The deadlift is a compound movement that works nearly every muscle in the body. It primarily strengthens the hamstrings, glutes and lower back, but it also provides plenty of work for the quads, traps, lats, and especially the core. If you want to have a healthy back and incredible, full-body strength, then the deadlift is a must.
The deadlift gets its name from the fact that the weight starts ‘dead’, from the ground, every rep. Unlike squats and presses, there is no stretch reflex to take advantage of. That means that the deadlift demands an incredible amount of force to get the weight off of the ground.
If you are using bumper plates, the weight starts off of the ground. However, if you are using non-standard size plates, the barbell should start from mid-shin (the same place it would rest if bumper plates were used). The feet are placed under the hips or just slightly wider, in approximately the same stance you would use if trying to jump vertically for maximum height.
The grip is placed just outside of the legs, with the hands pronated (palms facing towards the legs). A hook grip can be used to help handle heavier weights, as can lifting straps. The hook grip involves placing the top segment of the thumb underneath the index and middle finger, causing it to be squeezed between the fingers and the bar. This effectively locks your grip on the bar, although it feels uncomfortable until you get used to it.
The starting position will look different for everybody based on individual anthropometry, but a few key points must be followed to ensure safe and proper form.
First, the hips must be above the knees. If they are below the knees, the position is too much like a squat – the back will be too upright and the shoulders will be too far back to properly contribute to the lift. Also, the knees will come too far ahead of the bar, so they will be in the way of the bar’s path.
Second, the shoulders must be in front of the bar, placing it underneath the spine of the scapulae (the bony ridge that you can feel at the top of your shoulder blade). This causes the barbell to pull directly down on your shoulder, better allowing the traps to do their job of holding the shoulder blades in place.
Third, the lumbar spine must be lordotic. This means that it must have the natural arch that it has while standing (this is the inward curve at the small of your back). To help maintain this position, it helps to stick your butt out backwards and retract the shoulder blades, which will help tighten up the muscles of the back.
Before beginning the lift, four things should be done.
First, bring the bar in as close to your shins as possible, right over the middle of the feet. This keeps the centre of gravity of the system (you plus barbell) as close to your hips as possible, decreasing the weight’s lever arm from your hip (that means it makes the weight feel lighter).
Second, you should tension yourself against the bar by pulling your body slightly up against it. Feel all the muscles that will be used contract. This prevents violent jerking against the bar and also allows the muscles to contract more forcefully.
Third, voluntarily contract your glutes. That means squeeze your butt. By consciously activating the glutes, they will contribute more directly to the lift and will also help stabilize and support the lower back.
Fourth, take a deep breath in and hold it. This, called the Valsalva manoeuvre, helps stabilize your abdomen from the inside, making it easier for your trunk muscles to properly support the spine. It is a good idea to hold your breath through the entire lift, or at least until you get the bar past your knees. Just don’t let yourself black out. If you are unsure of how to properly use the Valsalva manoeuvre, ask a trainer for assistance.
Now that you’re prepared, you can begin the lift. Start by pushing your heels into the ground. As you do this, your quads should engage to push your knees back towards the wall behind you, moving them out of the way of the bar’s path.
The shoulders and hips must rise at the same pace. This means that your back angle will not change, at least not until the bar has passed your knees. If you have difficulty with your back starting to round during this part of the lift, imagine there is a chain attached between your shoulder blades and somebody is hauling your chest up as you lift. This should help you maintain a tight lower back. If you still cannot prevent rounding, the weight is too heavy and you should use a lighter weight until you can maintain proper form.
Keep the bar as close to your legs as possible during the entire lift. Your lats will be engaged for this task. Once the bar passes your knees, the back angle can change and you can start to tilt up from the hips. At this point the lift is almost complete – all you have to do is ensure that you open your hips completely and straighten out your legs (stand tall). There is no need to hyperextend the back, i.e. do not lean backwards at the end of the lift. This is not only unnecessary, but it is also dangerous for your spine.
Once the lift is finished, everything is reversed to place the lift back on the ground, under control. Holding another deep breath from the top can help you maintain correct posture on the way down, as well as remembering to stick your butt out backwards as you lean your shoulders forwards. Keep your shoulder blades retracted and your glutes tight. The hips begin to drop after the bar passes the knees. Keep the bar as close to the legs as possible the entire time.