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January 30, 2022 10 min read

Known as the “king of lifts,” the deadlift is one exercise where even a proper introduction can hardly do it justice. It is lifting boiled down to its essence: picking up something heavy and putting it down again.

Even though it’s a simple concept to grasp on the surface level, it’s one of the most biomechanically and technically challenging lifts.

But with this difficulty comes a wide range of benefits that are basically unrivaled when looking to build strength and size across your entire body. To reap all of the rewards of the deadlift, we first have to know how (and why) it works. Along with the bench press and the squat, the deadlift is one of the big three lifts that require extreme attention to technique and form. Perfecting the deadlift isn’t easy, but it sure does pay off.

Benefits of Deadlifts

The deadlift is a true full-body, compound exercise. It primarily hits the quadriceps and hamstrings in the lower body, developing a strong posterior chain. The glutes are also involved in extending your hips, along with the hamstrings. The gluteus maximus is the most activated out of the glute muscles.

Your back muscles also play an important role.

The back can be prone to injury if the deadlift isn’t performed correctly, so it’s important to have strong erector spinae muscles.

Your lats and trapezius are also important in stabilizing the bar and getting the proper bracing. Because the deadlift engages so many different muscle groups across your entire body, it’s pretty much unparalleled when it comes to building muscle mass and for strength training.

Even your grip strength is challenged.

However, its complexity means that there are a lot of common mistakes that can injure and cause back pain. Good deadlift form is necessary to reap all of the benefits from this incredible lift.

How to Barbell Deadlift

 

The deadlift requires several muscle groups across your entire body to work in sync with one another. This means that it takes a lot of technique and proper form to successfully pull off—especially if you’re interested in maximizing benefits and strength gains. The deadlift can be broken down into different portions of movement that each require some special attention. Even though the lift is simple at first glance (just picking up a barbell and putting it back down), it requires a lot of coordination.

We’ll be looking at the conventional deadlift using a barbell.

Later on, we’ll take a closer look at some important deadlift variations that are also good to include in your workout routine. But before you get started, it’s important to set up for success. It’s also a good idea to warm-up beforehand. You can do this by either using dumbbells, just your bodyweight, or light weights.

Here’s a rough breakdown before we get into the nitty-gritty:

  1. Set up by planting your feet firmly into the floor and hinging at the hips to grasp the bar. Grab the bar where your arms end up just outside of your knees.
  2. Engage all the necessary muscles, including the lats. Make sure your body is braced and your back is flat before beginning to pull.
  3. Initiate the movement by “pushing the floor away” instead of thinking of pulling the bar towards you. First, bend your knees followed by unhinging the hips. As you continue upward, push your hips forward and squeeze your glutes.
  4. Getting to the top of the lift, lock-out your hips and knees, standing up perfectly straight. It’s important to not hyperextend your lower back, however. Imagine a rope pulling you straight up from your head.
  5. Lower the barbell in a controlled manner. How fast you go depends on several things which we’ll take a closer look at down below.

Setting Up for Good Deadlift Technique

It begins with setting up a bar on the floor with two full-sized weight plates on either side. This will prevent you from having to bend over very far to grasp the barbell.

Now moving on to the feet.

Step up to the barbell, with the bar crossing the top of your midfoot as you look down. You’ll also want to plant your feet underneath your hips, with your toes pointing either straight ahead or slightly turned out. The general rule is to point your toes in the direction that your knee tends to travel, but this isn’t going to be the same for everyone depending on individual biomechanics (such as leg length).

Usually, pointing the toes out slightly will make it easier to get the bar over your knees as it's traveling up. But if you’re just starting out, it’s best to experiment with different foot positioning so that you get a feel for your options. This is going to be highly individual. Once you have your legs in order, it’s time to get your arms in the right positioning—right outside of your knees.

Imagine your arms as hooks that link the bar to your shoulders.

This means that you want to keep your arms as straight as possible from the shoulder joint to your hands. If you flare out your elbows too much, this will result in having to lean forward to compensate at the beginning of the lift, leading to a weaker lift.

