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Deadlifting when you have a short torso and long legs

This is an excerpt from Strength Training for All Body Types by Lee Boyce & Melody L. Schoenfeld.

These body type variations are among the most common to experience difficulties when deadlifting. The arm length can be short, average, or long in classification; in each case, the majority of the problem ends up coming in the form of starting geometry. Since the legs are longer than the torso, the center of gravity is higher and the axis point (the hip, where the body is meant to hinge) is farther away from the floor and not in a perfect place for a balanced recruitment of all the major muscles of the lower body. Most lifters who have this body type display one of two compensatory patterns when pulling the barbell:

  1. They round the lower back during execution because of insufficient flexibility or mobility.
  2. The bar travels around the knee instead of straight up, breaching the efficiency of a vertical path and leaking energy and strength.

Lifters with this body type require higher hips to maintain a relatively vertical shin angle (which will prevent the second issue). The by-product of this change in hip position, however, is less quad involvement and more posterior chain involvement—similar to the positions assumed in a Romanian deadlift. Greater dorsiflexion is required to employ the quadriceps, simply because of leg length. That adjustment gets in the way of ideal lifting physics for this variation of the movement.

Best Variation: Trap Bar Deadlift
Using a trap bar for deadlifting can go a long way in fixing the problems for this body type variation, primarily since there is no longer a bar blocking the shins from traveling forward. This allows for a deeper seat position, which can make the back angle better resemble the ideal geometry for a conventional deadlift. Since the weight surrounds the lifter rather than being in front of the lifter, the path of the load can still travel vertically upward without any penalty of being dorsiflexed with an angled shin, and the quads have a chance to better contribute (figure 5.4). This adjustment in geometry means lower amounts of stress on the lumbar spine when compared with the conventional deadlift using a barbell (Swinton et al. 2011).

FIGURE 5.4 Trap bar.
FIGURE 5.4 Trap bar.

The trap bar allows the lifter to pull with a neutral grip from one of two positions: high handle and low handle. Depending on the make and model of the trap bar, the difference between handle heights can be anywhere from 4 to 8 inches (10-20 cm). If the lifter has adequate mobility, using the low handle setting (by flipping the trap bar over before loading and lifting) can rival the range of motion created by a barbell deadlift from the floor, while providing the additional benefits that this particular body type requires for success.

Similarly, the width of the pulling handles can vary from bar to bar. Some handles are narrower in distance at 20 inches (50 cm), whereas others can be up to 25 inches (65 cm) apart. Keeping these things in mind can affect your strength and performance training, especially if the numbers and percentages matter for tracking purposes.

If using a trap bar, the lifter can apply just as much training volume as an ideal deadlifter would. There’s no need to reduce the amount of time spent pulling if the lifter’s body is in an ideal environment that will be friendly to the joints. With all things equal, they can safely and effectively use high-volume methods. We’ll go into more detail about overall deadlift training volume later in this chapter.

If All You Have Is a Barbell: Four Modifications to Barbell Deadlifts

It’s a definite reality that the trap bar may not be an easily accessible piece of equipment for many lifters looking to use it. If the gym you’re in doesn’t have one, it’s important to know how to manipulate barbell deadlifts to receive similar benefits. These four variations to the conventional barbell deadlift can go a long way.

Deadlift From Blocks
Simply using plates, low step platforms, or blocks to elevate the pulling start point is a great introductory hack for lifters who lack the mobility or body type to excel at conventional barbell deadlifts from the floor (figure 5.5a-b). No one said there is a rule that the floor must be the actual floor. A lifter can still receive all the benefits deadlifting has to offer, in a range of motion that’s best suited for their height or leg or arm length. Especially if the plan is to lift in the lower rep range for heavier percentages, this can allow a lifter to do so with far less risk.

FIGURE 5.5 Deadlift from blocks: start position (a), and finish (b).
FIGURE 5.5 Deadlift from blocks: start position (a), and finish (b).

