There are more than a few good reasons why the humble deadlift has been nicknamed ‘the king of lifts’.
It’s a big, ‘primitive’, compound exercise that recruits and strengthens most of the muscles that support good posture and movement – and it probably has more carry-over into lifting ‘real-world’ objects (outside of the gym) than any other – including the squat. Bending over to pick up objects from the floor is about as common a movement as it gets… wouldn’t you like to be stronger at it, be more efficient (use less energy) – and be less prone to injury when you do so?
This is a multi-joint exercise that utilises the biggest muscle groups in the body – the legs, hips and buttocks, back (upper and lower) and core. As such, heavy, intense deadlifting has a profound effect on the metabolism, giving it a kick into overdrive that lasts for a long time after the session is over.
Done regularly, using a controlled, periodised overload programme and sufficient recovery period, the deadlift will strengthen more than just muscles and metabolism. Bones, tendons, hormone profiles and even mental tenacity will adapt to the increasing demands – the very opposite effect to ageing. The deadlift is one of the fastest ways to witness Wolff’s law in action, and make yourself that little bit more life-proof.
Are you sold yet, or have we worried you with the “(serious)” bit in the title?
If you’ve got the guts and fortitude to give it a go, here’s the Olympus guide to improving your performance on the king of lifts!
Proper planning and preparation prevents p**s poor performance!
On the face of it, the deadlift appears as simple as “dip, grip and rip” the bar off the floor, and in some ways that’s true. The learning curve for proper, safe deadlifting is fairly shallow, especially compared with the likes of ‘Olympic lifts’ that are becoming far more popular thanks largely to the Crossfit movement.
However, you’ll also hear many uninitiated observers saying deadlifts are “dangerous” and remarking on how you’ll “do your back in” doing them. In some ways, both observations are correct. The deadlift is simple, but you really do need to get it right.
You certainly shouldn’t expect any back injuries – but if you are serious about your deadlift, you can expect to earn some small war-wounds whilst on the path. However, they can be minimised with proper equipment and techniques.
What you’ll need, and why:
Hand chalk. If you’re aiming to lift double-bodyweight or more, and you don’t want to take the lazy option of using lifting straps, then you’ll need to grip that bar. Sounds simple enough, but when you get over 200kg, if the bar moves a millimetre in your palms, it’ll take some skin with it. The better the ‘grip’ (knurling) on the bar, the worse it is! Chalk stops sweat and lets you lock your grip in tight. We’ll level with you though, you’re going to rip your hands at some point, you just need to keep it at a level where you can still train the next week. There’s some techniques that help, which we’ll discuss later in the article.
Football socks (knee length, preferably nylon). Actually, you can even buy dedicated deadlift socks these days. If you’re wondering why, the answer is: saving your shins. Deadlifting correctly means keeping the bar close in to your legs and body to keep your back safe. Depending on your personal biomechanics you may find that you even drag the bar up your legs. At some point everyone will touch the bar to their legs on the way up, and when you do, that same file-like knurling that beasts your hands is going to eat some of the skin off your shins. After years of deadlifting (no-one told me about the socks trick when I was younger) my own shins have rhino-like strips of thick skin and scar-tissue up the middle, and my leg hair doesn’t grow there any more! Thick nylon lets the bar slide easily, and cushions your lower-legs so they’ll stay pretty and you won’t bleed on your gym gear!
Minimal soled footwear. Try deadlifting in any brand of super-air-cushioned bouncy-ass running shoes and you’ll tweak your back faster than Usain Bolt gets out of the blocks. Cushioning means wobbling, and wobbling with weight dangling from your arms means you’ll either fail the lift or f-up your lifting for a while. Likewise, stay away from lifting shoes – the ones with the wedged soles and straps. Instead, go for as thin a sole as possible. Minimalist trainers like Vibrams are fine. Boxing boots are good. Converse ‘Chucks’ are my favourite – I can walk to and from the gym in them instead of carrying separate shoes. If you haven’t got any of the above yet, it’s better to lift in your socks than in ‘trainers’, but many gyms don’t allow this, and if you do decide to try this, put your shoes back on whilst you load the bar or un-rack weight plates.
POWERLIFTING belt. We’re talking 10cm/4inches wide all-the-way round and not the tapered weight-belts you tend to see in sports shops. You won’t need this early in the programme, but when you do need to add a belt it’s most important that you can push your stomach ‘out’ and into the front of it to increase intra-abdominal pressure. Go for 10 to 30mm thick and, personally, I prefer the ‘quick-release’ type as double and single-prongs are fiddly to get done/undone. Lever belts are awesome, but my waist goes up and down a fair bit, and adjusting them means getting a screwdriver out – not quick! NOTE, a belt isn’t a license to forget your form, and it won’t protect your back at all if you don’t learn the technique to utilise it – more on this later.
Set yourself up to win.
Like anything, you need to start out right. This means learning to put your body in the correct position for getting that bar off the floor. Watch 20 champion powerlifters or strongman competitors get in position for a conventional (not sumo) deadlift and you’ll see 20 different approaches to grabbing the bar!
Still, once they are in position to actually lift, you’ll tend to see some constants. These are the set-up habits that we recommend that you adopt:
Stand fairly narrow. Shoulder-width or even narrower is fine, as long as you feel planted and stable. The reason you want to stand narrow is that you want your arms to be straight down and close to your sides. This creates a smaller distance to the top of the lift, and straight arms can support bigger weights, without having gravity pulling diagonally on wrists, elbows and shoulders – or risking potential bicep tears from accidentally attempting to curl the massive weights involved.
Grab the bar as close in to your legs as possible. For the same reasons as above, but additionally you’ll benefit from ‘torquing’ your legs before the pull begins. By pushing your legs outwards and against the arms, you’re creating a braced tension in the groin – flexing the adductors and pelvic floor (yes guys, you need to brace that same muscle that you’d use to stop peeing mid-stream).
Grip it in the fingers. You remembered your chalk, right? If you try and grip 200kgs or more deep in your hands, the weight will try and open them. No matter how strong you are, one day it’s going to move and end up in the base of your fingers. When it does this, the bar will tear your skin. It’s actually better to get used to lifting with the supporting grip taking place ‘already there’, so there’s nowhere for it to go, as such. It seems counter-intuitive at first, but it soon strengthens up and you won’t tear your calluses off anywhere near as often. I use a mixed, one-palm up, one palm down grip with anything approaching 90% of my one-rep max, which also stops the bar moving in my hands.
Be a gorilla. By this, we mean pull your shoulders back to open your chest proudly whilst gripping the bar, and keep your spine neutral to very-slightly convex curved (just enough to engage the spinal erector muscles). Keep your neck straight – don’t look up or down, just lower your chin slightly to present a straight spine all the way up to your skull. This will engage your back immensely, and get you those powerful lats and traps you’ve always wanted, as well as keeping you tight and safe.
Brace your core. If you aren’t aware of the Vasalva manoeuvre, it’s when you exhale hard against a closed airway. Make a sharp ‘HNNGH’ sound and watch what happens to your stomach/diaphragm. That’s how you create intra-abdominal pressure, and it essentially braces your spine, with or without a belt. You’ll notice that if you really try and lift something outside of the gym, this happens naturally. Take your instincts training with you!
Keep your hips halfway. You don’t want to stand up so much that you perform a stiff-legged deadlift using only your lower back and hamstrings (like the DON’T part in Health and Safety videos), but at the same time, starting in a super-low, frog-like squat will usually lead to a missed lift as the bar ends up in less than optimal position once you get off the ground. Sit into a kind of half-squat and experiment with warm-up weights to figure out where you feel more or less leg to lower back involvement, then shoot for the height where they feel about equal.
Get it off the ground.
Ok, you’re ready to pull. Get wound up, and focus. This is where you’ll make or break the lift, generally, as your speed and impetus will determine how much effort you need to get your hips forward and lock the deadlift out. For the purpose of the article, these next points discuss the bar path from the floor to just over the knees – before the hips and glutes really take over.
Sit back a bit. With your biceps and triceps relaxed, attempt to roll the bar back into your shins as you ever-so-slightly sit back and begin to straighten up. The bar should be coming up your shins, your chin should still be slightly tucked-in and your back should still be neutral. A small amount of rounding of the UPPER back is reasonably safe, but keep the lower back neutral at all costs, especially during the initial effort.
Explosively pull ‘up yourself’. By keeping your shoulders back, lats flexed and your chest open you’ll be pulling against the weight as you pull it up and into yourself. You want to come off the floor hard and keep that explosion going here – as much speed as possible, even if it looks slow.
Finish it in style.
When the bar reaches the point just above your knees, you need to complete the lift by ‘locking out’ your hips. In powerlifting (but often not in strongman) ‘hitching’ – catching the bar on your legs above the knee and raising it with a series of small jerks – isn’t allowed. For the purpose of safe-lifting, we don’t advise you do this whilst learning to deadlift either. If you feel yourself doing this, put the bar down and accept that you missed the lift – there’s no shame in it and you’ll get stronger, safely, by using good technique. Instead, follow these tips.
Don’t go ‘up’, go forwards. At least in your mind, instead of thinking ‘bar up’, think ‘hips forward. It’ll result in the same thing: the bar at the hips (or wherever the length of your arms dictates). Flex your glutes/ass really hard and drive the pelvis forwards into the bar, keeping it close in to your thighs.
Keep it gorilla. Again, keep those shoulders back, chest open. Flex the lats and traps to keep the weight off the joints and supported by the muscles. It’s largely down to this isometric tension on the back musculature as to why the deadlift builds such impressive thickness and ‘strength that shows’ in the upper body.
Don’t lean back at the top. You see some people hyperextend or lean backwards from the waist at the top of the deadlift. It’s not advisable, as it puts a lot of stress on the discs and lumbar vertebrae. It likely came about through powerlifters eager to show that they had reached the top and present an undeniable lockout to the judges at competitions. You don’t need to do it, so stop and hold the lift when you’re stood up straight.
Put it down, under control. You don’t need to do a ‘negative’ or take the bar down under total tension… doing so is not only dangerous, but will take you twice as long to recover from, possibly sending you into an overtrained state if your diet and rest aren’t 100% on-point. Instead just slightly decelerate it, and keep your hands on the bar until the plates touch the floor.
The routine for monster deadlifts.
Ok, so you know how to lift, now learn how to increase that lift over 8 weeks!
Firstly, when you’ve nailed the techniques outlined above, and you’re feeling confident, well-rested and ready to test yourself, you need to find your one-rep maximum weight (1RM from here on). You’ll feel when it’s close, and you’ll know it when you find it. Write it down.
Next, you need to calculate 75, 80 and 85% of it and write those numbers down too. There are loads of percentage calculators online and in app form, but this is a good example and also has a video embedded that will teach you how to neatly work it out from your reps with lower weights, too: http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/other7.htm
Then you begin the following programme (on back day/deadlift day).
- In week one, you’ll do 5 sets of 8 reps with 75% of your 1RM.
- In week two, you’ll do one set of 5 reps with 80% of 1RM then four sets of 8 with 75%.
- In week three, you’ll do two sets of 5 reps with 80% 1RM and three sets of 8 with 75%.
- In week 4, you’ll do three sets of 5 reps with 80% and two sets of 8 with 75%
In week 5, you’ll do 4 sets of 5 reps with 80% and one set of 8 with 75%.
WEEK SIX, and it’s time to re-test your 1RM. Don’t do anything else, just keep making attempts until you hit a poundage that you can’t lift. The one before it was your 1RM. It should have gone up.
- Week 7, you’re going to put in five sets of five reps with 80% of your new 1RM
- Week 8, do one set of three reps at 85% and 4 four sets of five reps at 80%
- Week 9, do two sets of three reps at 85% and three sets of five at 80%
- Week 10, three sets of three at 85% and two sets of five at 80%
Week 11, four sets of three at 85% and one set of five at 80%.
WEEK 12, re-test your 1rm. If you’ve eaten (and supplemented) right, rested enough and kept at it, you should be looking at a bigger deadlift, a bigger, stronger back and a much better functioning posterior chain.
Below the article is a before and after of myself, over two 'blocks' – or 24 weeks of following this programme, whilst applying the same rep/set schemes on bench press, push press and squat, with only very sporadic 'assistance' exercises put in. Just the basics, plenty of our supplements (obviously) and otherwise the hectic lifestyle of a working man with 5 kids, a dog and two horses.
Trust me, do this and you’re on your way to becoming a deadlift monster! Now get to the gym and get started!
If you have any comments, questions or want to share your own tips and tricks for mastering lifts, comment below or even submit your own article to the Olympus Blog. We’ll even send you free protein if we like it!
Yours in Sport,
Rick Jones (Rick@olympushealth.com)
Rick is Olympus Health's CEO – but that's just a title – we're so small a company that he does a bit of everything, just like everyone else here. His favourite things are eating, lifting and watching other people lift (strongman, powerlifting, weightlifting etc.)