The deadlift is one of the greatest strength exercises of all time. Although primarily targeting the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and lower back, this compound exercise recruits muscle from nearly the entire body.
All of my explanations during this guide will refer to the use of a standard barbell and plates. Because the deadlift is essentially just lifting weight and putting it back down, these actions can be mimicked with dumbbells or other forms of resistance, although, the barbell should be the resistance of choice when possible.
If you have a setup that uses olympic weight plates and an olympic barbell, then your bar at starting point should be approximately 9 inches off the ground. A few inches higher or lower than that should not be a problem, although be aware of the ramifications due to the height differences. Lifting weight higher than a 9" starting position could activate less muscle fiber due to less distance for the resistance to travel. However, lifting from a deficit, or having the resistance start closer to the ground may activate more muscle, form may be compromised due to a further distance the resistance has to travel.
Note: Not all weight plates are the same diameter. If you are fortunate enough to have plates that are the same diameter, then you will be able to begin practicing the deadlift with a lower weight yet have the bar start at the same distance from the floor every time. If, however, you are unable to start with 135 pounds for your deadlift (45 lb. bar + 2x 45 lb. plates) then you can use other plates to stack and create a desired height for the bar's starting position.
- Approach the bar and stand so that your mid foot is directly beneath the bar. When you are squatted, your shins will then come in contact with the bar.
- Your feet should be parallel to one another, approximately hip distance apart. Your feet should be slightly more narrow than shoulder width to allow room for your hands which will grab the bar outside of your knees.
- As you squat to grab the bar, your hands should be shoulder-width apart so that your arms are hanging straight down, or perpendicular to the floor.
- When squatted, shoulder blades should be directly over the bar.
- A flat back should be maintained throughout, maintaining a curve in the lower back. This can be achieved by sticking your butt behind you and driving your chest up.
- You should be squatted with these key points in mind:
- Bar over mid foot
- Shoulders over bar
- Bar touching shins
- Flat back, maintaining natural curvature
One of the key things to note during the movement of your deadlift is to keep your back flat (naturally curved) throughout the movement. Your goal is to lift the bar by extending at your knees first, followed by the hips. This is accomplished by maintaining a constant torso angle as your legs are extended first. Once the bar passes the height of the knees, your shoulders then begin to rise as your hips are driven forward by engaging your glutes.
One common mistake, especially when people try lifting more than they can, is for the hips to rise too soon and rise quicker than the shoulder, causing the lower back to bear most, if not all of the load. This can lead to injury.
Keep the bar centred over your mid foot throughout the movement as if the bar is "scraping" your shins on the way up. One of the primary goals of the lift is to extend the hips forward by flexing (squeezing) your glutes at the top of the lift.
Your chest should be up, which should come natural with the proper alignment of your spine. As you lift the bar, your head will move as your spine does. Once the bar reaches about knee high, think about driving your hips forward.
Do not, and I mean do NOT arch your back at the apex of the lift. Your goal during the deadlift is to lift the weight up and place (or drop) it back down. There really isn't anything to be accomplished by arching your back at the top of the lift besides herniating a disc in your back. If you wish to add a shrug or other trap work, I suggest doing that separately.
If you are deadlifting at a proper lifting station, you have the option of simply dropping the weight to the floor once you have completed the lift. However, if you are lifting on any other surface, reverse the actions of the lift by breaking at the hips first by pushing your butt back.
As long as your grip can muster the strength, I recommend gripping the bar with an overhand grip. This way, both arms are exercised in the same way. However, as you begin to lift more and more weight, you will notice that your grip strength may be holding you back from maxing out your lifts.
What happens is that the bar will "roll" out of your hands. The solution to this is a mixed grip, where one palm is facing forward and the other is facing backwards. This allows you to keep the bar in your hands by preventing it from rolling out of your grip. What happens is that the bar may begin to roll out of one hand, but will be kept in place by subsequently balanced out by the other hand facing the opposite direction.
A lot of people do a dumbbell deadlift by placing the dumbbells out in front of their feet or at a slight angle. This is fine and may work well, but I actually prefer placing the weights beside my feet (dumbbells parallel to each other) to better align the load over my mid foot, similar to a barbell deadlift. By placing the dumbbells out in front of your feet, you are putting extra strain on your lower back and can therefore increase the risk of injury in my opinion.
Chances are, you are going to be squatting a bit deeper with a dumbbell deadlift as well since the handles of the weights will be closer to the floor than when using a barbell. Either make the adjustments to drop your butt closer to the floor during your squat, or use a sturdy platform or riser for each dumbbell to better mimic the height of a barbell deadlift.
Other than that, make sure to use (for the most part) the same setup and technique used during a barbell deadlift.
I was actually going to do a quick video on all of the cues, tips, and advice to a proper deadlift, but I came across Alan Thrall's video and felt that there was no point trying to top what he has done, so enjoy!
Q&A, Miscellaneous Facts/Tips
Body mechanics and genetics actually play a pretty big part in strength training. What I mean by that is varying body types have advantages/disadvantages based on the lift being performed. For example, individuals with longer arms generally are at a disadvantage when it comes to the bench press due to the greater distance the bar must travel.
On the other hand, someone with longer arms may outperform someone with shorter arms on the deadlift because of the way their body aligns when doing this lift. By keeping the bar centred over mid foot, and under the shoulder blades (as described above), someone with longer arms has less depth that they have to squat down in order to grab the bar, and therefore get it off the floor.
Q: Should I deadlift in bare feet?
A: That is up to you. I prefer bare feet, or at least "minimalist" shoes because I feel like I have a better feel for the floor beneath me. If your shoes are too soft then you may actually have a bit too much instability to really plant yourself comfortably. Instability training may have some benefits to other forms of exercise, but lifting as much weight off of the floor as you possibly can at once is not a good time to practice that.
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