The Deadlift explained

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The Deadlift explained

The deadlift is sometimes referred to as ‘the king of exercises’ (although that title is also given to the squat).

This is because many see it as the most pure test of strength: the lifting of an inert heavy object off the floor is something that human beings have been doing since the dawn of time.

It’s also because you can’t cheat.  When you squat or bench press you can lift heavier weights if you don’t use the full range of motion.

Both of those lifts also start with the weight in the air.  This has two advantages compared to when you deadlift. 

One, you can ‘feel’ the weight before you press it, which gives you a chance to mentally set yourself, or decide not to try if it feels too heavy.

Two, because you’re lowering the weight before you lift it you can take advantage of the ‘stretch’ reflex of your muscles which can help you in the upward phase (imagine an elastic band being stretched).

And obviously you can cheat by bouncing the weight to give it momentum from the bottom position.

When you deadlift you don’t benefit from either the stretch or getting to feel the weight before you lift it.  And you can’t cheat it up.

That’s why it’s such a good test of raw strength.

It’s not the most technical lift, but it still needs to be learned and performed correctly. I’m going to run through a few important points about performing the deadlift safely and successfully.


1. The set-up: find what is comfortable for YOU

There are a few basic universal rules to follow to deadlift safely, such as keeping your lower back flat and tense, keep the bar as close to you as possible, keep your core braced throughout.

However everyone has different leverages: by that I mean some people have short legs relative to their torso, or they have a short torso and long legs.  Some people also have long arms compared to their height.

For the deadlift the ideal build is to have short legs, a long torso and long arms. 

Short legs and a long torso mean you can get into an optimal position to lift more easily whilst long arms mean the bar has a shorter distance to travel.

If you have longer legs you may find that you need to keep your hips higher than a short-legged person because otherwise your knees get in the way of the path of the bar.

This is why it is important to practice and find the best position for your own limb lengths and angles.

To find out, try this:

  • Stand in front of the bar with 20 kg plates on each side (or plates that give the equivalent height), close enough so the bar is over the middle of your shoes.
  • With shoulder blades back and chest up, squat down as if you were performing a squat (lower back tight and flat, leading the decent by pushing the hips back).
  • With arms straight, see if you can firmly grab the bar whilst keeping your upper and lower back tense.

If you can do this, then you have good hamstring flexibility, and you can get into a good position for a deadlift.

If not, then I advise you to perform static stretching once or twice a day using something like touching your toes to gradually improve flexibility before you start deadlifting.

  • If you have got this position, look at where your knees are in relation to the bar.
  • If they are significantly over the bar (i.e. your shins are far from vertical) then you have long thigh bones (femurs).
  • If they are not really impeding the bar path and your shins are relatively vertical, then you probably have a good build with which to deadlift.

For those with long femurs, it may be necessary to raise the hips slightly to move the knees out of the way of the bar path.

The important thing to note is that everyone is different: you have to find a position where you can keep your lower back tight.

For some this may be a flexibility issue which needs to be addressed before you can begin a deadlifitng program.

2. Mental cues: commit to the bar

Another good thing about the deadlift is that it teaches you good body awareness.

Lifting a heavy weight off the ground is pretty intense, and it requires a lot of co-ordination and confidence.

Because you can’t ‘feel’ the weight before lifting the deadlift is therefore one of the the most mentally demanding lifts. 

Once you are in the set-up and ready you should be mentally contracting all the muscles in your body ready to brace yourself for the lift.

At this point you should have no doubts in your mind that you can make this bar move.  Commit to it.

photo credit: drewgstephens via photopin cc

Don’t let it beat you…photo credit: drewgstephens via photopin cc

Quick tip: imagine that you are leg pressing the floor away from you, rather than pulling up on the bar.  This will not only help you get the weight off the floor (breaking the inertia can be the hardest part) but also means you make sure you engage your large quad muscles.

Make sure that your maintain a tight and flat lower back while doing this.

3. Intensity: grip hard

Even if you are using straps, grip the bar as hard as you can.  Squeezing hard is not just associated with the hand, it uses the whole arm and even helps to add tension to the upper back.

Since your grip is the weakest part of the chain (your forearm and hand muscles are a lot smaller than those in your legs or back), having confidence in your grip by squeezing hard can make or break the success of the lift.

If grip is an issue, then try using chalk or liquid chalk.

Related article: 8 gym equipment items you (might) need

4. Take the ‘slack’ out of the bar

This is something simple that is often overlooked.

Before you lift, pull up on the bar slightly to put tension into it and ensure when you pour the power on, the bar will respond immediately.

Do this even on your warm-up sets, to practice.

5. Speed

The other points above are relevant for anyone, either starting to deadlift or shooting for a 500 lbs PR.  This last one however is for those who have already got good form and control of the bar.

If you want to get good and strong at the deadlift, it is important you know how to accelerate the bar with speed.

What I mean is how well and how co-ordinated you can get your muscles to fire, which is the key to strength.

If you watch the best deadlifters in the world warm-up you will notice that even when they have very little weight on the bar, they still follow the same routine and pull as fast as they can, as if they had 300 kgs on there.

This is to practice and prepare the CNS for when they lift heavy- when they attempt their maximum they are still applying that speed and explosiveness, it is just the weight that is making the bar move slowly.

If they didn’t try and pull fast, they would never get the bar moving off the floor.

So once you have the groove and the form perfected, work on applying speed to the bar, right from your first warm-up.


There are literally thousands of words that could be written about the deadlift, and there are always ways in which you can perfect and scrutinise your technique.

Like any movement, it is a skill that must be practiced .

But as I keep re-iterating, in training terms this is one lift well-worth perfecting.  It is one of the best exercises in terms of value-for-money.

Get strong in the deadlift and you can achieve so many of your body and performance goals in a single exercise- flexibility, sprinting power, good posture, a solid core, a well-developed back.  And it is suitable for both men and women.

photo credit: Amber Karnes via photopin cc

A good starting position. Photo credit: Amber Karnes via photopin cc

A lot of people stay away from it because they think it could be risky, or it seems too hard to learn.

It can be risky, if you don’t take the time to learn and gradually build it up.  It does take a bit of practice to get right.

But once you get it, it’ll probably become your favourite exercise, because the results you can get from it are second to none.

I’ll be applying these principles in my 10 week quest for a new max. Join me and apply this to your own deadlift challenge!

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  1. […] January 13, 2015 in Beginners topics: The Deadlift explained […]

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