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
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!
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: http://bruteforcestrength.com/2011/12/from-the-refs-chair-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 CRAPPY–GREAT scale. If you have a lift you’d like me to review as well, feel free to contact me at email@example.com.
For more information on deadlift technique:
I’ve learned a lot about being a better lifter by refereeing powerlifting meets. From the Ref’s Chair is my attempt to pass on what I see so that you can improve your lifts. This post is from the 2011 Fife Power Company Powerlifting Holiday Classic. I witnessed some great lifting, highlighted by a 722lb raw pull. Hopefully some of these tips will help you lift even bigger next year!
Grip: I’ll dig into your grip on the bar in more detail in another article; however I wanted to touch on some of the mistakes I saw. If you can’t hold onto the bar, you can’t pull the weight. You should be taking every measure you can to improve your grip.
- Thumbless grip: There is no reason to use a thumbless grip on the deadlift. If you can hold the bar thumbless, quite frankly you don’t have enough weight on the bar.
- Chalk: I saw a lifter fastening his belt after he’d chalked his hands. By the time he approached the bar to pull, the chalk was on his singlet and his belt, but not on his hands. As cool as you look covered in blood, sweat and chalk, chalk on your attire does not help you hold onto the bar. Chalking your hands should be the last thing you do before stepping onto the platform.
- Hand Placement – too wide: This one I see all the time – using an exceptionally wide grip on the bar. A wide grip creates two disadvantages for you. First, a wider grip shortens your arm span, meaning you start the pull closer to the floor. This increases the range of motion you must pull through, and puts you at a disadvantaged position to start the pull from. Secondly, you now have forces straining your grip in two directions – one straight down towards the floor, the second inward pulling your hands toward the neutral position. Whether you’re pulling sumo or conventional, your hands should hang straight down from your shoulders. This will lengthen your arm span to the bar to its maximum, and eliminate the horizontal force from straining your grip.
Hand placement too wide
Correct hand placement
- Hand Placement – too narrow: Not gripping the knurling. Unless you have an exceptionally small frame with narrow shoulders, you should try to grip the bar on the knurling.
Stance: Choose either a sumo stance or a conventional stance. I saw too many people taking a stance somewhere in between. There is no advantage to this. With an ‘in between’ stance you drag your hands across your legs through nearly the full range of motion, peeling your grip loose.
- Conventional: Your feet should be close together and toes pointed forward. Unless you have an exceptionally wide frame, your legs should be inside the knurling. With your feet in this position, your arms can hang straight down from the shoulders, grip the knurling, and not drag across your body as you complete your pull. Your legs and clothing won’t catch on the knurling which would increase the friction, and thereby increase the difficulty of the pull.
- Sumo: Although dependent on your build, a sumo stance is very wide, well outside shoulder width, with your toes pointed out. For my sumo setup, I place my feet so the 81cm rings in the knurling are at my shins. Your grip will be inside your legs, hang straight down from your shoulders, and optimally gripping the knurling. Your hand placement should be approximately the same for the sumo pull as for the conventional deadlift.
Setup: Don’t play around with the deadlift. A loaded bar sitting on the floor waiting for you to pull can be intimidating. If you take the time to think about it, your mind will talk you out of the lift. Grab the bar and pull – GRIP and RIP
- Pausing at the Bottom: Once you grip the bar, and drop your hips to the starting position, pull immediately. Sitting at the bottom works against you in two ways. First, as mentioned, you start thinking about the lift. Your mind will try to tell you how heavy the weight is. Secondly, as you drop your hips into the starting position, you should try to tighten your glutes and hamstrings and use them to explode off the floor. If you’re pausing at the bottom you lose that tightness and any advantage you can get out of it (ever notice how the second rep of deadlifts is much easier than the first when deadlifting for reps…?).
- Exhaling at the Bottom: Don’t exhale, grunt or scream as you start the pull. Losing the air from your chest will reduce your upper body stability. Try to hold the air in your chest until the bar passes your knees and then begin exhaling as you lock out.
If you would like a complete walkthrough of the conventional deadlift you can read my article on deadlifting technique.
Deadlift rack pulls, also called deadlift lockouts, can help you build significant lower back strength, and drive power into your squats and deadlifts.
- Deadlift rack pulls help you train the finishing movement for your deadlift.
- They allow you to pull a significantly higher weight to lockout than you would use for your full range of motion deadlifts. Rack pulls can build significant lower back strength.
- By lifting heavier weight, they train your body and central nervous system to recruit more muscle fibers for the lift.
- To a lesser degree, rack pulls also work your gluteus maximus (glutes) and hamstrings.
For the general strength trainers, lockouts are also a useful lower back compound exercise. By starting the lift just below the knees, rack pulls eliminate much of the leg drive from a full range of motion deadlift. This allows this exercise to focus the work directly on your lower back.
If you’d like to learn how to perform rack pulls correctly, check out this article on the exercise technique: Deadlift Rack Pulls