How To Deadlift

The deadlift is a heavy compound movement that should be
included in the exercise program of any lifter. As this lift will strengthen
not only the entire back, but the musculature of the hips, abdominals, and
legs, as well as work the grip, proficiency in this lift is a must. Like the
squat, the deadlift will stimulate a growth response from the body that should
carry over into strength and size gains in other areas.

There are two basic styles of deadlifting, conventional
and sumo. Each style will be explained, and compared to the contrasting style.
While certain aspects of deadlifting are similar, such as the fact that the
lifter is basically picking a weight up off of the deck, and raising to the
highest possible level without bending the arms, a great many differences in
biomechanics occur as a result of the differing styles.

The conventional stance consists of the athlete
standing with the feet approximately shoulder width apart, or slightly
narrower. To position the feet properly, slide them forward as far as possible
without moving the shoulders in front of the bar. The hips should be as close
to the bar as possible as well, but the lower back must remain arched. The head
should be elevated so that the athlete is looking forward and slightly upwards.
The shoulders should be back, but slightly rounded. Retracting the shoulders
causes the shoulder girdle to elevate, increasing the distance the lifter must
pull the bar. The athlete must grip the bar tightly, and to ensure that the bar
does not roll, a mixed grip (one hand supinated, one hand pronated) is often

The true beginning of the deadlift is the set up, or the
first phase (as it is known in Olympic lifting), which has already been
described. The next step, before pulling the bar free from the deck is to fill
the abdominal cavity with air. While drawing in as much air as possible, the
goal is to push it down as far as possible, not fill the chest cavity. Filling
the chest cavity with air elevates the shoulders, which will increase the
distance the lifter must pull the bar.

The deadlift is initiated by simultaneously extending the
knee and hip joints. The knee will extend due to the contraction of the
quadriceps muscles (vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and
rectus femoris), and, during the extension, may move slightly to the rear. The
hip joint will extend secondary to the contraction of the gluteus and the
hamstrings (biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus). While the
entire hamstring is active to a certain degree during the deadlift, the
semitendinosus and semimembranosus are recruited to a much greater degree to
extend the hip joint.

The bar should be pulled into the body, as well as up.
This keeps the athlete from falling forward during the lift, as it helps
maintain a far more stable combined center of gravity (CCOG). This is where the
placement of the feet is a significant factor. If they are too far forward,
causing the shins to be closer to the bar than necessary, the bar must be pulled
around the knees, instead of past them. This shortens the lever arm distance
and reduces the resistive torque.

During this period, and indeed, throughout the entire
lift, the musculature of the upper back and shoulders (trapezius, latissimus
dorsai, teres minor, subscapularis, infraspinatus, supraspinatus, as well as
the anterior, medial and posterior deltoids) will be undergoing an isometric
contraction to hold the bar in a stable position. In the arm, the biceps
brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis will also contract isometrically to
stabilize the elbow joint. The forearm flexors are extremely active during the
gripping of the bar.

The erector spinae (iliocostalis thoracis, iliocostalis
lumborum, longissimus dorsai, and spinalis dorsai) will contract during the
lift, along with the intertransversarii, interspinalis, rotores, and multifidus
muscles to bring the spine into an erect position. These muscles become more
active once the back is extended past a point that would be 60 degrees away from
vertical. The inter-transversarii, interspinalis, rotors, and multifidus will
also serve to stabilize the vertebrae and discs. In the conventional deadlift,
the torso is inclined far more than in the sumo style, in direct contrast to
recommendations for a more erect torso to reduce shear force on the lumbar
vertebrae (4, 9, 12).

As the bar travels past the knees, and up the thighs,
several key points must be noted. It is imperative that the knees not re-bend
once they have begun to straighten. In addition to the extra strain this will
put on the ligaments and tendons, secondary flexion of the knees (hitching) is
cause for disqualification during a competition. Another mistake that is often
made as the lift nears completion is the lifter will try to pull the torso
back, when it is far easier to simply push the hips forward. This technique
will allow the athlete to shift some of the strain from the erectors to the
larger muscles of the hips, including the gluteus. At the top of the lift, the
shoulders should be pulled back to indicate the completion of the lift. This is
not necessary for routine training of the deadlift, but a powerlifter should
practice this to avoid unnecessary red lights.

