Mastering the Deadlift

Any exercise with the word ‘dead’ in its title is bound to have a bad reputation. The Deadlift exists as an irony. Those who treat it like a sin most dire are often the ones who need it the most. If your back or knees are a mess, you’d better learn to pick things up correctly, and that is all a deadlift really is, proper lifting technique for anything.

The medical community denounces it strongly while its street credibility grows through word of mouth and proven results. Although the common perception of this lift is of a giant bar being handled by some monster with no neck, let’s borrow the technique for the next time you pick up a book from the bottom shelf, or lift your child, or grab weight to put on your barbell. More often than not a freaky loaded bar isn’t what hurts a back. It is the mundane stuff of life, because we don’t pick it up properly.

C’mon folks. What are you scared of? Stop fearing this basic technique for lifting anything from the ground. A deadlift should be a part of anyone’s Basic Lifting 101. Now for those with a bend for something more extreme, the deadlift is also frequently used as a bench mark of will and muscle, as it is one of the three lifts that make up powerlifting competitions and is the basic building block from which many strongman lifts are built upon.

For the folks who just want pretty muscles, yes, the deadlift is still an essential tool. Beyond the important practical reasons, and the intense athletic reasons, our friend the deadlift utilizes quite a collection of muscles, more at once then most other exercises, and that should be enough to placate even the seekers of sheer aesthetics. The only confusion now, for the average gym rat that follows archaic body part splits, is to ask what day the deadlift should fall on, leg day or back day?

Bring it On

Unlike the Squat, which, as we mentioned in another article, can be taught from bottom up (potty training we called it), the deadlift can be taught from top to bottom. The mechanics are very similar to a squat; in fact they’re identical until we grab a bar.

So if you’re new to deadlifting, grab the bar from a rack and start from the top, in a locked standing position. It really helps to have a second pair of eyes available (no looking in a mirror, it will screw you up) to check a few elements of your posture while you lower the bar.

The T&A Principle

How about an obscure reference to the musical A Chorus Line to master deadlift technique? Despite listening to HateBreed while writing this, this will prove that a working knowledge of Broadway musicals comes in handy for something. There is a song in the show called Dance 10, Looks 3, which has a chorus that repeats the words ‘Tits and Ass’ quite a few times. That can be a humorous working mantra for a deadlift. Chest out, butt out, which translates to retracted, ‘proud’ shoulder blades and a tight arch in the back. Combine this with bearing down hard on the belly, as if you are trying to pass a watermelon, as one of my clients put it, and I hope he wasn’t talking from experience.

So our little T and A show will be put into serious practice as we start to lower the bar. Let’s adapt a comfortable foot and hand position. Place your feet where they feel most solid. Forget anything you might have heard about ‘shoulder width’ or any given distance, like 10-20’’ apart. I’ve never known anyone to actually measure his or her stance, have you? Just put your feet where you feel solid and secure. If they’re particularly wide (what we call ‘sumo’ stance), we’ll grab the bar with our hands on the inside of the legs, opposite if the feet are in a more moderate, or ‘traditional’ stance. Now let’s start to lower the bar.

We’re not sitting down; we’re sitting back, with that ‘butt out, chest out’ mantra we’ve adopted. Here is where that additional set of eyes can help. If you’re not used to the feeling of a tight arched back, you may not feel when it rounds and tucks under. If it does, we need you back up in an arched position. That ‘tucking point’ as we’ll call it, is just beyond the depth we’ll aim for currently. If you aren’t lowering the bar to the ground yet, who cares? We’ll get there, but for now something along your chain of motion either needs some strengthening or some stretching, and we’ll practice increasing our range of motion slowly, sans stress or ego.

So the small checklist of thing you are trying to be aware of, and your second pair of eyes can help you check for, are:

  • Are you keeping your shoulder blades back (chest out)?
  • Is your head up (helps with the shoulder retraction)?
  • Is your arch nice and tight (butt out)?
  • Can someone punch you in the stomach (attempting to pass that watermelon will keep your midsection solid)?

Before we go onto more advanced techniques, let’s discuss what a big deal the shoulder blades are.

Don’t do this

Shoulder Blades

The importance of shoulder blade retraction (pinching them back so the chest is out) is not only overlooked, it is sometimes completely ignored by competitive powerlifters. It was a bit disheartening to hear, at a recent powerlifting workshop, one of today’s top powerlifting coaches say that bringing the shoulder blades back isn’t as important as some of us think it is. Let’s keep in mind that this particular lifter hated deadlifts, in part because of the millennium it took him to pull his inflexible body down into proper position. Meanwhile I’ll argue for the importance of shoulder blades and the training of the upper back to make a safer and stronger deadlift.

