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Deadlift, Conventional

One of the big three movements, the  deadlift is your primary lower pulling movement. Although it targets primarily your posterior chain, it hammers every single muscle fiber in your body. It is exceptionally taxing, smashing your lower back and central nervous system, and requires more recovery than any other lift

Muscles Used for this Exercise:

  • Primary Muscle Groups: Glutes, Hamstrings
  • Secondary Muscle Groups: Quadriceps, Spinal Erectors
  • Stabilizers: every other muscle fiber, from your forearms to grip the bar, to your upper back (Latissimus Dorsi, Rhomboids, Trapezius) to anchor the weight and your core.

Classification:

  • Primary
  • Compound

Technique

What is simpler or more natural, grab something and pick it up. Now let's talk about how to do it right, those little nuances that help you maximize your leverage and the power of your lift.
There are a few considerations to discuss before getting into the actual technique.

Equipment

The only thing you really need for the deadlift is a bar and a whole lot of weight, right? There are, however, things that will make your training more effective.

  • Bar - There are a number of considerations when it comes to selecting a bar for deadlifts:
    • Basics - Is the bar in good condition; does it have good knurling to ensure a solid grip (and tear the crap out of your hands) and is it straight
    • Diameter - a smaller diameter makes the bar easier to grip and adds whip to the pull, which makes the lift easier; a larger diameter makes the bar stiffer, and more difficult to hold. The best case is to select a bar that has a diameter that matches what your lifting federation allows (if you're not a competitive powerlifter, select the bar that allows you to lift the most weight).
  • Round Plates - many commercial gyms use octagonal plates (to discourage deadlifting?). When you set these sonsabitches down the bar wants to roll to the flat side of the plate. It will either roll away from you, causing you to have to reset your position, or back toward you smashing into your shins. If you have options, choosing a gym that has round plates is likely a much better choice if you're a serious lifter. Your gym may have some round plates that have a larger diameter than the octagon plates. Placing a pair of these inside the octagon plates. As a last resort, shifting the octagon plates so that the flat sides don't line up can help, but it is far less than optimal.
  • Shoes - this is an easily overlooked piece of equipment. your goal here is a shoe that will get you as close to the floor as possible (thin, firm sole), and grip the floor so your feet don't slide - this is critically important if you lift sumo. Deadlift shoes range from deadlift slippers, to the classic Converse Chucks, to wrestling shoes, to specialized deadlift shoes.
  • Weight lifting belt - Generally speaking, most people will lift more with a belt. Although I prefer to lift and coach to perform as heavy training possible before adding the belt, at some point not using the belt will limit the weight you can lift As a rule of thumb, I add a belt at around 80% of my max deadlift.
  • Chalk - your grip is one of the most important strength aspects of the lift. When your grip starts to slip, your body stops pulling. To maximize your grip, coat the entire palm and fingertips with a thin coat of chalk (coat the PALM and FINGERTIPS, not the GYM). If your gym doesn't allow chalk, you're likely not in a great gym to train heavy lifts.
  • Knee length socks - Or long training pants; (not shorts and bare legs); you shins will thank me.
  • Baby Powder - Baby powder helps the bar slide up bare thighs. If you train with bare thighs, the bar can start to stick as you reach the top, particularly after you begin to work (sweat). Because it is difficult to clean up and makes a mess of the lifting area, you really should reserve this until you're in serious competition training.

Body Position

Know where your hands and feet go before you even step up to the bar. Practice putting them in exactly the same place every single set. You have time to think about this step, there is no reason not to get it right every single time.

  • Foot Position: Placement may vary depending on your body leverages, but a good starting point for conventional deadlifts is placing your feet should be directly under your hips with your shins 2" from the bar (bar over your shoe laces). The outside of your legs should be a perpendicular line from your hips to the floor. Point your toes slightly outward.
    • If you have wider hips, you may need to move your feet out slightly.
    • If you have a power belly, you may also want a slightly wider stance with your toes pointed out a bit more so your belly fits between your legs as you set up.
  • Hand Position: Optimally, place your hands directly outside your thighs so they hang straight down from your shoulders with the longest possible reach.
    • Grip the knurling (at least two fingers from each hand on the knurling); if you have exceptionally narrow shoulders, this may mean you take a slightly wider grip.
    • If you have wide hips, and have had to take a wider stance, move your hands out slightly to minimize the interference your legs play on your arms.
    • If you have a tendency to 'shrug' the bar, a slightly wider grip may help alleviate it.

