This is the 3rd part of the series on customising your lifts. The deadlift is probably the simplest and least technical of the 3 power lifts yet one that is often bastadized by terrible technique. I have seen many rounded back hipless deadlifts even amongst power lifters who should know better. Poor technique on the deadlift is probably responsible for more injuries than any other lift. So let's learn how to deadlift not only in a strong way but also a safe way.
So with the bar loaded the first thing you must do it set your stance. There are many options avaible here. The standard stance is feet just inside shoulder width. But this may not be ideal for you. There is the sumo stance where the legs are wider apart and the hands are placed inside the legs. This reduces the range of motion but like I discussed about the wide grip pull up in the bench article a reduced range of motion is not necessarily stronger if it puts you in a leverage disadvantage or relies on you using less dominant muscles. Within the sumo stance you can very the width from just outside the hands sometimes called a crab stance to as wide as possible that your hips will allow. Of course you could be somewhere between these two points. Generally a sumo stance will make it harder to break the bar off the floor and will require more leg strength and less back strength. The wider you take the stance generally the harder it will be to break off the floor but the less distance you will have to lock it out. A very wide stance also requires great flexibility and while the stress on the back is reduced the stress on the hips is greatly increased. If you are more quad dominant and a good squatter the sumo deadlift may be more suited to you.
|Wide sumo stance|
You can also take your stance the other way making it more narrow than the conventional stance. If you take your stance in narrower it also means you can take a narrower grip on the bar which can decrease the range of motion. If you look at my picture at the top you can see I take quite a narrow stance around hip width. I find this makes the deadlift stronger off the floor which is my weakness. Some deadlifters take their stance even narrower than that and have the heels touching. This is referee to as a frog stance.
As well as stance width you can also vary the angle of your feet. A very wide sumo stance will require you to angle your feet out more as will a very narrow stance. You will find that by varying the angle of your feet you change the action of the quads and hips. Generally the greater the angle of the feet the better the quads can be used but at a cost of reduced hip action. You can experiment with different stances and foot angles until you find your optimal stance. This may take some time and will be dependant on your leverages and muscles dominance.
When setting your stance you also need to gauge the ideal distance your shins will be from the bar. A bar that is too far from the shins will have to be pulled in otherwise the bar will be too far away from the lifters centre of gravity making the lift harder. How close will depend on your build and start position. Some lifters will have the bar directly over the middle of the foot while others may have it closer and touching the shins. Experiment with the start position to give you the strongest pull and which helps you keep the bar closest to your body.
Now we have the issue of grip. There are four possible grips a lifter could use. Most beginners start with a double overhand grip. This is a good place to start as it allows them to pull evenly with their back and avoid twisting. To begin with the grip will not be a limiting factor and it helps the grip to develop to a greater degree than someone who starts with a mixed grip from the get go. Eventually a lifters back and hips become so strong that a double overhand grip will no longer suffice. The most common solution to this problem is to use a mixed grip. This is where one hand holds one side of the bar while the other side is rotated and holds the bar underhand. This puts four fingers and a thumb on each side of the bar and stops any rolling or slippage. There are some disadvantages with this technique however. Due to holding the bar in an uneven manner it can cause a lifter to twist slightly and favour one side of the back more. This can be especially prominent in those less experienced. Long term it can lead to uneven development of the upper back with the overhand side becoming more dominant. As you switch from double overhand to mixed grip you may notice a slight change of position. You actually have to get closer to the bar to pull mixed grip and this is not quite as optimal a position compared to double overhand. The final problem is the the underhand arm is exposed to injury as the weights start to get really heavy. The bicep tendon can become the weak link and can be at risk of tearing. Talk to experied dead lifters who handle a lot of weight and they may well have had this injury at some point.
