Home Blog Correcting Bad Posture: Are Deadlifts Enough?

Correcting Bad Posture: Are Deadlifts Enough?

Written on June 23, 2011 at 7:34 pm, by Eric Cressey

Earlier this week, I received an email from a reader who was wondering whether deadlifts executed in perfect technique could be all one needs for correcting “bad posture.” It got me to thinking about just how ideal the deadlift really is.  Working from the ground up: 1.You’re teaching folks to keep their weight back on their heels, and (ideally) executing the lift in minimalist or no footwear – thereby increasing dorsiflexion range-of-motion. 2. You increase stiffness in the hamstrings and glutes, which extend the hip and posteriorly tilt the pelvis.

3. You get a great co-contraction of all the muscles of the core to effectively handle all shear and compressive forces on the spine.  In the process, you lock the rib cage to the pelvis and establish a solid zone of apposition (learn more here) for the diaphragm to function optimally. 4. You establish stiffness in the thoracic erectors, thereby minimizing a thoracic kyphosis.  As I noted a few weeks ago, stiffness can be a great thing. 5. You pull the scapulae into retraction and depression, thereby increasing stiffness in the lower trapezius. 6. You pack the neck, ingraining the ideal cervical posture.

It’s no surprise that the deadlift is an outstanding strength exercise when it comes to correcting bad posture.  However, is it enough?  I don’t think so. Why? Well, first, you have to remember that postural considerations must be multiplanar.  Just because we’re moving in the right direction in a bilateral, sagittal plane motion doesn’t mean that we’re ironing out issues in the frontal and transverse planes.  Is there adequate control of femoral internal rotation and adduction by the hip external rotators/abductors?  Do you see a big rib flair on the left side and a low shoulder on the right?  Does an individual have adequate thoracic rotation to match up with the thoracic extension that’s been improved?

We really never work in a single plane during functional activities; life is a combination of many movements.  Bad posture – to me at least – isn’t just characterized by how someone stands in the anatomical position, but how he or she is gets into specific positions.  In other words, “posture” isn’t much different than “mobility.”  Very simply, these terms imply stability within a given range-of-motion. Second, consider the law of repetitive motion, where “I” is injury to the tissues, “N” is the number of repetitions, “F” is the force of each repetition as a percentage of maximal strength, “A” is the amplitude (range of motion) of each repetition, and “R” is rest.  To reduce injury to tissues (which negative postural adaptations can be considered), you have to work on each of the five factors in this equation.

You perform soft tissue work – whether it’s foam rolling or targeted manual therapy – on the excessively short or stiff tissues (I).  You reduce the number of repetitions (length of time in poor posture: R), and in certain cases, you may work to strengthen an injured tissue (reduce F).  You incorporate mobility drills (increase A) and avoid bad postures (increase R). Deadlifts certainly work in some of these capacities, but to say that they alone are enough overlooks the fact that adequate “abstinence” from poor postures is essential to making things work.  To easily appreciate this, just ask: “Which is easier to address, an anterior pelvic tilt or a thoracic kyphosis?” The answer is unquestionably “thoracic kyphosis.”  Why?  It’s a lot easier to adjust your upper extremity posture than it to change the way your pelvis is positioned during weight-bearing.  Every step re-ingrains faulty posture and “cancels out” your deadlifts unless you’re really careful. At the end of the day, deadlifts are arguably the single-most effective out there for correcting bad posture.  However, in isolation, they simply aren’t enough, as you need everything from multiplanar mobilizations and strength exercises, to manual therapy, to breathing drills in combination with avoidance of bad posture during your daily life.  These additions take “effective” and make it “optimal.”

Looking to learn more?  Check out Functional Stability Training of the Lower Body, where I have an entire presentation, 15 Things I've Learned About the Deadlift.

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  • I am crushed, deadlifts are not the key to a good posture.

    Next thing you are going to tell me is only eating spinach is not going give me big pipes.

    Rick Kaselj of http://ExercisesForInjuries.com

    .

  • Dan Daly, CSCS

    Awesome article. What isn’t the deadlift good for?? In my experience though, excessively kyphotic individuals need a very focused corrective plan. I prefer the hex deadlift over the barbell for these clients, to reinforce positive postural patterns.

  • When you refer to an email, was this my email, asking for thoughts on my form with these lifts?

    “320 lb deadlift + 585 lb rack pull @ 120-lb bodyweight (DeadliftDay.wmv)”

    http://www.youtube.com/gordonwaynewatts#p/u/6/oseUEhVPSKE

    In such a lift, like I did, there are several safety considerations here –ones I make anyhow:

    #1 — Did I use good form? (I kept a straight lower back, was not in pain then or later, and have since bumped my PR up from 585-lbs to 635-lbs).