Getting a Grip

When considering which grip to use, there are actually several different options with their own pros and cons. These are the overhand grip, hook grip, and mixed grip. Some lifters also use lifting straps. The double overhand grip, where both of your hands grasp the barbell with your palms facing your body, is the most standard and beginner-friendly approach.

The downside is that at higher weights, the barbell will more easily slip out of the hands.

The hook grip is similar to the overhand grip, but your thumb is used as a wedge between the bar and your index finger. Although it’s more painful, it allows for heavier loads to be used. Lastly, the mixed grip requires one arm to grip overhand and the other one to grip underhand. This technique also allows for heavier weights to be used. 

Positioning the Hips and Back

The deadlift is all about the hip hinge, so it’s important to know where the hips come into all of this. The height of your hips in the starting position is another aspect that ends up being very dependent on the individual.

The key is to maintain proper foot and arm positioning, without losing your balance either forward or backward.

Different people will find what works best for them, so there is quite a bit of wiggle room to work within. Just make sure that your arms stay as close to vertical as possible and that the bar travels close to (or touching) the bar. If you keep in mind these two points, you should be able to find a good hip position that works for you. One of the most important factors in a successful deadlift is proper back positioning.

It’s highly recommended that maintaining a flat, neutral back is the way to go if you want to avoid injury.

This can be difficult, especially for beginners that are beginning to pile on more and more weight. Some people might point to competitive deadlifting where lifters sometimes arch their back. The reason for this is that you effectively bring your hips closer to the bar, meaning that you can lift more weight with your hips. While professionals can get away with this while minimizing injury risk, it’s definitely not recommended for those who are either beginners or intermediates. If a heavy weight is causing you to round your back, your best option is to swallow your pride and decrease the weight.

Tension and Lifting Off: The Initial Phase

Before you begin lifting the bar up, you have to first brace all of the muscles that are going to be used. The deadlift is a difficult lift, and you need your entire body working together to lift the bar where it needs to go. By taking a few seconds before lifting to tense your body and gradually build-up to the lift, you can ensure that all of the right muscles are engaged to help you succeed powerfully and efficiently.

When it comes time to actually lift the weight up, things can be roughly separated into three stages.

  1. The first is knee extension—this tends to be the most biomechanically challenging part of the lift, when first pulling the weight off the floor.
  2. The second stage is hip extension
  3. The third is the lockout at the top

This is another one of those things that are going to largely come down to the individual, but it is good to stick to this rough pattern. There are a couple of cues that help people a lot when it comes to deadlifting. The first is to imagine yourself pushing the floor away rather than pulling the bar upward. The second is to keep your chest up as high as possible, which will help you maintain a neutral spine through the lift.

Locking Out

Although one of the most difficult portions of the lift comes at the very beginning, the sticking point for most people (the point of failure) comes as you drive upward, in the middle of the lift. The most important cue to remember is driving your hips forward after you’ve extended your knees and hips. It’s also important to keep your shoulders back, fully extending your spine upward. Your arms should only be acting as hooks to hold onto the bar, instead of moving any weight.

Lowering the Bar

Once you’ve locked out at the top of the lift, it’s time to set the bar back down in a safe manner. Like most other lifts, the key is to simply reverse the movements.

First, you’ll have to hinge at the hips, pushing your butt backward while your torso comes forward, maintaining a straight back. Continue lowering the bar down like this until it gets past your knees. After the bar’s gotten past your knees, you can now begin bending them until the barbell touches the floor.

At this point you’re done, but there’s still the question of how fast you should be lowering the bar.

Many lifters will opt to set the bar down as quickly as possible—this makes sense. Not only does it make a loud (and badass) bang, but you’re also going to be preserving energy for more of the actual lifts—the concentric phase as you go up.

However, research has increasingly shown that training both the concentric and the eccentric phases of lifts is more effective. In fact, it’s even been shown that focusing on both the concentric and eccentric movement is more effective than performing double the volume in only concentric reps. 

