The Deadlift

Jason H. Davidson

I feel that the squat and deadlift are core (essential) lifts that should be part of any sport or fitness programming.  In this article I will focus specifically on the deadlift.  When talking about the deadlift, I mean a lift from the floor that begins with the hips low and the knees bent. I have some Canadian colleagues that refer to the “straight-legged deadlift” as the “deadlift” and I wanted to make sure there was no confusion.

Just as the squat was the way I feel the body was designed to lower itself to the ground, the deadlift is the way it was designed to lift things from the ground. They are actually very similar movements if you discount where the load is. If you visualize a person’s head, torso, and legs without any weight or pre-determined position of the arms, the descent and ascent of these movements are very close, with the exception of a few technicalities.

Just as we discussed with the squat, there are many variations of the deadlift with respect to hand placement, hip and back position, hand supination/pronation, and foot placement. There are of course many accessory or assistance variations, programming ideas, and other tricks of the trade that go along with this lift. I would like to take this time to address all of the above, and hopefully more as we begin to dissect this lift.

Rounded back Highlander/Strongman competitor.

Why deadlift? As a chiropractor I often get asked what I feel are the best exercises to strengthen the paraspinal and trunk musculature. To me, this lift is a bread and butter, essential lift. Deadlifts develop tremendous thickness around the lumbar spine. This portion of the spine was meant to be the pillar that the rest of the body depends on. Whereas other parts of the spine are designed to be more mobile (thoracics for example), the ability to main rigidity in the lumbar spine is paramount. The deadlift supports this principle. Although the spinal erectors are not the prime mover by any means, they must maintain the lumbar spine in rigid extension during the lift in order for it to be successful. As a side note, I do recognize that there are “round-back” deadlifters, as well as strongmen that load stones and similar. Those are accepted variants and will be discussed later. For general strength base, and athletic purposes, I prefer the back locked in extension.

If you have deadlifted heavy before, you recognize that it feels as though your entire body is contracting to make the bar move. The glutes and hip rotators/stabilizers contract hard to get the bar off the ground. The anterior abdominal wall braces just like in the squat. The spinal extensors fire providing a locked out back. The quads help to push and straighten the knees toward the top third of the lift. The upper back is retracted, pinning the shoulders back to aid with the path of the bar. The traps, biceps, and forearms undergo tremendous pulling tension to make sure the weight travels upward. This is a deadlift. Utilizing all of these muscles in unison makes you strong. This is why people deadlift. It’s actually pretty simple.

Let’s begin to talk about the lift. The deadlift is one of the “slow” lifts. It is a pure strength developer. It may appear similar in set-up to its cousins the snatch and clean, but there are many details that are different. We begin the discussion with the traditional pulling position.

This set-up will have the feet at about shoulder width, and pretty close to straight away. The arms hang directly outside the width of the legs, and the hands will grip the bar here as well. The hand position on the bar presents the first variant. Some lifters prefer both hands pronated, while others prefer one hand supinated and one pronated. I have seen very successful lifters with both of these grips. The “both pronated” position is perhaps better as a skill transfer exercise for the Olympic lifts, as the grip is the same. One could also hook grip the bar while deadlifting for even more specificity. Many lifters feel that the alternating grip is stronger as it recruits more bicep into the pulling of the weight on the supinated-hand side. The danger here is that the bicep was not designed to pull the enormous loads that can be moved by this lift. I will say that 100% of bicep tendon ruptures that I have seen in competition or training (and I have seen many) have occurred on the supinated hand side. I think when the load is near maximal, the lifter will subconsciously try to flex the forearm in an attempt to move the weight. This is perhaps when the injury occurs. I’m sure it could also occur with a perfectly straight arm as well. In any case, with that being said, I still pull this way, as I feel I can keep the bar pinned to my thighs for the entire way up. Keep in mind that I have been using this grip since day one, and am used to it. Please exercise caution if experimenting with a grip change.