The alternative to the mixed grip is the hook grip which is less commonly used. This is a grip adapted from Olympic lifting where you wrap your thumb around the bar then wrap your fingers over your thumb. This wedges the bar in place and allows you to pull double overhand very securely. This is advantageous as it allows you to pull without worry of uneven emphasise or development. It allows a slightly higher start position and allows you to adopt a narrower grip on the bar. Your forearm actually attaches at an angle to the elbow and when you hold the bar underhand your arm is angling out making you take a wider grip and in turn gives you a greater distance to pull the bar. The hook grip solves this problem. So why is the hook grip rarer than the mixed grip? You only have to try it to find out. The hook grip is more about pain tolerance than strength. Friction keeps the bar locked in but hanging on depends on how well you are able to deal with your thumbs being crushed by a heavy weight. If can take a lot of time and patience to build up to the point where dead lifting with a hook grip is merely uncomfortable rather than agonising. Long term while saving the bicep it can potiently damage the thumbs. I have been using the hook grip for the past few months and have finally got to the point where I can handle my previous best mixed grip with it. But the first time I tried it with only a light weight I felt like both thumbs were going to dislocate. If you are going to try it take your time and build up slowly. Another disadvantage of the hook grip is that you can't really train reps on the deadlift with it. I have taken to using straps for reps and hook grip for singles and always make sure I hook grip all of the warm up sets.
For the truely mad or perhaps for those whos grip is a real limiting factor you can try a mixed hook grip. I've never heard of any high level competitor ever using this grip but it doesn't mean you can't. While it would give you all of the disadvantages of both grips in terms of start position, uneven back development and injury risk to the bicep and thumbs there is no stronger grip available to you. That bar is going nowhere but staying in your hands and it will be your pulling muscles that fail you never the grip. Another potential advantage is a little neurological phenomenon to do with how your hands perceive a weight. Most lifters can lift more wearing wrist straps than they can without them even if their grip is never normally the limiting factor. Now take a very thick bar like a 2-3 inch diameter bar and deadlift it. Work up to a max. The grip will be the limiting factor here but you may find you get to the point of bugding the bar off the floor and not being able to hold on long enough for the lockout. Your hands perceive the weight as heavy because it is hard to hold onto even if it is much lighter than your conventional bar max. This sends a signal to your pulling muscles to shut down to avoid injury because they think the weight is very heavy. Now when a lifter wears straps the hands are not peiceving the weight as heavy and so no signal is sent to the muscles to hold back to avoid injury. So by adopting a mixed hook grip, the strongest grip you can take it is almost like wearing straps. This would reduce any feedback the hands are feeling because the grip is so secure and may actually allow you to lift more weight like that. This is quite theoretical so do take it with a pinch of salt. Ultimately you must test for yourself to see.
Once you have decided on the type of grip you are going to use you must decide on the width of the grip. A closer grip slightly reduces the range of motion but you don't want to take your arms narrower than vertical other you would again increase the ROM the same as a wide grip. Also you would lose a lot if stability on the bar. You want to make sure your hand stays on the knurling aswell as the smooth part of the bar is much harder to hold onto. Grip width will depend on how broad you are and the type of grip you use.
Getting down to the bar can become a ritual in itself as can the start of the pull. You can lower yourself to the bar like you are reversing a deadlift or bend over like a stiff leg deadlift then bend the knees and pull through. There are a few tricks that can be utilised other than just bending down and picking it up. The deadlift gets its name because it happens from a dead stop. Unlike the squat and bench which start with the negative portion first and rely on a stretch reflex the deadlift starts from the bottom with no momentum. Its possible to create momentum using a few techniques made famous by big pullers.
First you have the drive bomb technique. This is simply getting down to the bar quickly and pulling as fast as possible. This attempts to create momentum with speed and the reflex of lowering quickly. But its important to make sure you have a proper grip and set your back correctly otherwise this could lead to some dropped barbells.
The next technique is the rolling start and has been made famous by the best dead lifter ever Benedict Magnusson. You start with the bar a foot or so in front of you. Bends down into a stiff legged position. At the start of the pull you roll the bar slightly away from you then strongly in towards you. As the bar reaches you bend you knees and begin the pull upwards. This is like creating a ramp for the bar. But this technique can be hard to master. You can end up putting too much spin on the bar and it rolling out of your hands. Or you can pull it into yourself too much which creates resistance for the bar to move upward. But not rolling enough creates no benefit at all. You will have to practise it a lot if you are going to make it work for you.
