Strength Training 101: The Deadlift


This is a post by NF Team Member Staci Ardison, who recently deadlifted 405 lbs at Camp Nerd Fitness.

Deadlift day is my favorite day.

And it’s Piglet’s too. 

When my story came out in July of 2011, I said that I’m simply happier on days that I deadlift – and that holds true to this day.  There’s really nothing more satisfying than picking up a ton of weight off the floor and holding it in your hands.

Jón Páll Sigmarsson, the Icelandic Strongman/Powerlifter once said (while deadlifting 1005 lbs), “There is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift.”

Now, that may be a bit extreme, but deadlifting is truly a romantic lift.

On deadlift day, I don’t need assistance or a spotter – it’s just me, the barbell, and the weight.  I love nothing more than to put my headphones in, put on a favorite playlist, and focus on nothing but me and that weight.

But even with so much going for it, many people are afraid of the deadlift and avoid it at all costs, citing fear of injury.

However, deadlifting in itself is not dangerous – but like with any movement, deadlifting wrong can be. Properly executing the deadlift will allow you to build a stronger posterior chain, less fragile joints, and a body that can handle whatever life throws at you.

We love the Deadlift, and it’s a key component of the Barbell Battalion section of the Nerd Fitness Academy.

Today we’re going to fall in love with the deadlift, and make sure you can do them right!

Why Deadlifts?

Staci Deadlift

The deadlift is a true full body movement.

While most people would consider it a “back” exercise, others will argue that it’s a “leg” exercise. In my book, it’s an everything exercise.

When you deadlift, you use every single muscle in your body:

  • Your arms, forearms, and hands hold onto the barbell and make sure the bar stays in the right position and stays stable throughout the lift.
  • Your shoulders and traps hold the weight and hold it stable.
  • Your back and core help keep your entire body tight and stable to help keep your spine secure.
  • Your posterior chain and legs to act as a lever and lift the weight.

Whenever anyone asks me where I got my shoulders/abs/etc, I answer the same: deadlifts.  Why do a million crunches when I can just do deadlifts instead? Way more fun! Plus, deadlifting is actually more effective.

On top of that, the deadlift is a basic human movement. Other than the squat, there might not be another movement that is more “functional.” From the grocery store, to moving a piece of furniture, to picking your child up off the floor – you are deadlifting (and probably with poor form!).

As you build solid form deadlifting in the gym, using better form when picking things up in real life will become second nature. This means you’ll be less likely to injure yourself now and later down the line (not only because you are stronger, but because your body knows how to properly handle weight).

And this goes further than just picking up objects – how you move while shoveling snow, doing yard work, and doing other basic every day life tasks will all dramatically improve from deadlifting. Don’t be that guy/gal with back problems from lifting that random object years from now!

Oh, and by the way, the effectiveness of the deadlift isn’t limited to an age or gender – even grandma thinks they’re cool.

The deadlift is awesome – perhaps the purest measure of strength: either you can pick the weight off of the ground, or you can’t.

Let’s take a look at how to do them right.

Choosing a Deadlift

deadlift_variations

NOTE: Before we begin, if you have a spinal injury (or really any injury), please check with your doctor before you start.

In the deadlift you’ll be lifting dead weight (motionless) off the ground hence the name).

More specifically, you take a loaded barbell (which is not in motion on the floor), grab it, and stand up with it until your shoulders, hips, and knees locked. Your arms will stay straight throughout the lift. At the end of the lift the weight, depending on the length of your arms, will be at about hip height.

There are many different kinds of deadlifts.  The most common are:

1) Conventional Deadlift – Your hands are just outside your feet, standing at about hip width apart.

2) Sumo Deadlift – Your hands are inside your feet with a wider stance.

3) Hex or Trap Bar Bar Deadlifts – Use a specialty bar made just for deadlifting which changes the biomechanics.

4) Snatch Grip Deadlift – Your hands will use a wide grip like in the Snatch.