Before continuing to discuss body placement, I would like to insert the importance of bar placement and bar path as we continue to perfect our set-up position. This is where I have seen many people wrongfully confuse the set-up positions of the deadlift and clean. Often this occurs in CrossFit and other metabolic conditioning programs where the volume is high, and the pace is rushed. The two set-ups are completely different and each lift deserves the respect of a proper set-up otherwise you will pay for it later.

In this lifter’s clean set-up, the hips are lower
 than  in the deadlift  and the bar is over the
 midfoot, not in contact with the shins. 

In a good deadlift, the bar will be in contact with the body for THE ENTIRE LIFT. This is why you will see that lifters in competition often sprinkle baby powder from the front of their ankles all the way to the bottom of their singlet. It reduces friction, and maintains a tight bar path to the body, making the lift more efficient. For this reason, when setting up to deadlift, I sit back on my heels and pull the bar into my shins creating a small dimple. Any awkwardness of position will be corrected by the force of the load against your body when you initiate the pull. Conversely, in a clean set-up, the bar should be placed out over the first metatarsals. I tell lifters that if the bar were a blade, it would chop their toes off at the knuckes. In a clean, the FIRST TIME the bar touches the body will be at the upper thigh, and it will be a brush at best. The bar should never touch the shins, knees, or anything else but mid-upper thigh. Many knuckleheads think they are “tough” if they just did a clean workout and their shins are bruised and bloody. On the contrary, to a trained professional this makes you look like an idiot, and although you very well may be “tough”, you certainly don’t know how to clean. This same person will swear that they have shin guards or little compression socks that protect their shins when this happens, but they just forgot to wear them. Again, I think I made my point.

With the deadlift, the lifter basically “plows” up the shins, through the knees, and right over the thighs until lockout. There is nothing pretty about it. There is no double-knee bend or anything else technical or fancy. You move the weight from A to B. The best bar path for the clean and snatch is one that maximizes bar speed. Although you can lift a deadlift quickly, this is not the primary concern with this lift. I digress…

One more note about bars. Deadlift bars DO exist. The spacing of the knurling is such, as to allow the smooth part of the bar to pass over your shins. This will eliminate the workouts where you pull a cheese-grater with 500+ pounds on it over your entire leg and thighs, leaving a bloody mess. As much as your colleagues and teammates love to deadlift with you, I’m sure they don’t need the concern of what bloodborne pathogens are now all over their bar as they make their next attempt.

Now we can continue to talk about body position. I teach the lift with the hips low, the spine locked in rigid extension, and the angle of the back about 45 degrees or so. The cervical spine can be anatomic neutral, or neutral to the horizon, but not in excessive flexion, or extension. The chest is up, and the shoulders are pinned back, creating the “tri-lat tuck” (which rotates the triceps back to approximate and touch the edge of the lats). The anterior abdominals are braced, not hollowed out. The weight of the body is shifted toward the back third of the foot. As I described with the back squat, the entire body is tense here. If you address the bar slack and soft, you will not be ready to move it when the time comes.

A little baby powder on the thighs in competition (in addition
to Mom/Coach cheering loudly from the front of the platform)
 can make things go more smoothly.

Now we can move the bar. Chalk up. Use a reasonable amount. You don’t need to have white hands, just chalk the pads beneath your fingers, and around the crease of your thumb. You can even chalk the bar itself. This is plenty. Make sure there is no chalk, AND, especially no baby powder on the lifting platform. As a side note, if using baby powder (which I would only do in a meet, or in training for a meet), use the bottom of the baby powder bottle to spread it on your legs. Do not use your hands. It is very slippery. Make sure you powder up over a towel that is away from the lifting area, and when done spreading it around, give your feet a good stomp over the towel so the excess falls off. Set your feet. Set your back. Tighten everything. Squeeze everything. Inhale, hold and brace. Bear down. Push through your heels and lift.

With a respectably heavy lift, the bar will not come flying off the ground. Keep pulling. This is a very uncomfortable and scary position for the novice lifter as they feel they are very vulnerable to injury here. As long as the bar is moving upward, (even at a snail’s pace), you have not blacked out yet, and form has not broken down, I would keep pulling. However, if you feel any pain (not the pain of muscles working hard), or the bar loses its upward momentum, just put it down. I have seen two types of lifters with respect to heavy attempts. One will blast the weight off the floor, and then stall out above the knees, and the other struggles for the first inches, but then is in the clear if the bar reaches just under the knees. I will address assistance work for these lifters later on.

