Back in Chapter 2, I described the deadlift as "perhaps the most useful exercise you can do with weights." Now here we are in Chapter 9, and I still agree with myself. (Funny how that works, especially the closer I get to my deadline.)

But proper form in the deadlift, unlike the squat, involves some counterintuitive movements. I don't mean that people in the gym just instinctively do squats with perfect form—nothing could be further from the truth.

Good form in the squat somewhat resembles sitting back in a chair—something we all know how to do—at least at the beginning of the movement. The deadlift, conversely, starts with a position that few people will assume without being taught. If there's something on the floor that needs to be picked up, your instinct, and mine, and everyone else's, is to bend forward at the waist and pick it up.

Even trained professionals would tell you that this movement is harmless if the object on the floor is essentially weightless. But in reality, even then it's not. Any type of uncalculated forward bending at the waist is dangerous.

Case in point: Have you ever heard of someone who says he "threw out" his back while bending to pick up a washcloth in the shower? The conventional wisdom is that the injury must've been caused by stress. That is, he was under a lot of pressure at work, or his marriage was crumbling, or there was something about that washcloth that really pissed him off that day.

That's not the way it works, according to Stuart McGill, **, the spine-mechanics guru at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

In his second book, Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, McGill says that back injuries can occur any time your body suffers what he calls "motor-control errors." In layman's terms, a motor-control error occurs when one particular muscle doesn't do what your other muscles need and expect it to do. It's the physiological equivalent of trying to drive a car with a flat tire.

If you're doing a big-muscle, heavy-weight exercise like a deadlift, your muscles are probably awake and alert, which is why an experienced lifter is unlikely to hurt himself, even when he handles some pretty serious iron.

But that same lifter may hurt his back doing something completely innocuous, like bending over to pick up a piece of paper off the floor.

The cause, McGill writes, is a motor-control error. Some muscles may be alert and doing what they're supposed to do to protect the lifter's spine. But others may not have switched themselves on properly.

That's one type of error: Some muscles fire, but other don't, and the ensuing imbalance causes the firing muscles to pull the spine too hard in one direction. If everything's working, muscles on each side of the spine pull equally hard, and the spine stays where it's supposed to. If a muscle on one side fails to go into action, you could have an injury.

A second type of error occurs when the task seems so easy that none of the protective muscles fire. McGill cites research showing that it doesn't take much movement to damage "passive" muscles.

His own research has shown that even the strongest lifters can hurt themselves doing exercises they know how to do. All it takes is one motor-control error, one tiny muscle slacking off when all the others are pulling with every available fiber and neuron, and the lifter could hurt himself.

I guess I'm offering two lessons here:

1. No matter how simple the task, if your back is involved, pay attention to what you're doing.

2. On heavy lifts, focus is everything. The heavier the lift, the more extreme your focus needs to be.

Now, here's what I started to write about the deadlift:

You can't let your back, even for a second, slip out of natural shape, which includes a slight arch in the lumbar spine. If you try to lift with a rounded back—in other words, if you lose that arch—it's not a question of "if" you will hurt yourself. It's "when."

Which is not to say that proper deadlift form is difficult or tedious to learn. In fact, once you learn to lift barbells and dumbbells off the floor the correct way, you'll consciously lift everything with perfect form, whether it's a paper clip on the floor or a sofa you have to lug up three flights of stairs.

And your back will thank you for that.

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Body Building Secrets Revealed

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