The daddy of the powerlifts, the deadlift is arguably the most functional lift there is: picking a heavy object off the floor. Most people don’t do this because it is damn hard work. Are you one of them? No? Good.
What is the deadlift?
The deadlift is picking a dead weight off the floor and standing up straight with it. It is one of the three lifts in powerlifting (the others are squat and bench press). The deadlift is a whole body exercise that primarily works the back and legs. Very heavy weights can be moved in the deadlift. For this reason, care should be taken always to perform the exercise with good technique.
Some people deadlift with a sumo stance. Click here for the how-to on the sumo deadlift.
Why is it such a great exercise?
The deadlift is simple in its mechanics but far-reaching in its effects. It employs the biggest muscles in the body to lift heavy stuff off the floor. Whether you are looking to get uber-strong or pack on muscle mass, the deadlift will deliver. It is also immensely satisfying to move large amounts of weight and it can be quite absorbing to work on increasing your lift. It is a much better indication of strength than, say, the bench press.
But it’s not just useful for getting big. The deadlift is also a great exercise to use if you are trying to get leaner. When on a calorie-controlled diet, it allows you to maintain muscle while dropping body fat.
Good deadlifting will also strengthen your lower back, making you less likely to injure in the course of every day life. It will teach you how to lift heavy weights off the floor safely.
How to perform the deadlift
The concepts in the deadlift are not complicated but it can be surprisingly tricky to get your body to do them all. Have patience and be prepared to work at it to get all the elements correct and working together. If all else fails, just remember to keep a flat back!
Step 1: Starting position
It is important to get every part of your body in the correct position for the deadlift as it is difficult to make adjustments once the lift has started. Position each part of the body as follows:
Approach the loaded bar on the floor and stand in the centre with feet underneath the bar a little wider than shoulder width apart. Your toes should be pointed out a little. You need to be standing on a solid base so no bouncy cross trainers. Flat shoes or bare feet are better. I tend to do my deadlift in my socks, cos I’m that kind of classy lady! The bar should be over your midfoot as it needs to stay as close to your legs as possible. If the bar is too far in front of you, you are simply wasting energy having to pull it in.
Hands and arms
Bend down and take a double overhand grip on the bar (see below for more on grip). Your arms should hang just outside your legs but close in to your body. The arms should be straight and should remain so for the duration of the lift. If you’re in a position where your arms are bent, you need to adjust.
Bend at the knees and flatten your back by sticking your butt out. With people of normal flexibility, trying to exaggerate the movement actually produces the right position. This is certainly true for me. However, if you are quite flexible in the back you should be careful that you don’t over-extend.
Position your hips by moving your thighs an inch or two above parallel with the floor. Your hips need to be higher than your bottom squat position. If your hips are too low, you may end up either trying to ‘squat up’ the weight or lifting your hips before you lift your back and thereby putting much more pressure on your lower back. However, if your hips are too high, then the move can turn into a stiff-legged deadlift. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find the right hip position after some trial and error.
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Position your shoulders in front of the bar. This brings your shoulder blades directly over the bar, which is a stronger pulling position.
Chest and head
Chest should be up in order to maintain your back angle. Look straight ahead, neither down nor craning up at the ceiling.
An alternative way of getting into position is to squat down with your arms at your sides so that when you grasp the bar, your back and hips are already in position. I don’t mind doing this when the weight is relatively light, but when the weight is heavy, I prefer to set my back up after my grip is in place.
Step 2: Lock position and breathe in
Just before you actually start pulling, you need to take a deep breath and mentally ‘lock’ everything into position. It’s basically a ‘lock and load’ process: lock your body and load up with air. Taking a deep breath will stabilise your spine as you are creating intra-abdominal pressure. You can either hold your breath throughout the rep, take another breath at the top or breathe out carefully as you lower the weight. Make sure your back is flat and your shoulders are pulled back.
Step 3: Lift the bar off the floor
Lift the bar off the floor, moving upwards until your legs straighten out. As you lift, keep your weight on your heels and think about pushing through your heels in the same way you would do with a squat. Push the floor away from you!
It’s tempting to start lifting your torso as soon as the bar comes off the floor, but this forces your lower back to take most of the strain. So you need to make sure that your legs do their fair share of the work. The easy way to ensure that the legs are being used is to maintain your starting back angle until the bar has passed your knees. Your back angle is the angle your back makes with the floor – it’s more or less 45 degrees, depending on how high or low your hips are. Whatever it is when you start the pull, keep it that way until the bar passes the knees, then start to lift the torso – maintaining that flat back.