5) Romanian Deadlift, Stiff Legged Deadlift, Straight Leg Deadlift -These are variations that are all commonly confused.  Bret Contreras has a great post where he goes into the differences between these variations in detail here.

6) Deficit Deadlift / Rack Pulls: These are movements that increase the range of motion or decrease the range of motion (respectively) and are used as accessory movements.

7) Dumbbell Deadlift Variations: For either accessory work, or if you don’t have access to a barbell and weights.

Today we are going to cover principally the conventional deadlift (we will cover variations in future articles).

Other than a barbell and weights, there are two optional equipment items you should consider:

  • Flat shoes, if your gym requires shoes.  Chucks work great.  I personally prefer to deadlift in either socks or Vibram 5 Fingers.  Many powerlifters wear deadlift slippers – which are basically just a fancy sock that’s approved footwear for competition.
  • Chalk is optional and initially won’t be incredibly useful. However, after you start to put some weight on the bar chalk will be enormously helpful for hanging on to the bar.

The deadlift can actually be taught in one sentence – however, each piece of the deadlift has little intricacies that need to be done right, or you will hurt yourself.  So – lets dive in!

The Conventional Setup

While your choice of deadlift may vary depending on your body type or training goals, the conventional deadlift is a great starting point for just about any situation.

Let’s dive into the basic conventional deadlift setup:

*NOTE: Always warm up properly, and start with just the bar, even for deadlifts!

first3_front first3_side

  • Load the bar and secure the plates with collars.  If you are just starting out with the movement, begin with 5-10 lb plates, using boxes or blocks to elevate the bar to about where it would be with 45 lb plates attached (if your gym has training plates that are this size, even better!). You may also be able to use your gym’s power rack for this.
  • Stand with your feet about hip width (8-12 inches) apart, and your feet slightly angled outwards (5-10 degrees).
  • Look down – the bar should be over the middle of your feet.  If you’re wearing laced shoes, the bar would be approximately over the tied part of your shoelaces.

Now, from here, until you are actually lifting, don’t move the bar!

  • Next, without moving the bar, or your hips, lean over and grab the bar. Your legs should still be straight at this point. Your grip width will be slightly outside of your legs, but not so they touch.For now, a simple double overhand grip will work.  We will discuss options in grip in more detail later!
  • Now that you’re holding onto the bar (and not moving it), move your hips down. While you do this, your shins will come forward until they touch the bar (stop moving your hips down when your shins touch the bar). Squeeze your chest up. As you do this, your back should flatten, and your back should go into a neutral spine position.

This is the final starting position of the deadlift.

We don’t want your back to round or hyper extend. If you’re just starting out, getting into a neutral spine might feel like you’ve gone too far (hyper extended), so don’t be afraid to ask a friend for help or to record yourself so you can see what you’re doing.
back_position

Keeping a neutral spine throughout the lift is vital, and thus it is important you set up right. Note that while your spine has a natural curve to it, that curve should not be over exaggerated.

In addition to your spine, use the muscles in your upper back to help lift your chest up (Think about what King Kong looks like when he’s ready to pound his chest).

At this point: your shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar, and your arms should be straight and perpendicular to the floor. This is where the fun part comes!

Depending on your specific body, the set up position may look different from the person standing next to you. This is normal! Think about it – since we want our arms to be straight, someone with super long arms will have a different look to their setup than someone with short arms.

The Deadlift

If your setup looks and feels good, you’re ready to lift. Make sure that before you pull there is no slack in the bar – your muscles should already be slightly engaged and your entire body tight.

deadlift_up

deadlift_fton2

Take a deep breath in, and while keeping your entire back and core tight and your chest up, drive through your heels and pull! A popular cue that helps many lifters execute the right form is to visualize the deadlift not as a pull, but rather a push. Imagine you are pushing the world away from the bar… rather than pulling the bar up.  Like you’re holding onto the bar and driving your feet down through the earth.