Benedict Magnusson may be the strongest dead lifter ever but the man to break the 1000lbs barrier first was Andy Bolton. He uses a completely different technique to start his pull than Magnusson does. Its referred to as dipping and Bolton uses 2 dips before he starts to pull. Bend over and grip the bar with your legs still straight so you are like a stiff legged deadlift. Then bend the knees and start to pull on the bar but only enough to create tension in the muscles and take the slack from the bar. Straighten the legs again back to the stiff legged position. Repeat this once more. Then on the third pull fully and deadlift the bar. This technique helps to create momentum as well as progressively build the tension in your muscles. You don't have to do three dips you might do one or more but this is what Andy Bolton does and seems about right to get a benefit from the technique. Only pull enough to create the tension don't tire youself out unnecessarily before a big pull.
The only other technique that I know of to help get the bar moving is the squat start. This involves taking your grip on the bar then dropping into a squat. You rise out of it then start to pull when you reach the correct dead lifting height. This is attempting to create a stretch reflex by trying to add a negative portion to the lift first. You can see Mikhail Koklyaev use this technique here:
Of course you don't have to use any of these techniques. You can start the deadlift however you want and you may not feel any benefit from them but I would advise against spending too long in the bottom position. If you have ever held a ski squat or horse stance in martial arts you know your legs quickly tire in that bent position. The longer you spend down the bottom the weaker your pull off the floor will be. If you don't believe me load up a deadlift bar with about 80% of you max. Get set up in the bottom position then wait. Count to ten and then pull. See how slow and grinding the lift will feel off the floor. Sometimes you will see people messing around trying to find the perfect grip or back position for ages all the while they are losing strength. Make sure you do all of your psyching up and mental preparation standing up before you grab hold of the bar. Then when you take your grip begin the pull. Don't attempt to psyche up when in the bottom position. Look at the video of Magnusson. He does his spectacle of a psyche up routine before he grabs the bar. Once he grips it he pulls instantly and doesn't pause at all.
Now we have the start position itself. There are two main options here. You can bend the knees enough and lower the hips so the top of the knees are over the bar and shin is at a slight angle. The chest will be up. From here when you start the pull you press your legs against the floor and rely on alot of quad strength to get the bar moving. This action feels identical to a leg press machine. Alternatively you can have less bend at the knees and a higher hip position. The shin will be vertical and the chest will be down more. This requires greater flexibility of the hamstrings to achieve and is kind of a cross between a stiff leg deadlift and a conventional one. At the start of the pull the quads will still be used but to a lesser extent and there will be a greater reliance on the hamstrings and hips to move the bar. For those who are more hip dominant this can be a superior technique but can stress the lower back to a greater degree.
A little known trick to help you at the start of the deadlift is to use your lats. Tense your lats and pull the bar into you at the start and throughout the lift. For those who don't know how to tense their lats this is NOT a lat spread like you see in bodybuilding. When you tense them the shoulders should move ever so slightly downward not out to the side. Think of it like an isometric straight arm pull down. This keeps the bar close to your centre of gravity during the lifts and stops it falling forward out of line.
During the deadlift the safest position for you lower back is to maintain its natural arch. But what about the upperback? Injuries to the upper part of the spine are very rare and it doesn't have to abide by the same rules as the lower back. A lot of very advanced dead lifters actually bend their upper back while maintaining the arch in the lower back. This shortens the lever and can make the lifter stronger. Some lifters have the body awareness and mobility to adopt this position from the start if the pull. For others the weight will pull the upper back round during the deadlift while the lower back is maintained. This is probably the hardest technique to grasp and will take a long time to practice and develop the mobility necessary. Procede with caution this is for advanced lifters only. Many who think they are doing this technique end up also bending the lower back as well and risk injury. You may need someone to watch you or video you to ensure you are doing it correctly. When in this position the head and chest will be down unlike the conventional deadlift technique.
|Both Andy Bolton and Konstantin Konstantinov use this technique|
Head position needs to be considered in the deadlift. In the round upper back deadlift the head will be looking down out of nessesity. In the more conventional version you can either look up or slightly down keeping the head in line with the back. The head up version reinforces the chest up and arched lower back position so is a good start for beginners. You can also pull back with the head to try and get the body to follow midway through the deadlift. But you must be careful not to over arch the neck or lowerback in doing this. The head slightly down inline with the spine is more of mental focus thing allowing you to keep your eyes fixed on a singular point and narrow your focus.
