Home Blog Pelvic Arch Design and Load Carrying Capacity (Or, How the Heck Does EC Deadlift So Much?)

Pelvic Arch Design and Load Carrying Capacity (Or, How the Heck Does EC Deadlift So Much?)

Written on May 22, 2013 at 5:41 am, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from Dean Somerset.  In reviewing his outstanding resource, The Complete Shoulder and Hip Blueprint (which is currently on sale for $100 off), I loved the section Dean devoted to pelvic structure as it relates to our ability to handle heavy weight training. I asked if he'd be willing to expand on the topic in a guest post, and he kindly agreed.  I really enjoy Dean's work and think you will, too. - EC

I love the deadlift, but it doesn’t love me back all that much. I can pull about 455 on a good day at a body weight of 230, but I haven’t tested a max pull in a few months. I just finished training for a kettlebell course, so it would be interesting to see if it’s gone up at all without specific deadlift training but more accelerative training, but that’s neither here nor there, nor is it relevant to today’s post. It’s just a cool thought.

One reason why I am at the mercy of the deadlift is a previous injury to my right sacroiliac (SI) joint. This causes the arch structure of the pelvis to be compromised, and limits my ability to withstand the shear forces of a heavy deadlift.

Arch structures are an integral feature of a lot of architectural structures, and for good reason. They help to disburse compressive loads across a span towards abutments on either side of the span. Think of ancient Roman aqueducts, bridges, or even more contemporary structures such as the arch in St Louis.

300px-Pont_du_Gard_Oct_2007

The ability to withstand compressive forces and maintain a powerful structure is so impressive in an arch structure that many ancient arches were constructed without the use of mortar between the joints of the stones. This compressive resistance is of massive importance not only in buildings, but in our own anatomy.

The pelvis is essentially an amazing structure that’s a composite of a single bone made of dozens of noticeable arch structures that integrate between the left and right sides, using the sacrum as the keystone.

As the pelvis and its arches form a span between the two abutments of the legs, it allows for a tremendous amount of compressive force to be relatively easily dispersed across it with relative ease.

The downside to an SI joint injury comes when in the bottom position of the deadlift, or any forward flexed position for that matter, as the arch structure runs directly across the back of the SI joint and it is required to be completely and perfectly integrated, much like the keystone in an arched doorway. If not, the structure comes down.

Now, I have some theories as to how you could use genetics to your advantage to lift heavy weights, as well as some observations about our mutual good friend Eric here as to why that bugger can pull so much weight, training, diet, and focus aside (hey, we all know he’s a cyborg, but there’s some advantages that a solid work ethic can’t provide everyone). A lot of it depends on how much compressive stress your pelvis can manage.

First, there are four different types of pelvis when looking at the width, breadth and angulations of the sit bones (technically known as the ischial tuberosities). This is important because the wider and shorter the arches, the less likely they can sustain during crazy heavy loadings. The best hips for heavy vertical loading are narrow and deep.

The Android and Anthropoid hip positions are the most favorable for pulling a sick deadlift off the floor, whereas the wider and shallower gynecoid and platypelloid hips would most likely result in an epic fail and probably injury.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who reads EricCressey.com that there are different types of pelvises (pelvii?). He’s mentioned a lot that there are different types of acromions in the shoulder and that specific angulations would affect rotator cuff function and risk of shoulder impingement. Everyone has different joints and bones, and it’s the combination of these that allows for some of us to do specific things that others can’t. For instance, I can get my hips way wider and longer in the sagittal and frontal plane than most people can, which means mobility isn’t a problem, regardless of what amount of stretching I do.

As a result of my pelvic angles, I’ve got that on lock down. Conversely, loading through a hip flexed sagittal plane loading means I have to brace like no ones business and use some of my active tissues as passive restraints instead of as drivers for the weight. The form closure of the joint is less effective with a wider pelvis than in a narrower one, and the form closure has to work harder, meaning the amount of weight I can pull is less than optimal, and the amount of weight Eric can pull makes grown men weep and kick walls in frustration.

However, it also means he has some minor issues getting unrestricted mobility outside of the sagittal plane. This video shows a very subtle restriction to femoral external rotation during abduction. Check out the kneecap of the extended leg.

