The deadlift is probably the most technically solid lift I have. It’s technical soundness stems from three things: practicing the deadlift, practicing partial ROM’s, and my accessory choices. I’m going to focus on the last point.
My number one goal while I was focusing on building a more stable foundation for my deadlift was building a bigger, stronger back. The key to this was building bigger lats and bigger traps.
(Information below based on Chris Beardsley’s analysis of: Handa, T., Kato, H., Hasegawa, S., Okada, J., Kato, K. (2005). comparative electromyographical investigation of the biceps brachi, latissimus dorsi, and trapezius muscles during give pull exercises. Japanese Journal of Physical Fitness and Sports Medicine, 54(2), 159-168.)
Lats and Stabilization
The primary function of the lats I want to focus on in the deadlift is the stability contributed via “tightness”. Simply, squeezing your lats helps make your back firm like a steel rod rather than soft like a noodle. This will help you to maintain a straight back during the lift, letting you focus on driving through your glutes. So how do you tighten your lats?
An easy way to tighten your lats is to 1) make sure your arms are going straight down (and thus your triceps should be in contact with your lats) and 2) try to internally rotate your elbow. When I say internally rotate your elbow, I want you to think of rotating it like a door knob – you’re not sliding or moving your elbows inwards, but rotating them in towards your torso. Do this as soon as you’re gripping the bar and it will result in tight lats throughout the lift.
Traps and Arching
The primary function of the traps I want to look at is how they control the motion of the scapula/shoulders. Your traps are what allow your shoulders to either hunch forward (protraction) or pull backwards (retraction).
Imagine you’re deadlifting. Your form is good, your lats are tight, and you go to pull without using your traps. What’s going to happen is that about halfway up your spine you’re going to fold over, your shoulders are going to rip out, and you’re going to be the first person who died while deadlifting (maybe? I have no idea). The point is, you need strong traps to keep your upper back from rounding.
Accessories for Traps and Lats
Bent Rows: This is hands down the best, most time efficient exercise to increase the size and strength of your lats and upper, middle, and lower traps. Not only is it likely the best exercise for your lower and middle traps, it’s still extremely effective for your upper traps and your lats. I’ve done these in all sorts of rep schemes: triples, 5×5’s, sets of 10-12. They’re great all across the board.
Seated Cable Row: Same as above generally, though it is far better for your lats, and possibly one of the best exercises for lats. I generally only do these for sets of 8+ reps as I haven’t really needed a reason to use these for heavy work. There’s not much stabilization that occurs like in a bent row, so this comes in mostly as a hypertrophy exercise. It’s great for use on days that load your lower body / lower back enough already, since it causes so little stress.
Pull ups / Chin Ups: Since the lats are used in adduction (moving towards the body), these are also fantastic for building your lats. While pull ups will help build your shoulders more, chin ups generally do a better job activating your lats. I prefer simple progression on chin ups by doing weighted chin ups. Sets of 5-8 have been kind to me in regards to building both strength and size effectively.
That’s it! Go build your traps and lats and go improve your deadlift.