The Deadlift is a fairly simple exercise. You pick a heavy bar off the ground then put it down again. Yet, it’s one of—if not the—most effective exercises for improving total-body strength and athletic performance.
In this article, we’re going to discuss the benefits of the Deadlift exercise, explain how to safely perform it, provide fixes for common mistakes, and give you a few complimentary exercises that will help build strength in the lift.
Why You Should Deadlift
The Deadlift is considered a pulling exercise because you’re literally pulling a barbell off the ground. It’s based on the hip hinge movement pattern, which refers to the ability to properly bend at your hips. Arguably, the hip hinge is the most important motion in exercise and general movement.
There isn’t a more obvious display of brute strength than picking up a barbell loaded with double or even triple your body weight. Although considered a lower-body exercise, it’s truly a total-body lift. Everything from your feet to your hands must work together to successfully complete a heavy rep. As a result, the Deadlift has many benefits.
- Glute and hamstring strength. The glutes and hamstrings are the primary muscles worked by the Deadlift. They help to straighten your hips and actually pick the weight up.
- Lower-back and hamstring strength. Ever been told this exercise is bad for your lower back? That’s true if you do it wrong. However, a properly performed lift strengthens the muscles of your lower back and core and can actually help prevent and correct lower back pain/injury.
- Upper-back strength and size. Holding hundreds of pounds while maintaining a flat back requires a great deal of back strength. If you want a strong and thick back, there’s no substitute for heavy deadlifts.
- Grip strength. Holding a heavy bar both requires and builds grip strength. The knurling on the bar will also toughen up your hands a bit.
- General Badassery. It’s you vs. the bar. There are few things more satisfying than lifting a bending bar loaded with hundreds of pounds off the floor.
The Deadlift makes athletes better force producers, as stronger glutes and hamstrings allow you to put more force into the ground. Almost all fundamental sports skills, like running, jumping, throwing and tackling start when you put power into the ground. The power travels up through your core and into your upper body. The more force you can put into the ground, the more explosively you’ll be able to play your sport.
It also teaches your large hip muscle groups to fire in a coordinated fashion. This also helps you put more force into the ground. No matter what sport you play, your game will improve if you regularly perform this exercise.
Proper Deadlift Form
The Deadlift is a simple concept, but it’s one of the most butchered exercises we see in the weight room.
The most common Deadlift technique failure is a rounding of the back. It’s like everyone channels the Hunchback of Notre Dame when performing the exercise. This can cause serious problems over time.
The lumbar spine, or lower back, is designed for stability, not mobility—which is why we emphasize core stability exercises like Ab Rollouts, which resist movement of the spine. When the lower spine rounds, it’s in a compromised position. Coupled with the heavy weight loads typically used in the Deadlift, you have a recipe for a disc injury, which can cause long-term pain and lingering spinal problems.
The upper back often rounds as well. Since the upper back can handle some movement, this doesn’t present as big a problem as lower-back rounding. However, it often causes a cascade effect that results in rounding of the lower back.
You may see some rounding in powerlifters who hoist massive Deadlifts, but they’re trying to do everything possible to maximize the amount of weight on the bar so they can win a competition. Athletes and members of the general fitness population, however, should always keep their back flat. You can still lift heavy, but in a proper movement pattern that protects your spine. The last thing you want is to have a disc give out.
And you can still crush heavy Deadlifts with a flat back. Just look at strength coach Tony Gentilcore crushing a 600-pound Deadlift in this video. His form is impeccable.
All of that said, maintaining a flat back in the Deadlift is not as easy as it sounds. One technique flaw can throw off the entire exercise, causing undesired rounding even if you are focused on keeping your back flat.
Here’s how to execute flawless Deadlift technique with expert demonstration from Ben Boudro and John Papp of Xceleration Fitness.
Step 1: The Approach
Approach the bar and stand with your feet about hip-width apart (we’ll discuss more stance options later). The bar should be over your midfoot or even touching your shins. Take a huge breath to fill your stomach with air. Tighten your core all the way around your body. If you’re using a weight belt, check out this helpful video from training expert Cory Gregory.
