chain-dominant pull.
Whether we like it or not, this will be tougher on the lower back than a lifter who has different proportions. But the center of gravity will be in the right place, and this positioning will ultimately maximize the potential strength of the movement.
The most important thing is that the bar travels in a straight line in its path up to the lockout position. Achieving the proper spine position with a high hip setting will ask more of our hamstring flexibility and our back’s ability to have control over the pelvis when in deep hip flexion. This isn’t always a simple task, and for that reason, hacks may be in order.
For this particular situation, I usually like 2 specific modifications:
1. Mount the Bar: There’s no shame in raising the level from which we pull by a few valuable inches (perhaps by way of mats or risers). If it means keeping the ideal positioning from the beginning of rep 1, it’s worthwhile to consider; you’ll still receive all the benefits despite doing so, and it allows you to continue pulling with a conventional stance.
2. Use a Trap Bar: With the absence of a straight bar blocking your shins, your knees have the ability to travel further forward. This change in angle refers itself to a more upright torso and lower seat. As a result, the quadriceps are able to become involved to help take the focus away from the low back.
The best part about using a trap bar is that you’re not “forced” to stay in the pulling position you choose, ether. Since there’s nothing to block you, you can play around with the hip position that works for you while inside the cradle, and you can end up getting a hybrid setup that works for your body type.
Problem 2: A Long Torso
Having a longer torso can actually be viewed as less of a disadvantage for this particular lift. Nevertheless, it takes modifications away from the standard cues given to someone of average proportions.
If the shoulder blades are respected as being the part of the body that belongs directly over the bar (as they should be), then it means that with the bar right up against the shin (or extremely close), the scapulae will likely be out in front of them.
All of this suggests that a lifter with these proportions would have no issue moving the bar 2 or so inches away from his shins in the setup so it properly aligns with its target point.
In this case, a vertical torso and plenty of quad involvement may make for a stronger pull, but it can also neglect the posterior chain. For these lifters, hiking the hips up to make the lift target the glutes, hams and low back more efficiently can come from one simple hack:
Use a Deficit: Lowering the bar to shoelace level and pulling a greater distance can do two things for a long-torsoed lifter. First, it creates a greater training effect (as it would for anyone) since the lifter is now pulling a greater distance.
Second, since the lifter has to bend over further to pick up the bar, the hips have to sit higher to maintain a flat spine. That allows the hamstrings to work from a more taut position, creating a more hip-dominant and less knee-dominant pull.
Problem 3: Variety in Pelvic Structure
It’s worth mentioning that many things can hinder ideal conventional deadlift mechanics when it comes to the pelvic girdle. Where the legs attach to the pelvis (the ball-and-socket joint where the femoral head meets the acetabulum) creates a huge platform for variables.
A shallower socket will create much more mobility than a deeper one, and a lifter will likely feel less “blocked” when getting down into his starting position. A socket located towards the outside of the pelvis versus one located toward the inside of the pelvis can cause impingement in the hip region if a stance that doesn’t line up with their placement is taken.
For most people who run into problems of this nature, I’ve found that the relatively narrow stance asked of a conventional deadlift setup doesn’t give enough space for the femurs to sit in the right “groove”, so to speak.
The stance modification below that I’ve had a very high success rate with is worth applying. Using the medium sumo stance more closely mimics a back squat foot stance to keep the hip region happy while doubling as a lower back saver.
Just remember, that this isn’t a fix-all. For some people, going medium sumo can be less comfortable than going conventional. It’s all a matter of finding out what works best for you.
It’s human nature to paint things in black and white once they’re written down on the printed page.
It does a lifter well to recognize that no two bodies are built the same, and training a movement pattern can take on many forms.
What matters most is that pattern is actually geared toward your long term health, and not force-fed just because some coach said so.