All about the hinge
Purpose of the hinge
If you ask most people which exercise they get injured with the most and its almost always the deadlift. Why is this? Two reasons, firstly, most people are very bad hingers. Secondly, from our seated lifestyle out core gets weak and we have a forward shoulder position. The average person who “throws” out their back does so moving an object about the weight of a pillow.
If you think of your pelvis as a glass of water, the hinge movement is to pour as much water out as possible. This is achieved by reaching your hips back. This is key, its hips back, not leaning forward. This is one of the most common mistakes people make on a hinge is trying to use flexion and extension of their spine often leading with the shoulders.
A hinge done properly, nothing from the upper body moves, it is strictly a swivel at the hip. This uses the biggest joint in the body, the hip, and the biggest muscle group, the hamstrings. This is why, if done properly, the deadlift should be the exercise that can move the most amount of load. This allows us to use the longest bone in the body, the femur, as a lever. While, if properly braced, the entire torso up to the shoulder as another lever rotating around the biggest joint in the body, the hip.
Unfortunately this is a movement that many people try to squat. Remember we are talking about a movement pattern here and not an exercise. You can squat up a deadlift. This is often how olympic lifters get the bar off the floor, with low hips and a very upright torso. You can see plenty of videos of people online trying to teach the kettlebell swing as a squat and not a hinge as well. Remember, just because you are doing an exercise, does not mean your are doing it properly.
Contrary to what people are often doing, a hinge supposed to be internal torque, this means hamstrings. This does not mean pulling the floor together, the opposite of how a squat is taught (External torque) that would be adduction, we want the hamstrings active. All of this while maintaining the isometric contraction of the external and internal obliques for proper stability in the trunk.
Modification / Scaling
Conventional Deadlift #PreTension
This is the most common form of the deadlift. Arms straight, hands outside of your legs, driving your legs strongly into the ground. This is also a lift often done horribly wrong with either flexion or extension of the spine during the lift. This takes all the load off the hamstrings and hips and places it on the erectors, which are a very small group of muscles responsible for a small extension of the spine while not at load.
Make sure the hips are higher than a squat position, how high will depend on limb length. The easiest way to ensure a proper setup is bar against the shins and shoulders in front of the bar. Keeping tension in the entire body is necessary to properly to this lift. Think of trying to hide your armpits from someone trying to tickle you whilst bracing your obliques are hard as you can. Then think of driving your feet into the bar.
Don’t drop the deadlift from the top, or loose tension and let the weight drop. If you do this you are missing the eccentric lowering part of the exercise, this is essential to develop strength through the entire range of motion. The other most common fault is being relaxed before picking up the bar. I prefer whats called “preloading” the bar, pull on the bar until you hear a clink and make sure everything is tight before driving the bar up. The neck and back extension are universal amongst all hinging movements and are covered later.
This is a pure hinge movement. This hips reach back then fire forward with the core staying tight. Firing the legs and hips simultaneously to generate force forward, the arms act as chains making the kettlebell travel in an arc.
Start with the knees slightly bend and then reach the hips back. Do not excessively lean forward, the kettlebell should stay above the level of the knees.
The most common fault in a Russian kettlebell swing is extending the back at the top. This often happens when people use their lower back to hinge from instead of the hip. This can be corrected by telling people to tuck their butts under while exhaling forcefully while firing the glutes. The other most common issue is people pulling with their shoulders, this is very evident by the kettlebell facing the ground because of the upward force the the pull up from the arms. The arms should remain relaxed and all the power coming from the hips. If the kettlebell is not getting high enough, its is because not enough force has been generated by the hips.
Stiff Legged Deadlift
This is the difference between mobility and flexibility. Many people can “turn off” their hamstrings and put their hands flat on the floor, This is mostly a combination of relaxed hamstrings and flexion of the lower back. In order to safely lower or raise a weight with stiff legs. Contrary to what the name states, you do wan to start with a slight bend in your knees to help activate your hamstrings.
Keeping hips back and a straight and tight spine. Try to touch the wall behind you with your butt. All fo the normal deadlift faults would apply to this movement as well.
Rounding of the lower back. This results from the inability to keep the hamstrings engages and you search for more range through the back. This can be remedied by keeping the obliques engaged and reducing the range motion by starting off plates. Breathing drills with a light load can determine functional range of motion. Start from the top, and breathe in as you lower the weight. Once you stop berthing in that is your limit for the day.