    #2 — The ROM (Range of Motion) here –which directly affects the muscles used -and the lever angle of torque.

    #3 — The weight used vs. BW (body weight) ratio

    #4 — Whether I warmed up B4 lifting.

    #5 — How often I lift heavy like this. (I don’t lift this heavy very often.)

    Since your Show-&-Go was almost directly responsible for my 2 PR’s here (blocks & rack), I was wondering on form used –as I have gotten a lot of good feedback on my form, but with a few detractors, it is always good to get an expert 2nd opinion, that is you.

    Thx, in advance, Eric, for yr thoughts here.

    PS: In the ‘Health’ section of my blog-roll, linked in my name above, I list yours among others.

    Satisfied customer,

    Gordon Wayne Watts

  • Mitch R

    What about Kettlebell Swings for improving posture? I’m not an expert, but it seems like they groove many of the same hip movements as the Dead Lift and they create muscular endurance which sometimes is more important than strength, for example for healthy lower backs.

  • Ken

    I haven’t seen mention of breathing drills in your articles before — unless I’ve missed it, could you expand on this in a future article? As always, I enjoy and reap great benefit from your broad, all-encompassing perspectives on biomechanics and rehab/maintenance therapy!

  • santiago

    do you have any articles on breathing drills?

    I agree with everything in this article

    been thinking about the breathing for a while but am unsure as to what can be done about it

    but if your breathing patterns are faulty, say using you traps and upper chest muscles to force air in instead of the diaphragm then your screwed because you breathe to many times a day to correct it in the gym

    what about drills for releasing the diaphragm? from its attachments it seem implausible to release it with manual therapy’s

    thanx

  • Hi Eric

    Great article, again! Could you be so kind to provide a link to some info of the flared left rib and a low right shoulder as this hit right home with my battle worn body?

  • Eric after getting the correct hip hinge pattern unloaded would the first dead lift you teach be using the trap bar? If so where to from then? and at what stage do you introduce single leg dead lifts with a kettle bell or dumb bell?

    Great post by the way! Love reading your stuff!

  • David M Hicks

    The first question really is, what’s wrong with the posture?

  • Mathieu

    santiago

    Drills to release diaphragm are possible, but indeed impractical. You need first to release all your abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis, and the three layers of oblique muscles) and then use your fingers to reach beneath your ribs. Some people with high abdominal fat will have trouble with this, too. The most sensitive spot is just below your sternum.Other muscles are assisting breathing as well.

  • Eric,

    As always I enjoyed reading this post. In regards to posture, how much of a role do you think soft tissue manipulation plays in the ability for clients to recover ideal posture. Having studied under Dr. Bill Brady I don’t think that adhesion and scar tissue can be ignored in the rehabilitation of posture. Thanks for your response.

  • aaron

    Great post! I agree that deadlifts can provide an excellent means of preventing faulty posture. The extension basis throughout the joints (especially thoracic) in one exercise gives it efficiency as well. However, I think if I took a desk jockey with poor posture and had them do deadlifts you would end up seeing their lumbar disc splatter against the wall behind them.

    The real challenge for me is finding the proper exercises to help the novice/unathletic client achieve the strength and ROM necessary to perform a deadlift with perfect form.

  • @Gordon:

    This all depends on why you are lifting. Your 320 pull had good form I think but that was closer to what a rack pull should be; usually a rack pull may sit the bar just below your knees (tibial tuberosity) which at your height I’m guessing would be about 17-18″ off the floor. Also, it helps to see form on a deadlift from the side so you can see the spine on the pull and knees and hips on the lockout.

    If you are lifting solely for upper back strength, then that’s okay. If you’re lifting to get stronger and compete, you should pull from the floor more; otherwise your hamstrings & glutes are missing out on a lot of work. Also, when you set the pins that high for a rack pull, it becomes almost more of a shrug or 1/4 squat exercise.

    As for the article: deadlifts are by far my favorite and one of the more superior exercises! Good write-up Eric.

  • AJ

    Add me to list of people who would like an article on breath training (how do you progress it) and the anatomy & roles of the diaphragm.

  • Super-dee-duper article. Gonna have to re-read this one to let the equation sink in.

  • Mike

    Hi Eric,
    Thanks for answering my question on deadlifting and posture. I really appreciated it.
    Mike

  • Stroud

    Santiago:

    http://robertsontrainingsystems.com/forum/showthread.php?24-herniated-disc/page2

    Read post #13 by mikeroncaratiDPT. It’s excellent.

  • Great information as always Eric! Your thoughts are much appreciated and your willingness to share them is truly admirable!

  • Hi Eric, great article.

    I really liked the side-lying windwill video.

    I am a pilates instructor in Boston (very close to you!) and my practice is based off reading a clients body and choosing exercises to help bring her body back to a more neutral position.

