“What is this exercise doing for me?” is what I get from most clients.
This usually means, what is this stretch or movement doing for my body?
As a trainer, I prefer to coach an individual so that the physical sensation of a well-executed exercise is so powerful that there isn’t much question left to wonder what’s happening in the magical skeletomusculonerve jungle that we call our bodies. (And I know, there’s fascia in there, too, but throwing around anatomy jargon always comes with the risk of a stray term flying over someone’s head. So let’s keep it simple.)
However, due to varying degrees of individual body awareness — ie: the ability to sense one’s own skeletomusculonerve jungle — the answer to the opening question isn’t always crystal. Especially if the exercise or movement being performed is awkward or unfamiliar, which means that the person’s body is going to tense up under that feeling of awkwardness, which impedes their reception to the good parts of it.
So it was interesting when one of my clients, upon learning to deadlift, didn’t ask what was the exercise doing for him. Instead, he commented on how it made him feel “like a boss.”
You see, the deadlift is one of those exercises that, when carried out correctly, doesn’t need to be translated.
Let’s shift up “What’s this doing for my body?” for a better question:
“What is the body actually doing?”
I’ll tell you.
It starts by standing with the bar in hand: tall, locked, and strong. The feet are screwed into the ground. The shoulders, abdominals, and glutes are engaged — whenever you see or hear “engage” in a fitness context, just squeeze the heck out of those muscles as if you were packing them together — for an all-over feeling of tightness and control. Remember how to “engage your core”? This is why.
This is the “top” of your deadlift. If you watched the opening video of this article, then you’d be accurate to realize that it’s also a power pose. Right here, right now, you command everything. If you feel wobbly or uncertain here, it’s because you’re not fully engaged. Let yourself be that strong — do you see anyone else around squeezing your muscles for you?
From here, you’re set up to safely execute the lowering portion of the movement. Picture someone just socked you in the pelvis and fold the hips neatly back, using the power of your locked core to keep your back straight as you let the bar descend slowly to the ground. Your weight doesn’t have to be a bar, as deadlifting can also be done with dumbbells or kettlebells, but I’ll keep referring to the bar just for cohesion’s sake in this article.
This is the part that makes people afraid of this particular exercise, and is one of the reasons you don’t see everyone doing it at the gym.
Seeing and feeling yourself bend over like this — though if you’re doing it right, it’ll be from the hips and knees only — is a precarious, vulnerable position. Your butt is unflexed, out all the way into space, and gravity has taken over the weight in your hands. If it weren’t for the intense bracing that you should still be doing with your shoulders and abdominals, it would feel like the polar opposite of a power pose.
So what are you going to do about it?
Take over from that position of vulnerability and turn it into a position of power instead. Drive the feet harder into the ground, tense the fibers of your legs, and pack those shoulders into your ribs. Recall how the abdominals are very three-dimensional, so that they can compress protectively around your spine.
It’s go time.
Use the force that you’ve gathered in your body to stand up against the weight. The abs will support you as you pull your shoulders back so hard that it feels like they’re going into your hips, which is fine because they in turn are being supported by that massive glute contraction I hope you’re doing to protect your lower back, all of which sends you up into the very power pose you started in, chest proud and tall.
That’s one rep.
So, back to “What is the body actually doing?”
It’s doing a massive pelvic thrust, that’s what it is.
The social inappropriateness of the feeling is another reason, I suspect, why most people don’t deadlift.
But the feeling afterward?
Think of all the body parts that we went through just now, and imagine how they walk away from the exercise feeling tight, locked, and strong — like they just trained themselves to power pose.
And that, my friends, is why deadlifting makes you feel like a boss.