Brute Force Strength Training Review – The Deadlift

A friend of mine mentioned he’d taken a video of his deadlift, and was wondering how tight his form was. Although on a scale from CRAPPY to GREAT, the lift was between NOT BAD and OK, I passed on a few pointers that I thought might bump him up to GOOD. Since even OK is better than 90% of the deadlifters you see in the gym, I asked if I could share these insights with all of you.

JO: Nah, go ahead. Since it’s not TOTALLY bad [I did mention it was almost OK didn’t I?], I don’t mind, send me a link to blog.

JO Deadlift Video


ME: Ok, it actually doesn’t look bad [NOT BAD], your starting position is really good, your back is flat, and your hips are down right where they should be to start. I do have a few comments:

On the setup for your first rep, you camp out at the bottom before lifting. This is bad for a couple reasons. First of all the deadlift can be downright intimidating. If you take enough time to think about it, it will talk you out of the lift, particularly as the bar gets heavier. Don’t mess around with your deadlift. Get setup and pull (grip and rip). Secondly, you don’t have an eccentric component to the (first rep) of a deadlift. Use your setup as an eccentric, tightening your glutes and hams as you drop into position. To keep from loosening up once your hips drop in, start the pull as soon as you hit the bottom.

It’s somewhat hard to tell from the angle of the video, but it looks like your feet are too wide for a conventional deadlift, yet too narrow for sumo. If you’re pulling conventional, your feet should be inside hip width, and your hands at shoulder width, so your hands will never drag across your thighs. If you’re lifting sumo, go as wide as you can with your feet. I usually have my shins right at the rings on the bar (assuming it is a standard power bar). Your hands are also at shoulder width, inside your legs, they only should drag across your legs at the hip. Notice that regardless of the style, your arms should hang straight down to the bar and minimize contact with your legs. In the video it looks like your hands slide up your legs all the way from the floor to lock out – the worst possible scenario.

JO: I had a couple powerlifters taking the video and they were saying I need to get back on my heels a bit and something about using my hams more as I get past my knees.

ME: I’ve never heard it put quite like that (using my hams more as I get past my knees), but I can sort of see what they are talking about. Once the bar crosses your knees, it appears like you’re using all lower back to finish off the lift. You are starting out the lift OK to GOOD (hips don’t come up ahead of the bar), so after the bar passes the knees, try to think ‘hip thrust’. Drive the hips forward instead of pulling back with the lower back. You’ll get a lot more drive out of your hamstrings, and even more out of your glutes to finish it off.

Good mornings might be a great supplemental exercise to help you with this. When I do good mornings, it’s not just bending down at the waist and pulling back up with my lower back. I start by moving my hips straight back, and the bar descends as I do. On the way back up, I start the lift by pulling with my hamstrings and finish it by driving my hips forward powerfully – it’s a great supplemental exercise for developing a bigger pull.


JO: My hands are wide and perhaps my stance is too. But I don’t THINK my hands touch my legs at all, due to the wide grip.

ME: From the video it looked like your hands were right at your shins, albeit maybe right outside. I don’t know if you saw it, but here’s a blog post that touches on hand position during the deadlift:

As far as ‘back on the heels’, what I focus more on is ‘rocking back’ as I set up until my shoulders are at or behind the bar. In this lift you are in that position, but the bar is a bit too far forward before you start, and your knees end up in front of the bar once you are set up. Try bringing the bar back to where it’s over the center of your feet (probably an inch from your shins), then sit in/rock back until your shoulders are behind the bar – then you have no choice but to be over your heels.

I have one final comment. Notice how you squat down to the bar to set up and between each rep. This is the most common way of setting up for a deadlift, but I prefer a different approach. Instead of squatting to the bar, I bend at the waist to grab the bar. Once I have the bar, I tighten my upper back and pull the slack out between my body and the bar. I’m then completely tight and rock back, bringing my hips down and chest up, keeping tension on the bar. As my hips hit depth I PULL! This approach has a couple of advantages:

  • When squatting down to the bar, most lifters I watch loosen their upper back and arms. When rocking backward into the setup you keep tension on the bar and don’t loosen up your upper back
  • If you deadlift as shown in the video, I will guarantee that the second and subsequent reps are much easier than the first. This goes back to the fact that your first rep has no eccentric component. As a competitive powerlifter, I only have one rep in competition, so I try to treat every rep as the first one, creating an eccentric in the setup motion.

