The regular deadlift is possibly the least understood exercise in all of weight training. No matter what type of weight work you specialize in (Olympic lifting, powerlifting or bodybuilding) a strong, heavily muscled lower back is a must. Even so, that’s only part of the benefit derived from this throwback exercise.
I call it a “throwback” because it’s the oldest method of lifting a ponderous weight off the ground known to man. This ancient pick-it-up-and-stand-with-it technique has been in constant use since man first stood on his hind legs millions of years ago.
Although at first glance the deadlift appears to be a simple movement, nothing could be further from the truth. Many view it solely as an example of brute strength and a strong back, and one reason for this is that you have to move through the deadlift very slowly. While it does require quite a bit of raw strength, however, it becomes an extremely technical lift when performed by someone who understands its dynamics.
Two styles of this movement are prevalent today, the regular deadlift, in which your hands are placed outside your legs, and the sumo-style deadlift, in which your hands are inside your legs and you use a wider stance. To choose the best method for you, you must first examine your reasons for incorporating the exercise into your training.
Are you a bodybuilder or a lifter? Do you want to develop thick spinal erectors and strengthen your back for other movements like squats and overhead presses, or are you, like a powerlifter, looking for how much you can hoist in a single rep? Deadlifts are of primary importance to both bodybuilders and power-lifters. Olympic lifters, on the other hand, use it only as an assistance exercise, to strengthen their lower backs for other movements and to improve the start and the beginning pull of their two competitive lifts, the clean and jerk and the snatch. For that reason and because Olympic lifters should almost never use the sumo-style variation, I will concentrate on the regular deadlift and its primary role in bodybuilding and powerlifting.
There are a number of reasons why bodybuilders should also stick with the regular deadlift. Most important is the fact that when you perform it properly, the weight travels farther than it does during a sumo-style deadlift.
That point brings up the reason that the sumo-style variation was created. Because of the very wide foot spacing you can lower your body and hands and at the same time become more erect. There are two advantages to this: Your lower back is involved far less in the movement, and you don’t have to lay your head back on your traps as forcibly as you do with the regular style, because the weight comes in closer to your center of gravity. This is due to the fact that your toes must turn out to facilitate the very wide stance, which leaves more room for the bar to move in before it touches the inside of your lower leg, as opposed to the front, or shin, which is what it touches in the regular style.
In my opinion, however, there’s a very negative aspect to the sumostyle deadlift. It involves the extreme downward pressure put on the inside, or medial aspect, of the knees, which have already been made vulnerable by the very wide stance. An injury to this area could well end your lifting days forever.
How to Perform the Regular Deadlift
Bodybuilders shouldn’t look for shortcuts. By the very nature of the activity you want the most muscular involvement, not the least. For that reason, and because it’s much safer to perform, the regular dead-lift is the wise choice.
Let’s discuss the dynamics of the deadlift. “Dynamics” is the way in which outside forces influence the movement of bodies. In performing the deadlift, you do just that. You, the outside force, influence the movement of bodies, specifically those heavy barbells lying on the floor, more powerfully than you ever thought possible. When you do that, you’ll have learned proper technique.
If you stand erect, with your arms at your sides, and attach a plumb line to hang from your shoulder to the floor, the line won’t hang in front of your leg but to the side, roughly through the middle of the side view. That’s your center of gravity, your natural strength groove. Of course, you can’t pull a heavy barbell through the middle of your legs. Instead, you must apply the correct dynamics to facilitate the movement.
When the bar is on the floor before you start the lift, it’s some six inches in front of your center of gravity. To overcome this, you have to adjust the position of the bar as you move through the rep. The key to this dynamic is the correct use of your spinal erectors.
Although the lower-back muscles are highly activated during a regular deadlift, their main role is to stabilize your upper body during the part of the lift in which you’re most likely to fail, as the bar approaches and moves past your knees. At this point the bar should be in very tight, literally scraping against your shins. Your head must be forcibly laid back against your traps, and you must be looking up at the ceiling at a 45 degree or greater angle.
If your head or eyes are down or if the bar is out from your legs, your lower back will become involved in supporting the weight. As a result, it won’t be able to do its job of stabilizing, and you won’t be able to bring the bar back into a physically advantageous position to execute the combination of pull-through strength from the trapezius and push-through power from the legs the movement calls for.
Let’s review a perfectly performed deadlift using a heavy weight.
Walk up to the bar and position yourself so your shins are touching it. Your stance should be the same width as you use for squats, with your toes pointing straight ahead. Without letting the bar roll away from you, bend over and grasp it just outside your legs. The next step is to lower your butt while simultaneously pulling your head up. Your arms should be forcibly pulled straight; they should never bend during the lift.
With your head lying back on your traps so you’re looking at the ceiling at a 45 degree angle, run through a last-second checklist before you complete the lift: Are your eyes looking at the ceiling? Is your head laid back so hard that you feel a strain in your arms? Is the bar pulled into your shins so tightly, it’s uncomfortable? Now you’re ready.
Drive your feet against the platform as hard as you can while at the same time pulling your head back as far as you can. As the bar approaches the sticking point (the knees) continue to drive hard with your legs while increasing the head pull. As your legs are completing their drive, which was responsible for most of the starting movement away from the platform, your traps begin to take over the movement to complete the lift. The bar move up and into your thighs.