Here’s another view of the same leg, but with a similar movement.

Hey, I’ve got a ton of my own movement restrictions, just like everyone else. Check this action out:

That was terrible! But did you see my earlier Cossack squat? Like a boss.

Eric owns sagittal plane, potentially due to a stacked pelvis that’s designed to bear weight like no ones business. However, in nature you typically don’t see the combination of excellent characteristics. In many cases the yin of mobility is in sharp contrast to the yang of max strength. For liner force production, the guy’s one of the best in the world hands down.

I can hit up lateral mobility like a champ, but sagittal force production is an issue.

So how would you assess each of us to develop a program that would help each of us, given our unique capabilities and hindrances? Would you focus on working towards building up the weakness in an isolative manner (as many corrective strategies employ) or would you look to hit up more of an all-encompassing manner, where we could still use our strengths to our advantage and make progress, without feeling like minor restrictions were a big issue?

I’d rather train like a beast than do stuff that may or may not provide much benefit based on my hip positioning and the arch structure of my specific anatomy any day of the week, so having a big tool box to draw from can make or break a program that gets both of us excited to train and fist pump like champs, which means we’re both going to be more likely to see it through to the end and get some sick gains.

The simple difference could be having me do way more loaded carries to use loading without exposing my spine to as much shear forces, as well as sagittal plane stabilization exercises like front planks and anti-extension presses. For Eric, it may mean using a lot more lower load hip rotational movements that still challenge the core, such as low crawl patterns a la Ido Portal.

Follow this up with stupid amounts of loading through sagittal plane dominant movements and he’d be a champ fo’ sho’.

At the end of the day, programming for the individual is most effective when you balance the “yin and yang” of their strengths and weaknesses, but understand the structural benefits the individual may have available to them, as well as the restrictions. Having a broad hip structure versus a narrower structure can be the difference between someone who loves deadlifts versus someone who wants to hit up rotational drills all day long. Having the tools to assess and develop an awesome program for them can be the difference between being a good trainer and a great trainer. 

Looking for more great information like this? Check out Dean and Ton Gentilcore's product, The Complete Shoulder and Hip Blueprint.  It's on sale through Wednesday for $100 off, and includes tons of fantastic information.

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  • michael

    How do I find out what kind of pelvis I possess and having had neurosurgergy on L5SI about 11 yrs ago b/c pinched nerve how to improve nerve from being irrited when I am foam rolling on my back, pinches in the calf when I roll left. Also, what does it mean when you overrotat your pelvis when you are walking?

  • Mike

    Dean, great post,

    How would you assess something pelvic structure without getting some sort of scan? While the post was very informative, it seems like a lot of your conclusions on why you and Eric have trouble with certain activities is based on your assumptions of pelvic structure.

    Are there are tests that you know of that correlate to hip structure?

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • Mike

    My apologies, *someone’s*

  • Nicole

    Nice, now if I could only self assess!

  • Jim Nonnemacher

    Interesting article. On a similar note, in his dvd, Anatomy for Yoga, Paul Grilley discusses and demonstrates how the angle formed by the neck of femur affects, or limits the yoga postures a person can or can’t do.

    So maybe we need to become anatomists (sp?) to design proper strength training programs for our clients and ourselves

  • Oliver

    Eric,

    what kind of SI joint injury was it? I always have a “blocked SI” (i guess it means stiff) joint on the left. I visit my doc every 3 months or so (to “unblock” chiropractically). The pain disappeared after i included tons of hip mobility work in my warmups. But my left SI is still much more stiff that the right

  • Timothy Sparks

    Nice article

  • sarah

    But seriously? How do you know which one you are???

  • Northcott

    This just provided an uncomfortable “a-ha!” moment in regard to my deadlift and squats. I was built like a stork when I was younger — 145 @ 6’3″ — and had crazy legs that had all kinds of mobility. As I knuckled down to training the deadlift and squat drove me around the bend with how hard it was to raise the numbers — I eventually maxed out just above 400 on each (when my bodyweight finally went over 200 lbs). Yet the same training fundaments and nutritional protocols were allowing friends to blow right past me.

    Despite being capable enough in everyday application (moving furniture, pushing a truck around, etc), the weight room was always mediocre for hip-dominant exercises. Yet I never thought to look at the hip structure as a root cause. Duh.

