By Jeff & Martha Ellis
In the July 2007 column “More Power to You,” p. 110, we addressed functional lifts that strengthen your muscles for moderately heavy lifting, such as lifting a ladder from the ground to overhead. There are, however, many situations when we need to lift and move something that weighs considerably more than a ladder, such as extrication power units or fans—not necessarily overhead, but off the ground.
On the fireground, there are many situations when we need to lift and move heavy equipment, such as extrication power units or fans. Thus, using weights in specific movement patterns that mimic fireground tasks can develop strength exactly where you need it: your legs and back.
Using weights in specific movement patterns that mimic fireground tasks can develop strength exactly where you need it: your legs and back. Practicing these lifts will help you develop proper lifting techniques, thereby increasing your strength and helping prevent back injuries. Further, developing good lifting habits will not only help you on the fireground, but also in non-work-related activities, such as lifting your children, moving furniture—you name it. Remember, people have hurt their backs bending over to pick up items as light as a pencil.
One of the simplest and most effective lifts is the dead lift, which uses most of your lower body muscles, especially the gluteal (buttocks) and hamstring (rear thigh) muscles. Also engaged during the lift: the quadriceps (front thighs), the lower-back muscles and midsection to form a stable trunk, the trapezius (large back muscle that runs from your neck to the middle of your back), your biceps and triceps, as well as your forearms and hands used to grip the bar.
It’s not difficult to learn to how to properly perform a dead lift, but it’s important to remain focused and conscious of your form. This may take some effort at first, but using proper form should eventually become second nature. Regardless of how “good” you get at any type of lifting, proper form and control should always be at the forefront of your mind to prevent back injuries.
The position of your back is a major component of maintaining proper form. Your back should be flat or have a slight arch to it while executing the lift. Rounding your back creates excessive stress on the lower back and could lead to injury. A good way to avoid rounding your back is to keep your head up in a neutral position. Spotting an object or a mark on the wall will help keep your eyes focused and your head level.
To perform a dead lift, place your hands on the bar with a reversed grip so your arms are just outside your legs (top). For lighter weights, you can use an overhand grip (bottom); however, as the amount of weight increases, you will likely require wrist wraps to help maintain your grip on the bar. Once your feet and hands are in the proper position, bring your head up and your butt down (middle). As you initiate the lift, straighten your legs while maintaining the arch in your back. When the bar passes your knees, move your hips forward to finish getting into a vertical position. You should be standing straight and tall with your shoulders back when you are finished (bottom).
To begin the lift, stand with your feet about shoulder width apart, toes turned out slightly, with the bar over your feet. Place your hands on the bar with a reversed grip (one hand comes over the bar, the other comes under) so your arms are just outside your legs (see photo labeled “Grip,” p. 188). This will help you maintain your grip on the bar, allowing you to lift more weight without wrist wraps. Once your feet and hands are in the proper position, bring your head up and your butt down (see photo “Start,” p. 188).
As you initiate the lift, tighten your abdominal and lower-back muscles for support and stability. Keep the bar as close to your legs as possible; moving the weight away from your body will place undue stress on your back and shoulders. Your arms should remain straight for the duration of the lift.
Straighten your legs while maintaining the arch in your back. When the barbell passes your knees, move your hips forward to finish getting into a vertical position. Try not to straighten your legs too quickly, leaving your back bent over to hold all the weight.
As you move into the upright position, keep your legs straight and finish the lift with a back-roll shoulder shrug. You should be standing straight and tall with your shoulders back when you are finished (see photo “Finish,” p. 188). Avoid arching your back in the standing position. At this point, lower the weight to the ground using the same back/leg effort, always controlling the weight. Then repeat the lift.
Dead Lift Variations
There are many variations of the dead lift, including straight-leg and box dead lifts. Straight-leg dead lifts really work the hamstrings. This is a more advanced lift, so make sure you’ve mastered the basic dead lift before moving to the straight-leg version. This lift should be performed with considerably less weight than the basic dead lift.
The straight-leg dead lift is very much like the basic dead lift with one significant difference: Your legs are straight. When we say “straight,” we should really say “straighter.” There are few times during weightlifting when your legs or arms are truly straight. You generally want to avoid completely straightening, or locking, your joints to minimize hyperextension injuries.
Getting into position is much like the basic dead lift except when you lift your head just prior to lifting the weight, your butt stays up because your legs are straight. Take extreme care when performing this lift. Start with a light weight and take it slow. Because it will be difficult to completely flatten your back, pay attention to how your back and hamstrings feel, especially early in the lift. Then lift in the same manner as the basic dead lift with the shoulder shrug at the end.
If you’re interested in trying the straight-leg lift, it’s a good idea to work with a personal trainer who understands free weightlifting; they can help you master proper body positioning and mechanics.
As for the box dead lift, there is one major difference between it and the basic dead lift: During the box dead lift, you will stand on a box (or actual lifting platform). This is especially helpful when you’ve worked up to lifting the larger 45-lb. plates, and the actual throw of the lift is shortened by the size of the plates.
The height can vary and will be dictated more by personal preference than anything else. These lifts are especially helpful for people who don’t have a long distance to actually lift the weight (i.e., people who are short). Using a box will lengthen your effort. Plus, you’ll get a slight stretch as you start and finish lifting.
Save Your Back
A back injury can sideline you for weeks, if not months. To avoid such injuries, it’s important to strengthen your back muscles. And as you know, it’s always good to strengthen muscles using techniques that mimic fireground activity so your body becomes accustomed to those specific movement patterns. That’s why we like dead lifts so much. They not only mimic common lifting-related activities, such as moving heavy machinery, but they also train the back and legs to work together, strengthen your core and help prevent debilitating back injuries.
Captain Martha Ellis has been a firefighter with the Salt Lake City Fire Department (SLCFD) for more than 12 years, serving as a firefighter, engineer, media technician and ARFF training officer. She has won the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge Women’s Division five times, and held the world record for 8 consecutive years. She is currently the fire marshal for Salt Lake International Airport, and she works as a certified fitness coordinator for the SLCFD.Captain Jeff Ellis of the Murray (Utah) Fire Department (MFD) has served as a firefighter, engineer, hazmat technician and shift training captain. He has been a certified fitness coordinator for the department since 1996. As a competitor in the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge, he has won two overall world championships and three Over 40 world championships and helped MFD take the team trophy. He has been active in teaching all aspects of firefighting, including swiftwater rescue and fitness and nutrition in the fire service.E-mail your fitness-related questions or comments to Jeff and Martha Ellis at firstname.lastname@example.org