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The Ultimate Guide To Deadlifting

Published: 13th May 2018. Last updated: 21th July 2019.

Matthew Smith

Staff Writer


Introduction

The deadlift is arguably the most important exercise that you can ever learn, it has many benefits associated with it. No exercise works as many muscle groups as efficiently as the deadlift, and only the squat allows you to lift more. The deadlift can help to reduce your injury risk by 1) strengthening the core muscles around your abdomen, lower back, and spine, and 2) teaching you correct lifting technique that can be transferred into real life.

In this article we will talk a little about the history of the deadlift and its importance to the fitness world, we will also go through correct technique for several variations of the deadlift and finish off with ten tricks to improving your deadlift.

The History Of The Deadlift

Records of the first man to invent the deadlift as we know it today are confusing, but many historians point to German strongman Hermann Goerner as the man who popularized it [1][2]. Goerner had an incredibly interesting life, winning multiple weightlifting tournaments and coming 4th in the 1913 World Championships before his country entered WWI where he was injured by shrapnel and lost an eye. He then continued to lift incredible weights until the start of WWII.

World records came and went with Ben Coates being the first man to lift 750lbs in 1961, and then in 1982 Dan Wohleber lifted 904lbs. In 2006 Yorkshireman Andy Bolton became the first man to lift over 1,000lb, this was followed by fellow Englishman Eddie Hall lifting 1,100lb though this was achieved with straps.

Today, the deadlift is more popular than ever partly due to the massive increase in personal trainers (who are able to teach people who wouldn’t usually learn how to deadlift) and partly due to the explosion of fitness content on the web. What was once a niche exercise is now a common sight in any gym.

How To Perform Different Deadlift Variations

In this section we are going to go through how to perform six deadlift variations, we are going to start off with the conventional deadlift – the one that everyone knows, and then look at some easier and more difficult variations.

The Conventional Deadlift

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Grab a bar and attach the required plates onto it, walk up to the bar and place your feet underneath it so that the middle of your foot (where your laces are tied) is directly under it. Your feet should be about shoulder width apart with toes turned out ever so slightly. Grab the bar so that your hands are outside your knees.

You can either use a mixed grip, one hand over the bar and the other hand under it, or you can use a double-overhand grip where both hands are over the bar.

At this point you should be in a horrible deadlifting position with your back curved over. Push your knees forward until your shins touch the bar and then push your chest forwards and shoulders backwards. Your shoulders should now be directly over the bar and your back should be straight. Take a deep breath and hold it.

Keeping your arms straight raise the bar off the floor by driving your hips forward, once your hips have gone forward enough you should be standing upright with chest out and shoulders back. Breathe out as you bring the bar up.

Slowly lower the bar back to the ground and when it touches the floor you should pause before performing another rep. Rather than lowering the bar fast and “bouncing” it off the floor, which is a way to use momentum to make the second, third, and fourth lifts easier.

The Kettlebell Deadlift

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If you are not strong enough to perform a conventional deadlift yet, or if the technique is a little too difficult to master, then the kettlebell deadlift is a great starting point. This is because the kettlebell is easier to grasp, and you don’t need to concentrate on where your knees are (because there is no barbell to smash your shins into).

Place a kettlebell on the floor and place your feet either side of it, they should be shoulder width apart and pointing out slightly. Grab the handle with both hands and then push your chest forward until you have a flat back. This should automatically put you in the optimal deadlifting position.

Take a deep breath and then raise the kettlebell off the floor by pushing your hips forward until you are standing fully upright. Your arms should remain straight throughout the movement and you should be breathing out from the moment you lift the kettlebell.

Pause at the top of the movement and then slowly return to the starting position by pushing your hips backwards and maintaining a straight back throughout. Pause when the kettlebell touches the floor and then repeat the movement.

