The Conventional Deadlift – Breaking Down the Technique

The deadlift is a simple exercise, right? Just grab a heavy bar and stand up. To advance from a good deadlifter, to a great deadlifter, you really have to understand all the mechanics of the lift, which actually are somewhat complex. I’ve broken the deadlift into 21 separate steps to help you master every nuance of the lift.

Setup

There is no reason your setup should not be perfect every single rep of every single step. You are able to stop and think about every step in the setup as you are doing it. Setting up properly can make a significant difference in how much iron you can pull.

  • Select the right bar
    • Pick a bar that is not bent; if you cannot find a bar in your gym that is not bent (uh, terribly sorry about that…) make sure the bend is positioned upward so the bar does not roll as you lift it
    • Choose a bar with most pronounced knurling, it should be somewhat sharp; yes, this will tear your hands up, but you will hold onto the bar.
  • Foot placement
    • Feet should be at hip-width (inside shoulder width)
    • Point your toes forward
  • Bend at the waist, rotating at your hips, to grab the bar
  • Hand Placement
    • Grip the bar at shoulder width
    • Hands should be outside your thighs so they don’t slide across your legs during the pull, as this can cause your grip to loosen
    • Arms should hang straight down from your shoulders, close to the thighs
  • Get a good grip on the bar
    • Use an over/under grip to prevent the bar from rolling during the pull
    • Try to keep both hands on the knurling
    • For heavier sets, chalk up your hands to prevent the bar from sliding away from you
  • Pull the bar close to your body
    • Bar should be within an inch of your shins before you start the pull
    • Center the bar over the arches of your feet

Basic Deadlift Technique

Try and master the basic deadlift technique before starting to add more advanced techniques to your pulls. This will give you a great foundation, and very solid deadlifts.

  • Pull the ‘slack’ out between your body and the bar
    • Pull upward slightly on the bar so there is no slack between your arms and the bar, or between the bar and the plates
  • Rock backwards dropping your hips down, and bringing your chest up
    • Rotate around your knees bringing your hips downward
    • Keep your arms straight and your back tight, and maintain upward tension on the bar as you rock back
  • Drive through your heels as you start your pull; use your legs to break the bar from the floor
  • Continue pulling until you are standing fully erect with your knees locked, your hips forward, and your shoulders back
  • Lower the bar back to the floor and reset for your next repetition

Advanced Deadlift Technique

Once you have the basic deadlift technique mastered, and the steps are automatic, begin working on the advanced techniques that will take your pulls to the next level.

  • Once you are set up for your pull, and have removed the slack from the bar, tighten your back
    • Squeeze your shoulder blades together and down to keep your back tight
    • Activate your lats to keep the bar tight against your shins
  • Take a deep breath into your lungs and tighten your abs to create intra-abdominal pressure and a solid core just before dropping your hips to the starting position
    • Hold the air in your lungs until the bar passes your knees
    • Exhale slowly as you lock the bar out
  •  As you rock backward, continue bringing your hips down until your knees and shoulders are behind the bar
  • Concentrate on tightening your glutes and hamstrings as you bring your hips down
  • Begin pulling as soon as your hips drop to the starting position
    • Remaining too long at the bottom of the lift will allow your glutes and hamstrings to loosen, and let your head talk your body out of the lift
  • Keep the bar close to your body, the bar should ride up your shins as you pull
  • Concentrate on completing your pull with one smooth motion
    • Your shoulders, hips and the bar should rise at the same rate
    • Your hips should not come up first, leading to your knees to lock out before your upper body is fully erect
  • As the bar passes your knees, drive your hips forward by squeezing your glutes
  • Do not shrug the bar or lean back excessively at the end of the lift, instead complete the lift by popping your chest up
  • Do not let the bar rest on your thighs (hitching) at any point during the lift, continue pulling steadily even if the bar slows and stops; if you cannot complete the lift without hitching, set it down and try again another time!

