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The Perfect Deadlift
The deadlift is most arguably an essential foundation to base every strength training program on. But WHY?
Why does every fitness professional and fitness enthusiast think it is so essential to perform this movement?
Let me explain by first teaching you a bit about the anatomy of the ‘Core’ – a very misunderstood term.
Your core is every muscle that stabilises and supports your body; that includes literally EVERYTHING from getting out of bed, to picking up a box and even just keeping you up on two feet without landing flat on your face..(see the perfect demonstartion below)
In terms of muscles, the core is the combination of major & minor muscles surrounding the hips, low back, mid back, upper back, abdomen, sides and shoulders, and these are the most essential muscles in your body for injury prevention, movement efficiency, good posture and as prime movers (main workers), synergists (helpers) and fixators (stabilisers) in major muscle movements.
What Does This Have To Do With The Deadlift?
The deadlift is such a valued exercise because it focuses on using all these muscles as well as the biggest muscles in the body to lift with – as a result it is (or at least should be) the exercise where you can lift the most weight.
BUT, because you’re using so many different muscles, your proprioception has to be on top form to make sure you get the technique right.
Proprioception? What’s That?
Proprioception is your awareness of yourself without visual aid – in this instance, it means making all those muscles move correctly at the same time. The deadlift is one of the most technical exercises you can do so you’ll need to be completely aware of all these muscles and how they’re moving in order to produce a safe, effective and efficient deadlift that optimises your strength.
I keep telling you about how important the technique is, yet where is the bit where I actually tell you what the correct technique is? Right Here! That’s where!
To perform well with the deadlift you have to concentrate on a lot of different factors, and here they are in order of importance (the top 3 must be sussed BEFORE you start weight training in the deadlift):
1. Straight Back – Your lower back is the prime mover in this exercise so it is essential that not just your lower back is straight, but all the other muscles in that chain are fully flexed (hamstrings, glutes, low back, mid back, upper back). Before you start lifting, stand up tall and stick you stomach out, your shoulders back & down, open up your chest and stretch out your ribs. Feel all those muscles in the back tighten up? They’re the ones that must stay tight throughout the entire movement.
2. Head & Chest Up – When performing the deadlift, it is essential that you maintain flexion throughout the back and don’t let your shoulders or spine slack at all. By keeping your head up (just in line with the spine) and your chest up, your back muscles will remain engaged and your shoulder blades will stay retracted. This will improve the efficiency of the move and keep you clear of injury to the upper back and shoulders.
3. Butt Out – It’s too common to see someone grasping the weight for a deadlift and then proceeding to lift by driving through the knees; this is a squat and is in no way a safe way to perform either exercise. The difference between a squat and a deadlift is that a squat gets the butt toward the ground and the deadlift draws the butt toward the wall behind you. To get your butt out, make it’s the main source of movement to initiate the exercise. From the top of your deadlift, you start to lower by sticking your butt out like it’s nobody’s business! What will then start to happen is number 4..
4. Hip Hinge – When that butt sticks out the weight will start to lower to counter balance the movement; your job at this point is to make sure that you treat those hips as a hinge and fold from there WITHOUT letting that butt drop to the same level as the bar. Your chest should start lowering toward your thighs and the bar will be underneath your knees. If you get this right, then number 5 is almost guaranteed
5. Shoulders Ahead of Hands – This doesn’t apply at the top of the lift. It will start to come into play before you even lift the bar off the ground and will return during the lower half of the exercise. As a result, your centre of balance will remain under your belly button and you won’t have the temptation to keep your legs straight. Keeping the legs straight turns this into a Romanian Deadlift (see the Variations section of this blog) where you won’t be able to activate as many muscles and will risk rounding your back at the bottom of the movement.
6. Synchronised Knee & Hip Extension – When training to increase the max weight you can lift, you want to distribute the load between as many muscles as possible. To do this, you should ensure that you extend your knees and hips simultaneously so that they both lock out at the same time, at the top of the lift. Because the hips have more range to move in, you’ll want your hips to move faster than your knees; this will take a bit of practise for you to get the hang of, but start with the weight low and gradually add it as you get used to the speed that each joint will have to move.
