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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.