Hope this helps!

JO: Glad to know you didn’t laugh (or weep).

And I hope this review can help all of you move farther up the CRAPPYGREAT scale. If you have a lift you’d like me to review as well, feel free to contact me at

For more information on deadlift technique:

Deadlift Technique

Leg Training – Brute Force Style

I was at the gym a while back, and a guy there was asking me questions about bench pressing. I had questions of my own – so naturally the subject of leg workouts came up.  ‘I don’t squat because of my knees and back’, he says. I’m obligated to ask… ‘What’s wrong with your knees and back?’ ‘Nothing,’ he replies, ‘my uncle, who’s a powerlifting bodybuilder said squats are bad for them’.

How do you argue with a powerlifting bodybuilder uncle? Now I’m not going to tell you why you need to work your legs, which, for the record consist of over 50% of the total muscle mass in your body. If you’re happy covering your sticks up in your sweats, while casually distracting onlookers with the biceps you shower with hours of bicep curl attention, then this article is not for you.

If, however, you’d like to wear a pair of shorts occasionally, then let’s do this right!

    • Balance: Too many leg workouts are actually quad workouts thinly disguised with the token leg curl exercise thrown in at the end. An effective leg training plan balances your quad training with your posterior chain work.
  • Emphasize Compound Exercises: Particularly for novices, the majority of your leg training (70-80%) should consist of compound lifts*.

*A compound lift is an exercise that uses multiple muscle groups to complete the work, as opposed to isolation lifts which isolate an individual muscle (example: the squat is a compound exercise that works the entire lower body strenuously, whereas leg curls isolate the hamstrings).

  • Focus on Technique: Performing your exercise with proper technique minimizes your risk of injury, and maximizes the effectiveness of the exercise.

Putting it all Together

An effective leg training program doesn’t have to be complicated. Three ‘simple’ exercises will leave you hobbling out of the gym feeling completely wasted – that is the goal, right?

  • Squat: Performed properly, squats anchor an effective leg workout. A proper set of squats hammers every muscle in your lower body, taxes your core, and strains your central nervous system. To do them right, you need to take them all the way into the hole. Above parallel, the squat over-emphasizes your quads. You need to drop your hips below parallel to get maximum activation of your glutes.

Squatting at the IPF World Championships

  • Leg Press: Leg presses let you push some serious weight to isolate the lower body muscles you’ve already exhausted under the squat bar. When done right, your quads will be on fire at the end of each set. If they’re not on fire, keep on repping. As with the squats, leg presses need to be completed with the full range of motion – bring that platform down until your knees are pressing into your chest.
  • Stiff-Leg Deadlift: Stiff-leg deadlifts, or romanian deadlifts are, in my humble but correct opinion, the best exercise there is for your posterior chain. They will help you build powerful glutes and hamstrings. To hit the hamstrings hard, keep your knees completely straight and slowly stretch down as far as possible before snapping it back up powerfully.

If you still feel the need to hit the machines to isolate your quads or hamstrings after the big three, it’s likely you’re doing something wrong…

Exercise Technique: Here are some simple pointers to make sure you’re performing these key lifts properly:


Positioning the Bar for a Bigger Bench Press

Although it appears a very simple exercise, there is a lot more to the bench press than lowering the bar to your chest and pressing it back up. Applied correctly, small tweaks in your lifting technique can have a much greater impact on your bench than the workout routine you follow. Often overlooked during the bench press is the bar position.

Notice two problems with the bench press shown in this photo?

If you said the issues are that I couldn’t get the spotter to get his dang hands off the bar during the lift, and there is a world class powerlifter training in a flashy ‘fitness center’ (Beverly Crawford, two time high school national powerlifting champion, two time USA Powerlifting national champion and silver medalist at the International Powerlifting Federation world championships), you are correct…however not what I was going for.

