How To Weight The Foot During Deadlifts

Today we’re going to dive deep into where we shift the weight in our feet during deadlifts. 

But first, a story: At the beginning of a recent bike ride, I was taking a driveway entrance into Central Park. As I rode along the road, I was surprised to see a cyclist coming straight at me down the sidewalk.

For the record, riding on the sidewalk is illegal in NYC.  Bikes count as cars, not people.  This cyclist was not only riding down the sidewalk, he wasn’t wearing a helmet, and he wasn’t looking up.  Uh-oh.

He looked up as I swerved to get out of the way.  When he looked up, he stood up, grabbed his brakes as hard as he could… and promptly went over the handlebars.  Without wearing a helmet. Fuck.

In what seemed like a scene from the Matrix, I watched him go over the bars and roll from one shoulder to the next, then onto his side.  He didn’t crack his head open on the sidewalk, and I think I saw that realization on his face.

He was stunned and embarrassed, and I asked, “Are you okay?” He mumbled a yes, and we checked out his bike.  His back axle had popped off, so I put it back together, double checked that he was okay, and we went our separate ways.

There are three lessons to be learned here:

  1. Wear a helmet.
  2. Don’t ride on the sidewalk.
  3. Controlling your center of gravity is one of the most universal skills in movement.

Maintaining that control is central to riding a bike, and it’s also integral to performing an exercise like a deadlift as well as possible.

How’s that for a pivot, heyyyy!

The deadlift is a classic strength training exercise, one that is paradoxically simple and complicated at the same time.  It appears that there are few moving parts, and yet it requires a whole lot of focus to get right.

The deadlift is a hinge movement, meaning the majority of movement is happening when the hips flex and extend.  To achieve this, you’ll often hear cues such as “hips back,” “lean back,” or “weight in the heels.” Leaning back against the bar was the strategy I used when pursuing a heavier deadlift while powerlifting.  We’d grab the bar and lean back against it, essentially using our weight as a cantilever to lift the bar.  When the goal is as straightforward as lifting the heaviest weight possible, that was a fantastic strategy.

Today, when training people who aren’t pursuing a powerlifting total, I’m not as big of a fan of shifting the weight into the heels.  Now, I’m a bigger fan of shifting weight forward into the toes during the deadlift.

This is not the normal approach to hinging exercises, and it’s an idea I first learned from Kyle Langworthy at MFF.  We were chatting about the idea, and he said this:

“By biasing one’s bodyweight towards the toes, it allows for proper centering of one’s weight over the mid-foot as the hips clear behind during the descent phase of a hinge.  This allows for better tensioning of the plantar fascia / big toe via the superficial back line of the fascia.  Adding tension to the hamstrings potentially means less tension at the lumbar spine (baring the hips clear back far enough and the ribs don’t extend open and externally rotate) and a better overall positional relationship between the ribs, pelvis, and skull.

Is that some smart shit or what??? Seriously, this guy has taught me so much in the last 4 years at MFF.  Thanks, Kyle!

When we’re applying this idea to the deadlift, I try to focus on a single idea while deadlift:

While our hips have to move backward when we hinge, our weight doesn’t have to shift backward.

Pretty simple, right? Here’s a video to demonstrate those words in practice:

To me, Kyle’s figured out a more refined application of Newton’s Third Law of physics, which states that: Ev’ry action has its equal, opposite reactions.

The pull and pray may be useful for powerlifting, but when many of us are trying to create more awareness of our muscles in action, focusing on the action of our weight shifting to the front of our foot can help counter the action of our hips shifting backward.

I’ve seen countless Ninjas at MFF create more tension in their hamstrings and their abs with this strategy, and that means we’re less likely to feel the musculature of our lower backs doing the work.

In all of my coaching experience, I’ve never had someone complain about feeling their hamstrings, butt, or abs more.

This takes practice.

So much practice. Four years later, I’m still breaking old habits that build up from the years I spent powerlifting.  Right now, my deadlift practice is more about getting in touch with my hinge pattern than lifting as much weight as possible. While I’m lifting less weight than I have in the past, I feel a lot better about how I control my movement.

In the demo video above, I used a 32kg kettlebell, which is far less than my all-time best, or current lifting numbers.  And, from about 20 reps total while filming, my hamstrings are sore as hell.

While muscle soreness is not and an indicator of how hard you’re working, it may be an indicator that you’re doing something different.  In this case, I think it’s a sign that I was very physically engaged while taking those videos, and that’s a result of being mentally engaged.

This takes practice, and it’s a ton of mental practice. Practice setting your weight towards the ball of your foot, resist getting pulled backward, and see if that improves your ability to feel your hamstrings, abs, and ass.

I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below!

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