The Barbell Deadlift workout: All You Need To Know
1.THE DEADLIFT EXERCISE
The deadlift is the simplest exercise in the training program and consists merely of lifting a very heavy barbell from the floor and standing straight up with the load held in the hands. It permits an athlete to lift more weight than any other exercise, albeit through a shorter range of motion than the squat. The deadlift trains the legs, hips, and trunk muscles, and it is the best back-strengthening exercise.
The deadlift is safe, comprehensive, and has a wide therapeutic window. It fights the “Sick Aging Phenotype”, and is learned quickly by most athletes.
1.1 What is a deadlift?
The deadlift is nothing more than this natural movement performed correctly, with a loaded barbell held in the hands. It describes a shorter range of motion than the squat, and it probably does not produce the same degree of anabolic response as the squat. But it allows human beings to develop more force than any other exercise - in other words, to lift more weight than anything else you can do. And it allows you to do it safely as part of a rational program that will get you stronger and stronger. A huge amount of muscle is involved, including the muscles of the legs, hips, buttocks, lower back, abdomen, upper back, and chest.
The squat may be the King of Exercises, but the deadlift is the Queen, and like many great Queens she is stronger than the King and tougher.
As with the squat, there are numerous variations of the deadlift. For example, the hex bar deadlift uses a special bar with a central open hexagon with handles. An athlete stands inside the bar and pulls it up with the handles as if putting on a particularly heavy pair of pants. In the sumo deadlift, the lifter stands with feet very wide apart and grasps a standard bar with a narrow grip in the center. Both the hex bar and the sumo permit the deadlift to be performed with a more vertical back, which misses the point. In the case of the hex-bar apparatus, there is no bar in contact with your legs as the weight is lifted from the floor - thus it is not a deadlift, which is by definition a movement whose mechanics are constrained by the presence of the bar on the legs, and whose stability in the lockout position is enhanced therewith.
We will here reserve the term deadlift for a movement in which a standard barbell is positioned directly over the middle of the feet, and the bar is lifted straight up, in contact with the legs, with a grip that is just slightly wider than the stance. At the top of the movement, the lifter is standing perfectly erect, head neutral, with straight knees and no bend at the waist. At the beginning of the movement, the back is not vertical, but it is held in a rigid extension throughout the exercise. The bar is lowered quickly to the floor by reversing the movement, the athlete breathes and resets his position, and the exercise (the "pull") begins again - from a dead stop each time.
That's right. Each repetition of the deadlift occurs from a completely dead stop (hence the name) with the bar just sitting there on the floor. You may have seen people at the Circus (your local gym) or on the YouTube "bouncing" deadlifts off the floor. These people are not role models. They are job security for orthopedic surgeons. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
2. ESSENTIAL OF PERFORMANCE
We again emphasize that this material does not constitute instruction in the deadlift, but rather an introduction, an overview, and an indication of what to expect when you receive competent instruction in the exercise.
A competent coach will instruct you in the proper setup for the exercise. You will begin with a stance much narrower than the squat and toes and knees pointed slightly out. The bar will be over the middle of your foot, about an inch or so away from your shins. Keeping your knees as straight as possible and keeping your hips high, you will bend at the waist and take the bar low in your hands (toward the fingers, not the wrists) with straight arms. Without moving the bar or lowering your hips, you will then bring your shins forward into contact with the bar. Then, without moving the bar or lowering your hips, you will raise your chest and tighten your entire body, locking your entire spine into a rigid extension.
This will be uncomfortable because the deadlift starts at the point of maximum tension- tension in the back, hamstrings, butt, arms everything. But this procedure, when performed every single time you approach the bar for a set of deadlifts, will produce a combination of hip, knee and back angles that are exactly correct for you.
This is critical to understand. There is no ideal set of such diagnostic angles for the deadlift (or any other exercise) because everybody is built differently. A lifter with short legs, long arms, and a long torso will simply have a more vertical back angle and a more closed knee angle at the bottom of a deadlift than a lifter with a short torso and long legs. For one lifter to try to emulate the diagnostic angles that are correct for another is a serious mistake. Following the procedure above is dependent at every step upon your anthropometry, and so the result will be correct for you.
This correct result, much to the alarm of misinformed people who may be watching, will not include a vertical back. Your back angle will be somewhere not vertical to just about perfectly horizontal, depending on how you are constructed. The purpose of good deadlift technique and setup isn’t to make your back vertical. It’s to make the bar path vertical - to lift the bar straight up over the middle of the foot.
In the process of doing so, you will have to stabilize your back and your trunk with strong isometric contractions of your spinal erectors and other so-called “core” muscles. The properly performed deadlift doesn’t try to reduce the shear forces acting on the non-vertical spine. The properly performed deadlift just deals with and adapts to the shear forces acting on the spine. What this means is as your deadlift gets stronger, your back gets stronger. This would seem to be a desirable feature exercise.