If the shoulder blades round forward, there is an automatic signal sent to the hips to round (tuck under) as well, making the lower back lose all arch and your whole spine look like the letter C. Keeping a tight arch with rounded shoulders is fighting a natural spine response, and can also put the bar further in front of the body, creating more force directed at the lower back. The opposite of that spine response holds true as well. Try it. Stand up and pinch your blades back like you’re trying to squish an orange between them. Chances are your butt went out and you arched your back. C might be for ‘cookie,’ but not for deadlifts. Arch that back and get that booty out.

Then there are those times when the plates accrue on the bar and the weight starts to make you consider if lifting it is the wisest of options. These are important moments to focus on form, when we’re attempting our one rep max, or even a heavy set for reps.

As the weight sticks stubbornly to the floor, we increase our effort. Often this means the hips shoot up faster than the chest, and suddenly our legs are much straighter and the load is being conquered through the back and hamstrings. This is so common in max effort lifting that, as much as people talk about how it shouldn’t happen, we might want to simply accept it will and attempt to minimize the danger.

Enter those shoulder blades. If the blades stay locked back, the chances of rounding the lower back decreases considerably, even if the legs completely lock out way before the hips do. Although in no way an ideal lifting situation, this is at least much safer than rounder back lifting, which occurs way too frequently during deadlifts.

Although rounded-back lifters often attempt to corrective the issue by strengthening their lower backs, I’ve seen the biggest culprit often being weak upper backs. If you have the strength to keep the blades back, you’ll have a much greater chance of nailing your deadlift.

Do This

From the Ground

If the T&A concept already makes perfect sense to you, then add some load to the movement and make it challenging. Let’s put something with some heft on the ground and pick it up. Now at most gyms, there is a caveat. Small plates mean lower deadlift, and this makes the move a little harder. So if the nice big 45 pound plates seem a little daunting right now, you will either have to drop lower to pick up the bar, since all other plates are smaller, or you can prop the bar up on pins, plates or boxes.

At many athletic training centers, and a growing number of public gyms, bumper plates are usually on hand. They’re all the same size regardless of weight.

But whatever the height of the bar, lower yourself with that tight arch and proud shoulders. Follow the same checklist we used earlier:

  • Are you keeping your shoulder blades back (chest out)?
  • Is your head up (helps with the shoulder retraction)?
  • Is your arch nice and tight (butt out)?
  • Can someone punch you in the stomach (attempting to pass that watermelon will keep your midsection solid)?

And that’s just to get you set up. Now, to get bar off the ground, lock the arch, so nothing changes the position of the spine and shoulder blades, and push with the legs. In other words, almost all movement in the deadlift happens at the hip joint (hip extension) and the knee joint (knee extension). If there is any movement happening along the spine, there is increased chance of unwanted force in the discs. The back had better be very actively holding position, not losing the arch, while the actual movement comes from the hips and legs.

A classic cue is to drive the legs through the ground. Some would even say drive the heels through the ground, since the weight and the force should be back on the heels. The problem here is that if you ‘drive the legs’ but the bar doesn’t fly up as fast as the legs do, then you have elevated hips, but not chest, just like we mentioned often happens at maximal or near maximal efforts.

Which brings us back to the shoulder blades and locking the spine in place. If the shoulder blades lead while the legs drive, coming up as one cohesive unit will probably be easier.

Remember that foot position can be a personal choice. The classic ‘traditional stance’ is commonly what you’ll see outside of power lifting gyms. Some folks prefer the feel of the Sumo stance, which is a very wide foot stance with the arms narrow. Play with them both. Different body types feel more comfortable in different positions. See what works for you.

Sumo Deadlift – bottom part of movement

Sumo Deadlift – middle part of movement 


 Sumo Deadlift – top part of movement

Then what?

You are now standing proud and completely locked out at the top of a successful deadlift. If it is a competition or max effort lift, don’t worry about babying the bar down to the ground. Put it down. Hard. Just don’t let go.

But if have some more reps to do, simply stick with the T and A Principle. Get the butt out, keep the chest proud and lower the bar. This is functional advice, since just as many folks hurt their backs lowering an object as raising it.

Bands, Chains and Pins, Oh My.

You’re addicted. The feel of the barbell in the hands is your twisted ecstasy. Defeating gravity by blasting it off the floor is now your favorite personal war. Good for you. But wait, there’s more.

Bands and chains, made famous by Westside Barbell Club, are no longer reserved for just powerlifters. Although your average ‘athletic club’ or corporate gym doesn’t have them, they’re portable (albeit heavy in the case of the chains) and having a sturdy gym bag (or canvas military bag) filled with such toys can make you the most interesting person in the gym. If the gym doesn’t allow it, they don’t need your business. If the management or staff just looks at you funny as you pull out a bag of what looks to be bondage gear, just smile and wink. They’ll probably leave you alone.

Strapping giant bands or iron chains around a deadlift bar will obviously increase the tension while you’re on your way to locking out. But if you haven’t done it before, waxing theoretical about it doesn’t do it justice. If your spine and shoulders aren’t locked into a good tight arch, form will crumble as you ascend, with the most common malfunction being a tucking of the pelvis. Not good. So remember the shoulder blade diatribe from earlier before attacking a deadlift with strange apparatus attached.

