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So You Want To Learn How To Deadlift?

The deadlift is not only my favorite exercise to perform, but is one of the best to help improve strength in all areas.

However, the deadlift is commonly screwed up which results in injury.

This article is going to teach you how to properly deadlift and getting strong while staying healthy.

Before I get into the deadlift technique, let’s look at some of the benefits.

Benefits of deadlifting

  1. Improve Strength Everyone wants to pick heavy shit up and then put it back down and do that over and over again. The deadlift is going to do that for ya. Not only will men reap the benefits, women can also work on toning up areas that all women want plumped.
  2. Develops Glutes, Hamstrings, and Low Back The deadlift is an exercise that works the entire back side of your body. For men, it typically is something that they don’t care about. But for women, you will definitely love the deadlift for those reasons. it will help you achieve a more toned butt and legs better than any “Butts and Guts” workout out there.
  3. Improve Athletic Performance The backside of the body is often neglected during training. When the deadlift is done properly, the benefits are staggering. Those of you still competing on the gridiron, pitch, field, or court, your performance will skyrocket.
  4. Injury Prevention With the backside of the body often times not being trained efficiently, it can lead to an increase risk of injury. The quads and hip flexors become stronger than the hamstrings and glutes, and as a result creates a pretty big imbalance. Training the glutes and hamstrings are going to bring some more balance to the body, which ultimately decreases your injury risk.

How To Deadlift: The Set Up

Get your shins close to the bar

One of the many errors when it comes to deadlifting is that people like to squat the weight. When people set up too far away from the bar the only way to get the weight up is by squatting. Otherwise, their back is going to be hating life as they break a neutral spine picking the weight up.

When deadlifting, I like to think that I am going to be dragging the bar up and down my legs. Trying to keep the weight under me as much as I can.

Feel your whole foot

A lot of people really struggle with feeling their feet on the ground. I will sometimes have clients close their eyes and focus on feeling their feet. Although about 70% of the weight is going to be pushing through the heels, your toes should not be coming off the floor.

I like to think of your foot as a tripod. The three points of contact are your heel, little knuckle, and big knuckle. This is going to help you create a really nice arch and be a really stable base for you to push through.

Big Breath In

Once your shins are close to the bar and you have a nice stable base through your feet, keep your abs tight and take in a nice deep breath. When lifting heavy you are going to need to create abdominal pressure by inhaling and holding your breath in order to keep your spine safe. I will cover how to properly breath during the lift later.

Hips Back

The deadlift is a hinging pattern. Hinging is when you push your hips back rather than your hips going to the floor. For the deadlift, you still want the hips lower than the shoulders. However, the angle is going to look very different compared to a squat.

When cueing how to hinge, I like to tell people to try to shut the car door with a hand full of groceries using their butt. That movement is utilizing a hinging pattern.

The hinge is a different motion than a squat. Far too often people don’t know how to hinge because it is a motion that we don’t do very often. It can also be one of the most difficult motions to coach people through. Watch the video below to learn how to properly hinge and progressions you can run through as you improve.

Back Flat, Chest Up, and Tuck Chin

Whenever trying to pick up any weight, whether that be lifting or picking up something at home, you need to lift with good back mechanics. Keeping the back flat and chest up is going to put you in the best position to keep your back in a safe position. I don’t like looking up when deadlifting because I like keeping a neutral spine throughout. It doesn’t make sense to me to crank your neck while looking up trying to pull some massive weight.

Grab The Bar

When starting off deadlifting, I like having a double overhand grip. The reason being that this will help improve grip strength. Once you start getting into heavier weight, you may have to switch to an alternating grip or adding straps. I will go into further detail about the different grip options later.

When going down to grab the bar, reach with your arms straight down. When in a conventional stance (more on stances later) your hands will be just to the outside of your legs. Going wider or more narrow can make the lift feel really awkward.

Pull The Bar Towards You

When pulling the bar towards you, you want to use the lats. It’s important to do this because you want to keep the bar as close to the body as you can.

With lighter weights this will probably not be an issue. But as you go up in weight you want to keep the bar close for an optimal pulling position. Engaging the lats will keep the bar from drifting away from you, so you are able to perform heavier lifts.

Pull The Slack Out Of The Bar

Every bar is going to have a little bit of slack in it that you want to pull out before you lift the weight. Pulling the slack out is going to not let you jerk the weight off the floor. After you pull the slack out of the bar, you can use the tension to help pull yourself into position.

Watch the video below to get a better understanding how to pull the slack out of the bar.

How To Deadlift: Getting The Weight Up

Pull Back

Kind of going back to pulling the bar into you using your lats, you want to continue that as you are lifting the weight off the floor. Again, we want to keep the bar as close to the body as possible. You can let the bar drag right across you legs as you come up. This is going to keep your back in the safest and best position possible.