The major difference that occurs in the sumo deadlift is
the placement of the feet. They are placed much wider, sometimes even twice
shoulder width, although this is an extreme. The toes are turned outward,
sometimes to the point where the angle of the feet approaches 160 degrees.
There are several biomechanical advantages to this stance. The distance the bar
must travel is greatly lessened as the hip angle is on average 12 degrees
greater than the hip angles of conventional deadlifters, while the knee angle
is approximately 13 degrees greater. (7, 12) The trunk angle is significantly
closer to vertical, which, from a pure safety standpoint, the sumo stance
decreases both L4/L5 moments as well as shear forces. (4) Furthermore, the sumo
stance allows the lifter to keep the bar closer to the body, which shortens the
movement arm to the lumbar spine. (12) This stance can reduce the total
distance the bar travels by as much as 25 – 40%. (7)

The functional technique in the deadlift is different as
well. The athlete pulling a conventional deadlift will push straight down with
the feet, whereas in the sumo deadlift, the knees must be pushed out over the
toes. This is important, to avoid lateral shear force on the knee, as well as
the fact that it allows the lifter to engage the larger muscles of the hips
earlier than in the conventional stance. As a function of the bar being closer
to the lifter, it will contact the legs earlier. As the bar slides up the
thighs, it is important to ensure that the fingers of the pronated hand are not
torn open by the friction thus generated. A modest amount of baby powder or
talcum may be applied to the legs to reduce the chance of this occurring.

One factor that has not been discussed that makes the
deadlift unique among the three powerlifts is that unlike the squat and bench,
there is no eccentric (lengthening, or lowering) portion prior to the
concentric (shortening, or raising) of the bar. This has the function of
negating the stretch reflex, a fact that is often overlooked by many athletes
and coaches alike. There is a way of generating a small stretch reflex, which
may help when initiating the lift, but nothing like the reflex that can be
generated during the other two powerlifts. In the conventional stance, a slight
rocking of the hips, which will cause the knees to flex as well, can be employed.
The lift should be initiated when the hips are at the lowest point, and this
movement must occur rapidly. Care must be taken when doing this, as if the hips
descend too far, the lifter will be at a biomechanical disadvantage.

Unsurprisingly, there is a difference when using this
technique when pulling sumo. This technique (often called ‘diving’) can allow
the sumo lifter to generate a greater stretch reflex without moving out of
position, unlike the conventional deadlift. Because the feet are father apart,
instead of just raising and lowering the hips, the hips should be lowered
rapidly then thrust forward at the bottom of the descent. This allows not only
for a greater stretch reflex, but for an even more erect torso than lifters who
pull from a static position.

Variations on the deadlift

There are several varieties of the deadlift, and can be
used not only to assist in deadlift training, but can also significantly
strengthen muscles that can be impeding progress in another lift. Some of these
lifts can be used in place of the deadlift during training as well.

One of the most common variations of the deadlift is the
partial deadlift, or rack lockout. These are usually performed in a power rack,
with the pins set at a variety of heights. Pulls can be done from one inch
above the deck to a couple of inches below lockout. As a general rule, the
shorter the ROM, the more weight that can be handled. The primary function of
the partial deadlift is to not only overload the muscles of the back, as well as
increase motor recruitment. (5, 1

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At times, the
amount of weight that can be handled during the execution of a short range of
motion rack pull can be so great that it surpasses the amount of weight the
athlete can hold. In this case, it may be necessary to employ straps to secure
the weight. (6)

Another common variation is the stiff-legged deadlift
(SLDL) which will work the hamstrings to a much greater degree than the
conventional deadlift. (2, 10) This lift should begin just like a conventional
deadlift, and should be pulled to the top in the same manner. The knees will be
stiff, but not locked, as the bar is lowered as far as possible without allowing
the back to round. The lower back should remain arched throughout the entire
lift, and if the back begins to round despite the best attempts of the athlete,
it is necessary at this point to begin the concentric portion of the lift and
raise the bar. The bar will travel away from the lifter as the hips are flexed
progressively. There is greater torque on the hips and lumbar areas because of
the greater horizontal distance from the bar to the base of the support than in
the conventional deadlift. (3, 4, 17)

Despite the fact that numerous “muscle mags” often
illustrate a lifter performing this exercise while elevated, this should be
avoided by all at first and most athletes for the duration of their career. The
greater the range of motion, the greater the chance of lifting with a kyphotic
(round back) posture. (10) Artificially increasing the ROM will serve only to
increase the chances of this occurring. It must also be noted that a
comprehensive stretching program is essential to not only athletes, but everyone
wishing to improve the ROM of this exercise.