  • Grip: There are three common grips for the deadlift:
    • Double overhand grip - For mere mortals, this grip only works for relatively light weights. Simply grip the bar with both hands pronated (overhand). This grip can lengthen your arm span shortening the range of motion, and it reduces tension on the bicep tendon that your supinated (underhand) arm experiences when using the over/under grip. You'll find, however, that as the bar weight increases, it will begin to roll out of your hands. It is a good practice to use this grip up to the weight where the bar starts to slip from your grip.
    • Alternating over/under grip: This is the go-to grip for heavy deadlifts. Grip the bar with one hand pronated (overhand) and one hand supinated (underhand). Often it is more effective using your dominant hand in the pronated position, but this is largely a matter of preference. Using the over-under grip prevents the bar from rolling out of your grip as the weight increases. It can, however, increase tension on your bicep tendon in your supinated hand, and it does result in an effectively shortened arm span.
    • Hook grip: This is an incredibly effective, and equally painful grip for heavy deadlifts. It has all the advantages of the double overhand grip, but it locks the bar in and keeps it from rolling away from you. To use it, grip the bar with both hands pronated. Instead of wrapping your thumbs around the bar, lie them along the bar and wrap your fingers around your thumbs, locking the bar in and keeping it from rolling or slipping out of your hands.

Lift Performance

The deadlift has no eccentric movement like the bench (lowering the bar to the chest) or the squat (squatting down to depth). This makes the initial upward movement in the deadlift more difficult than other lifts. The eccentric portion of the lift stretches the lift's primary movers and as these muscles stretch there is an automatic muscle reflex to try to contract, called the stretch reflex. This aids in the initial upward movement in the squat and bench press that you do not have with the deadlift.

Subsequent deadlift reps, setting the bar down can provide some eccentric and therefor stretch reflex effect, but as a powerlifter, you are primarily concerned with your first rep. There is only one rep in competition.

For this reason, I promote what I call the three step deadlift. The first two steps are intended on creating a pseudo-eccentric, and tighten the primary movers to create a stretch reflex.

The three steps should be done methodically, and 'by the numbers' as my old Air Force drill instructor would have said.

  • "ONE!" The initial setup position
    • Step up to the bar, with the foot position described above.
    • Flex at the hips (hip hinge) to reach down and grab the bar using the hand position above. At this point your hips should be high with a slight flex in the knee
    • Pull up on the bar to take the slack out between your body, the bar, and the plates. At the same time tighten your back by pulling your shoulder blades downward, tucking them into your back pockets.
    • Take a deep breath into your lungs and into your abdomen. Push down with your diaphram and tighten your core to create inter-abdominal pressure, stabilizing your lower back.
  • "TWO!" Pull yourself into the full setup position. Note that you are pulling yourself in, not squatting to the bar. Squatting to the bar leaves you loose, not ready to pull, and creates no stretch reflex.
    • Maintain upward tension on the bar, and pull your hips into position.
    • As your hips come down, push your knees forward until your shins touch the bar and bring your chest up. Treat your head as an extension of your back, and keep it in line, coming up as your chest does.
    • When in position your shins should be touching the bar with your knees slightly over it, your shoulders will be over the bar, and your back flat in a straight line the entire length of your spine.
    • By maintaining upward tension on the bar, you should feel your quads, glutes, and hamstrings all tighten up. When in the full setup position they should feel tight like springs ready to snap, and drive the bar up.
    • Keeping your back flat, rock back, lowering your hips to the starting position. Bring your hips down and your chest up until your shoulders come back just behind the bar.
  • 'THREE!" Come to a complete stop in the setup position, but don't pause. Explode through the floor to drive the bar up.
    • Drive down through your heels hard. Maintain your back/hip angle as the bar leaves the floor, don't let your hips shift up ahead of the bar. The bar, your hips and chest should all rise at the same rate.
    • Maintain a steady grind as the bar passes your knees. Do not re-bend your knees to shift your thighs under the bar - that's an automatic red light (whether you compete or not, I'll still red light you); instead drive your hips forward to a hard hip and knee lockout.
    • Don't lean back at the top. If you've properly tightened your upper back as you set up (step one), your shoulders will be locked out already as your hips and knees lock out. Leaning back unlocks your knees (another red light).
    • Once the bar starts moving, snake the air out between your teeth, completing the exhale as you lock out.
      • Don't exhale suddenly too early, particularly before the bar reaches your knees; this will loosen your core and reduce your stability and power.
      • Don't hold your breath and exhale suddenly at lockout. The lift results in an elevated blood pressure, exhaling suddenly at the end of the lift will cause your blood pressure to plummet, and could cause you to black out.
  • "ONE!" Set up again for the next rep.
    • Flex at the hips to lower the bar. Don't squat down with it as you lower it. Although this can create a strong stretch reflex for subsequent reps, there are a couple issues with this approach:
      • As noted above, often when squatting down with the bar, the lifter loosens up at the bottom, creating a terrible starting position.
      • You only have one rep in competition, try to make every rep in training as close to the competition rep as possible.
    • As you set the bar down,  you should return to the position described in step ONE above.
  • "By the Numbers" repeat each repetition consistently going through these steps methodically at a mechanical pace. If you've ever been through basic training (or watched a military movie), you should hear your drill instructor shouting cadence: "By the numbers! One! Two! Three! One..."

