I train at the senior center during the winter.
The dead lift is key to building muscle at 50 years old. Note the good form: hips back, back flat, pull the weight straight up and close to your knees, stand tall at the top.
Well it is really a community center but the majority of users are geezers.
It’s $13 a year to be a member and they have a pretty nice gym.
Yea, $13 per year!
So I see a lot of old guys lifting and working out. A lot of “tread-millers” and “recumbent bike-riders” but a few lifters.
Older guys ask me all the time about building muscle at 50. How do you do it?
My gut response (although I don’t say it) is: “Take a look around here, watch what everyone is doing, and do something else”.
Cause these dudes haven’t got a clue.
You see some weird stuff in a gym like this. You can tell that many of these folks haven’t spent a lot of time in a gym.
I scratch my head at the ubiquitous “exercise readers”. You know the ones reading books and magazines while spinning the bike at about 3 rpm.
Are you kidding me? Why are you wasting your time?
The “full street clothes treadmill walkers” are amusing as well. Actually they put sneakers on for their workout which goes well with their black socks, baggy chinos and plaid shirts.
There is a saying in fitness: “Anything is better than nothing” so I guess this qualifies.
There is a guy who routinely comes in, grabs a pair of 15 pound dumb bells, and swing-curls those babies for about 20 minutes straight. Shoot, it may even be longer. He just stands in one place and swing curls tiny dumb bells. What is the goal here? I don’t know.
There are a lot of “partial-reppers”. You know the ones who move the leg press about 2 inches, just barely bending their knees. Or get on the machine press where they complete the last 3 inches of the movement. They either don’t realize that the machines can be adjusted or that is all the mobility they’ve got.
So from my vantage point, the main challenge of building muscle at 50 years old is knowing what the fuck to do.
And then doing it. That’s challenge #2.
Because there are some older guys who know their way around the gym. But they are still lifting like we did in our 20’s and 30’s.
You know, benching, arm work, some cable rowing and a little overhead pressing.
Very little leg work and no dead lifting.
If I knew 40 years ago what I know now, I would have done a lot more squatting and dead lifting.
The greatest lift
It’s a toss up. Squatting or dead lifting. I am not sure which one will benefit you more.
But I prefer the dead lift.
It’s kind of a primal lift. You feel powerful doing it.
And dead lifting (or the hip hinge) is the subject of this post. This is one in a series of posts on introductory lifting instructions.
The last post on upper body pulling is here.
Building muscle at 50 years old with the Dead Lift
Yes you gotta dead lift. The most basic movement. Simple.
Pick it up and put it down.
No you don’t have to load the bar up like a beast. Just do the movement. To start anyway. Then you’ll want to load the bar a bit.
The beauty of the dead lift
There is a concept called kinetic chain. And the dead lift has a really long and complicated kinetic chain.
You move the weight by grasping it with your hands and then transfer this load into the ground through your feet. Every joint that flexes during the movement is part of the kinetic chain. And all the muscles that flex these joints are therefore exercised during the lift.
So for the dead lift you start with the closing of all your fingers to grip the bar. Massive forearm interaction
The load is transferred through your straight arms into your shoulders and upper back. Upper back to mid back to low back and all associated core muscles. Then your glutes, hamstrings and calves transfer the load through your feet into the ground.
There is a lot of shit going in with the dead lift.
The dead lift is efficient
For any part of your body, it makes sense to strengthen your muscles alongside all the other muscles that perform related jobs at the same time.
Translation: Do compound movements instead of isolated or single joint exercises.
So the first advantage of exercising a long kinetic chain is the synergistic strengthening of all the muscles in the chain.
A second benefit is that these exercises (compound movements) allow you to progress (lift heavier) over a long time period. Meaning you can get really strong doing them without reaching your natural potential.
To the contrary, isolation exercises, like curls for example, don’t provide this luxury. You can fairly quickly get close to your natural limits for curling weight. The dead lift is another story. It can take you a few years to build up to your natural maximum weight.
All to your benefit.
The elephant in the room
I know your main objection. I used to say it myself.
