Deadlift 101

Why listen to me?

First of all, who am I to give advice on the deadlift.  As a rugby player and strongman the deadlift was a staple exercise in my training.  Although I was better at repetition events, I reached a 1 rep max personal best of 280kg at 90kg bodyweight.  For over a decade I’ve been using the deadlift at least once a week… so let’s just calculate how much deadlifting that really is.  Rounding down to 50 sessions a year (due to holidays, injuries etc) let’s say over the course of a decade I’ve completed 500 deadlift training sessions.  At an average 5 working sets per workout, I’ve probably done 2,500 sets.  At an average 5 reps per set, 12,500 reps.  So I’ve had 12,500 practical attempts to improve my deadlift, not counting warm up sets, deadlift variations, expert coaching or theoretical research.  I think if you do anything 12,500 times you should be pretty good at it.

I use the powerlifting movements for almost all my clients and I’ve ALWAYS been able to increase someone’s squat, bench press, and or deadlift.  I would say roughly 80% of people come to me precisely to increase their powerlifting numbers.  It usually takes a few technique pointers, a conversation about how they are training and introducing a few accessory movements and their numbers start to fly up.  Now that’s enough gloating from me, I feel I’ve made my case for giving you a reason to read on and you can confidently move on to the next section.


Is It bad for you?

We’ve all heard the age old debate in the gym, “Are deadlifts bad for your back?”.  Everyone has reasons for their views, but my firm response is NO, deadlifts STRENGTHEN your entire body.  Any exercise if executed with bad form, at too heavy a weight or too frequently can be bad for you.  Let’s take bicep curls for example; curls target the biceps, but if you do 100kg cheat curls every single day, you’re probably gonna hurt yourself, and the same goes for deadlifts.

Without getting too deep, we’ve been picking up things off the floor for millions of years; cavemen, agricultural life, industrial work etc.  The human body is designed to hunt, work, jump, run, lift, etc yet most of us have lost the ability to do those things.  Besides all the physiological benefits to your body, nothing quite beats that raw, primal feeling of just lifting something heavy off the ground.  If you take the average couch potato who hasn’t moved their body in years, it will probably take some time to develop their core strength to perform the deadlift.  But for an active person, as long as they can perform the movement correctly, they are fine to deadlift.


How to do a deadlift

What most people do wrong from the start is think that they are pulling the weight from the floor.  The best way to think about the deadlift is to think that you are performing a squat, the movement is almost exactly the same, you just don’t have to go down as low.  (The following technique pointers are for someone using bumper plates with the barbell roughly 9 inches off the floor, if you do not have bumper plates then set the bar height at 9 inches inside a rack or on some blocks).  Step up to the barbell with the end of your shoelaces directly under the bar.  If you squat down with your arms straight and pointing towards the bar, your shins should meet the bar at the same time as you your hands (this may differ slightly depending on someone’s height or limb length).

Now you have found your starting position we need to get your body rigid to start the deadlift.  The more secure you can make your core and back muscles, the less likely you are to break form during the exercise.  The three ques for this are to; squeeze your shoulder blades together, pull your lats in tight, and brace your abdominal wall.  Using and maintaining these three pointers throughout the lift means your torso should be in a more rigid position and less likely to breakdown during the exercise.

Now you have your start position and your body primed for the deadlift, we can commence the lift.  As I said at the start of this section, don’t think that you are pulling the weight from the floor, imagine that you are squatting and pushing with your legs and driving your hips forward.  Your hips should start and always remain below your shoulders throughout the lift. This will mean that you can drive with your legs more rather than relying solely on your back, plus it puts you at less risk of injury.  These are just a few of the basic ques that you should be thinking about if you are starting the deadlift.  Always seek help from a qualified trainer before performing complex movements.


How to train the deadlift

We all know a Deadlift Dan whose been lifting the same weight for years and has a personal vendetta with gym floorboards and onlookers’ eardrums.  If you lift until breaking point on every set, you are probably breaking form on every set, this is another big mistake.  If you train with poor form, you’ll only ever lift with poor form.  Everyone tries to max out every week and put 1 or 2 kilos on what they lifted the week before.  Where this works for beginners who can take advantage of newbie gains, after a short while this progress stops, and you’re left with another Deadlift Dan.

The difference to think about is maxing VS training.  If you’re trying to add weight on until you can’t do any more, that’s maxing.  If you work within your limits, strengthen yourself in your weakest points, that’s training.  Shot putters wont just go do the shot put at full pace 10 times a week and expect their distance to increase.  They will have technique sessions, gym-based sessions, coaching sessions etc and train different aspects of their event in order to eventually increase their shot put distance.  The same should be done for deadlifts.  If training for a 1 rep max deadlift, work anywhere from around 70% to 90% of your current 1RM, and train within your limits.  You shouldn’t miss many reps, if any during a training session, and your form shouldn’t deteriorate until possibly the last reps of the last set, but never before.


My thoughts

I think that everyone, who can perform the movement with proper form, should do the deadlift; man, woman, old, young, overweight, underweight, it doesn’t matter what shape you are, you should deadlift.  This doesn’t just mean heavy barbell deadlifts, this could be using a light weight with higher reps, part of a circuit, dumbbell deadlifts, stiff leg deadlifts, hex bar, kettlebell, resistance band, it doesn’t matter what type of deadlift you do, as long as you do them.  BUT, and there’s always a but, if you have a pre-existing medical condition or injury, or experience any joint pain whilst performing the deadlift, you should stop immediately and seek professional advice.


I hope this article is of use to some of you looking for help with the deadlift, please let me know your thoughts!



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