This is an excellent option to learn to hinge properly. Basically it is a stiff legged deadlift from the top down. You keep the bar against your thighs as you reach your hips back while keeping your back straight. When you reach the limit of your range of motion, indicated by flexion of the back, then fire your hips and drive your heels into the ground to reach full extension quickly and forcefully. All the same cueing as a stiff legged deadlift would apply, just a more limited range of motion.
Low Bar Back Squat
A low bar back squat is very similar to a good morning with greater depth. This is often used by power lifters who are better hingers than squatters. The bar has to go lower on the back to offset the lean angle of the torso. This will require better shoulder mobility. This is a fairly advanced squat and is usually only used to move maximal weight as there are easier to teach and safer options for training the hinge pattern.
“Hips Back!” This you hear all the times in high level power lifting meets. Because this is a hinge and not a squat reaching your hips back is essential.
Not having the bar low enough on the back will, when heavy enough, pull the lifter forward and cause loss of balance and rounding of the back.
Olympic Lifting from the Hang
This is too complicated to cover in just one article, but olympic lifting, both the snatch and clean and jerk are very complex movements. They are a squat pattern from the floor to the knee, but a hinge from above the knee into full extension. This will be covered in another article.
Activation / Awareness
The biggest issue for most people when deadlifting is movement of the spine. One major mistake is failure to properly brace the obliques. In order to learn how to brace the obliques, we must first know where the oblique are.
This is why many people require a belt to keep their core tight during a deadlift. The belt itself does not lend any stability. What it does is allow you to push out your core and get tactile feedback to tighten the muscle. This would be the same as me poking you in your belly while saying “tighten up”. Belts do have their time and place, but learning how to hinge is not one of them. If you insist on using one in training, do not use it until at least 80% of your maximal load.
Next big issue, your grip. For most people this is going to be a bigger limiter than your core strength. This is where the infamous mixed grip comes in. DO NOT do this. This is probably my biggest pet peeve with people and can lead to so many injuries. The supinated hand (palm facing out) risks bicep injuries if the arms are used at all during the lift, I have seen this, its not pretty and a major recovery. This also poses the problem of one hand is always in external torque and the other is in internal torque. This means an imbalance of activation of the internal torque muscle chain on one side and the external torque on the other side. Use a double over hand grip to work on your grip strength, or you can use an olympic style hook grip where you use the thumb as a strap. If you want a great way to train your grip, try using an axle or fat grips next time you deadlift.
Another great drill to get someone to stand in a kettlebell swing fairly close to a wall and make them reach back with their hips to touch the wall. This will allow them to feel the hinge effect and weight distribution to their heels.
To keep people from putting their spine into extension or trying to move their lumbar spine, by leading with the head, advise your client to try and keep their spine neutral. This can be demonstrated by putting a PVC on their back so that it touches the back of the hip, top of the back and back of the head. If the client raises their head it will loose contact with the upper back showing extension of the spine. A simple cue for this is to ask them to tuck their chin down. When the chin is down, looking at the stomach, its takes a ton of effort to try to put your spine into extension.
Another simple cue that makes it easy to prevent a client from trying to lift with their back is to instruct them to think more of pushing against the ground creating a separation between the bar and the ground.
Mobilization / Limitations
Hinging rewards people with long arms and mobile hamstrings. Unfortunately many people are not able to get into a good position to start. This is especially true for taller people. I have dealt with basketball players who could never get into a good starting position. To address this issue you can reduce the range of motion. This can be accomplished by bringing the floor up, such as doing a conventional deadlift off blocks, or reducing the range of motion by doing something like a Dimmel deadlift to help increase the active range of motion.
Keeping core tension is the most underrated parts of this exercise. Two ways I have found to best accomplish this. One method, only to be used with light weight, would be to exhale forcefully and hold that breath out as you deadlift. This allows your to tighten your oblique, this is why fighters exhale when they throw a punch. Exhaling forcefully tightens the obliques. Go ahead a try it yourself now.
The other option is training to learn how to brace correctly. The easiest way to teach this is by eliminating most of the things than can go wrong. Laying on your back in a relaxed supine position, place your thumbs on the sides of your stomach below your ribs, and place your fingers on your mid to lower abs. Now you want to push your lower back into the ground while trying to push “out” your obliques sideways. This does not mean flexion of the spine, being a situp using your rectus abdominus. You want to push out, similar to when you are trying to defecate. In the beginning you might need to hold your breath, eventually you have to work to learn how to brace the obliques while inhaling and exhaling fully. This will take time for most people to accomplish, it might start with holding the breath, eventually longer and longer breaths will be able to be had. This teaches a client how with a neutral spine, straight back how to properly brace.
Yours in health,