The deadlift is a versatile movement that involves picking up dead weight from the floor. Good biomechanics, adequate strength, and power are essential to a good deadlift. Multiple muscle groups come into play when performing a deadlift, and as a compound exercise, an individual’s deadlift will only ever be as strong as the weakest point in the series.
Deadlift accessory exercises help an individual avoid overtraining while working on breaking through plateaus in strength, referred to as sticking points. Sticking points are weak areas in the range of motion at which a disproportionate amount of difficulty is experienced. Accessory exercises help an individual get into peak deadlifting condition as it involves focused strengthening of inadequate muscle groups.
Understanding the mechanisms that lead to the occurrence of sticking points will help in determining different training strategies to remedy the associated weaknesses for continued progress and avoidance of injury.
Kompf, J., & Arandjelović describes sticking points as “the point at which failure occurs when exercise is taken to the point of muscular failure." Moreover, sticking points are points in the range of motion during lifting where some type of weakness is felt. The muscle fails to overcome the resistance, thus failing to complete the activity.
Biomechanical factors have long been the focus of numerous literature explaining the sticking points phenomenon. These factors include specific exercise type, differences in anthropometry, motor-unit recruitment, force-length, and force-velocity relationships. Ultimately, sticking points occur due to insufficient muscle force production.
Deadlift sticking points may be divided into three phases: low, medium, and high sticking points. These phases use the knees as reference to the points at which weakness is felt as the weight is lifted.
A low sticking point is identified if an individual starting out a deadlift lifts the weights off the floor slowly and a sudden acceleration occurs at the level of the knees. It is often described as “slow off the floor.”
In some cases, even with much effort, the weights do not come off the floor. This is typically seen in individuals with leg weakness, particularly in the position where the quads, hams and glutes are most stretched.
When the weights stall just below the knee during the transition as the leg drives towards the lock-out position, a medium sticking point is identified. The neutral extension of the lower back required to do deadlifts is not maintained, and the lumbar spine may appear rounded. Insufficient glutes, spinal extensors, and inability of core muscles to stabilize the trunk causes medium sticking points.
High sticking points are seen in the lock-out phase of the deadlift. The weights are effortlessly lifted off the ground, past the transitional phase, but considerably slows down past the knees. With sufficiently heavy weights, the bar might ride the thigh going into the lock-out. The primary cause for high sticking points is hip extensor weakness.
Sticking points in the deadlift occur when an individual is no longer capable of lifting the weight past a certain point. This can happen at any point in a lift’s range of motion due to weakness in the specific muscle group responsible for that motion. Isolating muscles to be strengthened proved beneficial to overall deadlift performance.
Accessory muscles are ROM (range of motion) or muscle-specific exercises that engage a certain group of muscles more. These exercises help target weak points in the deadlift to improve deadlift performance.
Seated box jumps are performed by having an individual seated on a bench jump on a box situated 1 to 2 feet away. This variation of the traditional box jump eliminates the innate stretch reflex of the muscle, thus working to improve the active concentric contraction only.
This is particularly helpful in lower body force generation as it begins at a position where passive forces cannot contribute to the total force production. It develops explosive power through the legs by isolating and training only the active component of the activity. Seated box jumps help address difficulty in breaking the bar off the floor.
The deficit deadlift is beneficial to those who struggle with pulling the weight off the floor in the initial phases of the lift due to inadequate strength or speed to accelerate the barbell towards the latter aspects of the lift. Deficit deadlifts increase the involvement of the hips and legs by increasing joint flexion range, made possible by increasing the range of possible motion.
Performed by standing on a platform 1-4 inches high, an increase in knee flexion is seen in the initial stages of the deficit deadlift, which in turn increases quadriceps involvement. This works well in improving leg strength and drive which are essential in moving loads off the floor during a deadlift.
Weakness felt around the knee area when lifting may be addressed by doing pause deadlifts. Pause deadlifts, as its name suggests, is pausing at a certain range in the lift just below where the sticking point is felt.
The pause is usually done just below the knee, with the muscles responsible (gluteal muscles, hamstrings, and quadriceps femoris) contracting isometrically. However, the pause deadlift may also be used to address high sticking points by pausing just before the lock out.
Bent over rows are performed in the hip hinge position under heavy load, while keeping the spine in neutral extension. This accessory exercise works on the spinal extensors, developing upper and lower back strength in a certain range in the deadlift. The upper back is trained through concentric and eccentric contraction, while the lower half contracts isometrically.
This exercise is especially helpful for medium and high sticking points. The strengthening of spinal extensor musculature helps remain the neutral extension of the lumbar area required to do deadlifts. The upper back strengthening assists in maintaining the integrity of the lock-out by keeping the shoulder retracted.
Attaching a band to the bar increases the demand as the lift progresses. This engages the muscles at mid-lift more as the weight is lifted. Banded deadlifts activate the gluteal muscles to a greater extent, with the resistance forcing the lifter to drive harder through the mid-range of motion. This accessory exercise is particularly helpful in improving medium and high sticking points.
A variation of the glute bridge with the upper back on an elevated surface, the hip thrust is usually done with a barbell across the hip for added resistance. The hip is thrusted in an upward motion, activating the gluteal muscles. This exercise works the hamstrings, quadriceps muscles, and adductors as well.
Targeted hip extension work, like hip thrusts, mimics pulls that accentuate finishing off the lift. Strengthening the gluteal muscles addresses high sticking points through sufficient engagement of the hip extensors (gluteal muscles and hamstrings).
Deadlifts will only ever be as strong as the weakest muscle in the link. With that said, working on these sticking points through the use of accessory exercises will help with deadlift progression. However, these accessory exercises cannot replace the traditional deadlift, rather these exercises are done in conjunction to a traditional deadlift strength training.