Chains are easy to use. Throw them over the bar. As the bar goes up it gets heavier. Simple.

Deadlifting with chains -1

Deadlifting with chains – 2

Bands are a little more complicated. Some cages have special hooks on them for bands, but another option is to simply hook the bands under the feet (a little less comfortable in sumo position). The concept is the same: go up=get heavier. But now the increase of the bands is exponential as opposed to steady, going from “0” to “REALLY HARD” within inches.

Oh, and the bands really want to yank you to the ground, faster than gravity alone can. Again, telling you this really can’t translate to actual practice until you’ve tried it yourself. Once you feel it, you’ll get it, but the first time with our latex friends is always a little strange.

Deadlifting with bands

Lifting from pins is a limited range of motion deadlift most often performed with a substantial amount beyond what your normal deadlift might be. By ‘pins’ we’re referring to the pins in a squat cage that can be set to any height above the ground. A personal favorite is just below lockout, performing what was called in the good ol’ days, a hand and thigh lift.

Execution is simple – put more weight on the bar and lift it. All the same rules apply, including the T& A principle (will Weider try to steal that one from me?). Keep that belly tight and full of air, or those tush cheeks will want to tuck under painfully. As a warning, this is brutal for the grip, and more than a few calluses have been ripped off during even successful attempts at this. Around these parts, that’s a right of passage.

These pin lifts are great for low reps, and sometimes, as in the case of the hand and thigh lift, simply seeing how long you can hold it. A good education for body to feel more weight than it’s used to.

Partial Deadlifts with rack/pins – 1

Partial Deadlifts with rack/pins – 2

Side Deadlifts

These are a great spine challenge, what infomercials like to call ‘core.’ Walk up to the bar like you’re about to deadlift it. Then turn 90 degrees. Pick it up. All normal rules apply.

On paper it really is that simple. But once that bar starts to struggle against your pull, your whole frame is going to want to twist. Don’t. Oh, and make sure you grab the bar in the center.

Side Deadlifts – 1

Side Deadlifts – 2

Stiff-Legged Deadlifts.

Stiff-Legged Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts, Straight Legged Deadlifts, or whatever name you know them as. Despite arguments about subtle differences among these, they’re the same lift: a deadlift without a large (if any) amount of knee flexion. If the T&A Principle is adhered to strictly, then these will go much easier. A note of safety, start from the top. Deadlift it up the old fashioned way, and then begin.

  • Butt out, pivoting only at the hips, not at any point along the spine.
  • Chest high
  • If at any point the spine position changes, you’ve gone too far.

Despite the overuse of little metal stands called ‘deadlifting platforms,’ most folks can barely go to ground depth without rounding their back. Just do these on the floor.

Stiff-Legged Deadlifts – 1

Stiff-Legged Deadlifts – 2

Trap Bar Deadlifts

If you have a trap bar (a diamond shaped bar that you step into the middle of, used for shrugging), many folks swear by these as a great deadlift tool. All deadlifting rules apply.

Anything else?

Pick up anything – a kettlebell or two, dumbbells, sandbags, pets, children, pumpkins, whatever. Just keep the form strong.

Program Ideas

Since, as mentioned in my recent Squat article, we like to cover a large spectrum of strength during our training, and heavy deadlifts only make up a portion of what we could do. Besides the powerlifting protocol of maximum force development training (low reps for high speed or weight), why not play with the deadlift as a training tool for other levels of preparedness as well?

Here are some combo ideas we’ve used with great success:

With the current trend of naming combos, I feel negligent for not coming up with a title for this one yet.

Let’s call it the Hate combo.

  • Heavy deadlift, pullups, sled drag: About 90% of your one rep max, immediately followed by a strenuous round of pullups, then followed by dragging a weighted sled for about 200 feet.
  • Repeat 4 times.

So this would be the Love combo:

Get creative here. The only rule to follow is the rep scheme, which will be 10,9,8,7 etc. down to 1, only resting if you have to. This type of challenge isn’t new and groups like Crossfit and Gym Jones have recently helped popularize it. You’re going to make it your own by choosing the exercises you’d like to use. Standard practice is 3 exercises but don’t limit yourself. Here’s an example of our version of the Love combo:

  • Deadlift (with your bodyweight on the bar)
  • Burpees (with or without weight, depending on your ability)
  • Sled Tugs (attaching a 30 foot rope to a weighted sled and tug it towards you)

The 10, 9, 8 rep scheme is only altered with the sled tugs, which will be halved (5,5,4,4,3,3, etc). Time it, because someday you’ll try to beat it.

Traditional set and rep schemes are growing stale fast. Lift like there are no rules. It becomes much more fun that way.

Written by Chip Conrad

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Mastering the Deadlift discussion thread.