How to Use a Tiny Box to Make Big Deadlift Gains

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The deadlift may seem like all that’s required is simply holding on to a bar and then standing up, but there is a lot more technique involved to optimize performance — not only to lift as much as possible, but also feeling confident and avoiding injury in doing so. 

Two things that can both hold you back from lifting more yet, at the same time, greatly assist in your push to new PRs: Position and confidence. There are a few keys to attaining these and one that should usually be looked at first, which is your set-up position.

Do you make this common fault in the deadlift set-up? 

A common fault with CrossFit athletes is to set up for the deadlift with their hips too low and more like they would for a clean. Although good for the clean, the problem with this for the deadlift is when you attempt to lift maximal load in this position, the hips shoot up and the bar floats out in front. The hips rise because your body is trying to get into a stronger position but it also forces your knees to move away from the bar. Now, the bar is too far out in front and more stress is being put into your lower back in order to recover the lift. That’s when power is lost and injury can occur. 

Box drill to optimize your deadlift

Deadlift Box Drill

Here’s a drill you can use with lighter weight that will help you become aware of where your weight is in your set-up position and throughout the rest of the lift. This drill will help you learn to keep your weight back and use more of your posterior chain throughout the lift, from the initial pull off the floor all the way through the finish position.

Put a small box behind you (no higher than the knee) and set up your bar in front of it (the bar should have pretty light weight on it to start with). Remember, this is a drill and is great for a warm-up, not your max lift.

If you commit the “clean fault”, you will know right away because your calves will not be touching the box when you grab your bar. To get into the proper position, push your knees back; this will force your hips higher and the bar will be closer to your center of balance. Now the bar and your body are both starting in a better position to keep the bar close and (in the future) lift heavy weight. 

Begin to stand the bar up very slowly while paying attention to feel if your calves are staying connected to the box or not. If they drift, push your knees back into the proper position with them touching the box and hold for 1-2 seconds. 

Do the same after you pass your knees. Check to see if you’re still in contact with the box. If not, make the adjustment and hold it for a couple of seconds. 

Once you get the feel for it, you can pick up the speed and even add a little more weight so you can eventually practice the drill at your normal lifting speed to see if you can maintain your position with the added weight and faster tempo. Here are some reminders and cues on each of the phases/positions to focus on: the set-up, the pull, and the finish.

The more you practice this, the more it will become natural and something you no longer need to practice and the stronger you’ll become. And as we know…strength is involved in every single aspect of CrossFit which is why I love coaching strength cycles that are designed for athletes to be able to train strength in a smart way. Your CrossFit performance and ability to get work done will only improve as you get stronger.

If you try this drill and discover that no amount of practice is helping you find the position in your set-up so your calves touch the box, you likely have more of a mobility problem on your hands than a technique issue. Talk to your coach about some customization options you can do while you address your mobility — they should be able to prescribe something just right for you. And if not, hit me up, I’d love to work with you! 

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