Mastering the Basic Fitness Moves - Part Four - Deadlifts

First let me say if you are healthy and not doing deadlifts, maybe you should learn how to gym better. With that said, doing deadlifts, and doing them right are two different animals. I have been a trainer for a long time and it is few and far between when I see someone doing a deadlift properly. Often times I see teenage boys, and sometimes grown men who should know better, loading a bar way too heavy and proceed to round their back as they struggle to pick up more weight than they should be trying. I always cringe and just wait for the moment when I see someone blow a lumbar disk out.

THE BACKGROUND

Deadlifts are without a doubt one of the best total body lifts you can do. Major muscles worked include: the latissimus dorsi, the trapezius, the gluteals, and the quads. Other secondary and tertiary muscles include the hamstrings, abdominals, and forearm flexors.

In addition to being a full body exercise, deadlifts are also a functional exercise. Think about how many times in your life you perform a deadlift type movement. If you have ever moved a piece of furniture, picked up a grocery bag from the floor, or something I have grown very accustom to as a dad, picking up a child that wants to be held, you have performed a dealift. Many clients I train, especially those worried about injuring their back, are often wary of doing deadlifts. The excuse is always the same; “I don’t want to hurt my back”. It takes a lot of convincing for them that not only will deadlifts not hurt you if done properly, they will strengthen you and reduce the risk of an injury. Everything from shoveling your driveway, to raking leaves, and other household tasks will be greatly improved after you develop the type of strength that doing deadlifts can provide.

There are multiple variations of the deadlift that can be performed, however for the purpose of this article we will focus on a conventional deadlift. As the name implies a deadlift involves lifting “dead weight” off the floor. While to movement of the dealift is simple, it takes time to master. Everything from the setup to the lift and the return to the ground has to be correct in order to make them effective and keep the risk of injury minimal.

THE SET UP

When doing a deadlift you will be using a straight bar. If you are new to deadlifts start with a light weight, somewhere in the 70-95 pound range. It is important to note that if you are using small plates such as fives or tens and your gym does not have training plates (specially designed lighter plates that have the same height as 45 lb plates) you will need to place the bar on boxes, other plates, or if possible in a lifting rack so that the height of the bar is the same as if you had 45lb plates on each side.

Your feet should be hip width or slightly wider with the toes slightly turned outwards. Your feet should be placed under the bar so that when you look down, the bar is sitting over your mid foot.

Bar sitting over mid-foot

Once your feet are set you will grab the bar with a wider-than-shoulder width grip. The hands should be placed outside the width of your legs, but not so that your arms touch your legs. When beginning a dealift you should be utilizing an overhand grip, though there are other variations you can use.

Overhand Grip

Once you have a grip on the bar, drop your butt down. As you do this your shins will move forward. Stop as soon as they make contact with the bar. Your back should be in a flat position, be careful to make sure that you are not rounded over overly extended. The arms should be straight. Once you are in this position, you are ready to lift. It is important to note that depending on the specific morphology of your body, deadlift form may vary slightly. For instance someone who has shorter arms will be lower to the ground vs. someone with longer arms.

The Set Up

THE LIFT

Prior to deadlifting you want to make sure that your body is tense and ready to pull. If there is any slack in your body you will end up with a jerky movement and greatly increase the risk of injury.

Before the lift, take a deep breath. While maintaining your back and core tight and your chest up, drive through your heels and pull the weight upwards. It is vital to make sure you do not allow your weight to get into the front part of your feet; it should be in your heels. As you lift, make sure that the chest and butt rise at the same speed. Do not allow one to rise up faster than the other. Most often I see people doing “stripper deadlifts” which is a common form mistake when the butt rises before the chest/back. Do not allow the arms to bend during the lift; they should maintain a straight position the entire time.

Mid Lift and Finish

Another area where people err is by having the bar away from their body during the lift. The bar should stay in contact with your body the entire time. You are essentially dragging it up the front of the legs. If done correctly, someone observing from the side should see the bar make a straight line from the floor to the top of the lift. At the top of the movement do not lean back. This places a large amount of stress on the lumbar vertebrae. You should be upright with the chest out and core tight. Once at the top, stay tight, do not allow the body to go loose for even a second.

THE RETURN

The return portion of the deadlift is an eccentric movement and it is also has the highest risk of injury. In essence the lowering of the bar to the floor is really just all the movements you made to lift the bar in reverse. Just as you raise the body in one unit, you should lower the bar as one unit, not allowing one section to lower faster than the other. Again, throughout the lowering maintain tightness through the body. If you are using bumper plates and an appropriate lifting platform, you may drop the weight, but doing this can also cause injury if done incorrectly. Make sure to let the bar go evenly to prevent an uneven bounce, and make sure your surroundings are clear.

With deadlifts I always stress form over weight. Do not increase your weight as the expense of your form, or your risk of injury will increase. When you do increase your weight, do so in5-10 pound increments, mastering the new weight before another increase.

When to do deadlifts, how often, and what set/rep ranges to utilize vary greatly by the person and their goals. Some people choose to deadlifts on back day, others on leg day, and some will do them by themselves or on days when they perform other Olympic lifts. For beginners I would start with 3 sets of 5 reps. You can vary this over time. I do not recommend doing high volume number of reps for deadlifts (e.g. 10-15) due to the fact that they are a compound movement, fatigue will set in and can put your form in danger and increase the risk of injury.

I hope this article helps to provide you with some idea of how to begin addind deadlifts into your routine. They are a great power, strength, and size building lift and are functional and applicable to everyday life. In future posts I will explore variations on the deadlift, but for the purpose of this article there was just too much to cover and not enough time. Stay tuned for part 5 of Mastering the Basics: Bench Presses. My personal favorite. Until next time. – Aaron

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