Lead With The Chest, NOT With The Hips

By keeping the chest up, you are going to help keep a flat back and allow the weight to stay close to the body. If the hips are coming up and are even with the shoulders then you are going to have a hell of a time trying the get the weight up.

The shoulders should always stay higher than the hips. If not, you are going to be relying a lot more on your back. And that is not a good thing.

Finish With The Hips, NOT With The Low Back

Far too often I see people deadlifting where they are over extending through their low back. For one, they are going to cause themselves low back issues eventually. And two, they are not maximizing glute activation.

Instead of overarching, think about squeezing the glutes really tight at the top.

Set The Weight Down Opposite Of How You Got It Up

All you have to do to set the weight back down is to do the opposite of how you got it up.

Push your hips back first. If you bend your knees first, the weight is going to get out in front of you and you are going to be cranking on your low back. Keep the chest up, and keep the bar close to the body.

Deadlift Variations: Sumo or Conventional?

The sumo and conventional deadlifts are the two most common variations that are performed.

I will also cover some characteristics that are more conducive to one variation versus the other. However, give both options a try and see which option is best for you.

Conventional Deadlift

The conventional deadlift is done in a stance where your feet are below your shoulders, with the toes generally pointing straight ahead or slightly pointed out.

This variation calls for a decent amount of hip mobility. You have to sit into your hips in order to get down to the bar.

When grabbing the bar in this stance your hands will be just on the outside of your knees.

The conventional deadlift is going to cause more shear force on the low back compared to the sumo stance. The torso will be more parallel to the floor.

Common characteristics for those people who like the conventional deadlift include:

  1. Longer arms
  2. Strong low back
  3. Good hip mobility.
Sumo Deadlift

The sumo stance is done with your feet in a very wide position with your toes turning out. You want to be sure that you are not too wide that your ankles and knees are not lined up. The knees should be right on top of the ankles.

Not only will you have to sit down into your hips, you will have to sink your butt down to the floor. With your hips being lower, you will have a more vertical torso position.

Because of the position that you are in, the sumo deadlift is much more stressful on the hips rather than the low back.

Some characteristics for people who like to sumo deadlift include:

  1. Stronger hips compared to their low back
  2. Shorter arms
  3. Even more hip mobility.

Other Deadlift Variations

Romanian Deadlift (RDL)

RDLs are similar to the conventional deadlift. But with this variation, your starting position is in standing. The range of motion is much smaller in that the weight will not be going down all the way to the floor.

The motion of this lift is all in the hips. When you initiate the movement, you want to think about pushing your hips straight back. When you push your hips straight back, and as the bar slides down your legs you will feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Once you feel that stretch, you know that you went low enough. So push your hips forward and stand straight back up finishing with your hips and not arching with your low back.

One of the common mistakes that I see is that people do not bend there knees. When this occurs, typically people will round with their back. Let the knees bend slightly, but not bending forward.

Trap Bar Deadlifts

The trap bar deadlift is a great option for those of you who don’t have great hip mobility. It allows you to perform a deadlift without having to sink into your hips as much as the conventional or sumo stances. The trap bar is also safe on the low back because you are inside the weight. You don’t get the same forces on your low back as compared to when the weight is in front of you.

The set up for this lift is just like the conventional deadlift. The difference being that you will grab the high handles of the bar on the side.

Be sure that you are sitting back into your hips and not squatting. You don’t want to turn this exercise into a quad dominant one.

Grip Variations

Overhand Grip

The overhand grip is the grip I try using most often, and one that I have my clients use. This grip is going to help with grip strength, so if you can hold the weight with this grip, overhand is the way to go.

With the overhand grip, both of your palms are going to face you.

Alternating Grip

This grip is typically used when you start moving some heavy weight and you’re unable to hold the bar with an overhand grip.

With the alternating grip, you are going to have one palm facing you and the other palm facing away from you. Usually, people find one way to grip the bar being more comfortable than the other. I advise to have people switch your hands between sets, but if you’re in competition, stick to the one you feel most comfortable with.

Mistakes To Watch For

Now that I covered all of the basics for performing the deadlift, I want to go over some of the common issues and offer some solutions to help you fix them.

Poor Hip Mobility

Because the deadlift is such a posterior chain exercise (back side) you have to be able to sink into your hips. If you are unable to get into your hips to grab the bar, your body will find a way at the expense of other joints to get down to the bar.

Hip mobility is something that can require some time to correct. An easy solution that you can start with is by getting a foam roller and start doing some soft tissue work on your glutes. However, that will only get you so far. If you need further assistance, seek out a local physical therapist or movement specialist. Or, you can send me an email at nick@mortonfit.com and I can help you with some corrective exercises to perform.

