Ah yes, ze deadlift. The “King” of all strength training exercises. It has many shapes, many forms, many variations, but at the end of the day, you’re just picking up a heavy weight...and putting it down again.
The deadlift may be one of the most polarizing exercises that either gets an extremely bad rap, or a great one. If poorly executed, it can lead to a host of injuries and dysfunction (and it’s poorly executed a lot). If properly done, it can be one of the most beneficial, therapeutic, lower-back saving exercises in all the land.
Now while many picture the deadlift with a barbell positioned as shown below, there are a handful of different set-up options that put you in a better position to succeed. To those who say “oh that’s not a real deadlift, it doesn’t count”, ask yourselves this. What do you care more about? How high your conventional deadlift max weight is so that you can brag to others, or how much strength and muscle you build by providing stimulus to your body? You can decide that one.
Step 1: Learn How to Breathe/Brace Core
You want a high level of rigidity and tension throughout the mid-section when performing the deadlift, and pretty much all other exercises for that matter, but especially the deadlift. Now the first aspect here is learning how to breathe/contract your diaphragm. Luckily, this has already been covered in detail in this recent blog post.
As far as bracing your core goes, this goes hand in hand with proper breathing technique. When you hold a plank for example, you should feel as if your torso becomes firmer, and that tension is maintained during the plank. Below are a couple great plank variations that can help with reinforcing this concept.
Step 2: Learn How to Hinge
This aspect is probably the part that people struggle with the most. Before diving in, one major key to remember is not everyone can and should be deadlifting starting tomorrow. Depending on your current level of strength, mobility, and movement patterns, you may not be ready to start picking up heavy weight. Simply put, if you can’t hinge, you shouldn’t deadlift.
A hinge is going down into hip flexion, slightly bending the knees, and lengthening/stretching your hamstrings/glutes as you load into your hips. As you come up, and your hips go into extension, your hamstrings/glutes are working to bring you back up.
If you feel your lower back working as you go down, then that’s the indication that something is off. Keep your spine neutral, and think about pushing your butt straight back, not letting it dip down to the floor, and that is what creates the “bent-over” appearance, which all starts and ends with the hips.
Step 3: Learn How to Isometrically Contact Lats/Mid-Back
The last part should make a lot of sense, you have to hold the weight right? So, learn how to hold weight properly by using your lats and upper/mid-back musculature. Your core covers about half your torso, the other half is mainly covered by the muscles in the back, so it is just as critical to make sure they are firing on all cylinders.
Imagine you are cranking or pulling the weight back in towards your thighs the whole time, and you should feel your upper back muscles contract/feel tight throughout the set. That’s what isometric means, you’re holding the contraction, rather than moving. The Farmer Carry is a great exercise to practice this, simply hold 2 dumbbells/kettlebells and walk in a straight line, not crossing the feet, but keeping a nice, tight, straight walk. There are many variations to these but just start with two even weights, holding them by the hips.
Time to Deadlift!
Of course there are many other factors and cues that go into the deadlift, but once you master these 3 main steps, you should feel comfortable enough to give it a try. Below are a couple deadlift variations that have less steep learning curves. Don’t go crazy with the weight at first, really nail down the technique and engrain the movement patterns, then you can build upon it.