You can’t dead lift because of your bad back. Right?
Well first, you know all the life coach guru’s will tell you to never say “I can’t”. It’s not very empowering or some shit like that.
I am not denying you have a stiff back or a sore back. I am just betting there is nothing mechanically wrong with it.
Other than it being weak.
You are weak
Sorry to break it to you. But your bad back is more than likely just a weak back.
Yea it is possible you really have an injury. But unlikely. I wrote about it in this post about how to remedy lower back pain.
Anyway, let’s get on with solving your real problem.
Strengthening your back so your “bad back” symptoms disappear.
And reaping the many benefits that dead lifting offers like:
- Dead lifts work your entire body. This is not a back exercise. It is a full-body, strength and power builder.
- You’ve spent your life doing “mirror exercises” for your chest, shoulders and arms. The dead lift will build your posterior chain (everything up the back of your body), balance your strength and probably solve some of your aches and pains.
- Grip strength. You are attached to the bar through your hands. You can’t pull it if you can’t hold it.
- Core strength and stability. Your core, loosely defined as all the muscles around your mid-section from about the middle of your torso to the top of your hips, is engaged during this lift. When your core gets strong, your low back pain disappears.
- Practical application. Dead lifting is picking stuff up. Like a bag of groceries. Or your son or grandson. Or a box delivered to your front porch. You gotta be able to do this stuff.
- Excellent cardio without running a step. You want to lose weight and hate running? Lift weights and particularly perform complex, multi-joint movements like the dead lift, squat or power clean. A 2 or 3 rep set of heavy dead lifts might take 8 or 10 seconds to perform. But you’ll have to sit down to catch your breath afterwards. A lot of energy is expended in a short amount of time.
- Fairly easy to learn. There is a right way to dead lift and a lot of wrong ways. You can get hurt with bad technique. But it is fairly simple to learn good form. Thus the subject of this post.
Greasing the skid
The dead lift is very safe if done properly.
First, understand what it is not. It is not a squat. Nor a hybrid between the dead lift and the squat.
The squat and the dead lift are two very distinct movements. Know the difference.
Here is the visual for you. See this in your mind.
You squat down between your legs.
The squat requires maximum hip flexion and maximum knee flexion. Can you see it? Your butt drops down and your knees flex to allow your upper body to end up between your legs at the bottom. Your elbows touch the inside of your knees.
That’s a squat.
The dead lift is a hip hinge movement. You fold over at your hips.
Your butt is driven back for maximum hip flexion but your knees only flex minimally. Your butt is behind your legs at the bottom of the dead lift and your shoulders are above your knees.
A totally different move.
Learn the hip hinge movement by practicing this pattern.
- Stand with your back to a wall with your heels about a foot from the wall.
- Fold over at your hips keeping your back flat.
- Touch your butt to the wall and then stand back up.
- Butt back and touch the wall. Do a few reps.
Feel the stretch in your hamstrings and glutes when you hinge over.
Don’t squat. Hinge over. Drive your hips back.
Step out another inch or so from the wall and repeat the hip hinge a few more times. Hold for a second or two at the bottom with your butt touching the wall. Feel the stretch.
Move farther out from the wall and repeat.
Keep doing this until you get to the point where you can just touch the wall. Feel how your body weight is shifted back on your heels.
Your glutes and hamstrings will be really tight in this position. They are ready to explode your lift off the floor.
This is your starting position for the dead lift.
Practice this pattern every time you warm up. Get the movement ingrained in your brain.
Grease the skid.
The squat initiates with your butt dropping down and both the hip and knee joints are flexed maximally.
The dead lift begins with your hips being driven back and fully flexed but with only minimal associated knee flexion.
- Hips too low.
- This is when you do the “hybrid squat-dead lift” thing. Hips should be back, not down. You will feel a real stretch in your hamstrings when you are in the correct starting position.
- Rounded back.
- Your back must remain flat and neutral throughout the lift. Neutral means your head, neck and back are all aligned. Your shoulders are retracted back and positioned directly over the bar. If you can’t keep a flat back during the lift, the weight is too heavy for you.
