Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Pulling with the Quadriceps

2008 silver medalist Li Hongli and his developed quads
"For whatever reason, there's a tendency in this country at this time to think we have a dearth of hip extension strength (glutes and hams) and a wealth of knee extension strength (quads). That wasn't the case in 1998 when I first got into this profession. There was no big emphasis on hip extension.

Somehow, somewhere, the emphasis changed from triple extension to emphasis on hip extension and this new thing emerged: the posterior chain.

And what great timing it was, because suddenly we had become a nation of quad dominant, dysfunctional people, plagued by gluteal amnesia.
- Excerpt from "That P-Chain Thang"
by Physical Therapist Tracy Fober

When I started lifting weights in 2006, I had to take in a lot of new information. Technique was stressed repeatedly and it's still important to this day. While performing movements with good form minimizes risk of injury, it also makes exercises easier and allows us to derive more benefit from them for our goals.

It's training efficiency - getting the most bang for your buck in the training you do.

In my social media feeds, several training videos tend to show up. I watch a good number of them and it's apparent there's a disconnect in understanding technique. Technical deviations are common near maximal efforts, but most videos I see are submaximal.

The most notable issue I notice is pulling a barbell off the floor using the quadriceps muscles.

The popularity of gluteal training has cause the hips and glutes to be heavily emphasized in training. This is especially true for recreational exercisers who sit for long periods throughout the day. In many lower body movements, most people are taught to focus on their hips, such as sitting back when beginning a squat. Unfortunately because of this, the quadriceps muscle group gets overlooked. Remember the function of the quadriceps - to extend the knee.

When the mistake happens in deadlifts or weightlifting pulls, it's easy to observe. The hips are high and the movement ends up resembling a stiff legged deadlift where the legs are almost straight.

Notice the high hips and vertical shin

Sometimes trainees set up correctly, but either due to lack of knowledge or strength, their hips shoot up, the torso becomes almost parallel to the floor, and they end up pulling with their hamstrings, glutes, and low back. This doesn't make use of the quadriceps and ends up fatiguing the other areas sooner in the movement.

In a good pull that utilizes the quadriceps, the barbell and hips rise at the same speed. This is the quadriceps initiating the movement as it extends the knee. When done correctly, the back angle remains constant at the start of the movement.

Depending on whether a deadlift is being done by powerlifters or pulls by weightlifters, there are things to consider when looking at the technique and incorporating corrections.


Powerlifters have a lot of freedom in their deadlifting styles. Conventional, sumo, low hips, high hips, narrow stance, rounded upper back, and any other number of variations or combinations of them. Pulling style will be up to the individual's build and preferences, especially if the person has a history of injury.

For reference, take a look at the following conventional and sumo deadlifts. Both show good pulling technique.


However, there are exceptions and this isn't the only way to deadlift. An experienced lifter won't necessarily have the same deadlifting style if they know what works best for them. For instance, Bob Peoples was well known for deadlifting with his legs nearly straight and a rounded back. It would generally be considered bad form and ill advised to perform deadlifts in that way, but it suited him the best based on his own build and experience.

For beginner and intermediate trainees, they have less time under the bar. More often than not, they unintentionally deadlift with their hips high. The issue tends to reveal itself at heavier weights.

A quick correction is to give a point to look at for the person to focus on as they straighten their knees or think about pressing their feet into the ground. However if a little more assistance is needed, guiding them with hands on their hips and low back can also do the trick.

If the quadriceps are lacking strength in this specific position, hack squats (previously discussed here) can be used as a correction.

Begins at the 3:35 mark

Done properly, a hack squat has the bar lifted without any issue. If the hips come up first, the bar will hit the hamstrings before it reaches lock out. It teaches to begin the lift from the knees by using the quadriceps and requires maintaining good positioning of the torso before finishing with the hips.

Fortunately for weightlifters, there is less range in pulling styles and simplifies the issue.


Alex Lee at 2015 World Championships

Weightlifting should be straightforward, but for whatever reason lifters make the classical movements more complicated than necessary. The first pull is described as the portion of the lift from the floor to the knees.

Similar to powerlifters, for weightlifters the issue may be lack of awareness. Some simply pull too fast off the floor and lose their position. This is especially true if the main thought is to stay over the bar and emphasize hip extension after the second pull. Sometimes the quads are not taken into consideration.

Corrections for this were discussed in last year's FuBarbell + Training Geek seminar review. To recap the relevant section,
"From the start position, we were told to go straight up as if we were trying to draw a straight line from a pencil sticking out of our ear. Visually, a PVC can be held adjacent to the lifter. Keeping the ear in line to the PVC will force the lifter to pull straight up. If the lifter still needs further feedback, Diane demonstrated by having her hand on the upper back and told Lester to press her hand upwards. This achieves the correct pulling action.

They provided excellent cues to understand how it should feel. I particularly liked the emphasis on feeling the quadriceps contract in the start position and in extension. In the start position, "feel your heels float" gave the right idea of how far you should start over the bar - the weight is shifted forward just enough to have your heels stay lightly on the ground. If done correctly, the quadriceps muscles can be felt."
These cues are great for shifting the trainee's idea of the set up and execution without being overly analytical and verbose.

To exaggerate feeling the quadriceps, I learned a very good drill from Stephen Powell. When I reached out to him for coaching, this was one of the first exercises he introduced to me. It's a modified set up to perform pulls called Sex Pocket Pulls.

Demonstrated by Carlee Acevedo-Fuller

In the video above, Carlee is doing pulls on plates, but with her heels hanging off the back. This forces her to slow down and pull with the quadriceps. She has to find the right balance so her heels do not touch the floor. By ensuring her heels don't touch the floor, her pull is smooth and fluid.

These can be done with a snatch or clean grip or even a grip width in between the two.

Closing Thoughts

The quadriceps are strong and should be used to our advantage. By not using all our muscles, progress will be slow and the workload will be transferred to other muscles. Those muscles have to do more than required during a set and limits what we are capable of.

Whatever sport you apply yourself to, working hard is one part of the equation and can only take you so far. It's also important to work smart. Working smart makes our hard efforts all the more worthwhile and beneficial in the long term.

‘’Technique is the ultimate expression of strength in weightlifting.’’

- Robert Roman
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