With the bar in your hands, your back locked in extension at some non-vertical angle, and everything tight, you take a deep breath and “squeeze” the weight off the ﬂoor, dragging the bar straight up your legs as you stand up. At the top, you simply stand up straight, locking your knees and hips into extension, not shrugging, forward or back. After a brief pause, the weight is lowered quickly but in a controlled fashion by reversing the movement, again maintaining contact with the legs. It is here, and only here, that you breathe-not at the top.
If you have performed the movement correctly, the bar will end up where it started, over the middle of your feet. Keep your grip on the bar, keep your hips up, get tight, raise your chest, lock your back into extension, take a deep breath, and pull again.
3. THE BENEFITS OF DEADLIFTING
The squat and the deadlift are the alpha and omega of strength training. Increasing your deadlift strength drives up the strength in your squat, and vice-versa. These two exercises make everything stronger, because they both allow so much weight to be lifted, because they demand the recruitment of so much muscle tissue, and because together they describe such an extensive range of motion. For the Athlete of Aging, the deadlift is critical not only as a strength-builder but also as a conﬁdence-builder. Most athletes think it feels “safer” than the squat. Of course, both lifts are incredibly safe. But one isn’t “under” a deadlift. It is held in the hands, which most people ﬁnd less disconcerting at first, and it allows the athletes to very quickly reach the point where he can lift more weight than he ever dreamed possible.
3.1 The deadlift is safe
Again: the deadlift is simply a natural human movement pattern loaded with a barbell. You will perform the movement the same way each time, with the bar balanced over the middle of the foot, over a normal range of motion, on a stable surface, at manageable loads, without unpredictable forces. If you don’t put more weight on the bar than you’re ready for, if you don’t jerk the bar off the ﬂoor on the way up or bounce it on the way down, if your setup is the same each time, and if you keep it on your legs throughout the pull, your risk of even minor injury is minimum.
3.2 The deadlift has a wide therapeutic window
There is no “bodyweight deadlift,” but as we have noted training can begin with very light weights indeed. Particularly weak individuals quickly attain minimal deadlifting strength with lightweight kettlebells or dumbbells. At the high end of the dosing spectrum, the sky is the limit with consistent training, rational programming, and a bit of determination. People in their fifties and beyond can work their way up to deadlifts of 300, 400, 500 pounds and more. Adaptation to progressive overload is second only to compound interest as a real-life miracle.
3.3 The deadlift is a big multi-joint exercise
Although the range of motion is shorter than the squat, it recruits a vast volume of tissue from the ﬂoor to the shoulders, including muscles of the legs, hips, abdomen, chest, shoulders and the entire back. By training the ability to rigidly stabilize the spine and the trunk, the deadlift promotes stability in all other movement patterns as well. Because it allows so much weight to be lifted and generates so much work, it also increases power. No serious athletic training program ca be considered complete without this exercise.
3.4 The deadlift attacks the sick aging phenotype
The weightlifter with the bigger deadlift will also have a bigger clean. The grandma with the bigger deadlift can snatch the bigger grandchild. She'll also have thicker bones, more muscle, better mobility and balance, and a twinkle in her eye. Like the squat, the deadlift is a structural exercise, exerting deep compressive and distracting stresses on the entire skeleton, thereby forcing bone adaptation. Stronger bones in the spine come with stronger spinal erector muscles attached to the spine. Nobody has a stronger back than a deadlifter, except a stronger deadlifter. As an intense resistance exercise, the deadlift will increase insulin sensitivity, stress the entire bioenergetic spectrum, and promote healthy cardiovascular and metabolic adaptations. It forces muscular and neuromuscular adaptations to handle the increasingly heavy weights and reaches such a high dosing intensity that it must be relegated to once-weekly performance fairly early in training.
3.5 The deadlift is simple
In fact, we're unable to think of a more simple training movement. Some people seem to think the deadlift is terribly complicated, but about a quarter-hour with a good coach will convince you that it's the most straightforward exercise you will ever do. Complicating the deadlift is the key to screwing it up. After a few months of training, you'll look at that loaded bar on the floor with a mixture of dread, wonder, and exhilaration. And yes, you have your form. But really, lifting a heavy bar off the floor for a few warm-up sets and a single work set of five repetitions, once a week, has to be the ne plus ultra of training simplicity.
4. MODIFYING THE DEADLIFT TO YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES
As rare as it is to encounter an individual who can't do a barbell squat, it is even more uncommon to encounter an athlete who cannot deadlift at all. And of course, the overlap between these two small populations is considerable, but here we're getting into a very rare demographic, composed primarily of people who will never walk into a gym anyway. We know people with spinal fusions and spinal rods who deadlift, people with artificial knees who deadlift, and people with heart failure and diabetes who deadlift. And a cursory search of the internet will reveal no shortage of incredibly beautiful septuagenarians and octogenarians squeezing heavy populations bars off the floor, not to mention a "disabled” young lady performing a one-legged deadlift in competition.
So there really aren’t a lot of good excuses available for avoiding deadlifts. Sorry.