As you pull, remember:

  • All of your weight should be on your heels and mid foot.  You should be able to wiggle your toes the entire time (though that is not a part of deadlifting!).
  • During the movement, your entire body should move upwards at the same speed. This means that your butt should not rise faster than your chest, or vice versa. You may have heard of the term “stripper deadlift” – this is when your butt rises first before your chest.
  • Think about leading with your chest as you drive through your heels, and make sure you keep it up and tight.
  • Your arms should stay straight the entire time. They are literally just there to hold onto the bar – they are not bending or pulling at all.
  • The bar should stay in contact with your body the entire time – you will literally be dragging it up your thighs.  This is why you see many powerlifters with chalk or baby powder covering their legs (and why they typically wear socks that cover their shins, to prevent cuts and scrapes).  Do not let it come forward. If you were to draw a line that follows the bar’s path from the floor to lockout, it should be a straight, vertical line.
  • As you are pulling, you should be squeezing your glutes.  Once the bar passes your knees, think of getting your hips under the bar by squeezing your glutes.  So while you’re pulling with your arms, you’re pushing through the floor with your feet, pushing your butt under the bar.
  • At the top of the movement,you should be standing tall and proud with your chest open, like if you were King Kong getting ready to pound his chest.
  • At the top, do not hyper extend and lean back.  You want to keep your spine neutral and everything tight.

Now, at this point, the first thing I want you to do is do NOT lose tightness in your body.  We are going to practice putting the bar down (not dropping it).

Setting the Bar Down

deadlift_down

Your body should descend all at the same time, just as it ascended, only backwards.

Unlock your hips and knees and slowly lower the bar to set it down (make sure you unlock them at the same time. Unlocking your knees first will cause a lot of awkward movement, and possibly your lower back to round).

Don’t lose tightness until you let go of the bar.  This is extremely important – a large amount of deadlift injuries come from people getting super excited about making a lift, losing tightness, and then putting the bar down wrong. You want this to be a quick movement – lowering the deadlift slow will take a lot out of you and leave you sore for days.

Notes on dropping the deadlift:

The eccentric part of the deadlift (lowering it) is actually riskier than the concentric (picking it up) part of the deadlift, and it is the part of the deadlift that will give you the most DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).  Because of this, many coaches will advocate dropping your deadlift (especially with advanced athletes where they can’t afford to sacrifice performance later in the week).

I would recommend putting the bar down (especially if you want to powerlift – the lift does not count if you drop it). So, practice on putting the bar down properly. It’s just as (if not more) important as practicing picking it up.

How to Grip The Bar, Straps, and other Equipment

hook

Grip strength is a huge part in the deadlift, because if you can’t hold on to the bar, you can’t lift it!

There are two main grips that you see with the deadlift.  The first is the double overhand grip.  With this grip, your palms are both facing towards your body.

grips

The second is an “over-under” or “mixed” grip, where one hand is flipped (one of your palms is facing away from you).

The double overhand grip is the safest grip, and the best grip for beginners.

The mixed grip offers quite a few disadvantages – it places uneven stress on your shoulders, can aggravate problems in the biceps on the side in which your palm is facing outwards, and its easier for your lift to be uneven as you’re literally gripping it uneven.

So why do it?  Well – you can physically lift more using this grip.  At first, you won’t notice a difference because your grip strength is most likely stronger than your back.

However, as your back gets stronger, your back strength will eventually outmatch your grip. This is when you would consider adding in a mixed grip, but be sure to use the double-overhand throughout your workout until you get to the point where you need to switch. Consider doing grip strength work as well.

Finally, there is the hook grip – Hook grip is a grip where you put your thumbs under your fingers.

What about gloves and straps? Straps can help you lift more than your hands can hold, but could cause your grip to be undeveloped later down the road. Personally, I only use straps if I’ve got a ripped callus or if my hands are just exhausted from a long day of training.

Consider using straps strategically, but not regularly.

While many people wear gloves to get a better grip on the bar, gloves actually create space between you’re the hand and the bar, and it reduces your grip security, increases the diameter of the bar, and makes the bar harder to hold on to. I don’t recommend using them unless you have an injury like a ripped callus.