To deadlift from blocks, all conventional deadlifting cues remain the same. The only difference comes in the form of the position of the bar relative to the ground—which creates a slight advantage for a lifter with a tall height or long legs and a short torso and arms.

Paused Deadlift
Essential in anyone’s lifting journey is the practice of making lighter weight feel heavier in the training effect it delivers—and this will be achieved based on how the reps are performed. Adding a distinct pause a few inches off the ground on the way up forces the spine to remain neutral and prevents the hips from shooting upward first. Likewise, the quads and glutes get a better chance to contribute to the lift thanks to the added time under tension, making the lower back receive the assistance it needs and deserves. This lift won’t be performed with a typical working weight; the load will need to be reduced by around 20 percent for the same rep ranges, and that’s a good thing. It means the lifter can still train hard and feel taxed, while dealing with less absolute loading that may encourage risk under normal circumstances.

Paused deadlifts can do wonders in addressing spinal position, and they can also help with balance. There should be a slight backward emphasis (about 5 degrees) when picking up the bar to counterbalance the load in front, especially when it’s heavy. Being completely vertical at the top of a deadlift probably means the lifter let their back dominate the lift and forfeited some hip drive. Finishing up on a backward slant of about 5 degrees properly counters the load.

Remember, this isn’t a trap bar that distributes the weight evenly around the body. It’s a barbell, and all the weight is in front. Using the paused deadlift can help the lifter sit back ever so slightly in order to stop the torso from lurching forward and throwing off the force curve.

Isometric Deadlift
The good thing about using an isometric deadlift is that the lifter can create maximum force at every segment of the lift, which is something that cannot be duplicated as long as the bar is in motion and the person is capable of actually lifting it. Applying force against an immovable object makes up for a range of motion that a lifter would typically pass through only using conventional deadlifting methods.

There are a number of ways to use this technique with the deadlift, depending on the setup of the gym. Most commonly, setting up an empty bar in a squat cage, with the pins situated at shin level above the bar instead of below it, is a useful approach. The lifter sets up as they normally would and pulls the bar hard up into the pins (figure 5.6), attempting to lift the entire squat cage off the ground (assuming they cannot). Have the lifer hold for sets of 10 to 15 seconds, using 60-second breaks. Then move the pins up to a higher level and repeat. Do this at every segment of the deadlift in order to strengthen the entire movement piece by piece.

FIGURE 5.6 Isometric deadlift in squat cage.
FIGURE 5.6 Isometric deadlift in squat cage.

If you don’t have a squat cage that can accommodate this idea, simply load a barbell on the ground to 150 percent of the lifter’s 1RM, or a weight you’re certain they can’t budge—and do the same thing. Load that heavy barbell on some blocks or steps for a higher pulling position and repeat. Then use higher blocks or steps, and so on. Isometrics drastically reduce the risk for injury while allowing the nervous system to exert itself at basically full force. Since the body isn’t changing position while applying force, the window for harm is much smaller, and isometrics thus prove themselves to be a terrific supplement for tall or long-legged lifters looking for safe ways to add strength to a conventional deadlift. Sharing the total weekly volume between conventional isotonic deadlift work and isometric deadlift work is a wise call to optimize the risk–reward ratio.

Eccentric-Free Deadlifts
There are different pulling styles when it comes to deadlifting, and two of the most common are the touch-and-go method and the dead-stop method. Touch and go requires the bar to glance off the ground briefly, and under control, between reps. That means plenty of control in the lowering phase and added time under tension for the lumbar spine. In a perfect world, this would lend to more strengthening of the lumbar region—but if someone is not ideally built for deadlifting, too much time under tension may not be the best, especially if they’re stuck with a barbell and pulling fairly heavy. In such cases using a dead-stop method (where the bar is lowered fairly quickly to its starting position and allowed to settle on the ground for one or two seconds between reps) can be the best bet. Focusing instead on eccentric-based movements that don’t involve such high loads can be a difference maker.

More Excerpts From Strength Training for All Body Types