If an individual cannot bend over to lift a 5-pound weight off the floor, he will not be able to perform a good, safe deadlift. A person with such a profound limitation in strength and/or mobility is not suitable for barbell training and will require specialized rehabilitation, probably under physician guidance. Individuals who experience pain in the deadlift, despite good instruction and proper form, need to see a physician for further evaluation, very likely including diagnostic imaging, to rule out a structural lesion.
Just about everybody else can deadlift, with occasional minor adjustments. In our experience, an athlete who can lift a 5-pound kettlebell or dumbbell from the floor without pain can almost always lift a 10-pound bar loaded with 5-pound technique plates during the same session or the next. From there, progressive overload takes over, and a small amount of weight can be added each time until one day the athlete realizes that he has become very, very strong.
The deadlift relies heavily on a strong grip, and athletes with grip problems due to aggressive diseases such as rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis may need lifting straps or lifting hooks to deadlift without pain. This is not ideal, because the deadlift is a wonderful exercise for strengthening the forearm and the grip, and should be used as such by those with osteoarthritis or other more common, more indolent hand and wrist problems. But if the grip is painful, this equipment should be used so an athlete can focus on the movement. It’s better to deadlift than not.
It is not uncommon for athletes of any age to experience light-headedness after a heavy set of deadlifts. This is almost always very brief and tends to be more uncommon as training progresses. It is important not to hold your breath for more than a single rep, and to breath normally after the set is over. Standing up slowly after your last rep is a good practice.
The uncommon athlete who cannot squat and is a "deadlift specialist" should generally train the deadlift more frequently than an individual who does both exercises. Because the deadlift is heavy and places a high demand on recovery, this is a situation that requires considerable care and attention to programming.
5. DEADLIFT MODIFICATIONS
Many athletes, especially men, and especially tall men, may have difficulty setting their back into proper extension in preparation for a deadlift. If a lifter cannot set the back, he cannot deadlift. Injury is the inevitable consequence for an older lifter deadlifting with a loose, rounded back.
Sometimes the athlete is simply struggling with neurological control of his paraspinal muscles. He may know what he is supposed to do and may have the flexibility to achieve the task, but neuromuscular control makes consistent extension difficult. Other athletes may have underlying structural issues that inhibit or prevent proper spinal extension in the setup position.
5.1 Elevated Deadlifts
Elevation of the barbell is an easy fix for the athlete with recalcitrant spinal extension issues. If the athlete displays a minor degree of flexion despite proper setup technique and coaching, even after several sets or several training sessions, an elevation of just a few inches can help him cross the threshold into a quality start position with good spinal extension. The easiest way to do this is with stacks of cut out sections of 3/4 inch rubber mats. 2-4 rubber mats placed under each side of the bar usually gives enough elevation to get the lifter in position.
The athlete struggling with hamstring flexibility may not need the risers after a few weeks of training the squat and deadlift, as this work will improve hamstring flexibility quickly. Deadlifts elevated by just a few inches can be programmed in the same way that regular deadlifts are.
5.2 Rack Pulls
For athletes with very poor mobility or very poor neuromuscular control, the rack pull is indicated. The rack pull is a deadlift performed inside the power rack with the bar set somewhere between the middle of the tibia and the bottom of the patella. This elevated starting position often makes spinal extension during the setup and performance of the movement more attainable. It should be noted however that rounded-back rack pulls can result in injury just as easily as rounded-back deadlifts. Although the range of motion is shorter in a rack pull, there is arguably just as much if not more stress on the lower back than in a deadlift. In a deadlift the bar is squeezed off the floor and moved through the first few inches predominantly by the legs. In a rack pull, the back is more heavily involved in "breaking" the bar off the pins, as the use of the legs is de-emphasized. Rack pulls can be invaluable for athletes with mobility issues, but they must be used carefully, preferably with the oversight of an experienced coach. Rack pulls are also useful as assistance exercises in conjunction with halting deadlifts, for advanced athletes who cannot tolerate heavy pulls on a weekly basis.
5.3 Sumo Deadlifts
A very few individuals with particularly weird Tyrannosaurs Rex anthropometry (very long legs with very short arms) may find it quite difficult to perform standard deadlifts and might be better served by using the sumo variant. The sumo stance produces a more vertical back angle by artificially "shortening" the legs by widening the stance and narrowing the grip, and as such, it is frequently and inappropriately prescribed on the rationale that it, therefore, avoids the deadly levels of spinal shear produced by the standard deadlift setup. What it really avoids is the opportunity to train the spinal erectors and make the back as strong as it can possibly be.
Sumo deadlifts are so rarely indicated for general strength training that we will not address them in any detail here. The decision to use the sumo for general training should be made only with the input of an experienced coach because the vast majority of people who think they have to use a sumo stance actually don’t. They just need to work on their setup, and/or get over the idea that lifting must always be done with the most vertical back angle possible. The World does not accommodate this misinformed biomechanical ideal. Training the deadlift as we have described it loads the back, and therefore strengthens the back, and makes the athlete stronger and harder to break. And that is the whole point.