Finally, pull your head back as hard as you can. As the bar locks out, your shoulders should be back, not forward, and your back should be slightly arched. To complete the rep, lower the bar back to the starting position.
The above describes the mechanics of a very heavy deadlift, perhaps even a maximum effort. For bodybuilding you perform it exactly the same way but with a weight that lets you get out six reps. Use this movement regularly, and in just a matter of weeks you’ll notice increased thickness not only in your spinal erectors but also in your traps and even your lats. What’s more, you’ll slowly lose the tendencies to bend forward during squats and backward during standing presses.
So the dynamics of the deadlift are the same for bodybuilders and powerlifters. The difference is in the amount of weight you use, not performance technique. The same principle applies to the other powerlifts, the bench press and squat. This isn’t too surprising, since all three powerlifting movements started out as bodybuilding exercises. In fact, the sport of powerlifting was created in the late 1950s, when Bill “Peanuts” West and some other bodybuilders were looking for strength competitions to replace what was known back then as “odd lifts” contests. Because these fellows had no interest in Olympic lifting, they devised a competition of the basic bodybuilding exercises, lifts they trained on regularly. The appeal of this idea is evident in the fact that there are now nearly 30 times as many powerlifters as there are Olympic lifters.
One Man’s Progress With Deadlifts
In the early ’70s a Marine sergeant named Paul Woods came to my gym in St. Louis. Paul was already the Junior National powerlifting champion in the 198-Pound class with an official 500-pound bench press to his credit. His problem was his deadlift, on which his all-time best was a relatively mediocre 630. One of my power-lifters, a guy who’d served in the Marine Corps with Paul, suggested he take some of the six or so months of leave he had coming and train at my gym for a while.
Now, Paul had been working out for more than 15 years and power-lifting for 12. This was no novice but a very committed veteran lifter. He explained that although he warmed up, stretched and seemingly prepared well, as soon as he took his opening attempt, his back would tighten up so badly that he’d have to lie down and his trainers would have to frantically massage his back so he could continue. Not only did this greatly inhibit him physically, but it was also psychologically devastating.
I only had to watch him make one attempt with a relatively light 500 pounds (I had Lightweights deadlifting more) to analyze Paul’s problem. He was a pure back lifter. Bent forward, his head and ass at the same level, parallel to the floor, he held the bar well out from his body as it approached the sticking point, with his arms trying to bend, as if somehow they could help. I was amazed he could complete the lift.
Needless to say, I completely changed Paul’s approach. Starting from scratch, I explained that the deadlift wasn’t meant to be a back lift but a trap lift. I described how the legs start the weight moving, the spinal erectors take over to gain better leverage as the bar nears the sticking point, and the head must be back as the bar moves up into the thighs if you want to keep the bar in the strength groove and compete the lift.
Paul was an apt pupil and followed my coaching to the letter. Although we started at a mere 135 pounds, that was actually fairly heavy; I only let him lift that much weight because we needed to use 45-pound plates to make the bar the correct height.
We worked on deadlifts only once every eight days, but on the fourth day of the training cycle we did very heavy leg presses on a completely vertical machine. That movement is exactly the same as the starting push of the deadlift but performed upside down. On the same day we did head pulls in a power rack, which is a partial-deadlift movement performed as follows.
With the bar positioned at a hole around the area of your knees, your torso bent over and your wrists strapped to the bar, pull your head up and back at a 45 degree angle. Now pull it back until you feel the strain in your traps. Using head pull only, pull the bar up to lock out, rotating your shoulders as you do. Then immediately lower the bar.
For Paul’s training we did many sets of twos and threes in each of three positions; first from the hole just below the knees, then from the next hole up, at the midknee, and finally with the supports set at the hole just above the knees.
On deadlift day Paul always did the same seven sets, as follow:
- 1 x 8
- 1 x 5
- 1 x 4
- 1 x 3
- 2 x 2
- 2 x 1
I still believe that this scheme not only lets the lifter warm up to the work, but it also allows the coach to evaluate any change in technique immediately.
At the time I was training Paul, I was also the Missouri correspondent for Dan De Welt’s Powerlifting News, which was at that time the bible of the sport. De Welt knew that I was coaching Paul, and he asked me to write a feature about the training. Although Paul had been using the new deadlift style for less than three months’ time, he was making rapid progress, training for the World Championships, which were at that point eight or nine months away. De Welt sent a photographer to take pictures, and when I sent the completed article to De Welt, I predicted, “If Paul Woods continues as he is, he will deadlift 750 pounds at the World’ Championships.” To my surprise, the cover of the issue in which the story appeared featured me pointing a finger at Paul as he was attempting a heavy deadlift and the headline “Turner Coaches Woods—750 D.L.?”
It turned out I was wrong. Eight months later, when Paul Woods won the World Championships, his final deadlift was officially 754.
So, whether you’re a bodybuilder or a powerlifter, put on your flat-bottom shoes (so there’s no heel lifting to make you lean forward), put on your sweatpants (so you don’t scrape your legs on the way up), and throw aside your lifting belt (because you don’t strap your chest when you do benches, do you?). Chalk your hands up good and walk up to that bar until it touches your shins. Stand there for a second and visualize the perfect deadlift. Now you’re ready, and you’re going to pull some huge numbers.