Common Mistakes

  • Don’t waste with the set up: Each step should be by the numbers like clockwork. Take a deep breath, set up and pull immediately. Waiting reduces the effectiveness of your setup, and lets you overthink and talk yourself out of the lift.
  • Hitching: The barbell should not rest on your thighs at any time during the lift, it be one smooth motion breaking the floor to lock out. Once the bar crosses your knees, drive your hips forward hard, don't rebend your knees.
  • Starting with the bar too far forward: Set up with the bar centered over your feet, 1-2" from your shins; beginning the pull with the barbell too far forward, leaves you out of position as you start the pull. The bar has to return to the centered position before it will leave the floor anyway.
  • Squatting to the bar to set up: As noted above, squatting to the bar leaves you loose at the starting position resulting in a very weak start of the pull.
  • Hips and butt rising ahead of the barbell and your shoulders: The barbell, your hips and shoulders should initially rise at the same rate. If your hips and butt rise first, your knees will extend early reducing leg drive in the initial part of the lift, and place additional emphasis on the posterior chain, particularly your lower back.
  • Pulling the bar with your arms: Don’t shrug the bar as you lift. This doesn’t aid in your lift, wastes energy, and can increase tension on the bicep tendon.
  • Using gloves: Ok, this isn't an overly common mistake, but for new lifters, gloves impair your grip, reducing the weight you can lift.

Safety:

Let's face it, every time you pick up a weight, there is a chance you're going to hurt yourself. But then again, there is that chance every time you walk out the door. With heavy lifting, frankly the best things you can do to minimize the risk of injury is to: use proper lifting technique, don't let your ego select the weight to lift and most importantly, get stronger.

  • Perform every repetition with proper technique. If you cannot complete your sets and repetitions with proper form, reduce the weight.
  • Keep your back flat. If your lower back begins rounding excessively, lower the weight. If that doesn't completely resolve the issue look for technique issues, and optimize your setup approach to your individual body mechanics.
  • Particularly with deadlifts, be conservative with the weights you use. Train them at a lower intensity than your other primary lifts. Not only to reduce injury directly related to excessive weight, but also keep in mind that deadlifts have a much greater impact on fatigue than other lifts due to their intensity. Excessive fatigue can lead to other lifting issues, and can also increase your risk of injury even after you've left the deadlifts behind.

Variations:

  • Sumo Deadlifts: Sumo deadlifts may be a good variation to try, particularly if you want to reduce the emphasis deadlifts put on your lower back. They are also a good accessory lift to conventional deadlifts
  • You may need to adjust your hand and foot position as noted above, to accommodate your body mechanics, and to find the optimal setup position for the strongest pull.
  • Performing deadlifts with a very wide grip, snatch grip deadlifts, can be a good accessory lift to work on the lower end of the range of motion (ROMO), and increase the overall ROM.
  • Performing deadlifts from a deficit, deficit deadlifts, can also improve the lower end of the ROM by increasing the overall ROM of the lift.

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