By Angie Hurley, CSCS, CAT(C)
A movement is never all or nothing. All movements and exercises in the gym can be scaled through various methods to make them easier (regressing) or more difficult (progressing). Depending on factors such as training experience, body awareness, injury, fatigue, and muscle soreness, an exercise variation can be appropriately selected in any workout.
The hip hinge is one of the standard movements in the gym setting. The hinge movement is the basis of the deadlift, the most popular variation of hinge, while others would include exercises such as the kettlebell swing and good morning. Deadlifts are a functional compound movement that mimics the bending and picking up of objects from the ground and also mimics the vertical jump movement pattern.
Muscles used in the deadlift are primarily the posterior chain major groups – glutes, erectors, and hamstrings, with some quadriceps. It is more hip-centric than the squat, a movement that places more emphasis on the hip flexors and knees. In the hinge, the glutes and hamstrings lengthen under control during the down phase. The core works with the erectors and latissimus dorsi of the back to maintain neutral spine under the added loads. There are also variations of the deadlift at the top end of the progression: sumo and trap bar deadlifts. We will touch on these, but they are more Jon’s zone as I tend to lean towards the conventional deadlift.
The continuum of the hinge we will look at include:
When learning the hip hinge, body awareness is best learnt with the Dowel Hinge drill. The dowel is held parallel to the spine, with a hand at the low back and neck, making contact at 3 points – the head, mid, or thoracic, spine and tail bone. The goal is to keep the 3 points of contact while bending through the hip joint to bow forward. Soften the knees prior to bowing to allow for better movement through the hip joint. As you bow forward notice tension in your hamstrings. This is a good sign as it indicates that you’re hip hinging correctly. If you lost contact with the dowel, your spine shape changed. This is can injury causing if you had weight in your hands. Maintaining neutral spine while hinging at the hips is the goal with this drill.
The banded hinge is a great drill to learn how to bow forward while pushing the hips back. Set up with a resistance band looped around a rack or other sturdy anchor point, with the rest of the band around the lifter’s waist at the hip bones. Let the band pull the hips back into the hinge, keeping the shins vertical, then push the hips through by standing tall and squeezing the glutes. Again, try to keep the spine shape the same as you move through your hip joint.
When the neutral spine can be maintained, and the hinge is coming well from the hips, the next step is the kettlebell deadlift. The kettlebell deadlift allows for us to add weight to the hinge movement without the intimidation or postural limitations of holding a barbell. It is easy to control the range of motion in this movement as well. By adding a block for the kettlebell to return to we can easily adjust the range of motion in which the hinge and neutral spine can be maintained. Standing with feet on either side of the kettlebell, hinge back, take the kettlebell in both bands, and stand tall.
Two kettlebells can also be used to add more load to the kettlebell deadlift. Instead of standing over 1 kettlebell, stand in between 2. Use the same coaching cues to safely perform the double kettlebell deadlift.
Barbell Romanian Deadlift
This is the last step before approaching conventional deadlifts. The Romanian deadlift, or RDL, with a barbell requires the lifter to learn to shift the hips back so that the barbell and shoulders stay inline over the foot. It requires better upper back and chest posture than the kettlebell deadlift, engaging the latissimus dorsi muscle. Starting at the hips, the barbell lowers down the thigh, as the hips hinge back, stopping at the upper shin, before standing tall. Whereas the conventional deadlift starts on the floor, the RDL starts at the waist. It is useful for improving hamstring flexibility if that is a limitation for the conventional deadlift, while still improving posture, increasing comfort handling a barbell, and improving range of motion.
The conventional deadlift starting position is hinged with feet at hip width apart, toes forward, hands on the barbell just outside the shins, shoulders externally rotated, and slight bend in the knees. Pushing the floor away from you, extending the knees and hips with a neutral spine, you will lift the weight to waist height, before lowering it to the floor.
Those with shorter relative femurs and good hip flexion will be more adept at the conventional deadlift. There are other alternatives for the conventional deadlift without truly regressing. Those who have long femurs and poor hip mobility may find more solace in the sumo deadlift, which also puts less demand on the erectors of the back and the core to maintain neutral spine at greater weights.
The second adaptation would be the trap bar, or hex bar, deadlift. This variation is closer to a squat movement with the knees moving towards the toes and more quadriceps emphasis, making it a less isolated hinge movement.
Thanks for reading. I hope you found the information valuable and that it helps you improve your form in your next lower body workout.