November 09, 2020 10 min read

Deadlifts are essentially the proto-strongman exercise. Seeing those Olympic powerlifters yank impossible amounts of weight into the air is awe-inspiring. It works your lower back and blasts some of the largest muscles in your body so effectively that it’s hard to argue against its results.Deadlifting is also immensely gratifying. When you approach that bar and sever its connection to the ground it’s a clear and tangible mark of your progress. The plates don’t lie. Every deadlift is another mark of your forward progress. 

Deadlifts look incredible when executed properly. Your quads, glutes, and lower back are remarkably resilient seeing as they’re the largest muscles in your body. They’re responsible for all of your sitting, standing, kicking, walking, running, and just about anything you can imagine doing that involves your regular modes of locomotion. Even something as basic as walking to the kitchen to grab an afternoon snack engages basically all of your deadlifting muscles, so it’s easy to see how beneficial deadlifting is to your day to day life as well as your workout routine. 

If you want deadlifts to work for you, then everything from your form to your grip needs to be as fine-tuned as humanly possible, and your grip is what we’re going to be honing in on today. So get your weightlifting belt, figure out your routine, and let’s get to work.

Picking Apart Deadlifts

Let’s start by looking at all of the mechanics of deadlifting. It’s important to know what muscle groups you’re targeting when integrating a new workout into your routine, or even when you’re just reassessing an old one to make sure it fits with your goals.

Deadlifts hit several muscles in your lower body. Specifically, they target the following areas below.

A man doing deadlifts in a gym.

Glutes

Plainly, your glutes are your butt.

To get into it a little bit more, your glutes as a whole can be subdivided further into three other muscles, and none of them really make up the shape of your bottom, believe it or not. Your glutes are located on your butt, and they stretch across the back of your pelvis, but they really make up your hips more than anything.

Your gluteus maximus is the most easily identifiable out of these three. Your gluteus maximus is probably the one you learned about in middle school or sometime around then. That’s not a mistake. The gluteus maximus is the largest of the three and lives at the top of the butt muscle group. 

It works to straighten your legs where they meet your hips, or in more technical terms it’s the main extensor muscle of the hip. It can be a little difficult to conceptualize that, but think about what’s happening when you stand on one leg.

The thing your gluteus maximus is best at, though, is helping you back into an upright position when you stoop down towards the ground, like in a deadlift. That’s why you feel it so much in your butt when you start packing on the weight and getting some good reps in. 

If we go a little bit below the gluteus maximus you reach the much broader and thicker gluteus medius which works to turn your leg in and out as well as moving your leg from side to side.

Under your gluteus medius is the gluteus minimus. This pair of muscles work to abduct your thighs, facilitate internal rotation of your legs, and stabilize your pelvis.  

Hamstrings

Your hamstrings and your glutes have one thing in common. They’re both technically groups of three muscles that work together to give you fine control over the lower half of your body.

Hamstrings have a very particular anatomical definition. True hamstrings aren’t just muscles on the backside of your femur, they all have to start at a very specific part of your hip called the ischial tuberosity, and they have to come all the way down and attach to your knee joint on either your tibia or fibula. This means they also have to play a role in flexing your knee and extending your hips. 

Basically, the four muscles that make up your hamstrings are your semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and the long head of your biceps femoris. They’re all quite long because of their jobs, and since they’re so long they’re pretty easy to injure if you overwork them by loading up on too much weight too fast, neglecting your warmups, or if you go at your deadlifts with sloppy form. Exercise is all about working with the anatomy of your body to achieve maximum results as well as avoiding injury.

Lower Back

Working out your lower back is probably the single best aspect of a well-executed deadlift. 

Your lower back is one of the parts of your body that is the most prone to injury due to poor form, or abuse from your daily doings. These downsides are also the strengths of your lower back. If you’re having trouble with lower back pain, and it isn’t acute, your first line of defense is strengthening it. Working out your lower back is pretty simple, and you could do way worse than a deadlift if you want to bang out some of that discomfort. 

Deadlifts

Deadlifts are pretty simple to pull off. All you really need is a barbell, and if you don’t have those are home, or somehow they’re always tied up at your gym, we’ll include some variants that don’t require a barbell that are equally effective.

How to Deadlift

Let’s first review your starting position, deadlifting safely and effectively is more about form than anything else, so we’re going to get you set up for success.

  • The first thing you want to check is your distance to the barbell. A good rule to follow is to check the location of your shins and your feet. If your shins are pretty close to the barbell the middle of your feet will be underneath the bar, and that’s an excellent start 
  • Next is your feet. Get them about hip width. Your lower body will make a nice little A shape
  • Lower yourself into a squatting position
    • A proper squat position is going to be with your weight distributed comfortably over the middle towards the back of your feet
    • When you crouch into a squatting position, your knees should stay behind the tips of your toes. If they start drifting forwards the weight you’re lifting going to end up on your back rather than the muscles in your legs
    • Always make sure your back is straight, a great way to do this is to think about the way your head is pointed. You want to make sure to keep your eyes focused forward the entire time. Looking down or up into the sky is bound to encourage some poor posture
  • Your hands are going to be gripping the bar on the outer edge of your knees
    • You should be able to draw straight vertical lines from your shoulders to the bar you’re lifting

Try getting into the starting position a couple of times. The first few attempts, make sure to really go down this checklist mentally. Once you’ve got it locked in you’re ready to get that bar off of the ground safely and easily (well, as easily as a rigorous routine will allow).

