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Deadlift Variations for the Artistic Athlete

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

Kettlebell swings, and Jefferson curls, and single leg deadlifts, oh my!


In my last post we talked all about hip hinging and the deadlift, and how they are integral exercises not just for development of the artistic athlete, but for functional movement in day to day life. Here, let's go through some common variations on a deadlift, their how-tos and whys, and where they can benefit you in a strength program. My friend and fellow athletic therapist Eric Richard, out in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is going to tackle the last one of these for us. Let's get into it!


Kettlebell Swings


Really, I could write an entire post just on kettlebell swings, but we'll go through the basics here. Kettlebell swings utilize the same hinging motion as the deadlift, however, the focus is more on explosive power through the hips, while requiring dynamic stability at the shoulders, and solid grip strength. Sound like anything familiar?



In a traditional kettlebell swing, we set the shoulders, and use the hip to push the arms and kettlebell off of the hips. The shoulders work primarily to stabilize the arms and efficiently translate the force from the glutes. We do not want to use the arms to lift the kettlebell! We leave that up to the hips and glutes. Keep the core strong and the back straight to maintain efficiency of the movement and to protect the spine.








Check out these videos, two different body types, two slightly different techniques, but the same goal and outcome: generate power from the posterior chain, translate


through the glutes to move the kettlebell. Shoulders are stabilizing and grip strength is being challenged!






Remind you of anything yet...

You got it! Kettlebell swings mimic the movement pattern of beats on aerial apparatuses!!!


With lighter loads and higher reps, KB swings can be used to develop muscular endurance and sport specific aerobic capacity (i.e. cardio, anything getting your heart rate up, lasting 2min or more); or they can be performed with heavier loads for medium-to-high reps to build strength, explosive hip power, and build up our anaerobic energy systems (think more shorter bursts of energy, lasting 0sec to 2min).


Integrating kettlebell swings into your resistance training program should be done based on your goals. If you are working towards building muscular endurance or aerobic capacity, perform 5-10 sets of around 10 swings with a relatively light load at the very end of your workout. If you’re in a phase of your programming where you are working more towards building strength or power, perform fewer sets and reps with a heavier load, either at the end of your workout, or integrated into it.


Jefferson Curls


Jefferson Curls are a controversial exercise in the strength and conditioning world, however, in my opinion, they can be beneficial for the artistic athlete. Let's break it down:


The Jefferson Curl involves standing on an elevated platform, and with or without holding a weight, rolling forwards and back up, trying to stay as compressed as possible and slowly moving through each segment of the spine.



Here's where there is controversy behind this exercise. Studies have repeatedly shown that our spines are most vulnerable in a flexed position (i.e. bent forward, think piked), and that is compounded with load. Therefore, purposely putting ourselves into a flexed and loaded position is theoretically not the best thing we could do for our bodies.


With that in mind, context is really important when it comes to this exercise. The average joe with a desk job, who then comes home to sit on the couch for Jeopardy and chill, spends most of their day in some spinal flexion. They likely do not need to spend more time there and would not benefit from the time spent doing this exercise. Even a powerlifter who needs so much stability at their spine to be able to manage and tolerate the extreme loads they are working to move probably wont benefit from a Jefferson curl, where we are basically forcing movement and lengthening of the spinal structures.


Artistic athletes on the other hand, who need to sacrifice some joint stability for the extreme mobility that is required for their sports, can theoretically benefit from this exercise in two ways:

Strengthening Through End Range Flexion

While we know that loaded forward flexion is a riskier position for the spine, we also know that there is no avoiding it in many artistic sports; consider pike positions for divers, handbalancers, gymnasts, and acrobats.


Jefferson Curl

We also know, however, that sport specific strength training can decrease risk of injury, and this is where a Jefferson curl comes in. Progressively loading controlled spinal flexion and return to neutral position allows for the development of strength and neuromuscular control throughout and to the end range of movement. This means the body may be more prepared to manage the stresses of this position in the sport itself.


In the case of injury to the low back, a Jefferson curl can also be used in the rehabilitation phase as a means of regaining strength, control, and confidence in forward flexion motion.


How do I add into my training?


Let's make something very clear here, we do not want to or need to load Jefferson curls with the same volume that we would a squat or a traditional deadlift. When we are strength training to translate to sport, we are not looking to go as heavy as physically possible, but rather just to give us strength to better be able to perform our sport specific tasks. Start with body weight, then progress by no more than 2.5-5lb at a time, staying with each weight until the exercise can be performed comfortably for about 3 sets of 10 reps. Put this exercise at the end of a workout so that we do not compromise spinal stability before heavier lifts, and perform 2-3 sets of 8 -10 reps with 1-2min rest between sets. I would max this exercise at 25lbs, and that is after a slow progression to that weight.


Countering Extreme Spinal Extension

Athletic Therapy

Artistic athletes spend so much time in extreme ranges of spinal extension, i.e. back bending, and are therefore prone to facet joint irritation and spondylopathies that occur from these repetitive movements. Incorporating a Jefferson Curl into a cool down at the end of a training session can help to regain space between the vertebrae and mitigate this compression. Try for 2 sets of 8-10 reps, starting with bodyweight, and slowly (i.e. no more than 2-5lb addition at a time) increasing weight.