The lift is finished when the front of the pelvis kisses the bar. This is done only by contracting the glutes hard, and thrusting the pelvis forward. An excessive extension of the spine here is not necessary, and is not recommended. Many young lifters will stop when they feel their knees are straight, and their spine is upright, but if you look at them closely they will appear to be positioned slightly over the bar and not behind it. This is because they have not pushed their hips forward to meet the bar. This is how the bar gets to lockout. Remember, in the top position, there is no accessory motion of the arms or shoulders. There is no shrug or curl. Any of these motions may be called as a “hitch” in a competition and get you three red lights. If you are not in a meet, and are training with bumper plates, you may drop the weight here. I allow my lifters to do this as I am not concerned with the eccentric portion of this lift. I would rather spare their spine the additional burden. However, at the same time, they know that if they were in a meet, or if they are using steel plates (as powerlifting plates usually are), that they must return (re-trace) the bar back down to the ground in a controlled manner.

The action listed above describes a single rep. When performing multiple reps I recommend re-setting the down position prior to each rep. I am not a big fan of “touch and go”. There is too much room for error here, plus you are using the momentum of the weight bouncing off the floor to complete your next rep. This will make your pull from a dead stop weaker. It does not take too much time to reset. It’s all risk vs. reward here. You can rush through it and increase your risk of injury, or you can take an additional second and do it right, developing strength off the floor with each rep. It’s your choice.

If your sticking point is getting off the floor,
deficit pulls can help.

Accessory training for the deadlift is critical, as I do not believe that you should deadlift the same way year round. In any of my powerlifting programs, we would always cycle from the traditional deadlift, to trap-bar, DB’s, fat bars etc. and in doing so changing rep schemes as well. There are many implements that can be factored into your training as an adjunct to the traditional lift. The accessory lifts that have helped me the most however, use the bar. I am referring now to rack work, or partials. For these movements a power rack is necessary, although I suppose some of these can be done from pulling blocks or similar. Just like your Olympic lifts, partials can help strengthen different parts of the movements by themselves, with the purpose of making the entire lift stronger, and breaking sticking points.

Rack pulls off of pins can help complete the pull
with heavier weights.

The first one that I have used in the past is to set the pins of your rack to about 2” below the knee. This puts the bar a good bit off the ground, and you will be able to do a significantly higher load here (just like clean or snatch pulls) than you could do with the bar on the floor. Everything else remains the same in terms of position and tension etc. Execute the sets and reps just as you would any other time. This will help the lifter that stalls above the knee, as mentioned before. For the other lifter who stalls off the floor, we do the opposite. You still set the pins at 2” below the knee. This time however you place the bar under them. Deadlift the bar, and pull an isometric contraction into the pins. You may not be able to be over 100% here, but you are still generating a tremendous amount of strength in a weaker position. This is similar to the “halting deadlift” that many Olympic lifters do, minus the rack and isometric contraction. The premise is the same though. Of course, the pins can be moved from hole to hole on subsequent training sessions, but I think you get the idea. By the time you return to your traditional deadlift cycle, you will be a lot stronger.

Some other good accessory choices are RDL’s, back squats, hyperextensions, reverse hyperextensions (both with or without weight), planks, bent-over rows, low-cable rows, one arm, rows, pull-ups and OMG….curls. Hammer curls to be specific. All of these reinforce the movements we discussed earlier as well as strengthen the prime movers and their assisting muscles.

Deadlifts make you thick and make you strong. They are a staple to your training. Do them correctly and they will reward you in your other athletic attributes. Give this lift the respect it deserves. Take everything you see and read with a grain of salt. You never know the complete details of someone else’s training regimen that you read online or see on YouTube. This is why you must educate yourself with the fundamentals, and then yes, you must experiment on yourself, and keep pushing the limits.

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