The Deadlift: The Missing Link in Triathlon Training

The single most important head to toe exercise for triathletes is arguably the deadlift. The deadlift is second to none for enhancing performance and becoming a bulletproof triathlete. The deadlift strengthens the posterior chain, requires adequate flexibility and joint mobility, demands proper spinal mechanics, and augments shoulder blade strength and stability. If you are not currently deadlifting, it’s time to make a change. I am confident that by the time you are done reading this piece, you will better understand why the deadlift should be a mainstay in every triathlete’s training program beyond the swim, bike,

Why deadlift?

The benefits of the deadlift became readily apparent to me after focusing on this exercise in preparation for the 2011 triathlon season. I managed to add 30 watts to my one-hour time trial effort without making any other drastic changes in my program. Keep in mind that I was not using inordinate amounts of weight either. While I always knew the deadlift was an important compound movement, I never fully appreciated that adding this one exercise would have such profound effects. Given the fact that most triathletes are wary of the deadlift for fear of low back injury and/or putting on excessive mass, I’m here to tell you that it could be the missing link in your training and what stands between you and a PR or even the podium.

Before simply going to the gym and hammering out a bunch of deadlifts, there are several key considerations worthy of discussion relating to equipment and technique. Let’s first discuss equipment needs associated with the deadlift. The first piece of equipment you’ll need is a thin-soled pair of shoes with a minimal (<6-8mm) heel to toe differential, if one at all. Some strength and conditioning specialists even suggest going barefoot to enhance proprioception since the sole of the foot is heavily populated with mechanoreceptors. Needless to say, however, extreme caution should be exercised to avoid dropping the bar or weights on your feet. Other options include racing flats, wrestling shoes, and Chuck Taylors. The second piece of equipment is a trap bar (AKA hex bar). This bar is important when first learning the deadlift, as it’s more forgiving relative to a straight bar, used during a conventional deadlift. This is particularly relevant for middle aged and older triathletes, who often lack ankle dorsiflexion (ability to progress the leg over the foot) from years of running. The trap bar is also ideal for those with limited flexibility and longer femurs because it helps to minimize unwanted and potentially injurious compensatory motions such as spinal shearing.

Once the necessary equipment has been secured, the deadlift, like any compound movement, is all about technique. It has been my experience that most triathletes shy away from deadlifting as part of their strength and conditioning program for fear of injury or because they have never received proper instruction on deadlift technique. In an effort to avoid embarrassment in a public gym setting, most triathletes consequently stick to what they know while excluding the deadlift altogether.

Technique

Let’s work from the ground up. Once you step into the trap bar or hex bar during the initial setup, you should position your feet roughly shoulder width apart while keeping them straight. Avoid going too wide because otherwise your knees will contact the bar during the lift. By assuming the proper stance width, you’ll be able to adopt the appropriate “knees out” position during the lift, thereby creating greater torque and stability at the hips. Now that you’re in a good position, you’re ready to descend to grasp the bar. During the descent, your hips should flex such that your bottom moves in a backward direction or towards an imaginary wall about a foot behind you. (This is one of the most important cues in coaching the deadlift because it is imperative to realize that the deadlift is not a squat, but rather a pulling exercise.) You should think about your hips moving back and forth rather than up and down. During the early part of the descent, anchor your knees outward as your hips flex and your bottom moves back. Take in a big gasp of air before or during the descent to pressurize the lower abdominal region and increase spinal stability. Once you secures the bar in your hands while maintaining a neutral spine with your elbows locked out, you’re almost ready to draw the weight off the floor. One way to ensure that the elbows are taut, facilitating a “chest up” position, is to think of someone asking you to show them the logo on your shirt. During the ascent, don’t simply think of pulling the weight but also about putting force into the ground. The hips and knees should both extend at the same time. As you approach the top of the range you should think of fully extending your hips while avoiding overarching the low back. One of the most common cues is to think about pinching something between your butt cheeks. Don’t forget to not forget to firmly draw the shoulders into a down and back position to maximize recruitment of the scapular stabilizers.

Frequency

In terms of frequency, load, sets, and reps, everyone will have different needs based on a slew of factors. Rather than elaborate on this topic, triathletes are encouraged to seek out the help of a certified strength and conditioning specialist, who has experience in working with endurance athletes. It should be mentioned, however, that I am deadlifting throughout the year to varying degrees. I also incorporate “speed deadlifts” into my routine as I approach the competitive season rather than focus on heavier loads.

In closing, triathletes who take the time to understand and master the deadlift will reap great benefits from this compound movement. The deadlift is arguably one of the most important exercises to enhance athletic performance despite being perceived as an inappropriate exercise for endurance athletes. Always strive to emphasize form and technique over resistance to avoid unnecessary injury. I am confident that this exercise in and of itself will allow you to find that extra gear, which you always knew you had but were previously unable to harness. As always, wishing you purposeful and mindful training. See you on the road.