Following on from our squatting article last week, here’s a basic guide for deadlifting. Much like the squatting article, this isn’t intended to cover every single aspect of deadlifting (we could run to a small book on that), but to address the most common issues/faults/tips that we see on a daily basis.
As with most things, if you think you don’t need to read this, you probably really, really do 🙂
Everyone has different mechanics and what may work for one may not work for another. I will try and provide a basic technique guide – but at no point am I saying everyone should deadlift, or imploring anyone to try and do lots of heavy deadlifts without getting a coach to watch over you for a few initial sessions.
Start with the bar?
For some, yes. For others, no! If you can comfortably pick up a weight with solid lifting technique, i.e using your legs by bending at the knees and keeping your spine neutral. Some regressions may need to be put in place to help learn the foundations of the movement. For example, I’ve had many clients start with kettlebell drills, using single leg variations and using the trap bar before they get progressed onto conventional deadlifts.
For anyone wanting a program to learn the basics, we offer virtual training where you send in videos, and we can assess form and advise – even if you’re not local to us.
For the more advanced who are already deadlifting and want to refine technique, here are a few things to bear in mind:
Tuck your chin and keep a neutral spine. This is the hardest part of the deadlift for me. For years I have stared at the mirror while deadlifting and that technique has worked its way into shoulder and muscular problems which have taken a long time (and a lot of money) to get fixed.
Video yourself from the side when you deadlift. Your setup should show a straight line from the top of your head to your lower back. Deadlifting with your head neutral prevents neck injuries because there’s no spinal disc compression. This technique can feel weird at first, it did for when I started to change the positon instead of looking straight up at the mirror, but you’ll get used to it by doing it more.
Don’t look at your feet but keep your head neutral. Deadlift with your head neutral, not up. Ignore mirrors, most of us have camera phones or tablets with video capability so use that to fine tune the head position. Unlike mirrors, you’ll see the bar path and without hurting your neck.
Neutral spine is even more important at the lower part of your back. Keep the natural arch in your lower back when you deadlift. Don’t let it round or you’ll compress the front part of your spinal discs, and at the same time don’t hyper-extend your lower back either or you’ll squeeze the discs the other way.
Excess rounding or arching during heavy deadlifts will, over time, result in spinal injuries like herniated discs. Deadlift with your lower back neutral to keep it safe from injuries. The problem here is that phrase “over time”. Because you’ll rarely actually feel the slow degrading of your discs from repeated poor form, you can be misled into thinking you’re “getting away with it”. until one day – pop. Very few people “get away with it” forever, and you’re unlikely to be one of them. Maybe it’ll be weeks, months, or even years – but lift with crappy form for long enough and you WILL blow a disc out, probably on a weight that is barely more than a warm up. And that shit is painful.
Heels shoulder-width apart is too wide for conventional deadlifts (I’m not touching on sumo-style here, because I don’t personally deadlift in that style). Your legs will block your arms when you grip the bar. Creating space using a wider grip is not effective because it puts your arms at an odd angle. This increases the distance the bar moves and makes the weight feel harder. Put your arms vertical from the front-view. Deadlift with a narrower stance than you would with squats so your legs don’t block your arms. If you have wide hips then you may want to widen the stance slightly.
Walk to the bar and put the middle of your feet under it. Use the lace over the center of your shoe as a reference point. Don’t pull the bar from your forefoot or you’ll lose balance and hurt your lower back. Don’t stand with the bar against your shins or you’ll scrape them on the way up. Setup with the bar over your balance point, your mid-foot. Pull from here with a vertical bar path for the most efficient lift. If you start with the bar far away from you you will add extra strain to your lower back and lose energy correcting the bar path on the way up through the rep.
Use normal double overhand grip first. Grip the bar with both palms facing you. Once the weight is too heavy to hold in your hands, switch to the mixed grip – one palm facing you, the other facing away. Don’t use straps or gloves. Use chalk if extra grip is needed. If you really cannot grip the weight, it’s too heavy – work on improving your grip strength.
WARNING: Calluses will start to appear with deadlifts. But you’ll look great picking something heavy off the floor so who cares?
Take the slack out of the bar
Slack from the shoulder and elbow joints must be removed. Some people promote having your shoulder retracted which is just no help in this lift at all. As soon as you lift bar you will just protract at the shoulders and lose the tightness from the lift which we are going to try and build into your stance.
For the elbows, never pull with bent arms. The deadlift is not a curl. If you deadlift with bent elbows, the weight of the bar will straighten your arms. This can result in elbow injuries over time, or even worse, biceps tears. Straight arms keep your elbows safe. It also shortens the distance the bar moves because it hangs lower at the top. Pull with locked elbows. It’s the safest, more effective way to deadlift heavy.
So, from reading the above, you already have your grip sorted, your stance sorted, no slack in the bar and your neutral spine in check. Only thing left to do is lift the bar! Baring these few points in mind:
1) Squeeze everything! Lats, glutes, hamstrings, stomach and hands. You need to be as compact as possible for an efficient lift.
2) Breath into the stomach and hold your breath there (belts are an option here but I’ll leave that for another article) and release breath upon completion of the lift.
3) Scrape the bar up your shins and keep the bar as close to you as possible. Once the bar is past the knees, drive your hips through and lock out at the knees and hips
Hyper-extending your lower back at the top is bad for your spine. It compresses the back of your spinal discs. This can cause injuries like herniated discs. Powerlifters often lean back in competition to show judges they’ve locked the weight. You don’t need to do this, and it’s safer for your spine if you don’t. Lock your hips and knees at the top; done.
What you will see most people doing is literally bouncing the weights off the floor between reps. A deadlift is lifting a dead weight, from a dead stop. Don’t drop the weight and bounce it back up. The goal is that you deadlift the weight alone. Not get the bar from floor to mid-shin thanks to the rebound off the floor. Rest the bar for a second on the floor between reps. And repeat the start position again. Wait a second to get your body tight before doing the next rep.
So, while there’s a million more things to consider when deadlifting, following most of this advice will keep you injury free (as far as possible) and eventually get you lifting more than you thought possible. Rushing deadlift progress and getting shabby with technique is probably the easiest way to cause yourself a major injury in the gym – yet the deadlift is probably one of the most abused lifts. If you want a healthy back 10 years after you start lifting, don’t ignore what we’ve written here!