The Rack-Pull

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The rack pull is more of an accessory movement than a primary lift, but it is technically a deadlift and is very useful for beginners as well as experienced lifters who want to improve certain aspects of their lift. The rack pull raises the bar off the ground which shortens the range of movement, because you are not lifting off the floor it is a lot easier to perform, meaning that you can lift a heavier weight.

You can either use a Smith machine or a rack for rack pulls. Set the bar so that it is off the ground using the pins of the rack/Smith machine. There is no specific height that it has to be, but mid-shin, just below the knees, or even just above the knees are all acceptable. The higher up the bar is, the easier it is.

Once the bar is at the correct height for your needs you need to follow the same directions as you would for a conventional deadlift. Feet shoulder-width apart with toes pointed out slightly. Grip just outside of the knees using either a mixed or overhand grip. Push your chest out, pull your shoulders back, and take a deep breath. Raise the bar by pushing your hips forward and pause at the top of the movement. Breathe out while raising the bar. Return bar back to the pins and reset.

The Deficit Deadlift

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The deficit is basically the opposite to the rack pull, instead of shortening the range of motion you are actually increasing it by increasing the distance you have to pull the bar. One of the most common mistakes that lifters make is creating too large a platform to lift off, one or two inches should be enough.

Form is very important when performing a deficit deadlift, particularly when lowering the bar back to the ground. Keep shoulders back and chest pushed out throughout the lift to prevent rounding of the back, if you are struggling to do this then you may want to reduce the deficit.

Sumo Deadlift

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The sumo deadlift is quite different to the conventional deadlift and requires an altered technique. Set up the bar just like you would during a regular deadlift but place your feet out wide and turn your toes out as much as possible and push your quads out.

Using either a mixed or overhand grip grab the bar, your hands should be slightly narrower than they would be for a regular deadlift, but only a little bit. You may be tempted to turn this into a squat by deadlifting with your hips lower, but it is a deadlift. Your torso will be more upright but keep those hips raised.

The sumo deadlift has a much shorter range of motion than the conventional deadlift and may suit people with longer legs a little bit more.

Romanian Deadlift

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Of all the deadlifts on this list, the Romanian deadlift is the most different to the others. Grab a barbell and either deadlift it up or lift it off a power rack so that the weight is at hip height. Place your feet so that they are shoulder width apart and have both feet facing straight forward. Your hands should be in an overhead grip and just outside of your knees.

Bend your knees very slightly and then keep them stiff throughout the movement. Push your chest out and keep your shoulders back. Lower your chest towards the ground by bending at the waists like you would when bowing. The bar should travel down your shins. Pause when your hamstrings will allow you no further, at first this may not be very far at all, but as you train your range of motion will increase.

Pause at the bottom of the movement and then push your hips forward and bring your chest back to the upright position. Squeeze your glutes when you get back to the starting position and then repeat.

Ten Tricks To Improving Your Deadlift

Now that you know several variations of the deadlift here is a list of ten tricks to improving your deadlift.

1. Improve Grip Strength

You can have the biggest glutes, the strongest hamstrings, and a core that just won’t quit, but if your grip strength is poor you’re not going to be lifting anything! While there are ways around it (using lifting straps for example) nothing really beats a strong grip.

Luckily, one of the best ways to increase your grip strength is to deadlift! We guess that our advice would be to use straps as little as possible, particularly when you’re starting out. Build up that grip strength naturally.

2. Location, Location, Location

This tip is going to seem so obvious that many of you will wonder why we’ve included it, but so many people ignore it that we had to put it in there. Only deadlift on a flat and stable surface where you have a lot of room. Ideally you want to be lifting onto an Olympic platform, but at the very least you want your floor to be flat.

A lot of gyms have uneven floors, many gyms get way too crowded. It is quite annoying when the bar is constantly rolling towards or away from you while you set up, it’s even more annoying when some idiot walks over your bar on their way to the dumbbells because they haven’t seen that you are deadlifting.

If you are deadlifting in a crowded gym, then you are just plain selfish. It’s dangerous for you and it is dangerous for everyone else. This goes double for walking lunges by the way!

