The Deadlift Series: Creating Tension, Part 1

In this series, I’ll be addressing some elements of proper setup and execution that can dramatically improve your deadlift.

To start off, let’s talk about tension. 

There are a couple of different ways to increase tension in the deadlift, so this topic will be covered in two separate articles.

Today, we’ll talk about what it means to take the slack out of the bar, how it affects the lift, and how to put it in action.

The Car-in-the-ditch Analogy

In an effort to make this concept more relatable to daily life, I’ll try to paint a picture for you.

Imagine a stalled car, in a ditch along the side of the road. There’s a rope attached to its front end, connecting it to your towing truck. Now you, as the tow truck driver, have to get that car out of the ditch.

Initially, there’s plenty of slack in the rope, meaning the rope is loose although it is firmly attached on both ends.

What is the next logical step? You have two options:

Option A. Gently apply pressure on the gas, until you feel tension on the rope as it comes to a fully taut, lengthened position. At this point, you continue applying pressure, slow and steady, gradually increasing it as needed to pull the car out of the ditch.

Option B. You realize it’s going to be a challenge getting that car back on the road, so yanking it at full force sounds like the best idea. You put your foot down on the gas pedal real hard. Guess what? Not your brightest moment. You end up ripping the front bumper off the car, AND it’s still stuck in the ditch.

What happened?

Wouldn’t applying MORE force by attempting to yank the car out of the ditch yield better results than a “slow and gradual” approach?

I think by now you have realized that’s not really the case.

As you rapidly accelerate, yanking on the rope in hopes of moving the car, you actually end up wasting energy as it travels through the rope and is overcome by the dead weight of the stalled car. At this point, you must exert more force in order to actually get the car moving.

The same concept applies to the deadlift.

We must first create tension on the bar (and within our body) to promote a more efficient transfer of force, with no wasted energy and less risk of flying bumpers, er, injuries.

The Nitty-Gritty of It 

Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening at the barbell level, before the bar leaves the floor.

First, note that the inside collar of a plate is, obviously, made to fit a barbell sleeve through it. However, there’s still some space between the bar and the plate collar.

Sideview of a loaded barbell on the floor. (Disclaimer: not an actual photo, dimensions have been exaggerated for illustration purposes)

When the bar is sitting on the floor, the sleeves rest on the lower inner part of the collar.

When the bar is lifted up, it must first hit the upper part to make contact with the plate in a direction opposite to gravity.

Is this getting confusing yet? Bear with me.

The initial force applied into the bar will be diminished as the bar first makes contact with the upper part of the plate collar. This is equivalent to making the rope taut between the car and the truck.

From there, the bar may actually bend a little (or a lot) before leaving the ground. This will come down to how bendy or whippy a bar is; powerlifting competition bars like Eleiko usually have much less whip than, say, a Texas deadlift bar. Regardless, that’s another potential source of “energy leak” during the lift.

Taking the slack out of the bar greatly decreases (if it doesn’t completely eliminate) these losses, meaning the force applied into the bar will be the force that actually lifts the weight.

Yanking on the bar will also mess with your starting positioning. Your hips are much more likely to shoot up before the bar leaves the floor, putting you in a huge mechanical disadvantage.

To top it off, your spine will likely be rounded to oblivion as you effectively disengage the musculature that’s helping keep your shit togeth- I mean, brace. Needless to say, unintentional spinal flexion under heavy loads is something we should steer clear of.

Failing to take the slack out of the bar also means energy will be lost somewhere along the “ropes” of your body: your muscles and connective tissue. 

The elbows also play a huge role in creating tension. Straightening them out is the first step towards increasing rigidity within the system, so keep them long and avoid trying to lift the bar with your arms bent.

Ever heard of bicep tears? Yep, it’s in your best interest to avoid those.

So, How Can You Create More Tension and Effectively ‘Pull The Slack Out of The Bar’?

Just like in our car analogy, it involves a simple yet methodical technique: apply slow, gradual pressure into the bar until you hear it ‘click’, which means the bar has made contact with the plates.

Then, you continue applying pressure until the bar has lost all of its slack; that is, it can no longer bend. This step may seem insiginificant with stiffer bars and lighter weights, but it can actually help you get into a better starting position to pull.

At this point, you can push full throttle into the ground as the bar leaves the floor and you execute the lift.

If you’re a bullet point type of person (hey, I feel you), here it goes:

  • Gently apply force into the ground by pulling on the bar just enough so that it makes contact with the collar of the plates.
  • Keep gradually applying force to take all the slack out of the bar. The heavier the barbell is loaded, the bendier it will be, and thus the more slack within it.
  • Once the bar can no longer bend, push into the ground as needed to lift the bar.

That’s it. It’s simple (sort of), easy to apply in real life, and will forever change how you deadlift, for the better.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series where I’ll be talking about bracing, THE most important thing you can do in a deadlift (and any other compound lift, for that matter).


About The Author

Barbara M.

Since 2013, Barbara has been helping women of all fitness backgrounds get stronger, leaner and more confident, both inside and outside the gym.

Her passion lies in educating, empowering and encouraging women to find out what they’re capable of, and more.

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