It is possible that no other exercise elicits such a negative response as the deadlift. Mention it and you will immediately be told of back injuries and horror stories. The truth, however, behind this exercise is more significant than the stories. Before the advent of squat racks, deadlifting was one of the primary tests of strength. Herman Goerner, one of the most famous old-time strongmen, was capable of deadlifting over 800 pounds - even 727 pounds in front with one hand - long before steroids and lifting straps. The goal of this article is to look past the fear of deadlifting and get to the benefits and proper form.
One of the essential daily activities that we perform is lifting a variety of objects from the floor to surfaces of various heights. Oddly enough, in today’s commercial gyms, where chrome, cables and machines abound, the need for lifting objects from the floor is nearly eliminated. What is found in today’s fitness dogma, is primarily machine-based training. But in our daily lives there are no cables, very little chrome and no selectorized stacks to guide us in our way. Therefore, the training on machines leaves us ill-prepared for the bags of groceries, suitcases, children and other objects that we must lift from the ground everyday.
The answer to filling this gap in training, quite simply, is to perform the deadlift. This old school barbell exercise is an essential lift in any conditioning program. Its absence from the toolbox of today’s personal trainers is a reflection of the machine-based bodybuilding style of training that is popularized in many of today’s personal training certifications. I believe that many personal trainers today have not even seen a properly performed deadlift. Powerlifters, and world strongest man competitors rely upon this exercise in their training programs. Housewives, weekend warriors and general fitness trainees will benefit from including this exercise as well.
The act of lifting a dead weight, which is where the exercise got its name, may seem an odd choice for the center of the training program. No other lift, however, teaches as much and stimulates as many muscles. The primary benefit taught is how to properly lift an object. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) recommendations of keeping your back straight and knees jutting forward, have resulted in a generation not knowledgeable of how to pick something up properly. The deadlift, properly performed, will correct this. In the process of learning how to properly lift an object, the trainee will also learn how to generate intra abdominal pressure (IAP) and protect his/her spine.
Machine-based recommendations for exhaling upon exertion and reducing tension in all but the targeted muscle are a recipe for disaster in a real world setting. In the real world, your body must work in concert, utilizing efficiently pre programmed patterns of neuromuscular firing. Developing IAP is one of these essential patterns of muscular firing. Producing tension within the abdominal and back musculature, by squeezing a bubble of resistance within the abdomen is nature‘s lifting belt. Something martial artists and strongmen have understood for centuries is that IAP is the foundation of any strength activity. Machines take away the need to enact this essential pressure mechanism.
When lifting a barbell from the floor, the inability to generate IAP will result in two things: 1.) The barbell will remain glued to the floor and 2.) If you do manage to break gravity and begin lifting the barbell you ensure that your spine and spinal ligaments will carry the load. This will result in injury and is the reason for most of the fear surrounding the deadlift. The specifics of generating IAP will be discussed later.
Aside from the Olympic lifts (such as BB snatch and clean & jerk), the deadlift will stimulate more musculature than any other machine or barbell exercise. The central nervous system only recognizes exercises from the movement they train, not the individual muscles involved. However, to satisfy the body-building focus on isolating individual body parts, the deadlift incorporates the following muscle groups: forearm/grip, shoulders, traps/upper-back, abdominal, mid-back, lower back, glutes, hamstrings, quads, and even the calves and feet must do their part to ground the lifter. Isolation is undesirable and unachievable in this situation, so from the perspective of getting the most “bang” for your buck, you will see that the deadlift will efficiently deliver maximum stimulation of multiple muscle groups.
The primary movement trained by the deadlift is hip extension. While it stimulates multiple muscle groups, it does so in the process of efficiently grooving this movement. It is the glutes, hamstrings and hip extensors that will “pick-up” the weight. All of the other musculature provides a secondary or stabilizing function during the lift. Whether it is the vertical leap, running or any other explosive lower body activity, hip extension will be the primary movement and the deadlift should be the first choice for increasing maximal strength of the extensors.
Fred Hutchinson, in the March 2000 issue of Milo (pg. 96), referred to the deadlift as the “way to go for building a protective cushion of muscle on your low back.” Charles Staley, in the October 2003 Muscle Media Training Guide (pg. 50), states that the deadlift is the best exercise to stimulate all of your back musculature. Pavel Tsatsouline dedicated an entire book, Power to the People, to the benefits of the deadlift. Also check out Dave Tate’s web site elitefts.com for articles and information. Even the “Blond Bomber”, Dave Draper, holds the deadlift in high regard. I encourage you to not take my word for it but to research the deadlift and look beyond machine-based certifications. Find a competitive power lifting club, competitor or coach and see the benefits and proper form first hand.
The first aspect of proper form is the development of a pre-lift routine. This is very similar to the pre-shot routine in golf or basketball. It is a sequence of preparation leading to the lift that will ensure all of the individual pieces are in their proper place. Mentally, you must first determine the proper intent of the exercise. Deadlifting is not lifting a weight with the upper body. Deadlifting is pushing the hips underneath you and using hip extension to lift the weight. This difference in intent, or focus, will assist you in developing the proper groove for the movement. So begin your pre-lift routine by standing behind the barbell, closing your eyes and visualizing your intent of using hip extension to lift the weight.