    However, since my background is athletic based (I played basketball, and I rowed in college), I love reading your stuff.

    You mentioned in the middle of your article: “Do you see a big rib flair on the left side and a low shoulder on the right?”

    I was wondering if you could expand upon this…because this is exactly how my body rotates, lol.

    Thanks a bunch, love your articles and videos :))

    Sirena

  • Ken and Santiago: here are a couple of Optimal Breathing Development techniques to improve your breathing.

    Squeeze and Breathe: to activate the diaphragm.

    Sit or stand up straight. Put your hands on your waist so that your thumbs are just above your pelvis and below your ribs in the hollows of your lower back.

    Extend your fingers around the sides to the front and squeeze your fingers and thumbs together, like you’re trying to pinch your side. Exhale.

    Now inhale into the area where your hands are, trying to force your hands to open. Exhale slowly, and then repeat, inhaling slowly and powerfully.

    After doing this 3 or 4 times, drop your hands and continue the exercise a couple more times.

    Deep Breathing and Relaxation Exercise

    Lie down comfortably on your back, or sit up straight.
    Take a deep, easy (start slowly) 4 second inhale—using the diaphragm, of course; a complete, easy 4 second exhale, and then relax for 4 seconds.

    Do not hold your breath. That introduces muscle tension and raises your blood pressure. Hold your exhale.
    Repeat the process. Repeat again, but this time hold your exhale for as long as you comfortably can, and then take a BIG easy inhale.

    By slowing your breathing and holding your exhale, you allow carbon dioxide levels to increase, which is what triggers the natural breathing response. These two exercises will help you increase FEV1 – forced expiratory volume, essentially lung volume.

  • @ Jeff McDoyle, Jr — Thx 4 the feedback:

    (“This all depends on why you are lifting.”) — In the block lift, I was making corrections so I could pull from the same distance as shorter lifters –not a legal deadlift, I admit, but for personal accomplishment, it did the job.

    (“”If you are lifting solely for upper back strength, then that’s okay. If you’re lifting to get stronger and compete, you should pull from the floor more; otherwise your hamstrings & glutes are missing out on a lot of work.””)

    Funny you would say that.

    Everyone and their brother has been telling me that I should start pulling from the floor –or even from a deficit –in fact, instead of ‘cheating’ on my workout plan (by pulling from the blocks), here recently, *I’VE* been standing on the blocks (and pulling from a deficit, not a surplus) -even when the plan said differently.

    (“”Also, when you set the pins that high for a rack pull, it becomes almost more of a shrug or 1/4 squat exercise.””) — Yes, several friends have said that is not a ‘real’ rack pull, but honestly, I wanted a ‘cool’ youtube vid –and wanted to see just how strong I was.

    PS: @ Eric — Thank you for clarifying by email –you mentioned something NO one else caught: The slight ‘snap’ at takeoff, which can be dangerous, as I should have locked my arms & elbows before liftoff -to avoid injuring something.

  • This is a great post Eric. The bottom line is that dead lifts are great, but dead lifts” alone” are not “enough” for correcting bad posture. Posture, as stated, good or bad requires daily habit and practice. Dead lifting along with other pattern correcting strategies implemented on a regular basis will improve one’s posture and movement patterns. I love dead lifts and kettlebell swings. Excellent post on the matter. Looking forward to the next one.

  • Hi Eric, great article.

    I really liked the videos.

    I am a Pilates instructor in CA and my practice is based off reading a clients body and choosing exercises to help bring her body back to a more neutral position.

    However, since my background is athletic based (I played basketball, and I rowed in college), I love reading your stuff.

  • Matthew Woodard

    I’m a little late to the party, but wanted to offer an insight. I’m huge on dead lifts for a lot of reasons, for all clients. I think one area we, as an industry miss, is that you have to see posture not just as imbalances, but as a behavior. I’m relentless about reinforcing there posture constantly thought a session. At times, I even recruit the people in their lives to stay on them. I’ve done it just concentrating on “imbalances” and I still continue to work on the underlying issues. However, once it dawned on me to attack it like a bad habit, the results were mind blowing how quickly I noticed results. Within a week the front desk will comment that they seem like a different person, before I’ve even seen them for the day

  • Is deadlifting of any variety simply not to be attempted by someone suffering low back disc /wear & tear issues or with proper training and technique and depending on the individual, is there a chance it could be included?

  • EC,

    Good dissection as always. That Law of Repetitive Motion equation is going on the whiteboard! I’m going to have to pick up that FST book one of these days with all the great lessons you’ve pulled from it.

    SG

  • Mark,

    Give this a read; just about EVERYONE has disc wear and tear.  Do you contraindicate everyone?

    http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199407143310201#t=articleTop

  • Andrew Serrano

    What unit of time is R?

  • Andrew,

    It doesn’t really matter.


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