Weak Glutes and Hamstrings

Often times what can happen is that people can be weak through their glutes and hamstrings and doesn’t allow them to sit back into their hips. This is not a quick fix, so you will have to perform different accessory exercises to improve this. I will go into further detail about accessory exercises that you can do to help.

If you still want to deadlift, then using the trap bar will let you deadlift without having to get into your hips as much.

Bar Starting Too Far Away From You

I’ve already mentioned a few times that you need to have the bar close to you in your setup. If you let the bar drift out in front it will cause a lot more stress and strain on your low back. You want to keep the load as close to the body as you can.

There can be a couple reasons as to why someone might not be able to get the bar close enough to their shin.

  1. They don’t have the mobility to sink back into their hips.
  2. They don’t have the glute and hamstring strength to push back.

Again, these can be fixed but it’ll take some time. If you want to continue deadlifting with these limitations opt for the trap bar for the time being.

The Low Back Rounds

The low back rounding excessively can be cause for concern. The risk of injury significantly increases. There is going to be some rounding in the low back that is natural when deadlifting. But when it becomes too excessive we need to address it.

Sometimes people have stronger low backs relative to their hamstrings and glutes so they are using their low back extensors to get the weight up. Or the opposite occurs where the low back is too weak and rounds due to not being able to support the weight.

There needs to be a balance of low back and hamstring strength in order to maintain a neutral low back position.

Leading With The Hips Instead Of The Chest

Whatever angle you create with your torso is the angle that you want to maintain throughout the lift.

If the hips shoot up and are becoming parallel with your shoulders then you are not deadlifting correctly. And as a result, your low back is most likely rounding as well.

I like to tell people to perform the lift with a Superman chest. I want to be able to see the front of the shirt throughout the entire lift by standing in front of them. If at any point I lose sight of the front of their shirt then the hips have to be shooting up before their chest.

However, if you are performing a max lift there is going to be some degree of low back rounding. Technique is going to suffer as a result.

Finishing With The Low Back

This is something that I can apply to so many other lifts. To me, this is like nails scratching on a chalkboard.

via GIPHY

It’s amazing how an image can make you hear the sound.

Anyway, moving on.

Far too often I see people finishing with their low back. They get to the top of the deadlift and they overextend through their low back and hips. Not a good spot to be in when you have lots of weight compressing your spine.

What you could be doing with this overextension is stretching out the ligaments in the front of the hip and the front of the spine. The thing with ligaments is that once they are stretched, they are stretched. They aren’t like muscles and tendons that tighten back up when you don’t stretch them after awhile.

This can cause hip and back problems because you lose the stability that the ligaments provided. So never overarch through your back while deadlifting. More is not always better.

I tell my clients to finish with their butt. I want them thinking to stand up tall and squeeze their butt as hard as they can while keeping the rib cage down.

Sometimes, one’s glutes can be weak so they are unable to finish with their hips. I’ll cover some of my favorite accessory exercises to help with any limitations or improve your deadlifting numbers.

Accessory Lifts To Fix and Improve Your Deadlift

If you have weak glutes or hamstrings or you struggle getting into the bottom position

There are lots of different exercises out there to help improve the deadlift. My favorite is the Romanian deadlift. Another very similar exercise is the good morning.

Both of these exercises work the glutes and hamstrings really well. The technique for both is much the same. You want to maintain a neutral spine throughout while keeping a soft knee bend as you perform the lift.

If you have weak hamstrings

The hamstrings are an essential muscle group to get strong when performing the deadlift. The glute ham raise is a great exercise to get the hamstrings really strong.

When performing the GHR you don’t want to feel this exercise in your low back at all. You should be feeling it all in the glutes and the hamstrings. When going to snap back up, think about pushing your hips into the padding by squeezing your butt and then using your hamstrings to pull yourself up. You can perform this at 90 or 45 degrees.

If the GHR is too difficult, the stability ball hamstring curl is another great option.

You are going to start by placing your feet on the stability ball and by lifting your hips up like a bridge. From there, you want to roll the ball towards your butt while lifting your hips higher.

If the bar has a tendency to drift away

When the bar starts to drift away from you, it usually is due to having weak lats. As mentioned before, you need to engage that lats to pull the bar close to you.

The best way to increase the strength in your lats is to perform pull-ups. You can perform pull-ups with a supinated grip (palms facing you), neutral grip (thumbs facing you), or a pronated grip (palms facing away from you). The supinated and natural grip options are a little easier because you get more elbow flexors involved like the biceps and brachialis. With the pronated grip you take the elbow flexors out of it.

The key to a good pull-up is using the shoulder blades. Too many times, people compensate by rounding their shoulders forward. Think about pulling back with the shoulder blades so we can get a nice backwards tilt of the scaps.