Next, approach the bar and determine proper foot placement. Utilize the markings on the bar as a visual guide to consistently achieve exactly the same foot position. Whether you lift conventional style or you lift sumo style, you should have a consistent and repeatable foot placement. This is completely individual and I cannot give you a recommendation specific to your unique body alignment. Try a variety of placements and see what is the most comfortable for your body. A good starting point can be the spacing of your feet for a maximal vertical leap. Once you have the final spacing of the feet, clinch the glutes and rock back to the heels and forward to the toes a couple of times. This will allow your hips and knees to align properly. Even how close you stand to the bar is dependant upon your individual body alignment. This is where having an experienced coach will be of great assistance. But if your body can achieve the other critical parts of the proper form, then your position to the bar will come on its own. Some lifters will end up nearly touching the bar with their shins and others will have what seems to be quite a bit of space.
Once the feet are in position, it is time to develop the IAP and tension necessary for the lift. Unlike the squat and bench press, the deadlift offers no eccentric load. Therefore, you must develop your own tension while preparing for the lift, to enable you to generate your own “loading” (think loading a spring). Start by taking a breath, roughly 70 % of maximal inhalation, and then force this breath out by generating tension from the ground up and throughout the body. Once you have nearly all the air out, you are going to belly breath through your nose, creating a bubble of air, or pressure in the abdomen. What you are doing is diaphragmatic breathing. This bubble of air, squeezed between the abdominal and back musculature provides the pneumatic pressure necessary to support the spine. Once you have created this IAP, you will immediately begin your descent to reach for the bar. You do not want to hesitate and end up holding your breath longer than necessary.
Holding your breath, also referred to as the Valsalva maneuver, is not recommended for all individuals. Those with heart conditions, high blood pressure, or other medical conditions should seek clearance from their physician before utilizing such techniques. Having said that, most people will generate more Valsalva type pressure from using the bathroom than from lifting. But always see your physician for specific recommendation and clearance.
So, we are mentally prepared, the feet are in position and we’ve generated our IAP. Now, you must push the hips back, as if sitting in a chair, and lower yourself to grasp the bar. Really emphasize pushing your hips back and maintaining the arch of your low back. Your head should remain inline with the spine. Choose a focal point slightly above eye level. It is unnecessary to try to look at the ceiling. A very important point is the difference between a flat back and an upright back. An upright back is similar to the unrealistic OSHA recommendations where there is no “leaning forward” of the shoulders. Envision a crane. The arm of the crane (your back) inclines or leans forward to allow the cable (your arms) to hang straight down, attaching to the object to be lifted. In this manner, the weight is lifted straight off the ground, not at an angle, which would allow the weight to swing back into the crane. Because the base of the crane (your legs), are in the way, you cannot maintain an upright back and provide a straight line of pull for the cable (your arms). As a result, when you push the hips back to begin your descent, you must allow the shoulders to go forward and align themselves directly over or slightly behind the bar.
Now that we are down to the bar, grasp the bar with an alternating grip, one palm facing forward and the other facing back. Squeeze the bar, keep the arms straight by flexing the triceps and begin the lift - not by lifting the bar, but by pushing the floor away from you. Or, here you can use the visualization of simply pushing your hips underneath you. There should be a slow squeezing of the weight off of the ground driving through the heels, not a jerking, heaving motion. As you accelerate the bar up and push your hips underneath you, you should feel as if you are pulling the bar towards you. One important note here is that bloody shins are not essential to deadlifting. If you push the hips underneath you, moving the bar in a straight line, your shins should remain free of scars. Besides, how does generating extra drag or resistance by raking the bar up the shins assist you in the lift? It doesn’t.
At no time should the hips accelerate faster than the shoulders. Proper IAP and focus on keeping the arm of the crane (your back) straight will assist in creating the proper timing and alignment. Finish the lift by standing erect, making sure the hips are fully extended, the body tall. If necessary, you may release a small amount of air, while maintaining tension. In order to lower the weight, sniff some air, make sure you are pressurized and push the hips back, allowing the shoulders to align over the bar once again. This negative portion of the lift does not need to be slow. It is simply a controlled lowering.
Once the bar is on the ground again, release the bar and stand erect. You may consider this heresy but “maintaining constant tension” is not necessary. The primary reason for releasing the bar and standing up in order to reset for the next repetition is safety. If during the descent, the weight pulls you forward and you do not release the bar at the bottom, you will begin your next repetition from an incorrect position. This will endanger your back and make the lift much more difficult.
While resetting for the next repetition, breathe normally and get prepared for your next lift. This may seem like performing a set of singles or using rest-pause style training but it is the safest and most effective means of deadlifting. See the accompanying set of pictures for a detailed look at the correct form.
If you are willing to overcome your fear and give the deadlift a try, begin with 2-3 sets of 1-5 repetitions. Use a very light starting weight in order to groove your form. This may mean utilizing plates other than the 45 pound size. In this case, simply use the pins of a power rack or boxes to achieve a starting bar height of nine inches off of the ground. There are reasons for extending the range of a deadlift but not while learning the exercise. As your form improves begin to gradually increase the weight but not the reps. A side note here is to try to wear thin, hard sole shoes. See Power to the People by Pavel Tsatsouline or Super Training by Mel Siff for the whole story. Tune in next month for a discussion of various programs for the deadlift.
OSHA and bodybuilding aside, gym myths and horror stories cannot remove the fact that deadlifting is a vital movement to be trained. Hopefully through the course of this article you were able to separate the reality of the exercise from the preconceived ideas you may have held. One of the oldest strength training exercises, the deadlift has survived, quite simply, because it works.
Conventional Deadlift and Sumo Deadlift
Commentary on the Photos
The photos of the deadlifting form are taken at the Duquesne Club Health and Fitness Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. I was just over 4 weeks out from microlaminectomy for a disc herniation at the L5-S1 level.