Although a seemingly simple lift, there are many nuances to the deadlift that may be difficult to learn all at once. By breaking the deadlift down into separate phases, you can master each portion of the technique and build solid foundational skills before attempting more difficult and complex steps. Just as Brute Force Rule #4: Expect Steady Progression – following this approach, you may apply this rule to your deadlift as well.

You may download a deadlift technique checklist and take it with you to the gym: Lifting Checklist – Deadlift


 



Post Workout Quickie – Deadlift Grip

Last week in my Deadlift Setup article I touched on two deadlift setup approaches, the two count deadlift and the three count deadlift. In watching a new lifter last night, I captured one of the difficulties with the two count deadlift.

Notice in the picture to the right that the lifter’s left hand is at least a half an inch wider than his right hand. This is a problem I see frequently with novice lifters. When squatting down to the bar to set up, it’s difficult to watch your hands to ensure proper hand position. Improper hand position will lead to inferior pulls:

  • When your hands are off-center like this, the bar will be off-balance, making the pull more difficult
  • If your hands are too wide, it shortens your reach, forcing you to squat down farther to get to the bar; you then have to start lower and pull the bar farther
  • If your hands are too close, they will drag across your legs, increasing friction, and impacting your grip on the bar

Quick pointers on hand and foot position for the deadlift:

  • Feet should be ‘inside the shoulders’, this is a relatively close stance
  • Hands should be right on the outside of your hips and legs; your arms should hang straight down from your shoulders, but not drag across your legs
  • I like to keep my hands right on the edge of the knurling, so that I have a very easy time finding the correct placement; this is dependent, of course, on the width of your build and the bar that you use
This is one reason I like bending at the waist to grab the bar, versus squatting, before dropping my hips into the starting position (three count deadlift). I can quickly and easily see exactly where I’m placing my hands before tightening up in that position.
As with all lifts – a cleaner setup leads to a cleaner and more powerful pull!

 



Back workout of the week (BWOW) – Competition Training Week 3

Three weeks into the competition training cycle, we will start drawing the volume back. The weight and the volume from your training may be taking a toll on the body. To be as strong as possible on the platform for your Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift, you need to lift smart. Back off on your assistance work and let your body begin to heal and grow strong.

For those who are not training for competition, I include optional exercises so you still feel like a monster when you’re done!

BWOW – Week 6

Goal: Medium Intensity, Light Volume/Horizontal Pulling

Remember to use the Rate of Perceived Exertion, as shown in the training worksheet, to make sure you’re using an appropriate weight.

Barbell Rows

  • Warm up to your working set with barbell rows
  • 5 sets/3 reps
  • Warm up to a weight you would hit failure at 5 reps, the intent is to lift some heavy rows!
  • Some cheating in your later sets is Ok (slight movement of upper body to use momentum), we are trying to move as heavy weight as possible
  • You should be using a weight that you will need wrist wraps to hold the bar
  • Rest 3-5 minutes between sets so that you are fully recovered

Dumbbell Rows – Supported

  • 3 sets/8 Reps
  • If you are in a competition training cycle, this exercise may be skipped
  • Select a weight that you will fail at 8 reps
  • Complete each round of the sets to failure
  • Minimize cheating, use little or upper body momentum to complete your reps
  • As with last week, if you have the breath you may want to mutter between sets
  • Use wrist wraps if necessary to hold the dumbbells
  • Rest around 3 minutes between sets so that you are mostly recovered

Hammer Strength Rows

  • 3 sets/12 reps per set
  • Select a weight that you are within one rep of failure at the end of each set
  • Squeeze the lats at the end of the rep on the hammer strength; squeeze them tightly and pause for a moment on each rep before lowering the weight
  • Your lats and biceps should be burning at the end of each set
  • Rest around 3 minutes per set so that you are mostly recovered
  • If your gym has multiple rowing machines that function at different angles, use a different machine for each set
  • If you don’t have hammer strength at your gym, you can substitute a different rowing machine

Standing Hammer Curls:

  • 3 sets/10 reps per set
  • Select a weight that you are within 2-3 reps of failure at the end of each set

Coming Attraction: Next week we continue drawing down training intensity and volume, and increasing weight in preparation for the USA Powerlifting Masters National Championships. Since we did no vertical pulling work this week, next week will have a vertical focus.