Step 2: Grab the Bar
Bend at your waist and slightly bend your knees to reach straight down. Grab the bar with both hands, using either a double-overhand or alternating grip. Read our Deadlift grip guide for more details about each grip. Make sure that your arms are completely straight.
Step 3: Find the “Lifter’s Wedge”
Now it’s time to assume what’s called the lifter’s wedge. Flatten your back and pull your shoulders toward your back pockets. Pull up on the bar to take the slack out, pull your chest up and sit your hips down so your back is at a slight downward angle—the exact amount of which depends on your individual anatomy. Focus your eyes about 10 feet in front of you and give yourself a double chin to pack your neck.
You should feel a ton of tension in this position. Your lats are squeezing. Your core is tight. There’s a slight stretch through your hamstrings. You’re squeezing the heck out of the bar.
This means you are ready to pull.
Step 4: The Pull
Pull the bar straight up keeping it as close to your shins as you can, using your glutes and hamstrings to straighten your hips. As the bar travels upward past your knees, begin to pull the bar into your hips. The goal throughout is to keep the bar as close to your body as possible to maximize your strength. Continue straightening your hips and knees until you’re standing fully upright. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the rep.
Step 5: Lower the Bar to the Ground
Slowly bend your waist and keep the bar close to your thighs to begin lowering the bar. Continue hinging at your hips until the bar is below your knees, then you can bend your knees to finish lowering it to the ground. Do this slowly when first learning the Deadlift but you can pick up the speed as you get more comfortable with the exercise.
Step 6: Prepare for the Next Rep
If you’re doing more than one rep, you have two options. One, you can take a deep breath in and go right into your next rep. Or two, you can reset your lifter’s wedge. Option two is usually preferred when going for heavy reps where you’re pushing yourself close to your max.
Conventional, Sumo or Hybrid Deadlift Stance?
There are three stances you can utilize with the barbell Deadlift, and each have their own benefits.
Conventional Deadlift Stance: This is the standard exercise as described above where you stand with your feet hip-width apart. It involves a bit more of your lower back than the other variations, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad option. Generally, this is the preferred variation for taller athletes.
Sumo Deadlift Stance: The Sumo Deadlift requires a wide stance that’s about the same width as you’d hold a barbell for a Snatch. This usually places your feet—which should be angled out slightly—around the rings of the barbell, but that ultimately depends on your height. To find your optimal stance, test a few foot positions and stick with the one that allows you to reach down to the bar and maintain vertical shins. The sumo stance shifts the work a bit more to your hips and hamstrings and away from your lower back, and some of you may find that you can lift more weight because of the reduced range of motion. Generally, this is the preferred variation for shorter athletes.
Hybrid Deadlift Stance: The hybrid stance is a happy medium between the conventional and sumo stance. In this stance, your feet should be angled out slightly and positioned just outside of shoulder width. Gentilcore uses the hybrid stance in his 600-pound DL shown in the video earlier in the article.
The stance you choose ultimately will depend on what position allows you to lift with the best quality of movement. Personally, I prefer the hybrid stance. I have some trouble keeping a flat back and creating tension in the conventional stance, and I lack the necessary hip mobility for the sumo stance. I’ve experimented with all three, and without a doubt have the best technique and strength in the hybrid position. Test each variation multiple times to find your optimal stance, and it’s perfectly fine to utilize different stances throughout your programming.
OK, now you got the form down. Let’s go over some common mistakes that you need to avoid.
Common Deadlift Mistakes
Mistake 1: The Bar Isn’t Directly Under Your Shoulders
The No. 1 correctable Deadlift mistake has to do with the starting position of the bar. You may never have thought about this, but it determines the success of the entire exercise.
The bar should be over your shoelaces or even touching your shins, and your shoulders should be straight over the bar. This creates the optimal power position to keep your back flat and to get your glutes and hamstrings involved in the movement.
Rick Scarpulla, owner of Ultimate Advantage Training, explains that if your shoulders align in front of the bar, you have to round your back to initiate the movement. The bar will swing forward under your shoulders the moment you pick it up. On the flip side, if the bar is too far away from your shins, you will have to reach for it, which will also cause you to round.
