The deadlift is easily the most important lift you can do. Sure, we can wax lyrical about squats, and guys love the bench, but the deadlift is by far the most relevant exercise for the majority of people.
Not only does the deadlift have the most carryover to daily life, people tend to enjoy doing it. Deadlifting doesn’t seem to inspire as many tears as the squat, but it’s just as effective, albeit in somewhat different ways.
Without further ado, here are ten rules for mastering the deadlift.
#1: Everyone Should Deadlift
Everyone should perform some form of the deadlift because it strengthens the whole body, protects you from pain and injury, and teaches you to move properly. We’ve all heard trainees say they are afraid to do deadlifts, but if you learn to perform them correctly, there’s absolutely no reason to be afraid of deadlifts!
The deadlift motion is a fundamental movement. Unfortunately, most people don’t even know how to pick up their shoes properly by maintaining the natural arch in the lower back. Deadlifting can teach people to perform everyday activities with ease and grace.
#2: Don’t Let Fear or Inflexibility Keep You from Deadlifting – Try the Hex Bar
For novices, poor flexibility or a lack of strength makes getting into a barbell deadlift position a little tricky. Enter the hex bar deadlift. The hex bar is a six-sided, hexagonal-shaped bar that allows you to perform the exercise with your arms at your sides rather than in front of you.
Training with a hex bar is a great way to “make the deadlift easier” because the load is applied in line with the center of mass rather than in the front of your body. In addition, because you grip the weight at the sides of your body rather than in front, your shoulders are back and it is easier to maintain the correct protracted posture than it is during a straight-bar deadlift.
Further, a movement analysis of the hex bar deadlift shows it evenly distributes the load between the ankle, knee and hip joints, with the quads performing a large percentage of the work.
As such, the hex- bar deadlift is a great lift for novices who are gaining neuromuscular strength. It can also be used during the late recovery stage after a lower back injury, as it evenly distributes the stress throughout the joints.
#3: Do Deadlifts to Lose Fat
The deadlift is an excellent exercise to include in a fat loss training program for the following reasons:
• The deadlift works just about every muscle in your body, so a nice high-volume deadlift workout burns an enormous amount of energy. And the prime movers in the deadlift are the largest muscles in the body – the glutes, hamstrings and quads. It also hits the calves, the entire trapezius, the lats and all the muscles in the lower back.
• By working so much muscle with one lift, you can significantly elevate the amount of oxygen your body uses during the post-workout recovery period. Known as EPOC, this increased oxygen use elevates your metabolic rate and enables you to burn a lot more calories than you normally would at rest.
• Including deadlifts in a high-volume workout with minimal rest produces a very high lactate response, which is associated with a large growth hormone response. One of growth hormone’s primary effects is to increase the use of fat for energy, which can lead to significant fat loss.
• The technique for the deadlift is simpler than for the squat, and it’s safer to perform in a fatigued state. You can throw a ton of weight on the bar, making the deadlift the perfect lift to perform in a “death” circuit in which the goal is a large metabolic disturbance.
#4: Deadlift = Strong
Ask anyone in the iron game what lift comes to mind with the word “strong,” and their answer will probably be “the deadlift.” You’ve got maximal carryover to everyday life with the deadlift, primary recruitment of the largest, most powerful muscles in the body (glutes and hamstrings), and some of the highest-threshold motor-unit activation of any lift.
You’ve also got to have a killer grip, robust arms, and – because it can make or break a properly performed heavy deadlift – a powerful back.
The most telling evidence that “deadlift equals strong” is that elite strongman competitors train it regularly to boost their maximal strength and power.
For example, one study found that 88 percent of strongman competitors favor the conventional deadlift over other forms, and the deadlift was the most common traditional lift trained (strongman exercises, of course, were ubiquitous, particularly the log press, stones and farmers walk).
#5: Deadlift for a Better Physique…and More Mass Faster
The cool thing about the deadlift is that it’s just as good for packing on muscle all over your body as it is for building maximal strength.
First, the deadlift is one of the easiest lifts to use to train near-maximal loads. Maximal loads recruit the highest-threshold motor units; and because the deadlift is easier to master compared to the squat, you’ll derive greater hypertrophy. In addition, the deadlift doesn’t require spotters or a power rack for you to do a maximal attempt.
Second, to pack on mass, you want to include maximal-load attempts to activate satellite cells, which are the ultimate key to getting big: The more satellite cells a person is naturally blessed with, the greater the hypertrophy and strength they can attain. And heavy training appears to create new satellite cells, increasing the potential for growth.
Third, you have more flexibility in training to technical failure, which is well known as being beneficial for hypertrophy because it optimally activates anabolic muscle-signaling post-workout.
