You’re confused. I get it. About a week ago I claimed you didn’t know what hip extension was and did nothing but prescribe a high volume of activation exercises.
Truthfully, you probably know what hip extension is. It’s that you don’t know how it feels. Does a deadlift feel like a bird dog to you? Aren’t they both powered by hip extension? They should feel more similar than you think, and if they don’t you need to keep reading.
By most standards, you may have perfect squat and deadlift form. But just because you’re setting your back and lifting a lot of weight doesn’t mean you’re maximizing hip extension. I know we glorify strength, but I’m going to squash it right now. Weight on the bar doesn’t matter.
VECTOR TRAINING REBORN
I’m not a big science guy. That’s why I had to search Bret Contreras’s blog for this next section. But I’m going try to appeal to the scholar and meathead in us all by using both fancy and childish terms.
Most exercises train the axial vector, or what I like to call, the up and down vector. During a squat your body moves up and down. In a deadlift, you bend down to the bar and stand up with it in your hands. Although hip extension takes place in a squat and a deadlift, we don’t actually propel ourselves horizontally. Once we set our feet in these lifts, we don’t move. The heavier up and down vector training becomes, the more vertical a bar will travel. Mark Rippetoe harps on keeping the bar path vertical for squats and deadlifts because heavy things like to take the shortest path between two points.
Hip extension happens in the anteroposterior vector, or what I call, the back and forth vector. Sprinting is a great example of a back and forth movement where we propel horizontally. Great sprinters glide across the ground, using little axial, or up and down, motion. We can’t maximize hip extension unless we have some horizontal propulsion.
The question then is, how can we use the muscles that propel us horizontally, without propelling horizontally?
Home base for hip extension is the romanian deadlift (RDL). If you’re wondering about hip thrusts, they are a good exercise. But the amount of quadriceps activation is disheartening (discussed in the first article). In contrast, the RDL is raw standing hip extension. No knee bend. No chance for quadricep involvement. Just your backside and your mind. This is the movement that teaches you hip extension, and it's different from what you know so clear your mind of what you think an RDL is supposed to be.
You may think I’m a crazy for complicating the shit out something as simple as lowering and raising a bar, but I’m validated through one of the most popular speed experts, Kelly Baggett. Baggett is a mastermind when it comes to making complicated information seem like a children’s book. And if Kelly says something is difficult, it must be difficult.
“The Romanian deadlift is basically a slower o-lift. Done correctly it should target the glutes. However I’ve always thought it is the hardest exercise in existence to teach and do correctly. “
-Kelly Baggett during an interview at Empowered Athletes
What you’re about to learn is, well, different. My girlfriend can squat and deadlift with what many would see as perfect form – a nice back arch, below parallel – a testament to my awesome coaching. But when it comes to teaching her how to power the lifts through hip extension, clumps of my hair end up on the ground. She just can’t get it. But if you can, you have it made. You’ll see your health improve. You’ll move differently. You’ll walk up steps differently. It’s a golden ticket – a life changer – so take notes. Fixing hip extension is one of the few steps needed to fix knee pain. Don’t underestimate it.
As I said before, don’t worry about a vertical bar path. It won’t happen. It can’t happen. It turns the RDL into a glorified back extension. This negates the power of the hips. And referring to Bagget again, No Glutes = No Results.
Let’s take a look at how to avoid it.
“The average trainee doing o-lifts and RDLs uses way too much back and not enough glute.”
#1 BACK EXTENSION
Most people that power the RDL through back extension will have a nice arch in their lower back that never goes away, even when they hit lockout. Their lower back arch is “correct” by most standards, but most standards need changed. The extreme anterior pelvic tilt makes it harder to use our glutes.
#2 HIP EXTENSION
Powering the RDL through hip extension requires tightness and stability everywhere but in the hips, because they are the only thing moving. Most people will have a neutral spine, and will squeeze the glutes at lockout, indicating hip involvement. The bar won’t travel as far down the shins because the lift stops when the hips hit their sticking point as opposed to the lower back and hamstrings.
The above may sound confusing, so here is an easy way to conceptualize each scenario.
For back extension – imagine you have a rope around your neck that is tied to a car behind you. If the car speeds away, you’ll lose your balance backwards by leading with the chest and contracting through the lower back.
For hip extension – imagine you have a rope around your glutes that is tied to a car in front of you. If the car speeds away, you’ll lose your balance forwards by leading with the hips and contracting through the glutes. It will look like an air hump.
With back extension, you lose balance backwards. With hip extension, you lose it forwards.
If you act out the hip extension scenario enough times, you can feel your feet pull on the ground right before you lose your balance. This is what propels you forward, and is what Baggett calls pawing the ground.