  • Lifting in a deadlift is going to engage the muscle groups we discussed up above, so imagining those parts of your body and their function is going to do wonders for your form
  • Brace yourself before lifting. You don’t want to go into this with slack shoulders or undo all of that setup by allowing your posture to sag. All that’s going to do is yank things out of place or force you to lift with your back.
  • Direct the weight to your heels, this is going to force you to really drive those hamstrings, instead of trying to pull the weight. This exercise is mostly about bringing your body up, not tugging on the weights with your shoulders or your back.
  • Make sure to keep the weight close to your body. Swinging it out or backing away from it before you lift is going to seriously ruin your center of gravity. 
  • Straighten yourself up into a fully standing position, and hold that standing position for a short moment.
  • Let the weights sink back to the ground close to your shins and back into your starting state. 
  • When you’re more comfortable with your deadlifts, an excellent way to help build muscle is to keep the weights from touching the ground until your set is done. Maintaining tension is great for encouraging growth and getting shredded. 

A man doing deadlifts in a gym.

Deadlift Variants

  • Deadlift with Dumbells:If you don’t have access to a barbell, or you’re just one of those lifters that prefer the range of motion and comfort that dumbbells provide, then dumbbells are an excellent alternative to the barbell deadlift. All you really need to do is swap the barbell out with your dumbbells. Make sure you start with your weights close to your body because your center of gravity is still just as important. 
  • One-Legged Deadlifts:If you’re looking for a way to engage your core during your deadlift a little bit more, or maybe you just want to knock out the ab exercise at the same time you’re working on your lower back for a little bit of symmetry. One-legged deadlifts engage your core by forcing you to balance your body when you take one of your feet out of the equation, and it’s also great for your flexibility.
  • Start by replacing your barbell with some kettlebells or dumbbells to make standing up with the weight in hand a little less hazardous.
  • If you don’t think you’re ready for the weights, one-legged deadlifts are a great bodyweight exercise, and once you’ve gotten comfortable without the weights they’re easy to add to this simple variant
  • Keep your knees slightly bent, locking your knees isn’t usually a great practice when lifting weights. 
  • Start in a standing position, and lift one of your feet off of the ground and bring it a little bit behind your body.
  • Bend your body forward until you’re parallel with the ground.
  • Keep your arms hanging downwards the entire time, you’re not going to be fighting gravity with this one.
  • Make sure you’re keeping your back flat and straight, just like pulling off a regular deadlift.
  • Bring your body back into an upright position and repeat enough times for an appropriate set, switch feet and do it all over again

Suitcase Deadlifts:Suitcase deadlifts are great for practicing your deadlifts and increasing your grip strength. Grip strength is an important limiting factor that you’re going to run into when starting your way down the path of deadlifting. 

If you find that grip strength is keeping you from reaching your potential, then suitcase deadlifts are going to be a great way to break past that barrier. 

  • Suitcase deadlifts are going to give you the best results if you use a barbell with a little bit of weight on it. The length of the bar is going to force you to really engage your forearms. 
  • They’re basically a normal deadlift but with the barbell in one hand at a time, and positioned off to your side rather than with the bar in front of you.

Deadlift Grips

When you start deadlifting there’s absolutely nothing wrong with starting with a double overhand grip. It’s the most natural, the easiest, it distributes your weights evenly across your shoulders, and it’s great for the comfort of your fingers. 

When you start adding more and more weight to your barbell, you may find that the double overhand grip might not be enough to comfortably maintain your hold on the bar. You may find that using a mixed grip, that is one hand pronated and the other supinated. This is a much more secure grip, but its unevenness means that you’re running the risk of overworking one side of your body or favoring one shoulder over the other. 

So What is the Hook Grip?

The hook grip is a stronger grip than either the overhand or the mixed grip. If you’re approaching powerlifting weights those two grips just aren’t going to cut it. Your grip alone can only take you so far. Think about your forearms, they’re never going to get as strong as your hamstrings. That’s just anatomy. You’re hooking your thumb around the bar and bringing your index finger over your thumbnail, and then curling your middle finger, ring finger, and pinkies around the bar.

Why Use the Hook Grip?

Bringing your thumb up against the bar and using your index finger to hook it in place forces you to work on your grip strength, and this is key for weightlifters that are trying to attempt heavy deadlifts. This grip is excellent for anything that is bottlenecked by your grip like pull-ups. 

It also helps prevent bicep tears. In a mixed grip, the bar tends to pull away from your body on the supinated side. When the bar swings away from you during a deadlift, your body’s not going to be happy with you. So the mixed grip is excellent for transitioning to heavier weights, but don’t let it become something you slip into for too long.

Hook Grip Tips

  • An excellent way to work your way past the first time hook grip discomfort is to work it in for a set or two when you find that your grip strength is starting to fail you when your weight has started to increase. 
  • The discomfort you initially face can be mitigated with a little bit of athletic tape. Wrapping tape around your thumb will help you deal with the friction the bar will apply to your hands.
  • Make sure you aren’t placing the bar in the middle of your hands when you set up your hook grip. This will allow the bar to slip and slippage will tear at the skin on your hands.
  • Remember that your pinky is just as important as your other fingers when you’re gripping the bar. If you find that your grip is failing you, be sure to consider your pinky’s involvement. 

Now You’re on the Hook

The hook grip is excellent for deadlifts, especially after stacking up on some high quality supplements. If you find that grip training hasn’t cut out the limits your forearms are placing on your strength training, then the added security that the hook grip provides is a great place to help you overcome that boundary. Aside from the discomfort that pressing your thumb into a cold unyielding bar imposes, it’s a grip that works with your body in unexpected ways to increase the effectiveness of your workout. Deadlifts are versatile, and they’re one of the best ways to show off in strongman competitions and they’re amazing for proving your phenomenal progress to yourself when you pass your personal records. If you learn how to incorporate the hook grip into your routine early on you won’t have to readjust later when your bicep tendons are begging for relief later down the line. 


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