7. Drive Through The Heels – The deadlift is supposed to be a relatively straight up & down lift which means that you DON’T want to feel like your pulling the bar into you. To make sure this happens, you should be generating the force through the heels and up the body to lift the bar vertically. Doing so will protect your knees and help with hamstring activation (which is what develops that booty you so desire, Ladies)
8. Knees Over Toes – This point only stands true for the bottom of your movement, where the bar is underneath your knees. As you lower the bar passed your knees, you should be progressively moving your knees over your toes to the extent that, when the bar is on the ground, your knees are further forward than your toes. By doing this, you will be more inclined to drive the movement through your hips, encouraging a more vertical movement. Just make sure you have the ankle mobility to do so without your heels coming up first!
9. Lock Out – Often, when people want to lift a lot of weight, they miss out on crucial components of the movement; the lock out being probably the main one. To be technically correct, the lift isn’t complete until your hips are thrusted into the bar, your shoulder blades are squeezed together and your knee joints are fully locked out. This shows that you can fully contract your muscles whilst the resistance is applied against you. Try to include this on heavy lifts and on the last rep of any set.
10. Breathing Control – Although it may not be essential for you to perform the deadlift, it’s often underrated as a way to add weight onto your lift and not feel like you’re going to pass out when you finish your set. To truly optimise your breathing, you should aim to take one long and slow breath in as you lower the bar (or prepare to lift the first rep) and then powerfully, from the back of your throat, exhale throughout the entire lifting motion.
Knowing The Correct Reps & Sets To Use
To know how many reps and sets you should be performing, you must take a step back in the process and think about your goals – what do you want to achieve from this exercise?
(to claim a FREE Goal Assessment with an expert in fitness fill out this enquiry form)
Once you figure this out, all you need to do is refer to one of the most trusted formulas used by the best Personal Trainers in the industry, Prilepin’s Chart:
To make this table nice and easy for you to understand, here’s an example of a client I used this on just a week ago:
Josh (not real name) turned up to one of my Perfect Deadlift sessions last Tuesday evening.
Josh is training to improve his strength whilst losing body fat (known as recomping).
One of his main issues is Low Back Pain (BTW I have a Guest Blog coming up soon from Low Back Pain Specialist Jake Guinness so make sure you keep connected to know when this goes up)
This is because of a lifestyle that has him seated far too often
To build up strength and promote fat loss, Josh needs to be correcting his posture and strengthening his low back.
Because his main area for improvement is his strength, Josh would be working in the Max Strength zone, but his back isn’t ready yet.
So I had Josh training in the Strength zone (85-95% of the max he can lift for 1 rep) for 3 sets of 5 reps.
This ensured that Josh was reaching his maximum output for the desired goal and everything else in the session was about assisting these working sets and strengthening the surrounding muscles.
When performing such a technical exercise, it is important that you take into account all the variables that make your body different to the 7ft Humungosoarus Rex on the other side of the room.
To accommodate for your body shape and size (and even goals), variations of the deadlift were created so that it can be as specific to you as possible. Below is a list of variations, how to do them, who should use them and how they differ from one another.
This is the standard way to perform a deadlift and focuses on recruiting as many muscles as possible in the most efficient way.
To perform a conventional deadlift, you start with your feet under your hips and your hands grabbing the bar from the outside of the knees. Before you lift, drop you bum about the height of your knees and push your knees over your toes, keeping heels planted. Your chest should be facing fairly forward and your face toward the wall. Pushing through your heels, drive your hips forward with your chest up high. When lowering, try to keep shoulders ahead of hands and neck in alignment with spine.
Most people are suitable for a conventional deadlift, but you should avoid it if you have a lack of hip, knee or ankle mobility; if you lack shoulder strength then consider using a trap bar where you grab the weight from your sides instead of in front.
The conventional deadlift focuses on activating as many muscles as possible to achieve maximal load, so it is the standard, go-to deadlift for someone who wishes to train the entire body evenly.
The sumo deadlift is a way of shortening the distance the bar can travel and keeping the workload all on the lower body.
To perform a sumo deadlift, you start with your feet under the bar and you take a wide stance (about double hip width) with your feet outwardly turned about 30-60 degrees. Your knees will bend outward (along toe-line) instead of forward as you stick your butt out to get down to the bar. Your hands will be inside your knees and gripping the bar at shoulder width. Your chest will hang over the bar and you should focus on keeping your shoulder blades squeezed together throughout the movement. Make sure you don’t turn the chest forwards as this will turn it into a squat.
The Sumo deadlift is used to focus onto the hamstrings and glutes and is best suited to people with a shorter limbs than torso; the wide leg stance will bring you closer to the ground and decrease the lever length to make it a short, compact movement. If you struggle with ankle or hamstring flexibility, this is the best way to still train deadlifts without exposing these weaknesses.
