The Deadlift – What? Why? How?

It’s been stated enough times that the Deadlift is pretty much the king of all lifts and has tremendous benefits. But unfortunately not many folks do it. I understand that it is a complicated lift and most people can’t really afford or don’t care enough to hire a trainer to teach them the lift.

I searched far and wide but most websites, though they took at stab at describing the deadlift, fail to “teach the lift” to a novice. So I decided to pay homage to the king by talking about his greatness and introducing him to the masses. Here we go.

What is the deadlift?

Well, it is the king of all lifts!

OK smart-ass… how can the deadlift be described?

Ah! The deadlift is the action of lifting a dead weight off the floor. Typically, a loaded bar is lifted from it’s “dead” position on the ground to a complete lock-out around thigh level (varies depending on length of lifters limbs).

Why should I train the deadlift?

– Because if exercise = food then deadlift = bacon.

– Because it develops amazing core (erector spinae, glutes, abs, back) strength and without core strength you will be as fragile as a 75 yr old granny.

– Because it helps keep the spinal extensors/erectors in good health.

Will I ever use the deadlift in real life? Is it functional?

If you ever plan on lifting anything off the ground… be it grocery bags or a suitcase or a dying earthquake victim… you will be thankful for having trained the deadlift.

What muscles does the deadlift work?

In short – everything except your pectoralis (chest) muscles. To be specific…

  • Erector Spinae/Sacrospinalis (Spine)
  • Flexor Digitorum Profundus (Forearm)
  • Gluteus Maximus (Butt)
  • Adductor Magnus (Thigh – Medial)
  • Quadriceps (Thigh – Anterior)
  • Soleus (Calves)
  • Hamstrings (Thigh – Posterior)
  • Gastrocnemius (Calves)
  • Trapezius, Middle (Posterior Shoulder & Back)
  • Trapezius, Upper (Posterior Shoulder & Back)
  • Levator Scapulae (Neck)
  • Rhomboids (Back)
  • Rectus Abdominis (Abs)
  • Obliques (Abs)

I hear that the deadlift is very dangerous. Is that true?

Did you know texting is dangerous?

I know that some people hurt their back because they deadlifted excessively. But did you know that way too many people messed up their backs for life because they did not deadlift? Dont believe me? When was the last time you heard someone say “Oh I hurt my back deadlifting?” and when was the last time you hard someone say “Oh I hurt my back lifting my 5yr old/suitcase/couch”?? Ha!

Deadlifing, like anything else, is safe (and again, extremely beneficial) as long as it is done with good form and that’s exactly the point of this post – to teach you good form.

What is your experience with the deadlift?

Once I completed p90x, I thought I was super strong. I tried deadlifting. I pulled an awesome 120 lbs off the ground for 1 rep.This was about 0.8 x bodyweight.

Since then I have been teaching myself the deadlift and been training it religiously. Though not elite, I now deadlift 2 x bodyweight for 4-6 reps and 2.5 x bodyweight for 1 rep. As a result my overall athleticism has improved drastically, I’ve packed in a lot of muscle and have literally eliminated any and all kinds of lower back pain.

OK how do I perform the lift?

In layman’s caveman’s terms… grab the weight and stand up. To get a little more descriptive and technical…

Click on image for larger clearer version

Phase 1: The Set-Up

– Stand with feet hip about width apart such that your feet are under the bar with your shins as close as possible to the bar but not touching the bar. See picture below.

– Bend at the hip and grip the bar such that your palms are a thumbs width away from the side of your legs/shins.

– Bend at the knee and go low till you feel your hamstrings. At this point the bar should be in contact with your shins.

– Get your chest up and straighten your back.

– Look up and focus on an object that’s about 5-7 ft from you. If there is a mirror in front of you then look the other way.

– Retract your shoulders and pull them down. This means you need to bring your shoulder blades as close to each other as possible. You should be able to hold a pen between your shoulder blades.

– Ensure that your shoulder blades are directly above the bar.

– Take a deep breath.

– Tighten your abs. Squeeze your glutes (butt).

– Grip the bar as hard as you can. Think you want to deform the bar!

Phase 2: The Pull Off The Ground

– Lift weight smoothly without any  jerking motion. Push the ground beneath you and pull the bar while it scrapes your shins.