“There has to be some emphasis on pushing the hips back and pawing back on the ground from that position (like a bull pawing the ground), even though the feet won’t move.”
To learn how to paw the ground, stand in a split stance with your left leg in front. Keep your bodyweight on the left leg, allowing the right leg to move freely.
From this position, with your right leg, do an upright Modified Bird Dog 1 and drag your right leg across the ground. The rules don't change. The movement is powered from the glute and that is the only place that should drive the movement. With each repetition, shift more weight to the right leg. The drag across the ground will become slower (second video).
Eventually, you'll apply so much force that your foot won't move and you’ll be scissoring the ground between both of your legs. Find the sweet spot in this position so that when you're pulling back on the ground, your glute is what is contracting. You'll have to tilt your upper body forward slightly, bending at the hips, to get your hips in a favorable position. Do some isometric contractions once you find the spot.
Instead of our right leg being the free leg, it's now going to be the grounded leg while our left leg moves. Remember, our right leg, although not moving, is still going to be doing the same modified bird dog motion. Shift 60% of your weight to your right leg, and do the same scissor motion you did from above. Your left leg should slowly glide across the ground as you stand upright. I know I keep stressing this, but your glute is powering this. Not your hamstring.
With each repetition, put more weight on your right leg, always squeezing the at lockout. Work up to having all of your weight on your right leg. If you’re doing them right, these are short range of motion unilateral RDL’s that help learn how to paw the ground.
In the video above, at :30, I do an advance variation of this to help activate the glute even more. Again, the hip stabilizes the leg that is on the ground. By lifting the knee it gives you more horizontal motion making it easier to activate the glute through out the entire range of motion. From start to finish, you should feel it in your glute.
FUNDAMENTAL TIP TOE POSITION
Pawing the ground teaches us how to use the muscles in charge of horizontal propulsion without actually propelling horizontally. As Bagget says, it’s like trying to bench press the bar from a military press position in hopes of getting maximal pec activation. It’s not easy because the force is coming from the wrong direction.
But since you’re learning how train hip extension from a standing position, you’re going to have to make sense of it. This is where the fundamental tip toe position (FTTP) becomes important. It’s the bridge between actually travelling horizontally and theoretically travelling horizontally.
The FTTP is easy get into. Stand with your feet shoulder width, toes pointed forward or slightly out (10 degrees or less), get on your tip toes, and squeeze your glutes.
Let me say that again for those with reading HDD.
1) Stand with your feet shoulder width
2) Toes pointed forward or slightly out
3) Get on your tip toes
4) Squeeze your glutes
Being on your toes challenges your balance, and squeezing the glutes forces the abs to contract to keep the body in equilibrium. Try it out and palpate your abs – obliques especially. The abs and glutes work together, remember this. That’s why anterior pelvic tilting hinders glute function.
The FTTP transitions into an RDL by rocking to an even weight distribution while thinking about driving your hips to the wall behind you. Don’t worry about your upper body, or how far down you can go. Your torso will move naturally with your hips, like a hinge. The sticking point will come soon. The farthest I’d recommend going is fingertips to knee cap level, but some may have to stop even higher. Going lower kills ab tightness and turns the RDL into a back extension. Keeping the midsection tight creates a grinding resistance as you reach your hips back, and this is what you want.
Pause at the sticking point before pawing the ground to shot your hips forward into the FTTP. Envision the rope tied around your glutes and the car pulling away.
The top of the lift resembles the snap of a kettlebell swing, only you rise on your tip toes. Neghar Fonooni has a wonderful snap at the top of her swing. This lockout and snap is what you’re after. She doesn’t posteriorly rotate her pelvis, and a lot of people trying to learn this type of RDL will. Come up to a neutral spine position and squeeze the glutes – just try to think of the snap you see in this video.
If you’re a fan of Bret Contreras, you’ve probably seen his American Deadlift Video. The RDL I teach is similar to his American Deadlift, but the main difference is that he advocates tilting your spine and shifting from anterior to posterior tilt during the movement.
During the RDL I teach, the spine stays neutral throughout, even at lockout as mentioned in the previous section.
When you’re relearning hip extension, stay away from the barbell. Start by doing the kind of RDLs I described, but finish in the FTTP. It’s an easy movement to “get” so spend one to two weeks doing 100-300 reps of them per day. You’ll know you’re doing them right if your glutes catch fire, you feel a grinding resistance on the eccentric, and you feel yourself pawing the ground. Truthfully, this exercise will eventually top all of your glute activation exercises and be used in their place for rhythmic sets of 20-100. But don’t rush the process. Give this exercise a try, and watch your health improve. Ingrain this motor pattern because next time, I'm going to teach you ways to load it for strength training.