    Thanks, Eric and Dean.

  • Derrick Blanton

    Maybe I’m taking this too literally! I have seen that architectural arch comparison before, and it never made sense to me when applied to shear loading. If you look at the arch of the structure, the curve is at the top to buttress the compressive load overhead. This exactly approximates a powerlifting bench press exaggerated arch, load acting on the arched structure, high curve downwards.

    So the gravitational force disperses downwards across the arch to each end. Taking this downwards dispersal of force down an arch on a DL would mean it would be best to round back the hell out of your DL (and SQ), to disperse the force like a bridge. (Now, in fairness, this appears to be how some amazing PL’ers do it).

    Holding an arch with force pulling down through the middle of the arch (lumbar hyperextension, APT) would approximate force coming down INTO the arch. This would translate architecturally to flipping the arches of a structure over 180-degrees into a “smiley face” setup.

    Not to mention the kyphosis T-spine, and the lordosis of the L-spine. So I have always struggled understanding this analogy. Ah well, I’m probably just overthinking it. Wouldn’t be the first time. 🙂 DB

  • Derrick – No, you have the right handle on the concepts. The downside is that once the blocks are lined up they are very strong to compressive loads, but if the keystone or any of the other stones becomes damaged or shifts position, it can cause the entire system to come crashing down. This is one of the perils of deadlifting with a rounded thoracic spine. Sure, it’s strong against loading as long as everything is holding solid and equal, but if there’s a degree of unequal loading that causes some tissue damage, the system comes crashing down.

    Very good point and excellent question.

  • Oh, how I do hate having to share Lightsaber Somerset with the rest of the world.

    Always stellar.

    RS

  • Fantastic post! Extremely insightful and informative.

  • Antwan Harris

    This was very entertaining, enlightening, and informative post!!! Thanks for sharing

  • Pete

    My hip hinge is lousy still. Hard to deadlift its never easy for me to set up. Suxx

  • Joy

    Dean or Eric,

    I have an uneven SI joint, and crazy flexibility. Thanks to the information here I have fixed a lot of “issues”, but like someone else asked, how do you assess for that? I imagine just go by what you seem to do well without pain/injury?

  • I knew it…I’m stacked on having a narrow pelvis but my excessively long torso still screws me on squats. But as with everything I make up for physical abnormalities with intensity and increased amounts of controlled violence. Using the dark side of the force, of course. I’m okay with it, simply because force choking people from a distance is pretty awesome when necessary.

    I’m going to take a guess and say that you’re looking for shape and width of the hips as an assessment point on this one. Is that the correct implication?

    So in training females (or males) with overly wide hips it would be inherently better to perform sumo deadlifts, S/L exercises and some sort of overhead and load carries versus strict SLDL/regular deadlift variations. Narrower hips would benefit more from more lateral-core movements and heavy sagital plane exercises. Am I tracking that right?

    Great article! Thanks for your insight.

    v/r

    SMASH

  • Gary

    Great article, but it left me wanting more. I started DLing at the age of 63. I hit 2X body weight around the six month mark. (I am 67 1/2″ at 200 lbs) I am making good progress and should hit 500 lbs Dec/Jan.

    I LOVE deadlifts and I am guessing I have a fairly narrow/high pelvis. 31″/32″ waist if that helps. How do I find out for sure? Curious!!

  • Alex

    great post, do you think there is any correlation in the difference in pelvic structure has anything to do with increasing or decreasing the chance of knee injuries in sports?

  • Daniel Edmondo

    Dean Somerset,

    I have an interesting though while reading your post. Typically I read all the blogs but never comment or ask questions. I want to know what the effects of having a 43rd vertabrae would have on the load capacity from heavy lifting: deadlifts, squats, trap pulls, etc. This is very uncommon in most individuals, but, unlike the rest, I have an extra vertabrae in my spine.

    Thanks,

    Daniel Edmondo

  • Alex,

    Hard to say for sure, but I’d bet that it plays a role to some degree.

  • Dean,great post! Do you have recommended resources to follow up on for more information about this?

    Thanks!

  • Jeremy H

    I would imagine those of you seeking more information could probably find it in the DVD. Just sayin. 🙂


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