Throughout the lift, your arms should remain straight. People who are new to the deadlift often bend a little at the elbows. Don’t think about pulling with the arms at all. The pulling is done with the back and the legs; your arms are simply what connects the bar to your body. Think about squeezing the bar off the floor rather than yanking it.
Step 4: Pull up and lock out at the top
As you lift, keep the bar as close to your body as you can. The ideal path for the bar is straight up. Once the bar has cleared the knees, think about squeezing your glutes to extend your hips.
Once your legs are fully extended, with knees locked out – in other words, standing up straight – you have reached the top of the move. There is no need to hyper-extend the back, i.e. lean back at the top of the lift, as this puts unnecessary pressure on your lower back.
Step 5: Lower the bar
Take as much care in lowering the bar as you did in lifting it. Injuries can still occur on the way down.
Ideally, you simply want to reverse the procedure for the journey down. This means maintaining a flat back and lowering the bar in a straight vertical line. In order to do this, you need to let the bar pass the knees before you bend them.
Some people hold their breath throughout the lifting and lowering parts of the exercise. Others breathe out at the top and on the way down. Don’t allow your body to flop over just because you are breathing out. Maintain the tension in your body until the bar is on the floor again.
Step 6: The next rep
The deadlift is so called because you lift a dead weight from the floor. Many people don’t return the bar to the floor after the first rep, they repeat the move from a hanging position. But really you should return the bar to the floor for each rep.
If you are doing fast reps, avoid bouncing off the floor. If you are doing slow, heavy reps it is possible to to re-grip and go through the whole ‘lock and load’ process between each rep.
Photo credit: Stumptuous.com
The sumo deadlift is the same movement as the conventional deadlift, but the legs are positioned much wider apart and therefore the arms hang on the inside of the legs not the outside.
The sumo deadlift may be a good solution for people with long legs who do not have the extra flexibility needed to get into the conventional position with a flat back. The sumo deadlift effectively shortens the distance the bar has to be vertically moved. Sumo is also popular with female lifters, allowing them to utilise their superior leg strength and rely less on the back.
Note on grip
There are two main grip styles used in the deadlift:
- double overhand grip, with both palms facing in towards the body
- alternate or reverse grip, with one palm facing in and one palm facing out
The double overhand grip is safer than the alternate grip but not as strong. The alternate grip puts an asymmetrical stress on the body and particularly on the supinated arm (the one facing away from the body).
It is therefore recommended that you use the double overhand grip for as long as possible before switching to the alternate grip for the heaviest sets, and also to do a lighter set using the alternate grip the other way round so that the body is not constantly stressed on the same side.
Alternatively, continue to use the double overhand grip but use straps for the heaviest sets when your grip gives out. This is safer, but may compromise development of grip strength.
It is also a good idea to use chalk to aid your grip and lessen callus formation. If you belong to a gym that doesn’t allow chalk, you should probably change your gym.
How to use the deadlift in your training
The deadlift is ideal for building strength, particularly using a heavy weight and low rep (1-5) protocol. It can be included as part of a full body routine or as a back or pull exercise in a split routine.
Lighter, high rep deadlifts can also be used to train muscular endurance or for a very intense conditioning workout. Make sure to maintain form even when using light weights.
It is highly recommended that you either film your deadlifts or get someone knowledgeable to watch your form. The deadlift involves the whole posterior chain, which we can’t see, so it’s one of the hardest exercises to keep track of form.
Practise your form with no weight in front of a mirror to get the position right. But don’t use a mirror when you do your actual lifts as it is a distraction and can put your body out of alignment if you are craning to see your technique.
Although this post covers the essentials of technique, there’s a lot more that can be said about the deadlift. Try these excellent articles and books:
- How to deadlift with proper technique from Stronglifts.com
- 7 tips for a safer deadlift from Stronglifts.com
- Deadlift Diagnosis by Eric Cressey
- Mastering the Deadlift: Part 1 by Eric Cressey
- Mastering the Deadlift: Part 2 by Eric Cressey
- Mastering the Deadlift: Part 3 by Eric Cressey
- Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training – book by Mark Rippetoe
- The Insider’s Tell-All Handbook on Weight Training by Stuart McRobert
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