How to Deadlift
Deadlifts are one of the primary, fundamental exercises for all serious weight training programs. Deadlifts work 100% of your legs and they require functional stability from 95% of the rest of the muscles on your body. Using proper form, deadlifts will help you get stronger, gain more muscle, and burn more calories than any other single exercise after the squat.
Deadlifts build lower back and hamstring strength, and they teach you to keep your lower back tight against a heavy load, which is critical to avoid injuries when lifting objects from the ground or floor. Unfortunately, this is also why deadlifts have gained a bad reputation of causing a variety of injuries, including spinal injuries and hernias.
What is a Deadlift?
When you lift anything up from the floor into a standing position, it is called a deadlift. Standard deadlifts are done with both hands and a barbell, but there are many variations of both two handed and one handed deadlifts. Correct technique involves pushing through the heels and driving forward with the hips. Incorrect technique is pulling with the lower back and/or using a rounded spine, rather than keeping your back straight.
The Benefits of Deadlifting
Deadlifts hammer your forearms, back, posterior chain, hips, and legs (specifically the hamstrings). While squats are the ultimate exercise for the legs, deadlifts are a close second. When used together, squats and deads will build you a super strong core, posterior chain, back, and legs. However, for those who can’t do squats for whatever reason, several variations of the deadlift can be used in tandem to sufficiently train the legs (but that still won’t produce the same great results as barbell squats).
You will see strength and muscle gain improvements in the following areas:
- Arms – For some people, the weak spot for the deadlift will be grip strength. Deadlifting without straps will build awesomely strong forearms and will also work the biceps and triceps to a lesser degree. In my opinion, one should never use straps for their standard barbell deadlift sets, although powerlifting chalk is a great help when your hands get sweaty during training.
- Back – By keeping your back flat and straight when deadlifting, you will build a super strong lower back, which will help to protect you from injury in life. The heavy load will also help you to develop thick, powerful looking traps.
- Posterior Chain – In addition to building a strong lower back, deadlifts will also build strong glutes and all the muscles that tie the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings together. If you want to be able to bounce quarters off your buttocks, you should be using deadlifts.
- Hips – You will use your hips to drive the weight up and forward. This is important for injury prevention, power, speed, and for maintaining a strong core.
- Leg – Since your hips and posterior chain tie in to your legs, you will build both quadriceps and hamstring strength. Stiff leg deadlifts will simply destroy your hamstrings (in a good way), but that is a topic for another article.
Setting up for the Deadlift
In order to deadlift with proper technique you need to consider the height of the bar, your stance, equipment, grip, and posture. You want to step up to the bar and position yourself properly. Never attempt to pull the bar to you or otherwise adjust the position of the bar when you are getting ready to pull. All adjustments should be done during setup, not at the beginning of the rep.
- Bar – The barbell will rest on the floor, sitting just above the ankles and right in front of the shins. With standard barbell deadlifts, the bar should start at mid-shin level. Odd objects, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, and other such ‘stuff’ can be used instead of a barbell, but that changes the whole exercise.
- Straps vs. Chalk – Choose chalk over straps. Using straps on conventional deadlifts is bad for a number of reasons. Just trust me. If your grip is weak you should just deadlift more. Switch to an alternate grip rather than using a fully pronated grip. Dust your palms and fingers with chalk to combat sweaty hands.
- Footwear – Avoid wearing expensive gel-filled, air-filled, or other gimmicky shoes. Running shoes typically do not work well. Using a shoe with a hard flat sole or deadlifting bare foot, is healthier and more efficient than pulling with the wrong shoes. Choose Chuck Taylors or weightlifting shoes.
- Stance – Your stance should be shoulder width or slightly wider for conventional deadlifts. I prefer more of a power deadlift where my feet are about 3-4 inches wider than my shoulders. Keep in mind that your knees should be inside your elbows when you pull. Your toes should point slightly outward. The bar should be over the mid-point of your foot, between toe and heel.
- Grip – Grab the bar so that your elbows are just outside of your knees. Putting your hands anywhere else changes the exercise completely. Too wide = wide grip deads; too narrow = sumo deads. Furthermore, the bar should be tight against the inside of your bottom knuckles, not hanging off the tips of your fingers or wedged into your palm.
- Arms – Make sure to deadlift with your arms straight. Bending your arms can cause biceps injury and will throw off your form. Keep your triceps tight throughout every rep. Your shoulders should be directly over the bar.
- Posture – Chest Up. Shoulders back. Look forward. Looking down and slumping your shoulders will cause your back to round and can cause neck pain. Maintain proper posture throughout each rep, from start to finish. Again, the bar should be in line with your shoulders.
Check the video below, where Scott Herman explains in a little more detail how he sets up for a deadlift. Thanks Scott!
How to do Deadlifts
Assuming your setup is correct including everything listed above, here is how to go about actually performing a rep.
- Initial Drive – Use your legs, hips, and glutes to slowly begin to lift the bar off the floor. I know I often talk about power and speed, but ripping the bar off the floor can actually be harmful. Once you’ve eased the bar off the floor a couple inches, then you can begin to accelerate to lockout.
- Push With The Legs Through the Heels – You should start a pull by pushing through your legs and down through your heels. The weight should never be on your toes. If you find yourself putting the weight on your toes, you can try curling your toes up, which will force you to stay back on your heels. I don’t recommend curled toes as proper deadlifting form, but you can use that trick initially to teach yourself proper posture if you find yourself constantly leaning on your toes.
- Push Your Hips Forward – You should not be pulling back with your lower back or allowing your hips to rise prematurely. This will turn your deadlift into a really dangerous, improperly executed stiff leg deadlift. Not good. Instead, you want to push your hips forward and they should rise in tandem with the rest of your body, as your legs straighten. Squeeze your glutes to help keep your posterior chain tight and to increase hip drive.