Notice her right hand, circled in red. It appears that her wrist is bent sharply backwards. This is something I see done by the vast majority of bench pressers in the gym. To improve your grip on the bar, you want the bar to rest directly over your wrist and forearm. You do this by rolling your wrists forward, and letting the bar rest in the base of your palm, not up in the middle of your palm. The weight from the bar should travel directly down through your wrists and forearm, not suspended over…air.

If you use wrist wraps when you bench, use them to improve the stability of your hold on the bar. When you’re wrapping them, bring the wrap up around the base of your hand. When done right and tight, they act like a cast, and make it difficult to bend your hand backwards. This forces you to support the weight over your wrist and forearm.

If you look at Beverly’s left arm, circled in blue, look at the way her forearm is angled downward toward her feet. To get the most power, as mentioned above the bar should be positioned directly over your forearm. Now that we’ve fixed your grip on the bar, move the bar position up your chest so that your forearms are perpendicular to the floor as the bar touches the chest. You can also tuck your elbows in tighter to your body. This will allow you to bring the bar down lower on your chest and still keep the weight over your arms.

By making these two changes, you keep the weight of the bar directly over the supporting structure of your arms and chest. This should reduce strain on your wrists, elbows and shoulders, and also allow you to add lbs. to your bench press.

If you’d like more tips on bench pressing, check out my article, Powerlifting Basics: Tips to Increase Your Bench Press.

Adding Box Squats to your Strength Training

I was at the gym yesterday and watched a kid doing box squats. For the box, although the gym has a full set of plyo boxes, he was using a flat bench and doing touch and goes. Now unless you’re about seven feet tall, a bench is likely too high for box squats. In this case, his squats ended about three inches above parallel when he hit the bench.

There are actually several reasons to add box squats to your strength training, and your technique will differ slightly for each. When considering whether to use box squats in your training routine, you need to understand the purpose, and select the right technique.

    1. Learning to squat: If you’ve never squatted before, performing box squats can help you get comfortable sitting into your squat. To squat properly, you need to learn to sit into it just like you would sit into a chair. Using a box can give you a sense of security as you learn to sit back into the squat. When using the box squat to learn squat technique you should use little or no weight, and concentrate on controlling your descent so you land on the box lightly. Come to a full rest on the box before standing back up. Once you’re comfortable sitting into your squat you can move on to normal squats and work on loading up the bar.
    2. Touch and Go: The touch and go is used to help ‘find depth’. This form of box squats helps you find proper squat depth (thigh is below parallel). You do not come to full rest on the box when performing touch and goes. Descend until you feel the box then immediately drive back up. Once your comfortable hitting depth remove the box perform normal squats.
    3. Full Box Squats: Full box squats are a tool that can help build explosive power out of the bottom. When performing full box squats, descend until you come to a full rest on the box then drive explosively up off the box. Avoid leaning forward to begin the ascent as this can reduce the emphasis on your glutes and hams. As opposed to touch and goes full box squats can be used at any time as an alternative to normal squats. They are a great training tool to create strength at the bottom of your squat and build explosiveness out of the hole.

General Tips for Box Squats:

    1. Use a box that is the right height for appropriate squat depth. Do you really need a box to tell you your squats are high? I’ll help with that: “your squats are high”. Now suck it up and drop your squats into the hole.
    2. Never anticipate the box. Don’t squat to sit onto the box. Keep descending with proper squat technique until you hit the box then drive back up. If you are slightly surprised by hitting the box then you’re doing it right.
    3. Land lightly on the box. Descend in a controlled manner and land lightly on the box. Plopping down hard on the box with a loaded bar on your back is a sure way to end your lifting career.
  1. Unless you’re doing full box squats, once your squatting issue is resolved, move on to regular squats.

If you’re using the box squat because it’s in the latest edition of the Spartacus Leg Mauling training program, step back and assess why you’re using the box. If it’s a fit with your training goals, select the appropriate method and a box that will drop you into the hole.