by Kyle Hunt
In powerlifting, the deadlift is performed last, after the squat and bench press. It has been said, “the meet doesn’t start until the bar hits the floor”. I tend to disagree, although I fully understand the argument. The deadlift is the exercise you should be able to lift the most weight with. It’s the ultimate test of raw strength.
But the truth is…I hate the deadlift.
I’m just not built for it. My short, t-rex arms that make the bench press come easy are the same dimensions that make pulling a nightmare. On the other hand, for those of you who struggle with the bench press, the deadlift might be your calling.
The deadlift is the most basic of the three powerlifts but also the most likely to be performed with sloppy form. Even though I hate the word, the deadlift is a very “functional” movement pattern. Every time you bend over to pick something up, you are essentially performing a deadlift.
Like the squat, there are two distinct ways to perform a deadlift –conventional or sumo.
Determining which stance is right for you can get tricky and complicated. Things such as height, weight, hip structure and limb lengths all play a role.
The easiest way to figure out which stance is best for you is to train them both for a few months and stick with the stance you are strongest and most comfortable with. Don’t make it any more difficult than that.
Step #1: The Stance
To figure out a good conventional stance, think about where your feet would be if you were to perform a vertical jump. For most people that will be a pretty good starting position, maybe slightly narrower but not much. (Taller people with wider hips will need a wider conventional stance)
The conventional deadlift should be a narrower stance than the squat.
For sumo, feet placement is going to be much wider. There is also a wider range of possibilities. You will probably have to play with it a little bit to determine how wide is optimal. Some people will find an ultra wide sumo stance to be most comfortable while others will end up using a conventional/sumo hybrid stance.
Toes pointed slightly outward; roughly 15 degrees will probably be best for most people.
Position the bar over the middle part of your foot. The bar should be just in front of your shins but not touching them. To create tension, “screw” your feet into the ground. You should feel your hamstring and glutes get tighter.
Before reaching out and grabbing the bar, create more tension by loading the hips and hamstrings. The more tension you can create, the more force you can apply to the movement.
Hinge at the waist, kick your butt back and maintain a straight back.
If you don’t have the mobility to reach the bar with just a hinge, you can bend your knees a little in order to maintain a neutral spine.
Step # 2: The Grip / Setup
Grip strength is crucial to the deadlift. There are three ways to grip the bar.
1: Double overhand: palms are facing you.
2: Mixed grip: one palm facing out and one facing you.
3: Hook grip: like double over hand but the thumb is “hooked” by the fingers. This is a grip that Olympic weightlifters use.
Try to use double overhand as much as you can. However, there will come a point where your grip will fail before your legs/lower back does. At this point, you will have to switch to either a mixed or hook grip. I recommend using a double overhand grip for all warm-up sets. This will be an indirect way to get extra grip work in. Mixed or hook grip should be used for working sets.
On conventional deadlifts, your hands should be placed just outside of your legs. About a thumbs length will allow room to press knees out.
For sumo deadlifts, your hand will be placed in between your legs. Do not grip the bar too narrow. Your arms should hang straight down and be locked out.
Arms should always be straight. Lock out your elbows. Think of your arms like ropes with your hands being the “hooks”. Deadlifting with bent arms not only leaks power, it also can cause elbow or bicep injuries.
Your shoulder blades should be positioned directly over the bar.
Once you grab the bar you need to reclaim tension. Do this by raising your hips and pulling your knees back, this creates tension on the hips, hamstrings, and back.
The hip position will be dependent on each individual’s limb lengths. You want to avoid squatting the bar (hips too low) or turning your deadlift into a stiff leg deadlift (hips too high).
Step # 3: The Pull
Engage your lats before lifting the bar. The coaching cue “take the slack out of the bar” is typically used to help lifters engage their lats prior to yanking on the bar. Engaging the lats/taking the slack out, preloads the bar.
Your upper back should be pulled together, retracted and down.
It’s generally a good idea to keep the head in an anatomically neutral position. I like to look at a spot on the floor about 12–15 feet in front of me. However, head position can be individual.
Before pulling up on the bar, remember the Valsalva maneuver. Take a big belly breath and push your abs out. Create as much intra-abdominal pressure as you can.
Keep the natural arch in your lower back. If you deadlift with a rounded lower back there is a good chance you will get injured. It might not be the first time or even the hundredth time, but eventually, it will catch up to you.
The legs should initiate the first movement. I like to tell my clients to imagine you are doing a leg press — lift the bar off the ground by pushing with your feet not pulling with your back. Drag the bar up your legs. The bar should never lose contact with your body.
A correct pull will show no change in back angle for at least the first couple inches off the floor.
During the movement, I like to think, “butt down, chest up”. This little cue helps me stay in a good position throughout the movement.
Lock knees out at the top of the movement and hold the bar for a full second before returning the bar back to the ground. Don’t exhale your air at the top. Return the bar back to the ground fast but controlled.
A few things to avoid
**Do not bounce reps. It’s very easy to do, especially with bumper plates. To avoid bouncing, always re-set in between reps during a set. This is a good practice to get into anyway.
**Do not over-extend at the top of the rep. Just come to an anatomically neutral position.
**Do not shrug your shoulders at the top of the rep. Keep your shoulders retracted and down.
Assistance Exercises to Build the Deadlift
Out of the 3 powerlifting movements, I feel the Deadlift benefits the most from assistance exercises. I typically include at least one deadlift variation in all my programs.
My Top Deadlift Builders
Stiff Leg Deadlift
Trap Bar Deadlift