There is no lift bigger than the mighty deadlift. The ultimate test of whole body strength, and almost certainly the largest weight you lift in the gym, hits more muscle fibers than any other exercise.
Put simply, the deadlift HAS to play a large part in your training regime. The only people who get a pass are those with lower back problems, and even then the deadlift should be playing an important part in most of their rehabilitation programs.
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As mighty as the deadlift is, it is also just about the simplest of movements to execute (when done correctly). The dynamics of the movement and low center of gravity combine for stability. You just need to use proper technique to avoid serious injury and effectively hit the target muscles. These target muscles are predominantly those of the lower back, but the deadlift stimulates and adds thickness to everything from your calves to your neck. It really is the ultimate lift.
Another reason for regular, heavy deadlifting is the huge anabolic effect it has on the body. Hoisting that bar up from the ground places so much stress and strain on the musculature and skeleton that it kicks off a chain of events in the bloodstream, culminating in a surge in muscle building hormones, especially testosterone, and human growth hormone. This leads to an increase in growth and repair lasting for days after each session. Squats are another exercise affecting the body similarly, so spreading these lifts out over the week leads to a consistent rise in anabolic activity.
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It is important you get your deadlifting technique right to avoid serious lower back injuries. Record yourself from the side, as well as the front, to effectively scrutinize your form.
Even better, seek proper training and advice from a qualified strength coach. Start with light weights until you have corrected imperfections in form. The deadlift is not an exercise to take lightly (no pun intended). You could cheat and get away with poor form performing bicep curls, but the consequences of sloppy deadlifting are far too great.So, here’s a basic run-through of standard deadlifting technique, before we look at a few aspects in more detail:
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Begin with the bar on the floor in front of you. Standing with your feet approximately hip-width apart, and your toes pointing outwards slightly. This stance suits most people. However, this is not absolutely set in stone. Use the stance that feels right for you, but don’t let your feet drift too wide.
Take hold of the bar with your hands just outside of your legs. Keep your arms straight, think of them as hooks. You can use a double overhand, or an alternate grip (pictured).
Now bend your knees, drop your hips back, flatten your back, and lift your chest. Don’t arch your back, just flatten it. Look up slightly, but don’t pull your head right back.
Pull the bar back into your shins. You should be in the start position pictured above, with your back flat and your shoulders over the bar.
Now pull that bar upwards by straightening your hips and knees. The bar should rise in a straight line, right up your shins.
Straighten up at the top, pull your shoulders back, and thrust your hips through, but don’t hyperextend your lower back too far, or lean backward.
Now lower the bar in a straight line back to the start position.
Here’s a great video, demonstrating some fine deadlifting form:
Sounds simple, right?
However, one of the main issues with deadlifting form arises from a lack of flexibility in the lower back and hamstrings. Some people simply can’t get into the start position safely due to these tight muscles. If this is your case, elevate the bar from the ground slightly using blocks or discs. Establish a good stretching routine to improve flexibility in the lower back and hamstrings. Yoga is an excellent tool for achieving improved flexibility.
If you have a weak grip, use lifting straps to aid you. However, you should concentrate on improving your grip until you no longer need any support.Now let’s look at a few important points in greater detail:
Lower Back. As previously mentioned, do not arch your lower back, just flatten it. Arching is actually a weak position leading to nasty injuries. A flat and neutral back is the strongest position. Use a weightlifting belt if possible. You need to experiment with a few different styles, as some people find some types of belts restrictive on the stomach area during deadlifting, and can cause discomfort.
Feet and Legs.Choose a stance that suits your anatomy. Hip-width with toes slightly outwards works for most people, but the important thing is your knees stay over your feet and do not bow inwards. Use knee wraps if you have any worries over knee safety.
Many people find an alternate grip helps keep the bar close to the body, and aids in overall grip strength, due to the opposing forces. It is important to keep your shoulders level, and your back flat. Grip the bar as narrow as possible, just outside your knees, to avoid shoulder problems. When actually gripping the bar, avoid taking the bar too high in your hands. Grip the bar lower down, near your fingers, to avoid skin tearing and excessive callus development.
The Lift.Always take the slight slack out of the bar before beginning your pull. This avoids any jerking. Keep the bar close, pull through a straight, vertical line, driving the floor away with your heels.
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Half-pull deadlifts, or essentially upper-partial lifts, taken from the stoppers in the power rack, are excellent for building grip strength and power through the top portion of the movement. They should certainly not replace full deadlifts, but are great for lifting massive weights. Proper form is ESSENTIAL! Hoist the weight up, hold for a second or two, and replace onto the stoppers.
Use chains to replicate this increased resistance at the top of the lift. Attach them to either end of the bar. As you pass the halfway point, the bulk of the chains lifts from the ground, adding as much weight as you want.
One bodybuilder who was a huge advocate of upper-partial deadlifts, and the man who built probably the most impressive back ever, is Dorian Yates. Yates rarely performed full deadlifts, as he maintained they were a sure way to cause lower back problems, and that the lower portion of the lift is mainly hamstrings. He may have a point there. If you are deadlifting purely for lower back development, rather than strength and power, upper-partials do keep the strain on the target muscles. Simply lower just past the knees, then straighten up, using the lower back muscles.
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Those who struggle with form, or are worried about aggravating an old back injury, may consider using the trap bar (aka diamond bar, pictured right). While this movement is actually somewhere between a squat and a deadlift, it takes a lot of the strain away from the lumbar area, due to the weight being inline with the body. Use the same technique as with a standard deadlift, keeping your back flat and neutral, driving through your heels.
A lift as strenuous as the deadlift places so much strain on the body, it will almost certainly lead to some breakdown of muscle tissue for energy. One way to keep this at bay is to supplement with branched chain amino acids (BCAA’s), before, during, and after your workouts. These BCAA’s flood the muscle with energy providing amino acids, so the body does not need to catabolize muscle fibers. BCAA’s also stimulate protein synthesis and growth for improved results. Sheer Strength Labs BCAA’s are extremely potent and formulated with exactly the right amounts of the three amino acids required for optimum recovery and growth.
To finish, check out this video of Eddie Hall, the deadlift king, breaking the world record with an unbelievable 463 kg deadlift!!!
Jonathan Warren is a national level physique competitor and personal trainer with multiple certifications including NASM, NCCPT, and IKFF. His specializations include mobility training and corrective exercise as well as contest preparation.