How to Deadlift

Deadlifting is the best back exercise, plain and simple. It hits your spinal erectors, traps, posterior delts, and lats. As well your legs are taxed as the glutes, hamstrings, psoas and quads are all involved in this lift.

Do if it's such a great exercise why don't more people use it in their exercise program? Firstly, it is very taxing on the system and your lower back. Many people don't like this feeling of pain and exhaustion that comes with a good dead lift workout. Secondly, it is very difficult to learn on one's own. Most people don't know how to perform this lift nor describe it properly to a novice lifter.

Deadlifting Basics

You stand behind a barbell that is placed on the floor in front of you. Deadlift takes this barbell from the floor to resting around hip level. Now return the bar to the floor.

Not very descriptive? Well that's because there is 3 variations of deadlift to describe: conventional, sumo and straight leg.

Conventional:Your stance is about shoulder width apart with your feet pointed ahead to slightly out. You should now lower your butt until your quads are roughly parallel to the floor. The bar should be just ahead of your shins. Now grip the barbell with both hands so that your grip is spaced slightly outside your legs. With a lumbar arch in your back push with your legs and lift with your back simulaneously so that the bar clears your knees and comes to rest at your hips. Your shoulders and knees should be locked fully and your arms should be straight during the entire attempt. Conventional deadlifts stress your lower back, glutes and hamstrings primarily.

Sumo:This variation is often used in powerlifting meets as a way to reduce the stress on the lower back at the starting position. The key difference between the sumo and conventional styles is the foot positioning and grip. In sumo you place your feet out wide (I've seen sumo lifts with feet near the collars… typically though they're about 12" outside your shoulders or so.) and your grip comes inside your legs. Your hands should be in the centre of the bar about 4-6" apart. In this position your back should be alot more straight then in the conventional style. Sumo deads require a lot of glute, hamstring and hip flexor involvement.

Straight Leg:Similar to the conventional deadlift except the starting position is at the hip and you lower the barbell to around mid shin (this depends on a few factors.) and then your straighten back to a standing postition. The big thing to remember here is the arch in your back. Many people go down way too far and round their back in the lowering portion of this exericse. As soon as your back goes flat you're at your limit… do not continue past this point. Straight leg deadlifts primarily involve the hamstrings and spinal erectors.

Placement of the Bar

The bar should start about 1" away from your shins and stay about this far away until you clear your knees. From this point to the hips the bar should just barely clear your thighs. With heavier weight and going to failure you might experience dragging of the bar against your thighs as the top of this lift.

Many people also experience bruises and nicks from the bar on their shins. This has a lot to do with one's body type and lifting style. Remember to push with your legs simultaneously as you pull with your back. You also can widen your stance which should reduce this problem.

Hand Grip

There are two styles of grip for deadlift, the overhand and the alternate grip. In the overhand grip both palms of the hands face the floor with the thumbs underneath the bar. This is a pronated grip. The biggest problem with this grip style is that with heavier weights the bar tends to slip from the hands. This is why many deadlifters prefer the alternate method. In the alternate method one hand is a supinated (palm toward the ceiling) and the other is pronated (towards the floor.) Thus the bar does not slip away from the grip. You might also want to change grip orientation (change pronated to supinated on one hand and vice versa with the other) between each deadlift set just to work your forearms and back evenly.

I personally don't believe in wrist straps… with the alternate grip I can easily hold 600+ lbs without any danger of slipping. If you do choose to use straps in the deadlift I suggest doing as many reps and sets you can without them and then add them once you've pushed your grip to failure. Challenge yourself to improve your grip over time so that you won't need the straps… your grip strength is an important asset in the iron game.


The Movement

I'll deal with the movement in two parts: one for conventional and sumo and the other for straight leg dead lifts.

Conventional/Sumo: Now that the bar is correctly aligned and you've chosen your grip style it's time to move that beast. You should be in a squatting position with a good lumbar arch. A good tip to do this is to elevate your eyes and look at a point about 8" above you. Do not tip forward… keep the weight back solidly through your heels. Now drive your heels into the ground and push with your legs while at the same time straighten your back. The key here is the simultaneous push. People who start their leg drive too early or late usually do too much back work.

Lock the legs and shoulders out at the top of the lift. This puts a good emphasis on the hamstrings, traps and deltoids.

Do not let your knees buckle in and then out. Keep them in line with your legs at all time. Too much lateral movement can be dangerous on your knees.

Do not round your back at any time! This is very important… if you round your back to get that last rep you're risking a terrible injury that might set you back months or totally end your weightlifting career. If you cannot do deadlifts with good form anymore then you're done. Get some rest before your next step.

Lower the weight with the legs and back in a controlled manner to the start position.

Straight Leg:Start with the bar at your hip level and slowly lower the bar until your back flattens. Keep looking up at that stop 8" above you at all times during this lowering process. Now slowly reverse the motion and bring the bar back up to lock at the top position. Keep your legs locked or slightly bent at most. Do not bend your legs during the lift… they should stay static (ie. not move) from start to finish.

If you keep the bar close to your legs this exercise is primarily a lower back/spinal erector exercise with some hamstring involvement. If you attempt to keep the bar away from your legs (I try to envision a plane through my toes that I keep the bar outside of.) this exercise heavily involves the hamstrings and doesn't effect the lower back as much. You might not be able to go down quite so far with the bar away from the legs though as there is a tendancy to tip forward… this is OK.

Deadlift Don'ts

If you do any of the following it is likely that you need to correct your form.

  • Do not round your back in any deadlifting movement. This will make your back vulnerable to injury if you do so. Concentrate on keeping the lumbar arch in place, keep the chest forward, shoulders back and look up with your eyes.
  • Do not jerk the movement. It should be smooth from top to bottom. Quick movements put a lot of strain on your spine. You should avoid this in your regular routines.
  • Do not tip forward or move your feet during this lift. If you do this signifies that you're off balance and risking a back injury. Keep the weight back, push through your heels and keep the weight as close to your centre of gravity as possible.
  • Do not hitch the bar… ie. Jerk the bar up and down in the middle of the movement in order to get past a sticking spot.
  • Do not let your knees bow in and out during this lift. Lateral movement is dangerous for the knees. If you seem to pull too much with your back or push too much with your legs you might want to concentrate on doing the leg push and back pull in a simultaneous manner.
  • Do not go really heavy all at once. When I started deadlifts it was with a weight of 95 lbs. I concentrated on the form and slowly built my spinal erectors over time. In the past year I've quadrupled that number for the same reps. Do not rush your deadlift… remember slow and steady progress is the safest way to get to your goal.
  • Do not rush your rest and recuperation when doing this exercise. The deadlift is very taxing on your entire system. I would advice doing it once a week at most if you're taking it to failure. Also allow plenty of rest between squats and deadlifts in your workout scheduling IMHO.

By Garry Hollmen

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