The Deadlift. Some consider it the only test of true strength, others think it is a back-crunching, injury causing exercise that should have been left behind decades ago. Here’s the truth..
Deadlifts are tough. Doing them properly will test your body and make it stronger, doing them incorrectly poses a risk to your back. I personally feel that most people (the vast majority) will benefit from the deadlift. Here are some benefits you can expect from performing the deadlift regularly:
There are several brilliant reasons to incorporate the deadlift into your training programme
- Deadlifts teach great movement patterns
- Deadlifts make you more athletic
- Deadlifts stimulate a huge amount of muscle
- Deadlifts can help those with a bad back
Most people don’t pick up their injuries from the gym; there are plenty of opportunities in day-to-day life to mess your back up but if you are stronger and lift with proper technique then you are far less likely to hurt yourself when moving house or rearranging the furniture. This is real strength, the type that carries over into all aspects of your life. It might sound like a minor benefit but the when you consider that over 100 million work days are lost to lower back pain in the UK alone(1), you’ll be glad to have mastered this seemingly basic skill.
As already mentioned, the deadlift has a great level of carryover to other tasks, the improvements aren’t limited to simply lifting things however. Studies have shown that deadlifts can help you to run faster, jump higher(2) and perform better in just about all movements that rely on hip extension.
When you reach a certain point in training, and in life, effective training can become a bit of a juggling act. Being able to get in the gym, have a decent session and get out again within 60 minutes becomes difficult for the time-pressed lifter. Deadlifts are valuable because they can quickly provide an effective training stimulus for strength, muscle mass and performance benefits for a whole myriad of sports.
In training, there is always a stress and an adaptation to stress; when the body is able to recover, it tends to get stronger. There are definitely people who should exercise caution or in rare cases avoid deadlifting but with careful progression, deadlifts can do amazing things for those who are suffering with a bad back(3).
Keys To A Good Deadlift
There are a few simple things that will help your deadlift in a big way.
Keep Your Back Straight
Keeping your back straight is probably the most important advice for safety in the deadlift. The back can be injured when the back is flexed and twisted haphazardly, the back provides a small amount of extension in the deadlift but it is mostly static. The deadlift is amount transferring the power generated by your legs and hips through your back to allow you to stand up with the bar in your hands. You can keep your back straight by keeping your chest up at all times.
Line The Bar Up With Your Shoulder Blades, Not Your Shoulder
Most people lose a fair bit of energy from their deadlifts and consequently lift less weight because they set up wrong. It is logical to think that the bar should be directly below the shoulder when the lift begins, after all arms are attached to bodies by the shoulder right? Well… sort of.
The shoulder blade, not the glenohumeral joint (what we all call our shoulder joint), is the point we need to line up with the bar as this is the what provides a strong connection to the body and the best leverage for the movement. If you set up with the bar over your shoulder joint, when you begin pulling you will almost immediately find your shoulder blades rising, your upper back rounding and the bar feeling a whole lot heavier than it should. Setting up with your shoulder blades directly over the bar keeps your shoulder blades in the correct position allowing you to pick up the same weight far more easily
Don’t Lower Your Hips Too Much
Many start with their hips too low thinking that it protects their lower back, what most don’t notice is that those who do this will naturally raise their hips up before lifting as there’s no other way to move the weight.
Don’t lower your hips, squeeze your chest up. When you do this, your hips will lower if they need to as long as your legs are not locked out (which they should not be at the start of a deadlift). The resulting starting position should have your back muscles tight with the natural arch remaining.
Check Your Grip
Lots of people grip the bar as best as they can in the middle of their palm thinking that this offers the best grip. What often results are nasty, torn-open callouses and missed lifts.
You should grip the bar in your lower palm, near your fingers. Unfortunately heavy weights, being heavy, are going to roll down to the lowest part of your palm anyway. The only control you have over the situation is whether you give the weight some initial momentum and a patch of your skin.
Avoid Loose Clothing
Loose clothing is awful for deadlifting. If the bar catches on your clothing is will slow down the bar’s ascent and often in an unbalanced fashion. Wear thin, reasonably tight clothing and the bar will slide up to lockout as it should.
How To Perform The Deadlift
The deadlift can be performed with a variety of grips, stances and heights but there are two main deadlift variations: conventional deadlift and sumo deadlift. Both work the same muscles but the conventional deadlift places a greater emphasis on the calves and lower back and the sumo deadlift is more taxing on the quadriceps muscles. Most have a favourite that they choose as their deadlift form and many people think that those with certain builds should do a particular type. The reality is that mechanics is only one of several factors and that the serious lifter should learn both and then make their own decision for their own reasons.
This article will be covering the conventional deadlift, you can read about pulling sumo in How To Deadlift Sumo.
Stand with your feet a little narrower than shoulder-width. Some experimentation may be needed to find your strongest position, The bar should be over the middle of your foot, just over your laces.
Tip: A trick often used is to get ready to jump as high as you can and just before you jump, look down at your feet. Normally you’ll assume a position you feel strong in to jump high, the idea is that this will also be a good deadlifting stance.
