Practical Tips to Master the Deadlift

Practical Tips to Master the Deadlift

For the past decade, the Iron Game community has been trying to resurrect the deadlift. Just as they had to dispel the myth in the 70s and 80s about squats being bad for the knees, the challenge has been to convince the athletic and fitness communities that the deadlift is not only a valuable exercise but one that can be performed safely, even with maximal weights.

Before getting into the “how to” of the deadlift, let’s look at a bit of history. In the early days of the Iron Game, most athletes used a conventional style of deadlifting. The start position resembled that of the clean used in Olympic-style weightlifting, a style that favored those with short backs and long arms. Two athletes that fit this body type were Bob Peoples, who in 1949 became the first man to deadlift over 700 pounds; and Vince Anello, who in 1975 became the first man to deadlift 800 pounds. Incidentally, the current absolute deadlift record is 1015 pounds by Benedikt Magnusson.

Although having long arms is an advantage in the deadlift, it’s also a disadvantage in the bench press. Good deadlifters, however, could often make up lost ground in powerlifting competition from a poor bench press result. Now, with the development of special bench shirts and other supportive gear, enabling several individuals to bench over 1,000 pounds, the advantage of a strong deadlift is not as significant such that they often pay less attention to it in training.

In the strength coaching profession, the power clean has replaced the deadlift in most gyms as the primary pulling movement. Many strength coaches believe that performing a deadlift would simply be working the same muscle groups, and doing so in a less explosive manner. Those who include deadlifts at the college level often substitute the Romanian deadlift for its effectiveness in working the muscles of the posterior chain, such as the hamstrings. At the high school level, which often has strength and conditioning programs with minimal supervision or poor instruction, the deadlift is often avoided for fear of lower back injury with young athletes.

When addressing the issue of optimal deadlift technique, consider that there are basically two types of deadlifts: 1) those that emphasize the flexion of the spine, and 2) those that emphasize the flexion of the knees. The conventional deadlift belongs to the first category, and the sumo style deadlift belongs to the second.

With the conventional style, the hips are further behind the bar and the back is more horizontal than in a sumo style. This posture increases the stress on the muscles of the spine but decreases the involvement of the quads. If you have a relatively short back and long legs, you will probably be able to lift more weight with this style. Those with less mobility in the ankle or upper back often find the sumo style more comfortable.

With the conventional style, you try to push your feet through the platform to create high levels of vertical force. With the sumo style you also try to produce vertical forces, but with the wider stance you also create lateral forces to help lift the weight. This means the muscles that adduct (pull in) the thighs are more involved than with a conventional deadlift.

With that background, let’s look at some general technique tips for the deadlifts:

Grip. Because your knees are not in the way with a sumo style, you can take a narrower grip on the bar so that the arms are more vertical, thus improving your leverage. When you grasp the bar, do not place the bar high on your hands as this can rip calluses when the bar pulls down on your hands. Grasp the bar hard, but do not bend the arms.

Foot Width. Your feet should be about hip-width apart in the conventional deadlift as you are trying to apply as much vertical force as possible with the legs; with the sumo style, the feet are positioned shoulder-width or wider. Consider that these are general guidelines and you need to experiment to determine where you are strongest. If you look at photos of Anello, you’ll see that he often deadlifted with his heels almost touching. In contrast, many heavyweight powerlifters or those with large legs, are more comfortable with a wider stance.

Foot Angle. For maximum power off the floor, turning the toes slightly out is usually best. However, often those who have a problem locking out a deadlift may find that pointing the feet directly ahead more effective. Again, this is something that you have to experiment with.

Back Position. At the start, your spine should be in a neutral position, your shoulders should be depressed such that the distance between the scapulae and hips is reduced, and your bodyweight should be on your mid-foot.

Breathing. Holding your breath and bracing your abs, a method known as the Valsalva maneuver, increases intra-abdominal pressure, which helps to stabilize the spine. You should hold your breath in this manner before you start the lift, and release it pass the sticking point, which for most individuals is about knee level. However, those with cardiovascular issues should consult with their healthcare professional to determine if the Valsalva maneuver is contraindicated for their condition.

Lift off. Rather than thinking of the initial lift off the floor as a pull with the back, think of it as a push with the legs. What you don’t want to do is make your back more horizontal, thereby increasing the stress on the muscles of the spine, or round your lower back, which places high levels of stress on the disks. Thinking about lifting your chest high may help ensure correct positioning. With the sumo style, the most difficult part of the lift will be the initial pull off the floor, and it helps to think about spreading the floor apart to increase the amount of lateral force your can produce.

Lockout. When the bar passes the knees the hips should start moving forward, which will help you drag the bar up your thighs; with the sumo style, the hips will move forward less as the knees are positioned more out to the side. At no point should the arms bend because this increases the distance the bar has to move.

Lowering. To lower the bar, shift your hips back slightly and bend your knees until the bar reaches the floor. Don’t just let go of the bar as you get a training effect from lowering it correctly. Also, don’t look down as this can encourage you to round your back.

The deadlift may have been a forgotten exercise in many fitness circles, but in recent years more fitness-minded people are seeing the value in heavy lifting and are rediscovering this valuable lift. Follow the tips in this article, get some personal instruction from experienced coaches who can help you find the techniques that work best for you, and challenge yourself with deadlifts.


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