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Deadlifts

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

The deadlift. It is the source of a lot of debate among coaches on podcasts, interviews, articles, and maybe even among coaches within staff rooms. This isn’t a post to say who is right and who is wrong, this is just how I perform and teach the deadlift, and my brief take on why it can be considered part of an exercise program.  


First off, the deadlift we are discussing is the conventional barbell deadlift, which is a hip hinge movement. Second, when talking about the deadlift for the general population, I am focusing more on the movement skill of performing a hip hinge rather than the trying to lift a maximal amount of weight. Which in my opinion is what too many people in gyms tend to focus on, regardless of the exercise. In a lot of scenarios, injuries happen not because of the exercise itself, but because those injured used too much weight and executed the lift poorly.


The deadlift is a compound exercise, and these exercises recruit a large amount of muscle mass from different muscle groups and require all of them to be contracted simultaneously. For the deadlift, the prime movers are the hip extensors, made up of the glutes (mainly gluteus maximus) and the proximal hamstrings, while secondary muscles involved are the quadriceps region. The ability of compound movements to recruit the stabilizing muscles is another benefit that these lifts have over single joint or machine exercises. In our case, the main stabilizer muscles are the abdominals, the erector spinae, and latissimus dorsi. The combination of these muscle groups helps to make sure the person performing the lift maintains proper pulling mechanics safely. With this exercise, we are training some of the most important muscles we have, while also training safe lifting mechanics so that when lifting heavy objects around the house or at work, we can maintain structural integrity under moderate or high loads.


When setting up the deadlift it always starts with the feet, in fact just about everything we do starts with our foot contact with the ground because without it we would have no ability to produce any force with our muscles. Our feet should be placed directly under the bar so that it is directly over the mid-foot (about the tongue of the shoe or shoelace) (1). We want to maintain the bar over the mid-foot throughout the lift, maintaining a vertical bar path, which is the most biomechanically efficient path for the deadlift.

Figure 2. Conventional deadlift feet placement under bar. Source. stronglifts.com/deadlift/

Here is where there are some differences between lifters. We are concerned with the conventional deadlift here, so the feet will be between hip and shoulder width apart, with the toes slightly pointed out. The lifter’s anthropometry will determine the exact feet width, but a rule of thumb is that the feet should be the same width as if you were to perform a vertical jump. This placement here allows more use of our adductor muscles (inside leg) and more of our external rotators (outside hip and leg) (1). Other variations such as sumo deadlift have the feet wider than the shoulders, changing the muscles recruited and spinal position (sumo recruits more quadriceps and more vertical spine). From here we can start to lower ourselves to the bar.


To bring ourselves to the bar, I like to follow these progressions. Raise the arms up in a flexed position directly in front of the shoulders. From there, take a deep inhale followed by one big exhale, and using our abs to exhale and feel our ribs compress down. From here push the hips back while keeping the arms in front and the top of the head inline with the spine. Keep the abs still engaged and maintain a neutral spine by contracting the erector spinae muscles along the spine. Keep pushing the hips back until the chest, fingers, and nose are pointing towards the ground in front of our feet. At this point we should be feeling a slight hamstring stretch and we can lower ourselves to grab the bar by bending at our knees.


When we grip the bar, grip with the double overhand grip. The double overhand grip may be less stable than the alternating grip, but, since we are not focused on lifting extremely heavy amounts of weight, the double overhand grip will suffice. Our shoulders should be slightly in front the bar. With a proper hip angle, the arms will naturally slant backwards, and since the latissimus doris attach to the humerus (upper arm bone), contracting them will keep the arms in their position allowing for a vertical pull off the ground. At this point, the back should not be exactly horizontal, and it should not be too vertical.


A back that is too vertical or too horizontal changes the length of the primary and secondary muscles, and changes the leverage that is used during the lift. This reduces that ability to produce enough force in order to lift the barbell and increases the risk of back injury. This image from Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, presents a good image of how our skeleton is positioned based on our set up. The first skeleton in this set is what our initial position should be to maximize our lift.

Figure 3. Proper set up for the deadlift. Aim to be like skeleton I. Source: 1.

The line from our head down to our tailbone should be about 45 degrees relative to the ground, and the head should stay in line with the spine throughout the lift. The cue that I use for people is to keep your nose pointing about 45 degrees in front. I have seen many people extend their head while keeping their eyes looking in front, and for someone learning the lift, this can create bad habits. Thus, I have found this cue helps prevent the head from extending while we perform our lifts.


A few reminders to keep in mind before you begin to lift the bar. Squeeze the deep abdominal muscle (mainly transverse abdominis), and tighten up the erector spinae muscles along the spine (slightly raising the chest may help as a cue), stabilizing the core (skeleton 1 below). Squeeze the lats so they allow the arms to maintain their position while producing tension throughout the back to transfer forces produced by the muscles to the bar. When lifting, drive through the heels and think about pushing the ground away while extending your knees and hips, rather than thinking about lifting the bar up. By following these, we can make our bodies transfer a larger amount of force to the bar so that we can accomplish the lift.

Figure 3. Squeezing of the abdominals and erector spinae for neutral spine. Source: visionexercisephysiology.com.au/perform-abdominal-bracing-correctly/

When we start our movement we want to really emphasize opening our hip and knee angles simultaneously which raises our back and chest to an upright standing position. To do this, drive the feet into the ground recruiting our quadriceps and distal hamstrings to extend and stabilize the knee, while at the same time driving through and extending the hips using the proximal hamstrings and gluteus maximus to raise the torso. Remember, this is to be done all while maintaining tension throughout the body using the stabilizing muscles discussed above. When we have a proper set up and recruit the right muscles in the right sequence we allow ourselves to use leverage to our advantage creating a more vertical bar path to help us lift stronger and safer. If the knee begins to straighten before the hip, it will negate the quadriceps contribution to the lift. While if the hips were to open first, you would have to swing the bar over knees, resulting in a non vertical ball path, and quite frankly a very awkward movement (1).


Unless you are a powerlifting athlete or compete in a sport that requires maximal deadlifting strength, there is no need for most people to try and excessively load the deadlift to try and pull very high amounts of weight. Without adequate technique, the risk reward for excessively heavy deadlifting will favor risk, and usually that means a lower back injury. The most common mistake is a rounded back during the pull due to either an improper set up, poor pulling technique, or using to much weight. When this happens, it stresses the spine producing discomfort and sometimes pain. By repetitively attempting heavy deadlifts with poor lifting mechanics this and other injuries are more likely and can limit your ability to lift heavier weights as you progress because you are not utilizing a proper set up with the right leverage to make the weight move more efficiently. And if you do get injured, it means time off to recover, and loosing the ability to continue training.


So, for the average gym goer that wants to incorporate the conventional deadlift into their program remember these last few points. It is the movement of a hip hinge that we are after and we are not trying to smash world records. The large muscles used in activities such as walking, sprinting, lifting jumping, and lifting heavy objects around the house or at work, are all trained when the deadlift and hip hinge are done properly. In addition, we recruit stabilizing muscles that may help with posture and force transfer throughout the body when the deadlift is done appropriately.


Finally, I can’t lie that it is a very satisfying lift when you feel your entire body move as one system while lifting that barbell.

Figure 4. Deadlift sequence. Source: crossfit.com/essentials/the-deadlift

Reference 1. Rippetoe M, Bradford SE. Starting strength: basic barbell training. Wichita Falls, TX: Aasgaard Company; 2017.

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