Grip the bar just outside of your knees. Your arms will likely be more or less vertical.
I feel that the positioning of the hips and chest immediately prior to lifting are an active part of the execution, so I’ll cover that below.
From your current position with a comfortable stance and hands gripping the bar just outside your legs, pull the slack out of the bar by raising your chest and pushing your feet into the ground. You are not trying to lift the bar yet; you are preparing to pull it. Squeezing your chest up should set your shoulder blades over the bar prior to lifting.
Always, always, always lift with your arms straight. This goes for all deadlifts, cleans and snatches too. Lifting with your arms bent doesn’t transfer force effectively and it poses a real risk to your biceps tendon.
With your weight on your heels, grip the bar hard and push your feet into the ground forcefully. Pull the bar up and towards the front of your thighs. When you are standing with your legs straight and your shoulders back, you have finished the lift.
When you lower the bar to return it to the floor, you should push your hips back first and then lower the bar under control. Do not attempt to lower the weight slowly on weights that are heavy relative to your max, doing so causes a lot of unnecessary stress to the lower back.
The deadlift is a lift that you can begin with very little equipment; you need a barbell and some plates and you’re ready to go. But f you want to develop a huge deadlift, along with a powerful and injury-free physique, you will want to invest in some kit to help you along the way.
The weight belt is something that every lifter adopts once they reach a certain level. A good belt provides stability throughout the torso which lessens injury risk and increases strength on whole body movements such as the squat and deadlift. Some think that those who use a belt do so because their core is weak and that using a belt will make for weak abdominal and lower back muscles but this isn’t the case at all. Using a belt does increase intra-abdominal pressure and blood pressure however, so it may pose a risk to those with cardiovascular disease.
There are lots of weight belts on the market but luckily choosing a good one isn’t too difficult. Opt for a 10-13mm belt (thickness) that will fit your waist measurements. If you wish to compete in a powerlifting competition however, you may find that certain brands are approved and others are not; a quick enquiry to your federation should tell you everything you need to know. A general rule for belt tightness is to find the tightest notch you can reach, then loosen it by one. This should be tight enough to support you but not so tight that discomfort and excess pressure interferes with your lift.
Choosing the right shoes is important for optimal performance in the deadlift. The sole is of most importance for the deadlift, it must be:
- Able to grip well
The barbell is sitting on the ground, every millimetre added by the height of your soles is extra distance that you’ll have to pull the bar; for this reason, weightlifting shoes make deadlifting far harder and should only be used if you are a weightlifter using the deadlift as an accessory exercise.
The soles of your shoes must also be firm, which is why I strongly recommend against deadlifting (or any other kind of lifting) in trainers or running shoes. Soft, padded shoes are designed to lessen impact and disperse force for added comfort; you want to transmit as much force as possible through the floor in the deadlift so the firmer the soles of your shoes, the better!
A strong grip on your shoes is important for stability, and reducing injury risk in the deadlift. The need for a good grip is far greater in the sumo deadlift. If you are looking to lift the most weight in the safest manner possible, I’d suggest plimsolls, wrestling shoes or deadlift slippers which all fit the criteria for great deadlifting shoes.
A good deadlift stays close to the body at all times to optimise leverage, this can lead to scraped shins and bald patches as you pull your skin and your hair up with the bar. Long socks are used by powerlifters to reduce friction and provide a layer between you and the bar. If you choose to wear long trousers, thus negating the need for long socks, make sure that they are thin and not loose.
Chalk is a massive help on deadlifts. During training it is normal for your palms to become sweaty, this may not have a noticeable effect when you are performing lighter work but it will limit your strength on the deadlift significantly; a dusting of chalk on your hands will keep your hands dry and many report that it reduces callous formation too. Chalk is available as block chalk (messy), chalk balls (less messy) and liquid chalk (not messy), so you should be able to reap the benefits of chalk regardless of your gym’s stance on it.
Straps can be a great benefit or a great crutch when it comes to deadlift training. As a rule, I’d suggest that you avoid straps where possible in your low-rep sets, as grip strength is an important quality that the deadlift strengthens — but not if you always use straps! Straps allow an advantage when it comes to high-rep or high-volume work as our hands are often the limiting factor; using straps allows you to perform more repetitions and develop more muscle mass than you would be able to had you been forced to stop 4 reps ago. You can still use them if you plan to compete but do not become dependent on them however as you will not have them in competition!
Psychology Of The Deadlift
The deadlift is a very psychological lift, more so than most others. You need to approach heavy weights with aggression but the controlled kind, as being too reckless can cause an injury that takes weeks or even months to heal.
Many people have commented about the rituals of powerlifters before big deadlifts. Some shout and yell, others grunt, some sniff smelling salts or breathe rapidly; very few people approach the bar without a degree of psychological arousal.
It is normal for lifters to get ‘psyched up’ for big lifts regardless of the exercise, the deadlift is a little different from most exercises because it starts at a dead stop. This means that if you don’t approach the bar with a bit of aggression, there’s a good chance that weights over 90% of your 1RM won’t budge at all.
Programming The Deadlift
How you use the deadlift in your strength training programme depends on what you’re training for. Here are some common applications of the deadlift.