- Keep the Bar Close to Your Body – From the start of the lift, the bar should stay very close to your body. There’s no need to hurt yourself by scraping the bar against your shins, but the bar should be no more than 1/4-1/2 inch or so away from the shins. Sometimes you will get scraped or bruised. Suck it up.
Once past the shins, the bar should remain in contact with your thighs through lock-out. We do this to minimize the stress on the lower back and to maximize leverage.
- Lockout – When your hips are fully extended, and your knees are straight, you’ve finished the rep. When locked out, your body should be straight, head up, and shoulders back, just like I explained in the setup portion of this article.
There is no need to forcefully roll the shoulders back and you should definitely avoid hyper-extending the lower back. Standing up straight will suffice. Once you are standing up straight, do NOT continue to thrust your hips forward or throw your shoulders back so that your shoulders end up behind your hips. I see people do this on occasion and they should not.
- Lowering the Bar – This is actually an intensely debated topic. In my opinion the bar should be lowered under control, back to the floor. I’m not saying to lower it slowly, just under control such that you can touch the plates to the floor and immediately begin your next rep without adjusting your hands. Other people say you should just drop the bar, letting it fall to the floor.
Controlled Descent – When using a controlled negative, your hips will unlock first then your knees. The bar should slide down your body just like it slid up your body when you pulled. Flex your hips until the bar reaches knee-level, then bend your knees and let the bar descend to the floor. Do not attempt to use your lower back to lower the bar slowly from your knees to the floor. In fact the movement from the knees to the floor should be the most rapid, least controlled portion of the lowering phase.
Dropping the Bar – This strategy might be used when testing a 1 rep max, when participating in a powerlifting event, or if you have some serious padding on the floor. Some agree that this is the only way to execute a real set of deadlifts, because you have to re-position your hands before each rep, which takes the stretch reflex completely out of the movement. I can see their point, but you can lower the bar under control, release your grip and reposition your grip, to get the same effect.
Do not just drop the weight at Planet Fitness or I promise your membership will be canceled as soon as the Lunk Alarm goes off.
Common Deadlifting Mistakes
Deadlifts can be one of the more dangerous exercises that you can do at the gym, despite the fact that you can’t be pinned under the weight like you can with barbell back squats and barbell bench presses. I will restate some of what I have already told you to reinforce the fact that you should maintain proper deadlift form at all times to avoid injury.
Avoid these common deadlifting mistakes:
- Your Hips Are Too High – Whether you start with your hips too high or allow your hips to rise faster than the rest of your body, the effects are the same. Lift with your legs and squeeze your glutes to drive your hips forward. Get your butt behind you so that you can flex your hips and drop down to the bar.
- Your Hips Too Too Low – You are not squatting. Your hips should never be parallel to the floor. Your knees will end up bent somewhere around 30-40 degrees. Remember: bar against shins, shoulders back and over bar, chest and chin up.
- Rounding Your Back – When your back is anything less than straight, it increases the pressure on your spine thus increasing risk of injury. If you feel you have to round your back to lift the weight, go lighter until you can pull with perfect form. Remember: back straight, chest and chin up, shoulders back.
- Hyper-extending Your Back at Lockout – This is just as bad as rounding your back while lifting or lowering. You should be standing straight up at the top, not thrusting your shoulder back or your hips forward.
- Rolling or Shrugging the Shoulders at Lockout – Your shoulders should remain locked back throughout the movement. There is no need to shrug them up or roll them back. This can be dangerous with heavy weight and it doesn’t help you complete the rep, which makes it an inefficient waste of energy. Knees and hips. Knees and hips.
- Bending Your Arms – Like I mentioned before, you can tear a biceps by deadlifting with bent arms. This is another way to make the movement inefficient by wasting energy as well. Arms straight, triceps tense.
- Using Straps – A surefire way not to train your grip. If your grip is the weakest link in your deadlift training, then I suggest you use chalk with lighter weight until your grips comes up to par. Once in a while, perhaps in a really heavy rack pull, I might condone the use of straps just to lift a super heavy load.
- Using a Lifting Belt – This is a sore spot with many lifters and another highly debated topic. I recommend not lifting with a belt on most sets, because training with a belt is sort of like a crutch for your core in the way that straps are a crutch for your grip.
However, using a belt on a max effort set can help you feel safer and add stability to your set, which will ultimately help you lift heavier weight. I have also heard the argument that pushing your abdominals out, against the belt, will actually make your core stronger. I don’t really buy that excuse, but it might be valid. In conclusion, I will leave it up to you to decide whether or not to use a belt. For now, I won’t be using one.
- Jerking the Weight to Lockout – I have done this in the past, but it is not a good way to pull. Essentially you get the weight to mid-thigh, but can’t pull the bar smoothly into lockout, so you kind of bounce-jerk-slide the bar to lockout. This doesn’t count in a powerlifting meet, and you shouldn’t count it either. If you can’t pull the bar fluidly to lockout, however slow that might be, then you can’t count the rep. No jerking!
Some of these variations can be combined. For example you might use snatch grip deadlifts off a box to improve your starting strength by starting with the bar essentially at ground level.
- close stance deads
- wide stance deads
- wide grip deads – works starting strength
- sumo style deads – ultra-wide stance, close grip
- deads off a box – works starting strength
- rack pulls or pin pulls – workout lockout, can be done from any height
- chains or bands – added to deadlifts or rack pulls
- dumbbell deads – 2 dumbbells required
- trap bar deads – special trap bar required
- stiff-leg deads – hamstring training
- one leg dumbbell deads
- one leg stiff leg deads