Speaking of ripped calluses – make sure to take care of your hands and they are less likely to happen!

“Do I need to use a belt?” When starting out, don’t worry about a belt. However, as you get into heavy weight, it may be something to look into. Belts need to be worn correctly in order to be effective.

Note: While you may be able to lift more using a mixed grip and a belt, they’re definitely not necessary to lift heavy.  Here’s a video of Anthony Mychal deadlifting 550 lbs at the powerlifting competition at Camp Nerd Fitness – double overhand with no belt.

Common Faults

deadlift_faults2

Rounded Back – not keeping your spine in neutral the entire time. Letting your lower back round at all is a huge no no. (Note: there are some powerlifters that purposefully round their upper back to decrease range of motion, but this is a sport specific move, still a fault, and something you should not consider as a beginner.)

Looking up (with your neck) – Along with keeping a neutral spine, hyper extending your neck to look up is also something we want to stay away from.

Hyperextending at the top – It became popular to over exaggerate the top of the deadlift in fitness competitions, where you needed to quickly show a judge that you achieved lockout. This hyper extending at the top is actually not something we actually strive for – the spine should still be in neutral even at the top.

deadlift_faults1
Treating the deadlift like a squat with the bar in your hands. You are not starting in a squat position and standing up – it is a different movement.

Letting the bar come forward – The bar needs to stay over your midline and be dragged up your body the entire lift – any movement forward of your midline should be avoided.

Butt rises faster than your chest (also known as the “stripper deadlift”) – your chest should lead the movement, and your entire body should move upward at the same pace.

Bending your arms – your arms should stay straight. Don’t bend your elbows to try to get the bar up faster.

Frequently Asked Questions

Athena Deadlift

What do I do if I can’t get into the proper starting position?

While you are getting the mobility to get into the correct starting position, you can put the bar on blocks to raise it up a few inches to help you get in the right position.  Each workout, start with the bar a little lower, until it is just on the floor.

What weight do I start with?

Just the bar 🙂 Then progress as described here.

What is the difference between doing multiple reps from dead stop and touch and go reps?

Touch and go reps are easier – for a few reasons. First, we get a stretch reflex (think about the “bounce” you get at the bottom of the squat). Second, when you lower the bar it is already in motion, so it’s simply easier to lift something that is already moving than it is to lift something that is completely stopped. If you are at a gym that has rubber bumper plates, these plates actually will bounce a little when they hit the floor – helping you lift the weight.

However, while touch and go are easier, they are also more dangerous. It’s easier to mess up your form if you aren’t resetting every rep, and easier to get fatigued.  It is in the eccentric (lowering) part of touch and go deadlifts that most people get hurt. Resetting every rep is preferred for general strength programs.  This allows you to reset, get your form right, and get your breathing right on every rep.

“Okay, I get it.  Deadlifts are great! I should do them ALL THE TIME, right?!?”

Woah, hold on there. I appreciate your enthusiasm, but there are some things we need to take into consideration when adding deadlifts into our program.

Heavy deadlifts are extremely taxing on the central nervous system.  This means your body needs more time to recover. In fact, it’s so taxing that some coaches recommend taking the deadlift out completely for their more advanced, sport specific athletes.

Most good strength programs only deadlift once a week – and it’s lighter volume than with your squats. Both starting strength and stronglifts only include ONE set of 5 deadlifts. Meanwhile, they program 5 sets of 5 for squats.

Get Out There and Pull

deadlift

The deadlift is a taxing psychological exercise. Unlike in other lifts, keeping mental focus and staying in the right frame of mind is especially important.

Think about it – when you’re at the bottom of a squat or underneath a bar in the bench – you need to finish the lift so you literally won’t be crushed. Finish the lift or fail and be pinned.

With the deadlift, the weight doesn’t work in your favor – it works against you. As the deadlift gets heavy, you know how easy it is to just not pick up the weight. You have to want it. You have to know you can get it.

As Mark Rippetoe said:“The deadlift also serves as a way to train the mind to do things that are hard.”

