The Deadlift is the greatest lift there is. There's nothing more primal than picking up a big ole weight. With my background in Powerlifting, I have quite the bias opinion. I do believe that it should be a staple in most people's workouts (for good reason, not JUST Powerlifting). But, people will often hold back on the deadlift and question things like spine safety. Follow these guidelines to stay as safe as you can and utilise what I think is one of the best exercises out there.
What is the Deadlift?
This is where you pick a barbell up off of the floor using Olympic sized weight plates. The movement pattern is a hip hinge, that is what you have to do to bend down to pick the weight up. It works the posterior chain, (the muscles that run up the back of the body) in particular the legs and back will be working to bring the weight up. It is also a test of grip strength and whole body strength.
Conventional Vs Sumo Vs Hybrid
There are two main variants of the deadlift, and a hybrid version. So first, let's break down which is which.
Conventional is the most common variant you will have seen. In a narrow stance the lifter will bend slightly at the knees and hinge at the hips to bring the chest down. This variation emphasises the use of the lower back muscles, the glutes and the hamstrings to lift. It is typically easier to lift the weight off the floor to begin with, but gets really tough once the bar is past the knees.
Sumo is named this due to the super wide stance the lifter will adopt. The lifter will look to keep their torso as vertical as possible and push knees right as far as possible, along with their feet turned out. This variation will emphasise the quads and glutes, and reduce the amount the back gets used.
Hybrid is a mixture of the two. Not quite wide enough to be considered sumo, nor narrow enough to be considered conventional.
Basic guide to perform the conventional deadlift
1. Get into a narrow stance (hip width, or narrower), toes can go forward or be turned out slightly
2. Make sure the bar is touching your shins
3. Come down to the bar and grab it outside of your shins with a bit of space between your thumb and your leg
4. Bring your hips down and your chest up and get your back into neutral
5. Squeeze your shoulder blades back and down
6. Brace into the floor and lift the bar keeping it on your shins all the way up
7. Watch out for your knees
8. Shoot your hips in once you're past your knees
9. Drag the bar up your thighs
10. Stand tall, with your shoulders over your hips
11. No need to lean back when stood
12. The back may go into some levels of flexion, especially if you go extremely heavy (e.g. 1RM). As much as you can, try to promote a neutral position throughout.
Check out this short video here for further details.
Basic guide to perform the sumo deadlift
1. Get into a wide stance (as wide as is comfortable, try to make sure you can push your knees out over your ankles)
2. Turn your feet out to get your knees out the way
3. Make sure the bar is touching your shins
4. Come down to the bar and grab it, making sure a part of your hand or all of your hand is on the knurling (the rough stuff on the bar)
5. Try to lower your hips down as if you are sitting down, bring your chest up as high as you can, keep your back in neutral
6. Squeeze your shoulder blades back and down
7. Brace into the floor and lift the bar keeping it on your shins all the way up
8. Press your knees out
9. Shoot your hips in once you're past your knees
10. Drag the bar up your thighs
11. Stand tall, with your shoulders over your hips
12. No need to lean back when stood
13. The back should be able to stay neutral throughout this variation
Check out this video for more instruction.
Basic guide to perform the hybrid deadlift
The hybrid will be performed by standing in not too wide of a deadlift stance, but wider than conventional. You will come down to the bar with a torso angle somewhere between the sumo vertical torso and the forward leaning of the conventional torso. Take some of the points of each and see how you go with it, most importantly being able to keep your back mostly neutral throughout.
Which is the best for me?
Good question! It depends on how you are built. The relationship between your length of tib-fib, femur, torso and arms will all play into which feels most comfortable and which you are at your most optimal. Optimal may not necessarily play into most comfortable and vice versa, so that needs to be taken into account too. Your mobility may not allow you to get into the most optimal position, which means we need to work around that, or look to improve your mobility. This may be due to structures which can change such as tendons, muscles, ligaments. A lack of mobility will also be due to unchangeable structures like bones. For example, a shallow hip socket will lend itself to being more mobile than a deep hip socket, you can't change that.