BWOW Training Worksheet: Back Workout of the Week BWOW6 – Competition Training Week 3



Deadlift Setup – Creating a Powerful First Repetition

Deadlift is the easiest exercise there is, right? Bend down, grab the bar and pick it up.

Have you ever noticed how your second repetition in a heavy set of deadlifts is often easier than your first? How you set up and grab the bar can make a huge difference in powerful your first repetition is as well.

The Stretch Reflex: If a muscle is stretched rapidly, a contraction is triggered within that muscle. You use this reflex when you perform many of your exercises. During the eccentric, or lowering of the bar during the bench press for example, the pecs are stretched. This stretch, and the corresponding Stretch Reflex, assists you in driving the bar powerfully off your chest.

When deadlifting, there is no eccentric component to the first repetition. Just grab the bar and pick it up, right? On your second repetition as you lower the bar to the floor, your glutes and hamstrings are stretched, creating a stretch reflex that assists with the second and subsequent repetitions. How can you create a Stretch Reflex on your first repetition? Let’s start by walking through a typical deadlift. I refer to this as the Two Count Deadlift.

The Two Count Deadlift

  • Squat down to the bar
  • Grip the bar and pull

In trying to figure out why my own second repetitions were easier that the first, I came across a method of setting up for your deadlift that creates a pseudo eccentric component to your first repetition. I try to create the Stretch Reflex using a Three Count Deadlift.

The Three Count Deadlift

  • Rotate forward at the hips, bending to grab the bar
  • Rock back quickly, rotating at the knee to bring the hips down and chest up
  • As soon as your hips hit the bottom of the lift drive up explosively, bringing the bar,  your hips and shoulders up at the same rate

 

 

 

 

 

 

For both approaches, the concentric motion of the lift should be completed in one smooth motion.

As a competitive powerlifter, I focus on resetting after every rep using the Three Count Deadlift for all repetitions. In a competition, there is only one repetition, so I train for a powerful single repetition. However, although using the Three Count Deadlift may make your first repetition more powerful, you may find that using the Two Count Deadlift for the eccentric portion at the end of your first rep can make the rest of your reps easier. If you’re not training for competition, a hybrid approach (Three Count first rep, Two Count for subsequent reps) may allow you to pull greater weight and volume.

In the video demonstration, notice the transition to the Two Count Deadlift on the third repetition.

Try taking advantage of your body’s own reflexes for stronger pulls!



Post Workout Quickie – Squat Bar Placement

If you follow the strength training forums you’ll find frequent discussions on bar placement on your back: High Bar or Low Bar. Little attention is spent, however, on getting the bar centered on your back. Watching a team mate set up off center, and having to reset twice because the bar was off balance in tonight’s squat session drove the point home.

The setup is the most crucial part of your squat. Do it correctly and you are likely to nail your lift. Mess it up and you burn energy unnecessarily, give your head the chance to tell your body ”damn this is heavy!’, and give your spotter a chance to earn his keep. Getting the bar centered on your back can be done in three simple steps:

  • Make sure your hands are evenly placed on the bar; use the edges of the knurling and the rings on the bar to make sure they are perfectly even.
  • Make eye contact with the knurling in the middle of the bar, and make sure you are directly centered on it.
  • Keep your eyes on the knurling as you duck under the bar, remain square to the bar and make sure you duck straight under it.

Once you’re under the bar, be careful not to change your hand or back position on the bar as you settle in for your lift.

This step is often (nearly always?) overlooked, and quite often getting the bar set up evenly is either through sheer luck, or spotter assistance. Follow these three simple steps, and improve your setup.

For a full description of squat setup, check out Squat Technique in our Brute Force Book of Techniques!



Back workout of the week (BWOW) – Competition Training Week 2

This week we continue my drive to the 2012 USA Powerlifting Masters National Championships. It’s still early in the training cycle, so intensity remains high. This week had my muttering “what the … was I thinking” between sets, so it should rank pretty well on the smokededness scale.

