Professional Baseball Strength & Conditioning

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Deadlift  – What’s the Goal?

By David Kathmann MS, RSCC

The deadlift exercise is a multi-joint, resistance movement used to develop maximal concentric strength without the aid of an eccentric counter-movement (pre-stretch). It is the act of lifting a weight off the ground that is “dead” (not moving). The deadlift is one of the three main lifts used in powerlifting, and is involved in the initial movement in the Clean and Jerk and Snatch, it can be used to increase total body strength and power, especially in the posterior chain. In baseball, players are often encouraged to use a hexagonal shaped bar (hex bar) as an alternative to the straight bar because it is believed to reduce the load on the low back and decrease the risk of back injury. While there is no scientific evidence to indicate the hex bar is safer, the consensus within the strength and conditioning coaching community is that both exercise methods are safe when adequate supervision is provided and proper lifting procedures are utilized. The determining factor when deciding on which bar to use should not be which bar is safer, but which lifting method is most likely to produce the desired training goal.

There are two types of straight bar set-ups, the “traditional” and more efficient straight bar deadlift. In the “traditional” deadlift, the bar is positioned over the toes and under the shoulders. The arms are vertical, there is more flexion at the ankles, a greater incline of the back and the bar does not travel in a straight line (2).There are definite differences between the movements used with the two bars. The straight bar deadlift is the harder of the two movements because the bar is positioned in front of the lifter’s legs and anterior to his center of mass. In terms of lifting efficiency, a forward bar position is harder and less efficient because the bar path is in front of the body’s center of mass.

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The “modified” deadlift is more efficient and eliminates most of the problems associated with the “traditional” deadlift. In the “modified” lift, the bar is positioned over the knot in the shoelaces and in-line with the upper third of the scapula so that the arms are inclined in a slightly backwards direction. This set-up produces a straighter, 43.8% more efficient bar path, and puts less stress on the low back by reducing the vertical distance between the bar and the lifter’s center of mass. It also decreases flexion at the ankles and encourages more involvement of the hips so the athlete can lift more weight.

Research indicates that most athletes can lift more weight with the hex bar than with the straight bar for two reasons (5). First, the bar is designed to position the resistance closer to the body’s center of mass which produces a straighter bar path. Second, it permits more flexion at the knee and ankle and puts the back at a more vertical angle. The hex bar set-up resembles a squat, puts more stress on the quadriceps and less stress on the hips, hamstrings and low back.

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When using the hex bar, it is possible for the athlete to achieve a set-up position similar to the more efficient, “modified” straight bar deadlift described above; but this requires consistent coaching with a watchful eye from the strength coach because many athletes tend to use the hex bar deadlift more like a squat and less like a true deadlift. The hex bar deadlift is often recommended as an alternative to those who can’t squat properly, but want a knee dominant movement and / or as a progression for individuals who are rehabbing from a low back problem (5).

There is also a difference in terms of power production between the hex and straight bar deadlift. Power output is maximized at 30% of max for the straight bar deadlift and at 40% for the hex bar due to the improved mechanical efficiency of the hex bar lift (5). This brings us back to the initial question – “what’s the goal?” If the goal is to work on knee dominant, peak power or maximum knee dominant concentric strength, then the hex bar deadlift may be more beneficial. However, if the goal is to strengthen or improve power in the posterior chain, the straight bar deadlift may be more ideal.

Another factor to consider is bar grip. Many authorities recommend using a double overhand grip when using a straight bar to avoid asymmetrical strength gains and/or bicep injuries that may occur with an alternating / power grip (1). Because the double overhand grip is more challenging than the alternating grip, it can also help improve grip strength. When using the hex bar, a neutral grip is utilized. A neutral grip is easier to maintain and allows the athlete to lift more weight; which may be useful if grip training is a goal. There may be significant muscle activity differences when using a double overhand vs. a neutral grip, but there is no current research comparing the two grips while deadlifting (3, 4).

The last thing to keep in mind is coach-ability and form maintenance. There may be times, especially during spring training, when the athlete-to-coach ratio is very high. While both movements require a degree a coaching, the straight bar deadlift requires more attention to technique. If you need to quickly teach an athlete how to pick something up off the ground and focus on a hip hinge pattern, then a lightly loaded hex bar deadlift may be the way to go. However, once the load is significantly increased many athletes will cheat to a more upright posture, knee dominant movement. When the load begins to significantly increase with the straight bar deadlift, athletes tend to lose the bar out front and the lumbar spine begins to round. Both movements must be coached properly to get the intended outcome. The hex bar deadlift is easier to coach and is a good progressive exercise leading up to the straight bar deadlift. Both movements must be carefully monitored and coached once the load increases to 85% or more of max and breaks in technique tend to occur.

Baseball is a strength/power sport and strength and power must be trained in the weight room. Like most competitive sports, baseball has its share of aches, pains and injuries. Some of these occur in the posterior chain and are the result of forceful rotational movements of the hip and back and deficiencies in flexibility, strength and mobility. Many of these problems can be corrected or avoided by increasing strength in the muscles of the posterior chain. When training athletes, you must always ask yourself, “what’s the goal?” and are you helping him avoid injury and achieve peak performance? 

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David Kathmann MS, RSCC, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, is AAA Strength and Conditioning Coach, Kansas City Royals

References

1. Beggs, L.A. Comparison of Muscle Activation and Kinematics During the Deadlift Using a Double-Pronated and Overhand / Underhand Grip. University of Kentucky Master’s Theses pp.1-87, 2011.

2. Hancock, S., Wyatt, F., and Kilgore, L. Variation in Barbell Position Relative to Shoulder and Foot Anatomical Landmarks Alters Movement Efficiency. Intl. J of Ex. Sci. 5(3):183-195, 2012.

3. Leslie, K.L. and Comfort, P. The Effect of Grip Width and Hand Orientation on Muscle Activity During Pull-Ups and Lat Pull-Down. Strength Cond. J. 35(1):75-78, 2013.

4. Signorile, J.E., Zink, A.J., and Szwed, S.P. A Comparative Electromyographical Investigation of Muscle Utilization Patterns Using Various Hand Positions During the Lat Pull-Down. J. Strength Cond. Res. 16(4):539-546, 2002.

5. Swinton, P.A., Stewart, A., Agouris, I., Keogh, J.W.L., and Lloyd, R. A Biomechanical Analysis of Straight And Hexagonal Barbell Deadlifts Using Submaximal Loads. J Strength Cond. Res. 25(7):2000-2009, 2011.

 

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