The deadlift is one of the competitive lifts in powerlifting as such the deadlift and several variations of it are frequently performed in a lower rep range along with other accessory movements. The conventional and sumo deadlift are both practiced lifts in competition.
The majority of deadlifting in a powerlifter’s programme in performed in the 1-5 rep range, but for hypertrophy and grip work, some use sets with as many as 20 reps per set. Variations such as block pulls, deficit deadlifts and deadlifts with differing stances and grips are used to target weak points within a lifter’s deadlift.
Bodybuilders love the deadlift nearly as much as powerlifters do; the deadlift is renowned for developing full body strength and adding thickness to the back. The deadlift is normally used in a remarkably similar way for both powerlifters and bodybuilders; bodybuilders often use heavy reps to develop strength and higher rep sets of romanian deadlifts to develop the hamstrings.
In Olympic Lifting
There’s huge variation in olympic lifting approaches which makes it hard to generalise, but a fairly standard olympic lifting programme might have deadlifts around once per week as a heavy accessory exercise. Olympic lifters tend to have strong deadlifts even if they do not deadlift very often due to their frequent practice of the snatch and clean exercises.
In Other Sports
From track and field to mixed martial arts, the deadlift is a weapon in every smart coach’s arsenal. Deadlifts in lower rep ranges have led to improvement in sprint times, and endurance running times and any martial artist will tell you that their power comes from a strong core. Of course high-rep deadlifts can be used with beneficial effects too!
Assistance Exercises For The Deadlift
There are many variation of deadlift that focus on different muscles and parts of the movement. It’s generally beneficial to learn and practice a number of these variations, even if you only compete in one style, as each provides variation in the training stimulus and compliments other variations within a programme.
The romanian deadlift is a favourite of many for its ability to add muscle to the hamstrings, drive up the deadlift and improve performance in a number of other movements.
The romanian deadlift uses a lighter weight relative to your 1RM and involves very little movement at the knee joint. The legs are almost straight but the knees are not locked. From the bottom position, the bar is squeezed off the ground and the hips are brought forward to until the hips are extended and the movement is complete.
Clean grip Deadlift
The clean grip deadlift is not massively different to the regular double-overhand deadlift; the only difference is a moderate widening of the grip. The clean grip is outside of shoulder-width; sometimes only just, sometimes up to 2 hand-widths out. The clean deadlift is more difficult than the regular deadlift but easier than the snatch deadlift.
Snatch grip Deadlift
The snatch-grip deadlift involves a grip that is wider still. The correct width can be found by holding the bar at the right width to have the bar resting against the crease of your hip when standing with straight arms; this will be towards the edges of the bar for taller lifters.
Deficit deadlift s are deadlifts performed from a modest height; this makes the movement longer, the exercise harder and builds strength off the floor. In my experience there’s no benefit from using a height of more than the width of a couple of 20kg plates.
Pauses are used by all top athletes in barbell sports; powerlifters use them in the squat, bench and deadlift and olympic lifters use them in the clean and jerk and snatch. The reason? Pauses teach excellent technique and control throughout the range of movement.
The rack pull, or block pull (even better), is a deadlift where the barbell is already elevated on the bar of a power rack or blocks, respectively. Rack pulls allow greater weight to be used and the range is generally a bit easier on the lower back making them a great exercise for building muscle and strengthening the grip.
Good mornings are a great assistance exercise for deadlift because the movement pattern is so similar; the biggest difference is that the bar is now across your back, hanging from your arms.
This exercise is considered to be the best assistance exercise for the deadlift by a number of good coaches. While I couldn’t say that it is definitely the best, it is an exercise that will undoubtedly bring up your deadlift over time. If you don’t have a dedicated glute-ham machine (we never did) you’ll have to find a way to anchor your feet, then you can place padding beneath your knees and begin training this highly effective exercise.
In my experience, few exercises teach the hip hinge as well as kettlebell swings, that alone makes me think that these are a brilliant assistance exercise for beginners. I also believe them to be good for training more advanced athletes also; when you compete with a barbell, it’s easy to forget that other tools exist. Variation is a great way to keep yourself getting stronger.
The leg curl is primarily used for building mass. A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle and this exercise is good at making your hamstrings bigger. It does have some carryover to the deadlift but not as much as the more similar compound exercises.
Ab Wheel Rollout
This is a great accessory in all big movements but I would be doing anyone reading this a disservice by not mentioning ab wheel rollouts. Rollouts build immense core strength which often a limiting factor in big lifts. Try these for yourself and you’ll see why I recommend them; you can guarantee that anyone who can do a full wheel rollout will have an impressive deadlift relative to their bodyweight.
- Priority Diseases and Reason for Their Inclusion: Low Back Pain. World Health Organisation. [online][accessed 22nd February 2017]
- Thompson, Brennan J., et al. “Barbell deadlift training increases the rate of torque development and vertical jump performance in novices.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 29.1 (2015): 1-10.
- Berglund, Lars, et al. “Which patients with low back pain benefit from deadlift training?.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 29.7 (2015): 1803-1811.