Deadlifts are one of those “no cheating” exercises. The steps are simple:
Pick up bar all the way off the ground.
And that’s it.
For most of us, that’s about as far as it goes. Unfortunately, most of us are kinda stupid. Deadlifting is one of those moves that looks so easy but has more particulars than meets the eye. Less the cape and tights, I’ve come to save the day with the most comprehensive guide to deadlifting so you’ll be pulling strong, and pain free into oblivion. Let’s get to it, step by step.
Grab a Hold
The grip for a deadlift can either be straight (palms over) or mixed. The mixed grip (one hand over, one hand under) is great for heavier loads, but I recommend not getting used to the same mix each time. It can begin to develop imbalances if you deadlift with it frequently. When performing a conventional deadlift, use a grip that’s just outside your hip width. Too wide and you’ll have issues keeping a strong grip on the bar. Too narrow and the bar will begin to lose its balance. Remember to wrap the thumbs around firmly also.
Position Your Body
There are many schools of thought as to the technique used for a deadlift to be performed correctly. My research and opinion leads me to use what you’re about to read as my choice way to keep a client safe, while pulling the most weight possible if need be.
The first step is to line the bar up with your shoelaces. The bar should be positioned over your foot to divide it into a front half and a back half. You should be able to see your toes come out in front of the bar, as it will be very close to your shins. Without changing anything, reach down to the bar and place your hands in your desired position – just outside hip width. At this point your back will be rounded and your butt will be way up in the air. The next step is to lower your hips and raise your shoulders. Doing this simultaneously should encourage the low back to arch, and the chest to raise. Your shins should be right against the bar now, with the feet flat on the ground. Keep your head down.
Next, make sure your chest is what’s directly above the bar. If your chest is what’s over the bar, that means your shoulder blades are too. It’s a lot easier to transfer your forces into a heavy bar when you have your entire back helping you out. If you follow the physics by keeping your scapulae over the bar when you set up, you can’t lose.
You may have thought that was what the last step was for, but you still have some tightness you need to achieve. Grabbing a firm hold of the bar, with your shoulders where they should belong, actively try to squeeze the chest out. This will get the lats tight, low back tight, and arch your thoracic region so you’re ready to pull. At the same time, ensure your arms are fully straightened. Make an effort to “bend” the bar, or to “pull the flex out of it” without moving it off the floor. Now you’re ready to pull.
Make sure the heels are dug right into the ground and stay tight. Drag the bar up your shins. Now all the stuff we worked on in the setup section just became important. If the scapulae aren’t located over the bar, or the bar was located too far away from the shins, the hips would shoot upwards and the bar would move in against the shins, as soon as it was one inch off the ground. This goes to show that the physics are most closely followed through the setup above. Take a look at this bad deadlift and you’ll see what I mean.
In the video above, the girl does about everything you could do wrong in a deadlift wrong. She doesn’t take her time in her set-up, and her feet aren’t in tight enough to the bar. As a result, the bar stays under her shoulders/armpit region and she has no stability in her pull. Her lats aren’t tight, her back isn’t arched and her scaps aren’t over the bar. So as you can see, the bar escapes her and the bar path is irregular on its way up. Of course, this causes her hips to shoot up first and her back to round. But look what happens to the bar – it goes right where it belongs, under the scapulae, where the most support will be available.
As the lift nears completion, what happens with your hips becomes important too. Remember that the deadlift dominantly works the big three muscle groups of the posterior chain – the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. It’s easy to let the glutes slacken up and not fully contribute to the lift, and it all depends on how we finish.
I hear a lot of different cues to explain “hip drive”. Many of them involve a subtle forward thrust of the hips to encourage the glutes to activate, especially nearing the end of the lift at the lockout. I like to think of a pulley system, something like how elevators work. To me, it’s the simplest way to visualize the muscles.
In the picture, the weight (m) represents the barbell. The rope (on the side the hand is pulling on) represents your hamstrings, and the fulcrum (the block) would be your pelvis. Drive your heels straight into the floor and feel your hamstrings and glutes contract downwards. Keep the tension on them as the bar travels up your shins and thighs to correspond. Your entire back will be working whether you try or not, so just make an effort to keep it just as tight as it was when you first started your pull.
I don’t focus on “creating” a hip drive, because the angle will close on its own, especially if these cues are followed properly. Often people create false drives at the top of the lift that usually just throws the low back into hyperextension, with the glutes just coming along for a free ride. Having said this, the pelvis needs to be “unlocked” at the top of the lift so that the glutes can assist in completing the lockout. Check out the RKC plank by my man Bret Contreras:
This is essentially the hip position that would be ideal at the end of the deadlift. We can achieve them through practicing these positions through supplementary exercises like this one, and also exercises like glute bridges, shown by Nick:
The Final Product
In a T-NATION article I wrote a couple of years ago, I included a video that demonstrates properly executed deadlifts. You’ll note the bar travelling in a straight line off the ground, and my hip position being dictated by my glutes at the end of the lift.
In a deadlift, the lowering phase shouldn’t be a slow one. Let the bar drag back down the thighs with the chest staying out. As soon as the bar passes the knee level, let it drop to the floor much faster by dropping your shoulders. Get your scapulae right back over the bar as fast as you can. Using this approach in the negative half of the lift will make it feel not so negative at all. You’ll avoid injury by not spending too much time lowering a heavy bar.
That’s All, Folks!
Clear as day – a deadlift is a simple battle with physics to make heavy bars move off the ground. Applying these words of advice can take you through strength plateau, and through a development plateau too. It may be a matter of a few subtle tweaks to your form and technique. Keep in mind this was a guide to the conventional deadlift, not sumo, defecit, snatch grip, single leg, Romanian, or Give-a-Dog-a-Bone deadlifts. We’ll save those for next time.