3. Hold Your Breath

If you’ve been reading the instructions for the different deadlifts you may have noticed that we mentioned taking a deep breath before every lift. The reason for this is that holding your breath creates pressure around your abdomen and helps to stabilize your core muscles and prevent injury. You can breathe out slowly during the exercise, but always have a big block of air in your chest when lifting anything heavy.

4. Build Up Your Weaknesses

The trick to deadlifting well is to constantly analyze your weaknesses, be it grip, hamstring mobility, or core strength and build on it. This is going to require a lot of honest contemplation of your lifts and it may take a while before you are even able to identify what weakness is affecting your lifts.

Is the bar slipping? Then it could be a grip issue, or it could be that the bar is too old. Are you struggling to keep your back straight? Then it could be down to tight hamstrings, or poor posture. Identify a weakness and look for ways to fix it. Your deadlift will improve as soon as you do so.

5. Squat More

While deadlifting won’t help you squat more, squatting can help your deadlift. Squats help you to learn how to build that intra-abdominal pressure, they strengthen glutes, improve flexibility (and strength) in your hamstrings, and will work the same lower back muscles as a deadlift. Don’t neglect barbell squats or deadlifting from your program. Also, try to avoid performing both exercises in the same session.

6. Get The Right Shoes For The Job

Most people deadlift in their regular gym shoes, and up to a point this is fine. But if you really want to push the bar and hit a new PB you need to be wearing the right type of shoe. Flat shoes such as converse are preferred, but you can also go barefoot (if your gym allows it). This will prevent your heel from being slightly elevated like it would be while you are wearing a running shoe. Having your feet flat on the floor will help you to generate more power as you will be more stable.

7. Prioritize Your Deadlift

The deadlift is perhaps the most useful exercise that you can do, and you’re tacking it on to the end of a back workout? No. Dedicate one session per week to the deadlift, have it as your first exercise of that session. The rest of the session can have other exercises that complement the deadlift. Identify weaknesses in your deadlift and add exercises that will fix them into your program.

8. Say Good Morning

The Good Morning is a great exercise for strengthening the muscles of your lower back and helping you to improve your deadlift posture. It also works the hamstrings very well and is an excellent accessory exercise.

9. Avoid Bouncing The Bar

One trick to getting more reps is to bounce the bar between reps, lowering the bar fast so that it hits the floor and bounces slightly allows you to lift easier because your lift has momentum. It is the deadlift equivalent of leaning backwards and forwards during a bicep curl. Stop it!

Lower the weight to the floor and then pause, allow the kinetic energy to leave the bar, and then restart. It will be a lot more difficult, you’ll probably have to lower the weight, but at least you’ll know that you are performing the deadlift properly.

9. Avoid Bouncing The Bar

One trick to getting more reps is to bounce the bar between reps, lowering the bar fast so that it hits the floor and bounces slightly allows you to lift easier because your lift has momentum. It is the deadlift equivalent of leaning backwards and forwards during a bicep curl. Stop it!

Lower the weight to the floor and then pause, allow the kinetic energy to leave the bar, and then restart. It will be a lot more difficult, you’ll probably have to lower the weight, but at least you’ll know that you are performing the deadlift properly.

10. Rest Properly

While you should definitely prioritize sleep and recovery after a workout, we’re specifically talking about resting between sets here. You really want to be resting for around 3 minutes between sets. This allows enough time to recover from the last set, without losing intensity from the workout. Use a timer, you’ll be amazed how fast those three minutes feels! This is preferable to you guessing the times, which can either be really short or way too long depending on the type of lifter in question.

Conclusion

The deadlift is arguably one of the most popular of the compound movements. Many people avoid it because of its bad reputation for causing injury, but if done properly with correct form, it's one of the most beneficial lifts you can do for growing your back muscles and improving your core.

Hopefully this guide has given you the information needed to get you on the right path.

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