BWOW – Week 5:

Goal: Medium Intensity and Volume/Horizontal Pulling

Barbell Rows

  • Warm up to your working set with barbell rows
  • 4 sets/6 repetitions
  • With the medium rep range, barbell weight should be relatively high
  • Select a weight that  you can complete the sets with minimal cheating (ie swinging upper body to use momentum to complete the repletion); you should be within 1 rep of failure at the end of the set – some cheating in the later sets is acceptable
  • You should be using a weight that you will need wrist wraps to hold the bar
  • Rest 3-5 minutes between sets so that you are fully recovered

Dumbbell Row Drop Sets

  • 3 sets to failure each set
  • For round one of the drop set, select a weight you will fail at 6-8 reps
  • For round two of the drop set:
    • If round 1 is over 100lbs, select a weight 20lbs lighter
    • If round 1 is under 100lbs, select a weight 10lbs lighter
  • Complete each round of the sets to failure
  • Minimize cheating, use little or upper body momentum to complete your reps
  • Feel free to mutter between sets
  • Use wrist wraps if necessary to hold the dumbbells
  • Rest around 3 minutes between sets so that you are mostly recovered

Pull-up/Lat Pulldown Supersets

  • 3 sets/6 reps (Pull-ups), 12 reps (Lat Pulldowns)
  • Perform each set to failure; use spotter assistance or an assisted pull-up machine if you cannot complete 6 reps
  • Complete your lat pulldowns immediately after pull-ups without resting
  • Rest about 3 minutes between sets so that you are mostly recovered

Seated Hammer Curls:

  • 3 sets/10 reps per set
  • Select a weight that you are within 2-3 reps of failure at the end of each set

Coming Attraction: Next week we begin drawing down training intensity and volume, and increasing weight in preparation for the USA Powerlifting Masters National Championships.

 

Back Workout of the Week BWOW5 – Competition Training Week 2

If you want to start at the beginning, you can check out Back Workout of the Week #1 – BWOW1



Strength Training – Breathing Technique for a Powerful Squat


Solid Core for Squatting
While training the other day I was distracted by a guy attempting to give birth…or so it appeared from the sounds he was making. I paused to check out how much weight he was squatting, it surely must have been impressive, right? Alas, the squat rack was empty! On further investigation I found that instead of Lamaze, he was bicep curling mighty 25lb dumbbells.

A week later I encountered him again, and he commented that you can’t get strong if you’re not making a lot of noise. I really didn’t have the energy to correct him – that it’s the faces you make that are important, but it does bring me to my subject. Beyond annoying the lifter’s in the gym, and drawing attention to lifts that should remain hidden in obscurity, the only thing all that noise is doing for you is reducing the amount of weight you can lift. Breathing correctly during your sets will make a significant difference in the weight you lift, and quite frankly a loaded down bar speaks for itself.

Although proper breathing technique has a positive impact on most, if not all of your lifts, I’m going to discuss the squat. Proper breathing technique helps increase your core stability which:

  • Transitions power from your legs doing the work to your upper body supporting the weight (see the figure below)
  • Reduces your chances of injury, by stabilizing your spine

The Technique

  • Take a deep breath into your lungs, allow your diaphragm to press down into your abdomen
  • Brace your core, as you would if you were about to get punched in the stomach, by simultaneously tightening your abdominals and obliques
  • Continue holding your breath through the eccentric portion of the lift (descent), and begin exhaling slowly as you pass the mid-point in the concentric (ascent) portion, complete exhaling as you lock the lift out

How Does this Add Weight to Your Bar

The bar rests on the supporting structure of your shoulder girdle, rib cage and back musculature. Your power is driven up from the floor through your legs, which consist of over 50% of the muscle mass in your body. The transition point between these stable structures is your core (abdominals, obliques, and erector spinae). The most well defined six-pack will likely not be as stable as these two opposing forces.