This is where you have to do a little bit of research, but most importantly, try out a few things. A change of width of stance, a change from conventional to hybrid to sumo and see where your mobility and anatomy allows you to get down to the bar most comfortably. If all of them feel fine to get down to the bar to, then see which is easiest to pull the weight off the floor with without compromising your form too much as you get into heavy reps.
You know the best way to find out? Go try out each of those variations and see. Bear in mind that your deadlift will always be evolving. You'll find little tweaks feel more comfortable or easier and adopt those instead of where you began. Refrain from changing it too often or you'll never get strong in any of the positions.
Don't get too caught up in this yet if you are still new to the deadlift. Learn to deadlift first with an over-over grip (double overhand). Once comfortable, once you've got your stance that you're happy with, then sink your teeth into this bit.
The over-over grip is what you'll instinctively come down to the bar with when you first pick it up. It's also the weakest grip. However, it is also what will develop your grip best.
The over-under grip is your next best grip. One hand is turned over and the other is turned under. Normally it is suggested your dominant hand is turned over. However, go with what feels best.
The hook grip is the best grip. It's also the most freakin' painful. This is not for the feint hearted. It is a double overhand grip where the thumb goes on the inside of the grip, the fingers wrap over the bar and the thumb. The weight of the bar will sit on the thumb, it will hurt. Your thumb will eventually desensitise to this. Often lifters will wrap their thumbs in kinesthetic tape. I am not experienced in this type of grip as I just like my thumbs too much. This grip shouldn't be abused and should be used sparingly.
Use an over-over grip until your grip strength diminishes, then move on to your over-under or hook grip to carry on your deadlift session. If you need a little helping hand (pun intended) then get some chalk on your palms.
Cheeky Bonus Tips
There are a few tricks that you can adopt to help you deadlift more. If you're still new to the deadlift, ignore this part and concentrate on everything else first. If you are feeling like you're a bit more versed in your deadlift techniques, then read on.
This is a difficult one to get right. Take a huge breath in and fill out all around your spine. The idea behind this is to create intra-abdominal pressure to brace against your musculature and keep the integrity of your spine. This will help you lift. Bracing is a complicated and deserves it's own post. Try this video if you want to learn much more about bracing.
It is up to you when you do this. You can do it before you come down to the bar or once you've gotten a hold on the bar.
Don't spend too long too low
The stretch-reflex is when a muscle is lengthened, the body wants to retract it back into a shortened muscle where it is in a safer position. We want to take advantage of the stretch-reflex. If you spend too long in the position you want to lift from, you will reduce the stretch-reflex. Supposedly the stretch-reflex will start to diminish at about the 4 second mark.
There are numerous ways you can approach this, try one of these:
Method 1. Dip, grip and rip - This is where you drop down into your deadlift and lift as soon as you grab the bar. This is for more advanced lifters who can keep their form throughout and not pull themselves out of position by utilising this technique.
Method 2. Drop down to the bar and grip. From there, ready yourself, find your position, and then straighten your legs up right before you look to drop your hips to lift the bar. You take a few extra split seconds to get into position.
Method 3. Repeat point 2 a few times if you wish, before you eventually lift the bar.
Spend a long time lifting light
Stop ego lifting. Do not lift heavy. Spend a LONG time lifting light. Pattern your movement correctly and perfect it before you look to lift heavy. From there, slowly progress the weight.
Don't use a mirror
Use one to begin with if you need to. Progress to the point where you don't need a mirror and you can feel for your correct position.
Lifting barefoot will increase your proprioception with the floor. The floor is what is allowing you to pick the weight up. Anything between you and the floor will get in the way of you lifting. If your gym doesn't allow barefoot then wear flat shoes that have a very thin sole. Chuck Taylor Converse shoes are a classic deadlifting shoe, but you could also consider barefoot shoes, boxing shoes and there are actual deadlift shoes as well as slippers out there too!
Develop a routine
Stepping up to the bar is as much of the lift as the lift itself. Find a routine that will make your deadlift the same everytime. You don't have to get fancy with this. Check out Owen Hubbard's routine, it's freakin' brilliant. Also, this video is hilarious and on spot on (I'm definitely the bug squisher set up)!
Thanks for reading!