Fitness Friday: How to do the deadlift

You can build a lot of strength with the simple act of pulling a barbell off the floor. Let’s talk deadlifts.

By now, you all know what some of my favorite lifts are. And if they become a part of what you do to get stronger, you’ll enjoy the same benefits. But if you’re new to it, there are some tricks to making these lifts more effective and less injurious.

I mention injury because when you start challenging yourself with heavier weights on compound lifts, it’s important to be dialed in when you’re doing the exercise. If something is off, it doesn’t take much to put yourself in a bad position and get hurt.

Similarly, to get the most out of an exercise, proper form is needed. You’re just cheating yourself otherwise.

This week, I want to focus on the deadlift.

This lift is my favorite, mostly because it offers the most bang for the buck. The deadlift is a full-body exercise that can build a ton of real-world strength. And nothing is more primally satisfying as knowing you can walk up to a heavy thing and lift it off the ground.

Deadlifts are done in one of three ways: Conventional, sumo and trap bar. All have their merits, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to concentrate on the conventional deadlift. The conventional stance has your feet wider than hip width, but less than shoulder width. Your hands will grab the bar on the outside of your legs.

We often refer to the steps to setting up and executing the lift as “cues.” Each of these cues will help execute the lift as efficiently and safely as possible. Here’s how you do it:

Walk up to the bar until your shins are about an inch away from it. The bar should look like its hovering about mid-foot above your shoes. Bend down and grab the bar. Once you’ve grabbed it, bend your knees. The bar will now likely be touching your shins, but don’t move the bar toward you. Move toward it. Point your toes out slightly.

Your upper body should be somewhere short of a 45-degree angle at your hips. Your back isn’t vertical, nor is it horizontal. If you’re looking toward a mirror, you would be able to read any lettering or graphics on the upper chest portion of your shirt. How far you are bent over will depend on how tall you are, and how long your legs are. Longer lifters will have a more horizontal aspect to their stance.

Keep your spine straight, from your neck to your lower back. Resist the urge to crane your head and neck up.

Now it’s time to “set your back.” What this means is getting your back muscles tight and engaged. Grip the bar tight, and pretend you’re squeezing down on a ball in your armpits. This will engage the muscles in your back, so everything is involved and locked in. When doing this, your lower back might arch a bit, and that’s OK. If it’s arched, it will be in a stronger, more locked-in position rather then flexed or bowed out (rounded), which is a weaker, less stable position.

Now you’ll want to set your core. Take a breath in and force your midsection out. If you’re not sure what that’s like, imagine trying to force out a fart. Crude/funny, I know. But this will engage your abdominal muscles and create a rigid wall that protects your back. You’ll hold that breath in until you complete the lift; if you breathe out during the lift, you’ll partially release the core and you don’t want to do that. When you’re at the start of the lift, holding this position will make it look like your belly is hanging out, and that’s a good thing as long as you’re braced. Sucking your gut in and flexing your abs like you are posing for a six-pack photo is not the kind of core bracing you’re looking for.

Next, “take the slack out of the bar.” What this means is to come up just enough where you hear a metallic “click” of the bar touching the plates. Now you’re set to lift.

As you lift, remember that the deadlift is not a squat. It’s a hip hinge. So, you will be using your legs and your backside to stand up with the weight. Lift with too much legs and you’ll be weaker in the lift. But if you use too much back, you’ll be limited into now much you can pull – and begging for injury. An easy way to judge if you’re doing this right is to see if your knees and your hips straighten at the same rate and time.

As you’re lifting, try to press your feet down through the floor. Thinking of it this way is very similar to following through on a baseball throw or a golf swing. It will make your drive upwards that much more powerful. Ideally, you will feel your quads, hamstrings, glutes and your entire back working to lift the weight. A cue to remember as the lift is going up is to concentrate on squeezing your glutes and hams.

Be sure to not let your lower back become rounded during the lift. Your lower back must remain flat and rigid. Too much flex will eventually lead to injury. Remember, you’re not a fishing rod. You’re more like a crane.

As uncomfortable as this sounds, the bar needs to slide up your legs. If the bar is not making contact with your legs as you lift (this is called “bar drift”), then you are creating a longer distance the weight must travel. So, it’s more work and less power. And it will pitch you forward, putting unnecessary strain on your lower back.

As you complete the lift, keep your chest out and your shoulders back. Once in a standing position, lower the weight back to the floor for your next rep.

That’s the meat of it. Here are a couple of other things about the deadlift that may show up as options for you…

Some people use wrist straps when they deadlift. The straps assist your grip, allowing you to lift heavier than your unaided grip would allow. I’d resist using straps, as you’ll want your grip strength to rise with the rest of your deadlifting power. Big-time lifters will use them while training when the weight gets very heavy, allowing them to do more work. And in Strongman competitions, straps are allowed. But for the rest of us, just use your own unaided grip.

There are options for your grip. The double-overhand grip is most common, but a lot of lifters find it limiting when the weight gets heavier. A mixed grip is when you have one hand overhand, one underhand. A mixed grip will allow you to lift more, but be careful. It can create imbalances during the lift. There is also the hook grip, where your fingers come over your thumb as your grip the bar. This also allows for a stronger grip once you get used to it, but be warned – it’s a little weird and pretty uncomfortable.

The deadlift is not a good high-rep exercise. Because it is very technique oriented and technique tends to break down under fatigue, I’d advise against doing high-rep sets of deadlifts. A loss of form is a sure-fire way to increase risk of injury. I keep my sets at 8 reps or less, depending on the weight.

Finally, some lifters use a belt. The belt is designed to protect your lower back, especially as the weight gets heavier. Generally speaking, lay off using the belt as long as you can so your core strength rises with the rest of your lifting strength. That said, if the weight is getting somewhere near 200 percent of your body weight OR you are becoming prone to tweaking or injuring your lower back, using the belt is a plus. You’ll find that when wearing the belt, setting your core becomes even easier, as your midsection has something to push against as your midsection expands.

I’m going to attach a video from Mark Rippetoe, the author of “Starting Strength,” which goes through what I’ve talked about. He knows his stuff. Heed what you’ve read, watch the video, and get to pulling some weight!

Next week: We’re going to tackle the squat.

Bob Doucette

6 thoughts on “Fitness Friday: How to do the deadlift

  1. Great stuff! One thing I have done that has helped is “knuckles down” when doing the double overhand grip. I’ve noticed that it helps set my arms in a better position and I get my power.

  2. Pingback: Fitness Friday: How to do the squat – proactiveoutside

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