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If You Master One Strength Move, Make it This

This silver-bullet move lets athletes move more efficiently and powerfully.

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Conventional logic dictates that if you want a certain part of your body to be stronger, you target that part with focused strength work: Want a stronger core? Do crunches and planks. Staving off knee pain? Do clamshell exercises.

But the cause of weakness and injury isn’t so superficial, says Nate Helming, co-founder of The Run Experience. “If a triathlete had weak hamstrings, or glutes that didn’t fire properly, you could isolate these muscles with targeted running- or cycling-specific exercises to strengthen them. But if there’s any deeper crack in the athlete’s foundation, we need to reach for something more effective.”

Enter the deadlift for triathletes. As one of the few “silver bullet” moves available in strength training, the deadlift has it all – a full-body, compound, functional movement that lets athletes move more efficiently and powerfully. “From the very beginning, this exercise demands whole-body engagement and mental focus,” explains Helming. From the top down, everything is recruited in a deadlift:

  • The shoulders must be rolled down and the lats engaged, improving shoulder stability.
  • The spine needs massive stabilization from all core muscles surrounding and protecting it, improving core strength, stability, and posture.
  • The hip hinge loads the hamstrings and glutes as one connected unit, strengthening the posterior chain.
  • All parts of the body are recruited to create one fluid and coordinated movement.
  • You learn how to module your breathing to create the desired tension of the weight you’re moving.

“In short, the deadlift makes us stronger, better-moving triathletes,” says Helming. “Triathletes need a body that is generally strong, mobile, stable, and robust enough to handle the demands of swimming, cycling, and running without shoulders falling apart, hips collapsing, or low back giving out.”

Deadlifts for Triathletes: How to Do it Correctly

Many athletes shy away from deadlifts, thinking they’re a fast track to injury. But the key to safe deadlifting is to learn the movement in reverse, says Helming.

  1. Start by standing up tall and aligned from ears to ankles.
  2. Lightly screw your feet into the ground while squeezing your butt, quads and stomach. This creates a stable, neutral pelvis by adding a touch of external rotation at the hip.
  3. Press the barbell into your thighs to set your shoulders and engage your lats.
  4. Soften the knees and hinge backwards at the hips. Keep the abdominals engaged, the chin neutral, and the bar pressed into the thighs until you pass the knees. By now, you’ll be staring down at the ground and your hamstrings should feel they are on tension. If not, make sure to tighten your abs even more, and to push your knees our slightly to add more hip external rotation and engagement.
  5. Once the bar passes the knees, you will hinge less at the hips and lower the bar by bending at the knees. Done correctly, this maintains your back and hip position for optimal mechanics as you go as low as you need to go.
  6. Then reverse course: Stand up tall by driving the hips forward and squeezing your butt on top. Lift with a “big” chest to prevent rounding, and once the bar passes the knees aggressively press the barbell back into the thighs to keep the shoulders and lats engaged.

Deadlifts for Triathletes: Avoid These Common Mistakes

Sloppy pick-ups

“Most athletes start by reaching for the barbell with a rounded back,” says Helming, who explains that failing to get into a good position from the very start means that everything else is compromised. Start by “deadlifting” yourself down to the bar, using proper form.

Looking up

Though it can be tempting to raise your chin during the deadlift, doing so is bad form. Think of your head position during a deadlift in the same way as you do swimming – lifting your head while moving forward has a negative effect on the rest of the body. During a deadlift, looking up destabilizes the shoulders and spine.

Dropping down

Don’t be so quick on the way down! “Rushing the movement on the way down bypasses the need to effectively stabilize the spine, hip hinge, and posterior chain,” says Helming. “There are a lot of benefits on the way down.”