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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on deadlift technique: