how to deadlift

The Everyday Deadlifter

How Deadlifting Can Benefit You Even If You Aren’t an Athlete

The Deadlift can be quite an intimidating exercise. It’s heavily associated with high intensity sports such as Powerlifting and Crossfit and views on applying Deadlifts to an everyday workout routine vary vastly. Some people fear Deadlifts and will tell you that Deadlifts will break your back. Other people swear that Deadlifts are one of the single best exercises that you can do but will also be vague in telling you “Deadlifts are only dangerous if you’re being stupid” …What does that even mean? Are Deadlifts dangerous or are they essential? The answer is both!

Deadlifts can be dangerous if you’re lifting incorrectly: this is not the exercise that you zone out, put your headphones in and try to move as fast as possible to just get it done. Deadlifts require you to pay attention to your body and your form…but this holds true with any weight lifting exercise-especially as you start increasing your weight lifted.

In spite of the potential danger, Deadlifts are absolutely an essential exercise because they mimic a natural movement that most people perform multiple times a day: bending over and picking something up from the floor in front of you. Most people who do injure their lower back actually do it at home instead of the gym and this is something we fitness professionals use Deadlifts to help correct!

However, with the admittance of potential harm many people are still scared of Deadlifts, and that’s just smart because as I said: Deadlifts are not a mindless exercise. In light of that, we are going to review some basic information and technique notes that anyone can use to get started Deadlifting!

What muscles am I exercising in the Deadlift?

The Deadlift is a compound movement meaning that it uses various muscles groups throughout the body-this is why it is considered an essential exercise. Just from holding the barbell alone you are working your wrist, forearms, biceps, shoulders and upper back. The core also does a ton of stabilization work for the deadlift movement.

The actual movement of the Deadlift (bending forward and pulling up) is largely a lower back, glute, and hamstring exercise-this is where you will typically feel the most soreness after Deadlifts. There are variations of Deadlifts that integrate more quads or more glutes but you will find the majority of people Deadlifting for lower back, glute, and hamstring strength or hypertrophy.

What are Deadlifts beneficial for?

Deadlifts are used in a variety of applications from “booty building” to core stability to lower back injury rehabilitation. Because Deadlifts mimic that common movement of bending to the floor to pick something up, training Deadlifts will increase your quality of life by allowing you more strength and mobility which in turn helps prevent injuries. In the instance that you have already sustained an injury, Deadlifts could help you regain your lower back mobility and improve the strength that you were either already missing or would have lost during the injury.

How much weight should I Deadlift?

This is a tricky question because the answer is so different from person to person but I have a few key rules when working with Deadlifts:

  1. Always start with a modest weight for 8-12 reps and increase in 2.5lb or 5lb increments as deemed necessary (usually once every 2-6 weeks depending on your goals). The point at which your form is not 100% on point is failure and you should stop your set here (don’t push out 10 crappy Deadlift reps and then start increasing weight-that doesn’t count).
  2. If you have a lower back injury or compromised lower back health, always opt for lighter Deadlifts-something you could do 12-20 reps on. If you feel the need for increased intensity, try a variation such as a Single Leg Deadlift or Deadlifting on a deficit.
  3. In the event that you are able to Deadlift your body weight or more, make sure to take proper recovery time (including stretching and mobility)-your body might not be very happy if you’re Deadlifting 2 times your body weight 5 times a week. Heavy Deadlifts are good but proper recovery is needed.

What equipment do I need to Deadlift?

You don’t really NEED anything besides some sort of weight in front of you to Deadlift: in this state of our world you will find people Deadlifting the corner of their couch and it works. In the gym, you will find most people Deadlifting with a Barbell, though there are DL variations that utilize Dumbbells, Kettlebells, Hex Bars, Landmines, Resistance Bands, etc.

Aside from the barbell, you may notice people who have gloves, wrist straps, belts, special shoes, or even makeshift platforms. A lot of these are mostly utilized by people who train for sport (such as Olympic Weight Lifting or Powerlifting), people who intend to train very heavy, or even people who have sustained injuries and are looking for some security. Here’s my take on all of these supplies:

  • Gloves: When I first got into weight training and Powerlifting I reached out to a local Powerlifter who gave me one piece of advice-ditch the gloves. More often then not, competitive Powerlifting does not permit the use of gloves and instead encourages the use of chalk to promote grip strength. It will leave your hands callused and chaffed however. I continue to lift gloveless and find that the calluses are actually useful to my ability to grip things and hang from a pull up bar.
  • Wrist Straps: Wrist straps are fabric straps that wrap around the wrist and the barbell to help alleviate the stress on the hands. I avoided them for a long time because I wanted to build that forearm and wrist strength to be able to hold a heavy bar. As I’ve lifted more and more, I’ve realized that sometimes I need wrist straps to assist my forearms (especially when they’re already sore) and not compromise the leg workout of the Deadlifts. I use them as minimally as possible so I can continue building that wrist and forearm strength but I do use them.
  • Belts: Weight lifting belts almost look like girdles or corsets and have the purpose of keeping the core braced while doing heavy lifting. I have never and probably will never use a belt in any of my weight lifting exercises because my mentality is that if my core cannot handle it, I don’t want to lift it. I want my core to work as hard as everything else to help prevent injury. The application in which I do encourage a weight belt is if you are suddenly going to be lifting heavier than you’re used to. For instance, Powerlifters train for months before a competition: they carefully taper up their weight lifted and then before competition take a bit of a break to recover for the competition. Most Powerlifters may have never lifted the weight they attempt in a competition and in this instance a weight belt is a great safety tool. Training with it regularly, however, will end up compromising core strength.
  • Shoes: Powerlifting shoes are shoes with an elevated and cushioned heel, mostly for the purpose of alleviating the pressure of the heel pushing into the floor. Like the belt, this could be useful to prevent collapsing of the arches and foot pain in a suddenly heavy squat but beyond that, these shoes can really compromise the functional training of the body. Personally, I like a flat shoes for Deadlifting (like a converse) or Deadlifting barefoot on a gym mat. I recommend avoiding shoes with too much heel or too much cushion because it throws off the weight placement on the bottom of your feet. Just keep it simple.
  • Platforms: If you’ve never been to anything but a commercial gym you’ve probably never seen a Deadlift platform which in itself should exemplify how not necessary, they are. Deadlift platforms are platforms that have a bit of bounce to them to help absorb and rebound the shock of the barbell and weight plates hitting the floor. In the instance of repetitive Deadlifts, that barbell bouncing against the platform helps you move seamlessly from one rep to the next with reduced risk of injury. Again, this is one of those things that mostly has an athletic application but is not necessary for the everyday Deadlifter.

Is there more than one way to Deadlift?

There are some common rules among all Deadlifts such as keep the core braced and lean the weight back into the heel of the foot, but there are many variations of Deadlifts as it relates to foot and knee placement.

Unilateral Deadlifts modifications utilize mostly one side of the body. A DL performed on one leg (Single Leg DL) is great for evening out leg strength and practicing balance. A DL performed with one arm (usually holding a Dumbbell or Kettlebell instead of a barbell) helps even out shoulder and upper posterior trunk stability.

Bilateral Deadlift modifications can include everything from Deadlifting on a deficit (standing on a platform to increase depth), to adding a pulse to the bottom of a DL, and even taking a narrow foot stance as a way to work your way into a single leg Deadlift.

There are 3 main Deadlifts that most people will see or try in their fitness journey:

Standard Deadlift:

The Standard or American Deadlift is the most common form of Deadlift. This DL will work pretty much everything on your body with emphasis on the lower posterior chain. Review the technique instructions below:

  • Stand your feet at shoulder distance with the toes forward. Barbell or weight should be centered in front of your legs (Don’t stand off to one side of the barbell). If you have a barbell it will actually be over your feet where your shoe laces would typically be.
  • Bend the knees and sit the hips back and down as though you were coming to a low chair. You should feel your body weight sitting in your heels.
  • Grip the barbell so that the arms are just outside of the legs, knuckles facing forward. Staying in your squatted position, roll the shoulders back and down, and tilt the chest up so its visible from the front.
  • Keep the shoulders back and stable, take a deep breath in to tighten the core, and let the arms hang while you push your heels into the floor to start straightening out the legs-keep the barbell close to the body.
  • Once the legs have gotten the barbell up to knee height, finish with the hips by squeezing the glutes, standing the torso upright and push the hips forward slightly.
  • Let the arms continue to hang while you reverse this motion to release back to the floor: push your hips back with your core tight and then bend the knees, keeping the body weight sat back in the heels.

Romanian Deadlift:

The Romanian Deadlift is the most popular form of Deadlift for hamstring and glute hypertrophy. The work in this DL is emphasized in the hamstrings, glutes and lower back by keeping the legs straight and never resting the weight on the ground. Review the technique instructions below:

  • Stand your feet at shoulder distance with the toes forward. Barbell or weight should already be in hands directly in front of thighs with the arms hanging and the shoulders back and down.
  • Bend the knees just slightly (enough to prevent the joint from locking) and push your hips back while you lean the chest forward, allowing the weight to travel down towards the floor. ***Keep the weight close to the body and keep the upper back straight***
  • Tighten your core and squeeze your glutes while you pull your torso upright and push your hips forward to return to the starting position. Repeat.

Sumo Deadlift:

The Sumo Deadlift is an increasingly popular form of Deadlift-especially in the powerlifting sport. This DL most resembles a squat in its technique and utilizes more muscle groups of the legs than the other 2 deadlifts. Review the technique instructions below:

  • Stand your feet as wide apart as you can while remaining stable (try a few air squats in the position to test) and your toes will be turned out to about 45 degrees from your front. ***The width of your legs in your Sumo Deadlift will increase as your flexibility and strength increases***
  • If you’re using a bar, make sure you’re close enough to the bar for your feet to be under it. If you’re using a kettlebell or something similar, position the weight close to you, directly in the middle of both legs.
  • Tighten in your core, bend your knees and keep them pushed out to the side, push your hips down and to the back to essentially squat down over your weight.
  • Keep the shoulders back and down while you grip your weight firmly.
  • Let the arms hang straight while you push the heels into the floor to start straightening out your legs to lift the weight off the floor. Once the weight is at the height of your knees, completely straighten out the torso and squeeze the glutes to push hips forward.
  • Let the arms continue to hang while you reverse this motion to release back to the floor: push your hips back with your core tight and then bend the knees, keeping the body weight sat back in the heels.

Deadlifting can be a pretty intimidating exercise-I mean even the name…DEADlift! It seems like something that should be left to the athletes and “gym bros”, but in fact it’s something that everyone should be doing! With a little practicing of the technique, this move will become second nature to you and help you prevent injury, increase mobility and improve your ability to perform regular day to day activities.