Although you might preserve some energy in the short term by ignoring the eccentric phase of the lift, you should strive to let the barbell down relatively slowly if you’re looking for long-term gains. Go slow enough to not make a loud bang when the barbell hits the floor and you’ll be getting enough eccentric activation.

Getting Better

Improving your deadlift comes down to three different aspects:

  • Your muscles
  • Your mind/muscle connection
  • Technique

We’ve looked at technique and all the little things to watch out for, but the only way you’ll really get a handle on things is if you go out there and practice. Preferably, someone who knows what they’re doing should set you on the right path. This will get you lifting properly from the start and help you avoid any issues in the future. And needless to say, deadlifting will strengthen and grow the muscles and tendons needed for deadlifting.

This isn’t a big revelation, but it is important to know where your deadlift might be weak and what muscles be causeing the issues.

Consistently practicing will also help you better tune into the muscles that you engage in different parts of the deadlift. Not only will this improve your neuro signal from your brain to your muscles, but you’ll also begin to more efficiently deadlift, allowing you to deadlift more. So of course, the best way to improve your deadlifting is with deadlifts themselves. But understanding where you’re struggling and the muscles involved may help you implement supplementary exercises that specifically target that muscle group.

Programming the Deadlift

However, all practice is not built equally.

Implementing the deadlift into your routine in different ways is going to result in different outcomes. The breakdown will come from your goals: are you looking for strength gains or muscle gains? For strength gains, it’s important to train at lower rep ranges while increasing the intensity (weight) of the deadlift.

A ballpark range is 3 to 6 sets of 1 to 5 reps.

You’ll also want to use loads that are 80% to 95% of your one-rep max, to elicit proper strength development.

On the other hand, hypertrophy is going to mean the opposite.

Instead of low rep ranges, you’ll be aiming for 6 to 10 repetitions within 4 to 6 sets. To balance this out, use lighter weights anywhere between 70% to 90% of your one-rep max. This approach also necessitates that you place more attention on the eccentric portion of the lift, maximizing the amount of time your muscles are under tension.

Deadlift Variations

The deadlift is a fundamental movement and so you’re going to get many different variations. These can be anything from differences in equipment to changes in technique that place the emphasis on different muscle groups entirely.

For example, things like kettlebell deadlifts, hex bar, and trap bar deadlifts can make the exercise more comfortable and safer for some people. The sumo deadlift is a popular choice where the lifter adopts a wider stance.

This places a larger emphasis on the quads. It also allows you to lift heavier since there’s a shorter range of motion.

The stiff-leg deadlift is another popular variation.

As the name suggests, you’re going to be keeping your legs straight which will place a much larger emphasis on the hamstrings. Lastly, deficit deadlifts are used for addressing weak leg drive and form breakdown. It’s performed by standing on a slightly elevated surface. These are just some of the options available, but there are a lot more proper deadlifts out there for you to explore in your weightlifting career.

The King of Lifts

Although we’ve examined many of the intricacies around the deadlift, reading is never going to be able to supplant practice—and practical experience is absolutely necessary for improving your deadlift.

The deadlift is an incedible exercise, requiring different parts of your body to work together to move a heavy weight.

Although goodform is something you want to use from the start, perfecting the deadlift takes time. So the more consistently you deadlift over a longer period of time, the better you will be at the lift. The key is practicign proper form no matter how much or how little weight you have loaded on the bar. 

And not only will these benefits carry over to other lifts in the iron temple, but you’ll see the effects on the movements you do in your day-to-day life. But big lifts require big nutrition and even bigger rest. To really get the most out of the deadlift, make sure you get enough sleep every day while also maintaining a diet of whole, healthy foods that are minimally processed.

If you’re looking for something to take your gains to the next level, a high-quality whey protein powder is always a good idea. With the proper lifestyle and the proper mindset, the king of lifts will get a chance to truly live up to its name—make sure to do it justice.