 

Follow this link to download your free Periodization Template for the Artistic Athlete, a printable resource to help you plan your training to prioritize recovery and optimize performance!


 

Single Leg Deadlifts

(section by Eric Richard, CAT(C))


Let’s get on one leg! Depending on the discipline, artistic athletes perform many skills and many many repetitions on a single leg. With the amount of mobility that is expected from an artistic athlete, and that is necessary to perform required skills, whether that be pirouettes, balances, take offs for leaps and some acrobatics, it is integral that each hip joint can support itself without relying on the stability of the other


A single leg deadlift is performed just the same as our deadlift like we discussed here, but we just do it hinging primarily through one hip. Check it out in the video below. I'll talk about how changing the position of the weight changes the exercises a little later.



Working both sides


When we’re doing the single-leg deadlift, we’re strengthening the glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors of the standing leg, while also challenging our balance and whole body coordination. In a good single-leg deadlift we have to make sure both sides of the posterior chain are working: as the standing side controls the leg to lower down and up, the non-standing leg is still active throughout the motion to facilitate stability and control of the rest of the body.


The leg we’re standing on in the single-leg deadlift goes through the same mechanics as a normal double-legged deadlift, in that our core is engaged, the hips move through flexion and extension which is controlled by the glutes and hamstrings. When we get to the bottom of a single-leg deadlift, the focus is also on keeping the hips and rest of the body from rocking to one side, or losing square hips.


For the artistic athlete


One reason we love the single-leg deadlift, especially for artistic athletes, is the added control of the leg that is in the air, moving through space. It is integral to performing a proper SLDL that we keep the back leg engaged, and we keep the body from shoulder to hip to heel in a straight line. This helps our body maintain a hinging motion, rather than rounding at the lower back.

dance therapy

This look like anything to you? Penches, anyone?


Any step out or staggered leg takeoff tumbling or acrobatic skill, scale balances, and pirouettes require not just strength, power and stability from that single base leg, but the same through moving limb. The SLDL is a perfect exercise to work all of these components together, and, in the same way the deadlift allows us to develop strength and power in the posterior chain, the SLDL mitigates compensation from one leg for the other, and challenges balance and stability of the base leg.


Anti-rotation to create rotation


When we get to the bottom of a single-leg deadlift, the focus is also on keeping the hips and rest of the body from rocking to one side, or losing square hips. We can challenge this by adding an airplane rotation at the bottom of the exercise or by changing which hand we use to hold a weight, once we have progressed to adding weight to this exercise.


If we hold a weight in the same side as our standing leg, it can be harder to prevent your hips from turning out toward the opposite side, as the weight may pull us over as we go down. But that’s (almost) the whole point!


To keep the hips in a neutral position (square, parallel to the floor), our deep hip rotators, oblique core musculature, and hip ab- and adductors must be on their game. If we aren’t there yet and the weight still pulls us into an opened hip position unintentionally, try switching to holding the weight in the opposite hand as the standing leg to help our hips stay more neutral.


By limiting the amount of hip sway or rotation in the single-leg deadlift, the aforementioned hip muscles become stronger and more able to work to prevent injury to the joint when we do go to create rotation through the hip on one leg. We can notice this when going into the single-leg deadlift to hip airplane, with a rotation about the hip at the bottom of the movement. It might seem simple and easy but if we attempt the airplane portion without first strengthening the single-leg deadlift as the anti-rotation exercise, it may be more difficult than expected.


The stronger our hips and bodies get at balancing on one leg and controlling an external weight in the process, the more injury-resistant our hips will become for our more sport specific movements.


While the deadlift is such an important exercise and should be a part of any athlete's strength training regimen, there are many variations on the hinging motion that can also be beneficial, especially for artistic athletes. Curious about how to incorporate these into your or your athlete's training? Message me here or download our price sheet to see which service is right for you!


Follow these links to learn more about Eric and about his work as an Athletic Therapist and Cross Fit coach in Nova Scotia, or check out his Instagram!



References

McGill SM, Marshall LW. Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: back and hip muscle activation, motion, and low back loads. J Strength Cond Res. 2012. 26(1):16-27.


Lake JP, Lauder MA. Mechanical demands of the kettlebell swing exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Dec 28. [Epub ahead of print]

Contreras, B. Olympic Weightlifting vs. Kettlebells on Lower Body Strength and Power. Feb 29, 2012.


Yates, Justin P. BSc Kin; Giangregorio, Lora PhD; McGill, Stuart M. PhD,

The Influence of Intervertebral Disc Shape on the Pathway of Posterior/Posterolateral Partial Herniation, Spine:1 April 2010 – Volume 35 – Issue 7 – pp 734-739



Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. (2016). United Kingdom: Human Kinetics.


Strength and Conditioning: Biological Principles and Practical Applications. (2011). Germany: Wiley.





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