alternate working titles:
Why We Don’t Do SDHP
The Second Dumbest CrossFit Exercise
By Dallas Hartwig, MS, PT
Confession: I am a terrible CrossFitter – I have never done the sumo deadlift high pull (SDHP). Yes, really. (I’ve never done Fran, either, but that’s a story for another day.) My first exposure to the SDHP was more than five years ago, in a CrossFit.com prescribed workout complete with instructional photos. The physical therapist in me immediately recoiled at Nicole Carroll’s demonstration. First, the movement itself (not just her particular demonstration) more closely resembled a jumping upright row than any sort of explosive, high-powered “core-to-extremity” movement. But my greater professional concern? The position at the top of a SDHP very closely resembles this clinical picture of a shoulder impingement test. Except with an even more stressful shoulder position. (???!!! Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.)
Over my last few years of clinical PT practice, I’ve had several colleagues call me to ask, “I know you do CrossFit. I’ve recently seen several patients who were injured doing CrossFit. What’s this all about?” I was quick to defend CrossFit’s exercise program, carefully explaining some of the concepts of intensity-driven adaptation, core-to-extremity movement patterns, and moving-large-loads-long-distances-quickly. I hoped my explanation of CrossFit’s methodology would assuage their concern about this new breed of exercise.
But in every case, I also asked which CrossFit movements the patient was doing when they were hurt. Two quickly emerged as the Usual Suspects: the SDHP and the kipping pull-up, movements relatively unique to CrossFit’s prescribed training routines. (I’m not going to talk about the kipping pull-up in this post, although Melissa has written on that here.) Hearing my PT colleagues describe a SDHP (hilarious, by the way) totally explained the injuries they were treating. Because truthfully, 94.72% of SDHPs that I’ve seen in the 4th or 5th round of Fight Gone Bad look nothing like core-to-extremity, hip-driven movements. They look like inconsistent, poorly executed, discoordinated jumping upright rows. And let me tell you what an upright row really looks like, to a physical therapist.
The Hawkins-Kennedy impingement test (pictured above) “pushes the supraspinatus tendon against the anterior surface of the coracoacromial ligament and coracoid process” (reference). Translation: This is a test for supraspinatus tendinitis and the resulting subacromial pressure and inflammation that typifies impingement. In even more simple terms, this position jams your most commonly injured rotator cuff muscle between two bones. Just like the top of a perfectly executed, loaded SDHP. (No, that doesn’t sound good to me, either.)
Now, I understand that the SDHP is supposed to be a “core-to-extremity” movement, and that the upward movement of the bar should be driven primarily by the hips, less so by the extension of the knees and ankles, and even less so by the upward pull of the arms. (This is what they said at my CrossFit Level One cert, anyway.) But in reality, if there is any degree of discoordination due to improper attention to form, the complicated neurological pattern of the movement, or plain old fatigue (all wickedly common factors), there will realistically be a significant amount of arm pull at the top of the movement – arm pull in a compromised, internally-rotated position. I make the case that repetitive, high-velocity movements that require an awkward, mechanically-disadvantageous position on every repetition are simply asking for an injury. In other words, I like my supraspinatus, and prefer that it not be violently and repeatedly jammed into my scapula.
Given the inherent structural dangers posed by the movement and the propensity for the “80% perfection, 20% slop” advocated by CrossFit to quickly devolve to 50/50 or worse, I posit that you should attempt to obtain optimal fitness without doing SDHPs. Though I guess you couldn’t be a very good competitive CrossFitter if you dropped them. (Ask me if I care.)
So, you ask, what should I do instead of SDHP?
Want to improve turnover speed for your snatch (and build important rotator cuff and scapular musculature)? Work muscle snatches and tall snatches, demonstrated here by Catalyst Athletics. Want full-body explosiveness? Work your clean and jerk, the mother of large-loads-long-distances-quickly (minus the traumatic shoulder impingement). Need a metabolically-demanding core-to-extremity movement in your workout? CrossFit, Inc., recommends subbing SDHP for rowing. (Repeat after me, “no, thank you”.) Instead, I say you should sub rowing for SDHP. If you don’t have an erg, do dumbbell squat cleans or dumbbell thrusters. Or take the time to learn a proper kettlebell clean or snatch. Or work your barbell clean, in any variation. I think those are enough valid, safe and effective substitutions, don’t you?
In summary, there is simply no good reason to do sumo deadlift high pulls – and two very good reasons (your left and right shoulders) to skip them entirely. Thanks for reading – I wish you and your supraspinatus good luck. (And happy FGB!)