- Thinking pull instead of push.
- It’s true you are pulling the weight off the floor but the initial drive comes from pushing your heels down through the floor. Get the weight moving using your glutes and hamstrings by consciously thinking about pushing through your heels. And the “push through your heels” is important because this helps to keep your center of gravity back.
- Looking up.
- Don’t look up. Maintain your neutral spine. Look several feet out in front of you at the start and then keep your head still. Your eyes will finish looking straight out at the top of the lift when you are standing erect.
- Hyper extending at the top.
- Again this violates the neutral spine rule and you risk injury with heavy loads. Don’t hyper-extend by shrugging your shoulders back. Stand strong at the top with your chest proud but with your shoulders in natural alignment.
- Wrong shoes.
- Don’t dead lift in running shoes or anything with an elevated heel. Socks and bare feet are perfect or any minimalist shoe (or maybe a walking shoe). A raised heel pushes you too far forward and out of good alignment.
- Flexing your arms.
- The arms do not move the weight. Do not break your elbows (bend them) trying to pull the weight up. Your arms simply attach your hands to your shoulders in the dead lift.
- Wearing a weight belt with low weights.
- You need to build strength in all the muscles that contribute to this lift. And there are many. Using artificial support relieves some of the smaller muscles from engaging fully and doing their job. Only wear the belt with your heavier, 2 and 3 rep sets, if at all.
- Mixed grip with low weight.
- Use a double overhand grip for most of your lifts. It promotes a more balanced strengthening of your grip. The mixed grip will be required when the weight gets heavy to prevent the bar from rolling out of your hands.
- Butt moves but the weight doesn’t.
- Ensure the weight moves off the floor when you first apply pressure with your legs. This is important. If your butt moves higher initially, you’ll get into a more stiff-legged position and put a lot of strain on your lower back. This is what we used to call “shooting your ass” when rowing crew. The rowing stroke is very much like a dead lift. You initiate with your legs but your back must hold your body angle (hip-hinge) so the force is transmitted through your arms and hands into the oar handle. Same with the dead lift. The weight must move off the floor when you drive your legs. Don’t shoot your tail.
- Setting up too wide.
- Assume a shoulder width stance, grip the barbell so that your inner forearms touch the outside of thighs. Your shins either lightly touch the bar or are just a few inches away. When you take a wider stance you force your arms to go wider and this effectively shortens your arms. This means you have to get your hips lower to get in the proper starting position. This will be hard to do without dropping your butt too low, the half-squat position. So take a narrow stance. It will be easier to maintain good form.
- Now having said this, there are other dead lift variations like the sumo dead lift or the snatch grip dead lift that purposely set up with different hand and foot positions. Forget about these right now. We’re talking about you mastering the standard dead lift.
- Knees too far forward.
- If you get your hips driven back properly, your shins should be nearly vertical with the bar just touching or very close. If you drop your butt too low like into a partial squat position, your knees will be forward of the bar. You don’t want this. Just get your butt back and your knee position will be fine.
- Not breathing.
- You need to learn to breathe while lifting. Right before you start the lift, hold your breath and aggressively flex you ab muscles. This is called bracing and it locks your mid-section to keep your spine straight during the lift. At about half way through the lift, start leaking some air out to release the pressure and then exhale forcefully at the top of the lift. So breathing is a 3 step process; brace, release pressure and exhaust. Repeat this breathing technique when lowering the bar as well. Lock it up at the top, start leaking air as the bar passes your knees and exhaust as you set it down.
- Bouncing the bar off the floor.
- Don’t do this. You are more likely to get out of position and get hurt. With lighter weights, control the descent, touch the weight to the floor lightly and then drive it back up. With heavier loads, like 2 and 3 rep sets, break it up into multiple single reps. Get into position. Pick it up. Put it down. And then get into position for the next rep. Repeat. As you might imagine, maintaining great form is imperative to dead lift injury free.
- Set your feet under the bar at about shoulder width with the bar very close to or touching your shins.