Or, as  Henry Rollins emoted:

The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs.

Friends may come and go.

But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds

What do you think? Do you jump for joy or cringe when it’s deadlift day?

Big or small, what questions do you have on the deadlift?

-Staci

PS: If you want workout plans involving the deadlift to follow along with, along with a character/quest leveling system, check out the Nerd Fitness Academy – we make sure you don’t overdo it on the deadlifts, as we think LONG term success (for years), not in monthly bursts.

PPS: Check out our other free articles in the Strength 101 Series:

###

photo source: AKLuLu: Rapton and Emcee at 4T NF Meet, Bigm141414: thisisseth deadlift

Share this post with your friends:Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone

Get The Rebel Starter Kit

Enter your email and we’ll send it right over.

  • The 15 mistakes you don’t want to make.
  • The most effective diet and why it works.
  • Complete your first workout today, no gym required.
  • These are the tools you need to start your quest.
  • Guest

    hola

  • Pingback: Strength Training 101: Equipment | Nerd Fitness()

  • https://www.gripped.com.au/ David

    Deadlifting is essential is overall muscle mass, and core strength and
    stability, is
    desired. deadlifts work all the major muscle groups and provide one of
    the best workouts possible. Include them in your program today for fresh
    gains in muscle size.

  • Molly

    Holy details!! Great description and explanation and pics!
    As someone who works in the physical therapy field, I am ALL about “the neutral spine”. I emphasis it to all my patients/clients and so many don’t know how to find it. I love teaching it 🙂
    I love deadlifts because they leave me sore for at least 2 days, which I weirdly love.
    Question: how often do you do them??

  • Heber

    Hey Staci, thanks for the tips and advice in this article, I have really learned a lot. I am somewhat new to the world of lifting and have a few questions. First, how can Dead lifting damage the CNS if done correctly? I understand that it probably only happens at heavier weights, but would still love to know more. Secondly, I am trying to design a workout plan currently and was thinking I would do 5×5- squats, dead lifts, and calf raises every other work out as a leg day (switching between 1 or 2 times a week). Do you think this is to much to do squats and dead lifts in the same day? Do you think this is a comprehensive leg workout or would you add something else? Thanks for the advice!

  • Pingback: What do you bench? Strength Training 101: The Bench Press | Nerd Fitness()

  • Pingback: Getting Started With Nerd Fitness: Ready Player One. | Nerd Fitness()

  • Dan DePuy

    On Deadlift day I look at the bar for about five minutes to get “psyched up” lol. I bang out a one plate warmup set, and I’m usually pretty tired by that time. Then I look at the weight on the bar and thing “Am I really going to lift this five times?” And then I do. And every time I deadlift I feel like an absolute BOSS.

  • Alyssa

    Awesome! Thank you so much! Another question: When you have your 1 day of DL per week how many reps do you do? And when you were starting out doing DL’s 2-3 times per week, how many reps did you do? Thank you!!!

  • Joseph Jerrison

    Agree 100% that the deadlift is a must have in any routine. The versatility is just off the charts: http://snipr.com/29qi9nk

  • Ashlee

    Well technically the mass (200 pounds) would be the same on Mars, but the weight/force would be different. So yes, it would be lighter on Mars (equivalent to 75 pounds on Earth) due the lower acceleration due to gravity, but the mass is actually the same. Haha I love the nerdy fitness talk!

    As someone who is very new to deadlifts, I found this article to be very helpful!! Thank you Staci! I’m looking forward to reading more NerdFitness articles.

  • Rob

    BE CAREFUL! I was deadlifting just great until I read some articles like this and thought I must be ‘hyperextending’ my back (even though I had had no problems, it felt that way). I attempted to re-create the ‘neutral’ back like shown in the image here – only for my form to break under the weight and injure my middle back.

    Thankfully it’s recovering fine but I have been out of the gym for nearly a week. I guess if you are fairly new it just feels like you’re hyperextending when really you’re probably not. I have learnt a new respect for my back and the care you must take! I think it’s a good idea to listen to your body when finding your correct technique rather than trying to copy someones else’s, which may not always transfer directly to your body. I may have got away with it this time – but please LOOK AFTER YOUR BACK.