The only way to maintain a flat back is to keep the bar as close to your body as possible (more on this later).
Mistake 2: Your Lats Aren’t Engaged
Now we need to focus on the upper back. If your upper back is not engaged, your shoulders will pull forward the second you lift the bar off the ground, causing rounding. This is when we get into Quasimodo territory.
“When you pull the bar off the ground, it’s a lot of upper-back and lat involvement,” says Scarpulla. ” You need to focus on pulling your shoulders back and tightening your back and lats.”
In this case, your lats (the large muscles in your high upper back) function like your abs by providing the strength and stability to keep your spine from moving. To engage your lats, pull your shoulders down and back. Imagine you have a tennis ball under each armpit and try to squeeze the balls as hard as you can.
Mistake 3: Your Core Isn’t Truly Tightened
To keep your lower spine from bending, you need to tighten your core. If you fail to tighten your core, your spine will be forced to handle the weight load instead of supporting muscles around it—which is far from ideal.
This isn’t simple. You may hear the cue to pull your belly button to your spine. In Pilates, this might be fine. For lifting hundreds of pounds, not so much. Instead, take a deep breath in a tighten your abs, obliques and lower back muscles around this air to create an artificial weight belt with your core muscles.
Mistake 4: You’re Not Creating Pre-Lift Tension
To lift with perfect form, you need tension in your body to engage your muscles. Without tension, there’s a greater chance your muscles won’t do their intended job. And this often manifests itself in back rounding.
Creating tension means taking the slack out of the bar, which involves setting up for the exercise and lifting up against the bar without actually picking the weight off the ground. If you have a deadlift barbell with heavy enough weight, you will actually see a bend in the bar. If you’re using a standard barbell, you will lift just enough to feel your body engaged.
Mistake 5: Your Hips Rise Before Your Head
As you start the lift, your butt might come up first, usually because you’re driving with your knees and not extending your hips. Again, this is almost guaranteed to cause your back to round.
“The thing that causes back rounding a lot of times is the ability to lift the head first,” says Scarpulla. “Most guys who round their back, they lift their butt before their head.”
Scarpulla advises you to imagine you are lifting in a tube. When you rise up, the first thing out of the tube should be your head, and your head should be the last thing in the tube as you return the weight to the ground.
Mistake 6: You Overemphasize the Lockout
Some lifters hyperextend their backs in search of the ultimate lockout. Yes, you need to fully extend your hips but there’s no reason to arch backward. All this does is put unnecessary stress on your lower back. Put simply, the movement finishes when you stand straight up.
Exercises That Will Improve Your Deadlift
Despite your best intentions with the above technique tips, sometimes it’s impossible to keep your body in the proper position due to strength deficits. Here are a few exercises that will improve different aspects of your lift and help you safely lift more weight.
From a rack or blocks, the bar is elevated off the ground, which allows you to lift more weight because of the shorter range of motion. This focuses on the top half of the Deadlift, teaching you to strain when lifting heavy weight while maintaining your form.
Bent-Over Rows strengthen your back muscles in almost the same position as the bottom of the lift, which is the most challenging portion for your back.
Low-Box High Bar Back Squat
The bottom position is the most challenging. This Squat variation works the muscles needed to create enough strength and power to pick up a heavy bar from the floor. The box should be about 8- to 10-inches tall.
Barbell Banded Deadlifts
The amount you can lift is typically limited by the weight you can pull off the floor. Adding a band challenges your body through the entire rep, helping to strengthen your muscles throughout the full range of motion.
Lift about 50 percent of your max for three reps as fast and as explosively as you can to train your muscles to create more speed off the floor, which will ultimately help you lift more weight.
In addition to these exercises, regularly strengthen your core and grip to maximize your Deadlift strength. Looking for info on Trap Bar Deadlifts, an alternative that’s generally a bit more accessible and that taller lifters often find more intuitive than traditional Deadlifts? Read STACK’s definitive guide to Trap Bar Deadlifts.
Photo Credit: iStock