Another reason why the bar could be drifting away from you is due to the footwear that you have. I will touch on more of this soon.

If you miss at the bottom of the lift

If you get stuck in the bottom of the lift there there can be several reasons why.

Your technique of the lift could be off. What could be happening is that you are setting up with your hips way too low like you are trying the squat the weight. This doesn’t allow you to be able to use your glutes as well as they can.

If the technique is looking good, then we can look at ways to increase the range of motion. You can do deficit deadlifts by standing on a plate or a box. You have to sink lower into your hips to get down to the bar and the bar has a farther distance to travel.

Another option is by pulling against chains or bands. With this, the weight gets heavier as you pull the bar up. You want to try and stand up with the weight as fast as you can by pushing as hard as possible into the floor. Think about pushing the floor away from you rather than standing up.

If you miss at the midpoint of the lift

The technique fault that could be occurring if you are missing at the midpoint is that your hips are shooting up ahead of the chest. If you are folding too far over you have to use your back a lot more. When you get into some heavy weight it’ll be difficult to stand all the way up.

If strength is the issue, we can add in some rack pulls from the middle of the shins. This makes getting the weight up more difficult. So focus on getting into a really good position and pulling the weight up as fast as you can.

If you miss at the top of the lift

When it comes to technique, make sure that you are setting up in a good position. If you are not setting up correctly then you will be making it harder to finish with your hips at the top. If your hips are weak compared to your hamstrings then adding some hip thrusts and pull throughs in order to improve the strength of the glutes.

Breathing During the Deadlift

Proper breathing is very important in order to safely perform the deadlift. The purpose of breathing during the deadlift is to create abdominal pressure to improve stability to keep the low back safe. This video will go into further detail how to properly breath.

Footwear For The Deadlift

Footwear can have a profound affect on how someone performs the deadlift. And there is so many people out there telling you what shoes to wear, or not to wear.

Barefoot

Barefoot is my preferred option for performing the deadlift. The reason for people going without shoes is because you will feel the ground better and that you don’t have a heel lift shifting your weight forward.

The deadlift is an exercise for the hamstrings and glutes. If our center of mass is shifted forward then the exercise will become more quad dominant.

Going barefoot is going to allow you to build the strength of the muscles in the foot. In my opinion, I don’t want a supportive shoe creating the arch for me. Foot strength is a very underrated component to improve various issues up the chain.

Flat Sole Shoes (Converse, New Balance Minimalist, etc.)

The same points apply to flat soled shoes as deadlifting barefoot. If your gym doesn’t allow you to go barefoot then a flat sole shoe may be something that you will want to consider. Make sure that your flat sole shoe has a wide toe box to allow for your toes to splay to help increase your foot’s surface area.

Shoes With A Heel Lift (Olympic Weightlifting Shoes, etc.)

For me, I would stay away from shoes with a heel lift. I don’t want my weight shifting forward and making the deadlift a quad dominant exercise. A big heel lift could also be causing the bar to drift away from you.

However, if you are someone that has very strong quads then you may want to deadlift in weightlifting shoes. I would still train with and without weightlifting shoes in order to maximize hamstring recruitment.

There is research showing that there is no significant difference in force and speed during a deadlift with different shoes. If you are comfortable with a specific type of shoe, then keep wearing it for your deadlift.

Deadlifting Routines

Beginner

The deadlift is a big movement that uses every part of the body. More often than not, I’m not prescribing the deadlift for 10+ reps in a set. I typically won’t do more than 6 reps.

If you are brand new to deadlifting it is impossible to tell how much weight you should pull. Weight is relative. So you need to find a weight that is challenging enough where you should only be leaving about 2-3 reps left in the tank. So I want someone working at an intensity of 7-8/10 on the rate of perceived exertion scale.

For the number of sets, I would suggest always doing a minimum of 3 sets. As you get stronger and want to build volume then you can start adding more sets. There is no wrong way to program deadlifts, but it comes down to the goals of the individual.

Experienced

If you’re experienced and wanting to add more weight to the bar then you have to lift heavy where you are performing only a few reps in a set.

Again, I’m going to perform at least 3 sets. A months program might look something like this:

Week 1Week 2Week 3Week 4
3×5 @ 65%3×3 @ 70%4×3 @ 75%4×2 @ 80%

You can always add more sets or change the percentages of your 1 rep max as you see fit. Or you take the above guide and just add a little more to the bar for each month.

Summary

So there you have it. Everything that I have learned about the deadlift from personal experience and learning from some of the best strength coaches as well.

If you have any questions or need any guidance on programming, troubleshooting, or any other questions you may have feel free to leave a comment or reach out.

I hope you enjoyed it, and hope you share it with those who need some help with their deadlift.

Until then, keep working hard!

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