- Stand tall and take a moment to think about the proper dead lift sequence. Remember the wall-touch, hip-hinge exercise you used as part of your warm up.
- Drive your hips back and grab the bar with your hands just outside of your legs. Your forearms are touching your legs.
- Flat back and neutral spine. You are looking at the floor several feet in front of you.
- Flex your lats hard and brace your abs (hold breath aggressively). It helps to apply some leg pressure so you are pulling up against the bar. Not enough to move it but enough to really tighten up all your muscles. You’re like a coiled spring.
- Explode off the floor by driving your heels into the ground. Make sure the weight moves. Don’t shoot your ass.
- Keep the bar close to your body and move it vertically. You want the center of gravity of the weight to be as close as possible to your center of gravity.
- Start leaking air as the bar passes your knees.
- Stand up proud at the top with your chest out and shoulders in their natural position. Don’t pull your shoulders back.
- Finish by squeezing your glutes hard as you reach the top position.
- Exhaust your air and hold for a second. Re-brace and lower the weight by repeating the hip-hinge. The weight must clear your knees before you can flex them. Again, butt back, not down. Keep your back flat.
Start light and get your reps in to perfect your form. Don’t load the bar and lift with crappy form.
There are a few things to understand that will help you out.
First, your mobility is likely to be less than optimum so getting down into a good starting position may be a challenge.
- Use the 45 pound plates to raise the bar as high as possible off the ground.
- If this is too heavy, check to see if your gym has bumper plates. These are 10 pound rubber plates and are the same size as the 45 pound metal plates.
- If no bumper plates, try setting up your bar with the plates up on blocks or on a couple of plates on the ground (stack two 10 pound plates, for example). Anything stable to raise the bar a few more inches off the ground will help.
- You may be able to pull off a power rack. Set the pins on the rack to start at whatever height is comfortable for you.
It is better to start from a higher position in the beginning and maintain good form than try to pull from an awkward position.
The Trap Bar
See if your gym has a trap bar (or sometimes called a hex bar).
The trap bar deadlift is a great alternative to the stand straight bar deadlift
The trap bar does a couple of things
First, it aligns the center of gravity of the weight with your body’s center of gravity. This is because you stand in the middle of the hex-patterned bar.
Second, you don’t have to clear your knees with the bar. This just makes it easier to maintain good form when the weight gets heavier.
Third, the neutral hand position feels more natural. The trap bar has handles that align your palms towards your legs. In general, this is more comfortable than the overhand grip.
So, if you have access to a trap bar, you can probably progress a bit faster. You need more perfect form when dead lifting with a straight bar.
Start light and find a weight where you can do 3 sets of 10 reps comfortably
Stay with that until your form is impeccable.
Go a little heavier with 3 sets of 8 reps.
Once you feel good at 3×8, incorporate the Rule of 10.
The Rule of 10 says:
- Keep the total workout reps under 10
- and Add weight every set.
This is what it looks like in practice.
Warm up. This includes a general, full-body warm up and a specific dead lift warm up. So I’ll typically do 8 or 10 reps with 135 pounds as a warm up set.
The rule of 10 is normally :
- 5-3-2 (5 reps in set 1, 3 reps in set 2 and 2 reps in set 3)
So for a 5-3-2 workout:
225 pounds for 5 reps
275 pounds for 3 reps
295 pounds for 2 reps
Done. 10 reps total and add weight each set.
Simple and effective. That’s all you need.
- Don’t lift like an old guy doing weird stuff that won’t make a difference in your health or fitness.
- Don’t lift like you are 25 and just focus on your mirror muscles.
- Go for big kinetic chain movements and get a lot of work done in a short period.
- Learn to dead lift and make it a staple in your workouts.
- You’ll get a lot stronger. You’ll be much fitter and healthier.
- And you’ll be happier as well.
Strength solves all problems.
Here is a great video instruction on the dead lift. You have to sign up on the list but this guy sends out valuable stuff. No crappy, spammy email from him. And he knows what he is talking about.
photo credit: galleryhip.com, stack.com, fitbie.com