  • Pingback: What’s Your Avengers Superpower? | Nerd Fitness()

  • Pingback: The Avengers Workout Challenge | Nerd Fitness()

  • Pingback: How to Make Pan Seared Salmon and Pineapple Salsa | Nerd Fitness()

  • Pingback: Too Lazy To Work Out? Try Temptation Bundling | Nerd Fitness()

  • Pingback: In Case of Emergency, Follow This Workout Strategy | Nerd Fitness()

  • mister jr

    I deadlift twice a week 6 sets of 4 with lighter weight do you think that’s ok or should I do less? i’m deadlifting 95lbs and thinking of doing 100lbs next week and my max is around 210-240 ill test it after a month and see what I get

  • Ki-Ki the Good Guy

    Am I a freak? I see men posting that they DL 200 or so…I’m a 57 year old overweight woman, and my PR is 257. Hoping to hit 300 by August. Love love love deadlift day!

  • turanjr

    Great share, thank you

    Best paleo recipe

  • sweetonnh

    This article is excellent! I’ve been having pain in my low back recently after doing Romanian deadlifts..after reading this wonder If I’m hyperextending ?

  • Raveen

    Thank you. Really good article and the confidence boost i needed to start dead lifting. Running out of the door to the gym now!

  • Maurice Vento

    Deadlifts are great! I have been learning them for over week and still have issues getting that form down. Right now, I am doing a program similar to this scheme: http://snipr.com/2a8md3t
    Been making some significant strength increases, but have a way to go until I can pull my own bodyweight.

  • Stelios Tsavalias

    Congrats, great article! 🙂

  • kdizz

    Should I lose weight before trying deadlifts? I’m really excited to try but I afraid of not “being ready” for them. I’m just starting the beginner bodyweight workout and it’s already a good workout for me; perhaps I should lower my body fat % before trying to incorporate deadlifts. Any thoughts?

  • Berts

    Your post is super helpful! but i seem to be having a specific problem. I have noticed that while doing a deadlift, i have started leading with my right hip and my form is uneven. I have attempted single leg deadlifts but the problem is not improving. Can anyone offer advice on what is happening and how I can improve it?

  • Sammi

    Have you been able to compile your work out??! You’ve made amazing progress and I would be really interested in giving it a try! I’ve been struggling over the last two years finding a workout that really works for me and I’m beginning to get discouraged! Thank you for your help!

  • Amy Keyser

    Loved this article and all the information. I just started weight training about 3 weeks ago and I already love the deadlift. I was surprised by how powerful it made me feel the first time, even when putting up just the bar. I’m still ironing out form so this was very insightful and really helped build my confidence! I can’t wait to build my strength and keep adding more weight to the bar. Surprised, by the recommendation to only complete the lift once a week, but it’ll give me something to look forward to each week!

  • Pingback: I worked out and now I’m SO SORE. Help? | Nerd Fitness()

  • Pingback: What Essential Items Do You Need To Bring To The Gym? | Nerd Fitness()

  • Pingback: Strength Training 101: The Overhead Press | Nerd Fitness()

  • http://VR6.site Josh Mustillo

    Great read. I was lucky to have an educated mate helpig me out during my first deadlift session but I’ve read a few pointers for next time.

  • mehdi1991

    what about deadlift straps? how much do they improve your power lifting? I found some great ones from this new website I came across, kronofitness.com. The product is great but I am not sure how effective the straps are.

  • Dan

    Just one comment on the setup description, generally the arms do not hang straight down from the shoulders, but in fact the hands will be positioned under the shoulder blades and there will be a slight angle to the shoulders. This is because 1) the pretension you mention, and 2) the arms in the deadlift actually hang from the spine, not the shoulders and the center of that muscle mass is about even with the shoulder blades. You’ll naturally get this position from any starting position, but best to be there to start.