The Romanian deadlift is one of the most difficult one’s to perform correctly as it requires a huge range of flexibility on the hamstring muscles at the back of the upper leg, and a great amount of strength in the entire back.
This variation is performed by keeping the feet under the hips, the hands on the outside of the knees and bum up high. When you pull, avoid the temptation to bend the knees and lower the bum; the legs will want to remain in a near-straight angle (never locked out) throughout the entire movement which will result in the chest hanging way out in front.
The purpose of performing a Romanian deadlift is to extend the level length (distance between weight and muscle being used) and put the stress on the fixators that are fighting to keep your back straight. This is the technique that will require the least weight to train with and works best in high rep-ranges where you have to sustain a straight back for a long amount of time. Do not attempt this technique unless you have a lot of hamstring and glute mobility and have someone beside you to ensure you maintain good form throughout.
This is looking at a completely different component of the movement which can be applied to all three of the above variations – we’re simply changing the way you hold the bar.
Counter grip is the method of grabbing the bar with one hand over, one hand under so that one sits in front of the bar and the other behind it. The rest of your technique should be carried out in the same fashion, but just make sure you alternate which way round you have your hands to prevent developing imbalances in the shoulders.
The purpose of holding the bar in a counter grip is to help hold the bar better. When you lift heavy weights, it is often the minor, less trained muscles that hold you back and the forearm is one of the main culprits for such occurrences. By gripping the bar from 2 different directions, the bar should no inclination to roll in either direction in your hands, making it easier to keep the bar in your hands. This will probably feel a bit odd the first one or two times you try it, but if you struggle with grip strength then it is definitely worth adding to your tool belt whilst you train up your forearms.
Deficit basically just means under ordinary, which in this instance refers to lifting the bar from lower down in the movement. Obviously, there’s a problem that occurs with this – the ground is there. But don’t be deterred, there are ways around this.
To perform a deficit deadlift you have three options:
1. Put yourself higher in the air. You can do this by just standing on a a step or some weight plates.
2. Lower the ground. Despite what you think, this is actually possible. You just stand at the edge of a raised/lowered floor at let the bar move on the side that is lower down.
3. Smaller plates. If you use bumper plates, then the reason why you hit the ground is because the plates you are using are so darn big! These plates are obviously best suited when performing this kind of technical exercise, but when trying to train in a longer range of motion, you don’t need to worry about lifting crazy heavy weight so the bumper plates aren’t entirely essential. Swap down to some regular Olympic plates and if you want a bigger deficit then just use more of smaller weights (normal plates get smaller as the weight decreases)
There are plenty of other variations out there, but unless training for a technical sport or for functional issues, you won’t need to concern yourself with these (and if you do, you should have an expert designing your program anyway).
Fixing a Bad Technique
Now, this is an area that I would not feel comfortable prescribing to you without fully knowing how your body moves, so I won’t go listing off a bunch off exercise that will improve your deadlift, because they could easily go wrong without an expert guiding you through it and picking which exercises are best for you.
I will, however, show you this video I put up on our Facebook Page where I give my training partner Ben an exercise to help strengthen up the thoracic (middle) spine. If you suspect you have any faults in your technique, or would like to be sure, turn up to one of our Perfect Deadlift sessions and we’ll give you a personalised workout that will spot any faults in technique, train you in correcting these and get you performing an excellent deadlift that is directed at achieving your health & fitness goals
There is a lot to make sure you get right with the deadlift, but don’t let that put you off this awesome exercise that is incredibly important for solidifying the core, developing serious strength and for burning a whole lot of calories. If you’re really interested in getting that technique spot on and reaping in the rewards of this exercise then seek out a fitness professional who knows what they’re doing, ensure they outline the points I mentioned and see what insights they can provide about your technique. At RAW, we pride ourselves on the accuracy of our knowledge and how we apply this into your training to make it entirely personal to you, your body and your lifestyle. If you would like us to help you optimise the results you can acquire, the techniques you perform and the way it all gets put together then click this link to submit a membership enquiry or click this link to attend one of our Perfect Deadlift sessions on the choice of time slot that suits you.
Thanks for reading this and I hope it helps you train safely & effectively and feel confident in performing your next deadlift! Remember to keep up to date with all our going-ons and check this page regularly to see all our newest blogs – especially the blog coming up soon from Jake Guinness, the guy who is going to tell you everything you need to know about why your lower back aches and what you can do to fix it!
Until Next Time,
Train Smart and Invest In Your Health