  • Filling your lungs with air, and bracing your abdomen creates intra-abdominal pressure which stabilizes your spine
  • A solid, stable core allows you to keep your chest up throughout the lift, preventing excessive leaning
  • Screaming for attention at the bottom of your squat releases the air from your lungs in an uncontrolled manner, loosening your core, and allowing your mid-section to crumple (no, your belt does not prevent this from happening)

Safety

There are safety considerations you need to take into account when squatting heavy.

  • As my spotters can tell you, holding your breath for an extended period of time deprives your body of oxygen (during a period of extreme exertion) and creates a risk of blacking out
  • This technique can create a significant increase in your blood pressure

In Summary

Squatting effectively is much more than stepping under the bar, bending your knees and straightening them again. Proper breathing, for example, stabilizes your core, reducing your tendency to lean or crumple at the bottom of the lift. Screaming loudly during the lift reduces your core stability.

Try lifting with good breathing technique. The plates will stack on more quickly and you will find your lifts much more stable.

 

Reference:

Jesse Irizarry. “Freakish Strength With Proper Core Training.” Testosterone Nation. 3/2/12. 4/7/12 <http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/freakish_strength_with_proper_core_training>



Back workout of the week (BWOW) – Competition Training Kickoff

This week’s back workout captures the commencement of my training for the 2011 USA Powerlifting Masters National Championships. As I’ve stated in earlier editions a strong back is key to your big lifts, particularly those executed in a powerlifting competition – the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Because of this, week one will be a fairly intense workout, although it may not take you to the level of the last workout (smokededness).

BWOW – Week 4:

Goal: Medium Intensity and Volume/Horizontal Pulling

Barbell Row/Dumbbell Row Supersets

  • Warm up to your working set with barbell rows
  • 4 super sets/8 repetitions on barbell rows/rep to failure on dumbbell rows
  • Superset barbell rows and dumbbell rows – perform a set of barbell rows, then supported dumbbell rows no rest period between them
  • On each set, alternate which arm you start with for your dumbbell rows
  • For your barbell rows, select a weight that  you can perform 8 reps without cheating (ie swinging upper body to use momentum to complete the repletion); you should be within 2-3 reps of failure at the end of the set
  • Select dumbbells that you can complete 8 reps with when performing dumbbell rows separately; perform your dumbbell rows to failure
  • Use wrist wraps if necessary to hold the bar and dumbbells
  • Rest 3-5 minutes between sets so that you are fully recovered

Cable  Rows

  • 3 sets/12 repetitions per set
  • You should be within 1 rep of failure at the end of each set
  • Minimize cheating, use little or upper body momentum to complete your reps
  • Squeeze your lats hard and pause for a moment at the top of the movement
  • Rest around 3 minutes between sets so that you are mostly recovered

Upright Rows

  • 3 sets/10 repetitions per set
  • You should be within 2-3 reps of failure at the end of each set
  • If you train your shoulders in a separate workout, you may eliminate this exercise
  • Rest around 3 minutes between sets so that you are mostly recovered

Pull-ups

  • 3 sets/6 reps
  • Perform each set to failure; use spotter assistance or an assisted pull-up machine if you cannot complete 6 reps
  • If you can complete more than 8 reps, complete them with extra weight

Biceps are important to powerlifting as a stabilizer muscle. It helps you to control the weight at your chest during the bench press. For this reason, this week I have two bicep exercises.

Preacher Curls

  • 3 sets/8reps per set
  • Use of the preacher curl should isolate the bicep completely
  • Select a weight that you are within one rep of failure at the end of each set

Standing Hammer Curls

  • 3 sets/8 reps per set
  • Select a weight that you are within 1 reps of failure at the end of each set
  • Minimize movement of the upper body to cheat during the exercise

Coming Attraction: Next week we continue competition training for the USA Powerlifting Masters National Championships.

Free download of this workout:

Back Workout of the Week BWOW4 – Competition Training Week 1

If you want to start at the beginning, you can check out Back Workout of the Week #1 – BWOW1