– During this phase, the only joint that opens is your knee joint.

– The hip joint is locked and does not open. In other words, the angle of hip flexion i.e the angle between your straight back and ground, should be maintained and not increased.

– One way to check if you’re doing this right is to ensure that your shoulders move ONLY upwards and together with the hips. If your shoulder moves up and back, you’re opening up at your hip. If your shoulder moves down and front, your bending more at the hip and placing unnecessary load on your lower back.

Phase 3:  Knee Extension

– Continue lifting the bar higher by opening the knees more.

– Your hips are still locked, the bar is still scraping your shins and everything else mentioned in Phases 1 and 2 still apply.

Phase 4: The Hip Drive

– Once the bar is at knee height, start opening your hip and drive your hip in front in a thrusting motion.

– You are now opening your knees and your hips  and the angle of hip flexion increases (from a to b as in the figure).

– Your shoulders, which were moving only up, should now move up and back.

– The bar should now be above knee height and scraping your thighs.

Phase 5: The lock-out

– Continue to open your knees and hips and squeeze your glutes (butt) to reach lock-out position.

– It is acceptable to extend your hips slightly during lockout.  The lock-out serves no other purpose than completing the lift and an exaggerated extension is unnecessary and dangerous.

The Return:

– Slowly lower the bar sliding it on your thighs. At this point hip flexion occurs but the knee is still straight.

– When the bar reaches the knee, initiate knee flexion (bend the knee) and continue to lower the bar, sliding it on your shins, till the plates touch the ground.

– Note that your abs and glutes are still tight, your grip is still solid, your eyes are still focusing on the same object, your back is still straight, your chest is still up and your shoulders are still in place.

The Next Rep:

– Now you loosen your grip for a fraction of a second. Re-grip and lift again. The reason for this brief loosening is because this is a “dead”lift and hence each rep should be performed on a dead weight.

– Bouncing the weight off the ground is not legit.

Videos exhibiting good form

Here’s a heavy one…

And here are some fast ones…

And here is some Mark Rippeto…

– providing an intro to the deadlift.

– coaching the deadlift set-up.

– explaining the deadlift anatomy

And here is an article from Stronglifts talking about how to lower the bar.

Hope this post gives you enough reason, information and confidence to start deadlifting. I’ll follow this post up with some other types of deadlifts and grips, common errors and fixes during deadlifting and some sample workouts.

Peace out.

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11 responses to “The Deadlift – What? Why? How?

  1. ML January 27, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Rippetoe gives a complete explanation of the deadlift, but looks himself like he may need to push back from the bar.
    Just sayin.
    ML

  2. Mamatha January 27, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    “Because if exercise = food then deadlift = bacon.”

    Ok, I’m sold!

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  5. M_JM February 12, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    If I’m deadlifting for the first time, what weight should I load on the bar or do it on the unloaded bar?

    if I’m deadlifting unloaded bar (45lbs) then should it be placed on the floor or a little higher?

    fantabulous article, exactly what i needed at this time!

    • RG February 12, 2011 at 10:01 pm

      Start with an empty bar placed at a height of 8-9 inches from the floor. If your gym has a squat rack, you should be able to place it on pins.

  6. M_JM February 13, 2011 at 2:50 am

    Thank you, Raj! I glanced through “My story” section just now. Very inspiring. It never occurred to me that you were from the same state as I am until I read it. My gym (talwalkar’s) lacks a squat & power rack. It has a smith machine.

    I’m currently following the New Rules of Lifting Program. I’m into the ‘Break-in’ stage now which is to be followed for 3 weeks before moving on ‘hypertrophy’ and then ‘strength’.

    How do I do barbell squats without a squat or power rack. after doing some googling I understand that smith machine squats are less effective and limit gains in long term. Leg press is not a good alternative too. Do I have to join a local gym to access the squat rack? It’s been just a month or two since I joined the new gym.

    • RG February 13, 2011 at 10:27 pm

      if your gym doesnt have barbells you have two options…
      1. work with heavy dumbbells. plenty of dumbbell exercises that work your leg well.
      2. find another gym which has more free weights.

      Smith machine… meh… stay away.

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