The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) is used primarily to
strengthen the hamstrings, gluteus, and lower back, although this technique
causes less stress to the lumbar area. Unlike the SLDL, the RDL is initiated from
the floor, although the set up is roughly in-between that of the conventional
deadlift and the SLDL. (23) During the ascension, the knees should begin to
straighten in advance of the hips, with the goal of keep the torso at the same
angle as in the beginning of the lift for as long as possible. This should
occur while maintaining normal spinal curvature. Pulling in such a manner
allows the athlete to keep the bar closer to the base of support, decreasing
the strain on the lumbar area when compared to the SLDL. As the knees fully
straighten, the hips shall travel toward the rear slightly, then the hips are
then powerfully flexed, fully utilizing the hamstrings and erectors to complete
the lift. This lift is often performed by Olympic style weightlifters to
increase the strength of the clean pull.

Another variation that is not often performed is the
Snatch Grip Deadlift (SGL). This version of the deadlift is similar to a
conventional deadlift, with the only difference occurring in the placement of
the hands upon the bar. The grip is at least one and a half times shoulder
width, while larger lifters will often grip collar to collar. A good general
guide to novices is to extended the arms out to the sides, then bend only at
the elbow. The bar should be held at approximately the width of the elbows. The
difficulty of maintaining the grip in such a position, as the mixed grip cannot
be used, will require the used of straps for those not very experienced in
utilizing the hook grip. This lift will further stress the musculature of the
upper back, particularly the trapezius. (19) This lift is often performed by
Olympic style weightlifters to increase power of the first pull, making it
easier for the athlete to raise weights from the deck.

A simple method of increasing the ROM of a deadlift is for
the athlete to stand on a block. Once again, care must be taken to avoid
kyphotic lifting posture. The increase in ROM will necessitate a decrease in

Deadlift Training

There are far too many methods of training to improve the
deadlift to list here. A few will be briefly discussed.

Periodization. This is a simple yet effective method of
decreasing the volume while increasing the weight. This process occurs over a
period of weeks or months. It is by far the most common method of training,
although lifters are branching out in new directions daily. This method has
been discussed in great detail in numerous other works, and will not be
discussed further here.

Conjugate Training. This is a system of training the musculature
of the lift without overtraining the CNS with respect to a single lift. The
deadlift is not trained heavy throughout the cycle, and in some training
cycles, may be trained only rarely. This method was first used in Olympic
weightlifting by the incredibly successful Soviet Dynamo Club.(24) It was later
used by the original Westside Barbell Club in the 1960’s and 1970’s, as well as
some lifters on the East coast, including Bill Starr, a former Olympic
weightlifter turned coach. (21). It is currently the system employed by the new
Westside Barbell Club, of Columbus, Ohio, under the coaching of Louie Simmons,
the most successful coach in powerlifting history.(20) This method will involve
heavy assistance work for the lift itself, such as partial deadlifts, good
mornings, etc. A list of assistance exercises can be found at:

An interesting variation for training the deadlift was
employed by the great Don Rheinholdt, the first man to squat 900 lbs. in
competition as well as being one of the first to deadlift over 800 lbs. He
would set up with his opener in the power rack eight inches off of the deck,
and pull it. He would then drop the pins one inch every week until the week
before the meet, when the plates were just a single inch off of the floor. This
allowed him to preserve his lower back while maintaining proper form.

A final word on a couple of myths. Numerous “experts” have
cautioned against utilizing the deadlift, incorrectly stating that it is
hazardous to perform. This is true, if the above cautions are not employed.
While there can be a place for round back lifting in the program of the highly
advanced lifter, this is a mistake for most and will not be discussed further.
Other self proclaimed authorities state that you must wear a belt when
deadlifting. A belt can help increase intra-abdominal pressure, as well as
increase the force generated when deadlifting. However, the majority of the
deadlifting done by any athlete should be performed without a belt to further
recruit the core muscles (abdominals, obliques, etc.).

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