Breathing during the deadlift is similar to the other lifts you want to take a big breathe of air and hold it while tensing your abs. You can then either exhale at the top of the lift or exhale forcibly and slowly at the sticking point while still keeping the abs tense. Avoid shouting or any other macho displays mid deadlift as this will simply cause you to lose tightness in the core.
While the deadlift is often thought of as a back exercise it is the hip muscles that lock the bar out namely the glutes and hamstrings. The back is only working to stabilise the spine not lift the bar. Once the bar has passed the knees you must thrust the hips through. Its exactly like what it sounds like. Think about pushing your hips through the bar. Once you have locked the bar out squeeze the glutes together. This insures your hips are all the way through and stops you leaning to far back. Some people have a trendancy to lean way back at the lockout which can cause the knees to unlock and a no lift in competition.
You would think putting the bar down again bears no instruction but you would believe how many people get this wrong. There is only one way to put it down properly. Once the bar is locked out unlock your hips but keep the knees straight lower it down like you were doing a stiff legged deadlift. Once the bar goes past your knees unlock your knees and bend them until the bar reaches the floor. The alternate of course that many beginners do is to unlock the knees first keep the torso upright and then smash the bar into your knees on the way down. Stick to the first option. Keep hold of the bar until it is resting on the ground. Letting go too early or dropping it is cause for no lift.
The squat and bench can both be cheated in the gym by cutting depth or bouncing the bar off your chest and unfortunately the deadlift can also be cheated by hitching the bar. This is where you lift the bar to your knees then rest it there. You then lean way back and attempt to roll it along the thighs to the lockout position then stand up right with it again. You sometimes see this in strongman competitions but is illegal in powerlifting and will get you red lighted. If you find yourself unintentionally hitching the bar lower the weight and do the technique properly.
Now its time to discuss equipment. Belts can be worn and offer extra support around the core. I don't find that a belt helps the deadlift quite as much as the squat but is still of some benefit. Don't get one that is too thick or too tight as it can make it harder to achieve the correct start position. Make sure you get one that is the same thickness all the way around not one that tapers at the back. For shoes generally you want something with the thinnest possible sole. This will reduce the distance you have to pull the bar. You can get specialist slippers made for this purpose quite cheaply. Other good shoes are wrestling or boxing shoes or plain old school plimsolls. Some lifters actually get benefit from dead lifting wearing heeled Olympic shoes. While the elevated heel will increase the range of motion slightly it enables a stronger position for the quad to be in which could help you off the floor. Its worth trying to see which feels best for you.
Under no circumstances should gloves be worn as they only make your grip worse and stop your hands from becoming conditioned. Straps can be of some benefit as I said above I use them for reps instead of the hook grip just make sure you don't use them constantly and allow your grip to become weak. Wrist wraps are also allowed to be worn in competition but offer absolutely no benefit to the deadlift.
Overtime you must learn to customise your lifts to make them as suited to your body as possible. This requires a lot of experiment and practise. The perfect technique will not fall on your lap straight away and may change again over time. Sometimes generally excepted rules of technique aren't always optimal for the individual. Case in point a lifter called Bob Peoples. Bob was a farmer who also happened to be an amazing deadlifter. He pulled around 720lbs at a bodyweight of 175lbs. He had some freaky long arms but also had the most unconventional technique. He would fully exhale all the air out of his lungs and then pull with a completely rounded back. This breaks the rules and sounds like his vertebrae would explode yet he managed to lift amazing poundages in this style. He experimented, didn't listen to conventional wisdom and really made the lift work for him. Now I'm not suggesting you try his technique. I doubt it would work for most of use but you must learn to find exactly what does work for you through trail and error.
That finishes of this series of posts. Its up to you to customise your lift and go forth and smash some PR's!