Just as with any lift that you’re training to failure, especially one in which the lower back is principally involved, you must maintain perfect form for all reps. Assuming you do maintain perfect form, you can test your limit in terms of reps without as much danger as there is with squats; in the deadlift all you have to do is release the bar, which is much safer than dumping a few hundred pounds from your shoulders in the squat.
#6: Want Better Abs? Do Deadlifts
Proper deadlifts are one of the most effective lifts for building your abs because it activates all the muscles in the core, including the rectus abdominis of six-pack fame, the internal and external obliques for chiseled definition, and the paraspinals of the back.
Just a reminder: Although deadlifts will build all these muscles, they won’t reveal your abs unless you get rid of the fat covering them – solve this problem by training deadlifts in a high-volume, low-rest program and by cleaning up your diet.
It might come as a surprise that multi-joint exercises such as deadlifts are more effective for total ab development than ab isolation exercises, but it’s true. In studies comparing crunches, V-ups and other typical “ab” isolation exercises to multi-joint exercises such as the deadlift, these latter dynamic exercises activate the whole ab muscle contingent two to three times more than isolation lifts.
Further, exercises that require abdominal bracing, such as deadlifts, bent-over rows, and squats, activate the internal obliques to a greater degree than isolation lifts do, while also requiring a large contribution from the other ab muscles.
Finally, surveys of elite Olympic lifters who commonly train variations of the deadlift to support their training show that they have some of the most bulletproof abs ever recorded.
Their obliques are “super” hypertrophied, which, researchers suggest, is due to the strenuous overload of fast-twitch abdominal fibers required from global lifts and is the reason for the greater size and strength of the subjects’ lateral abdominals.
#7: Deadlift to Overcome Plateaus
When was the last time you increased your weights or tried a new lift? If you are part of the regular Poliquin readership, you may say “yesterday” or “last week,” but it’s a good bet there are a few people out there who will benefit from new strategies for making fast gains. The deadlift is one of the best ways to do this.
Depending on where you have a structural imbalance, the deadlift can help you overcome a plateau. A few solutions to common weaknesses include the following:
• If you’re weak off the floor, perform “dead stop” deadlifts to eliminate the benefit you get from stored elastic energy on the descent. Stay honest with yourself and reset before each deadlift.
• If you‘ve plateaued in the squat as well, do dead stops in the bottom squat position – yes, this is brutally hard, but it is sure to be worth the effort. Try a 4-second eccentric phase with a 2-second pause in the down position of the squat followed by an explosive concentric motion.
• Do eccentric-enhanced deadlifts. For novice-level trainees, simply lowering on a 4-, 8-, or 10-second count can increase your lengthening time under tension.
• More advanced lifters can do supramaximal eccentrics in which you load the bar in a power rack, pick it up, and simply lower it to the ground.
• If you’re an advanced lifter and your lower back is a limiting factor, do eccentric wide-grip deadlifts on a podium.
• Train with chains attached to the bar, which can be done with the hex or straight bar, to challenge your natural strength curve. This technique isn’t intended to make you stronger off the floor, but it will train you to produce greater force during the latter stages of the concentric action.
Chain training can help you overcome a sticking point and gain strength where you are strongest (at the top quarter of the deadlift when the chains have come off the floor to add the most weight).
For building strength, use chains that that add at least 15 percent of your 1RM to the deadlift. Lighter chains won’t provide an effective challenge to the human strength curve.
#8: Deadlift for a Stronger Back and Tighter Core
The deadlift is a superior exercise for strengthening the lower back and entire posterior chain, developing a tight core, and strengthening the posterior chain to protect against back pain.
As evidence, let’s look at a research study that analyzed muscle activity of the lumbar and thoracic erector spinae of the back in a comparison of the following exercises: a deadlift performed at 70 percent of the 1RM, a lunge with 70 percent of the 1RM, a back extension, a single-leg body weight deadlift, a single-leg body weight deadlift on a BOSU, and a static supine bridge on a BOSU.
For the deadlift, average muscle activity was 88 percent and peak activity was 113.4 percent for the lower back muscles. The back extension and lunge exercises also provided significant muscle activation, thus reinforcing their use in any training program. The remainder of the exercises didn’t effectively activate the back muscles, making them largely useless for preventing back pain.
Researchers suggest that regularly training deadlifts with a load ranging from 70 to 85 percent of the 1RM in conjunction with other multi-joint “global” lifts will optimally strengthen the lower back.
Athletes will also benefit from deadlifting. A recent study that looked at injury rates in collegiate male basketball players found that the number-one injury was to the lower back. In one case study of a Division 1 team, 5 of 14 players experienced a lower back injury during the season, while no other injuries occurred.
#9: Deadlift with Chains to Improve Power and Get Faster
Research shows that adding chains to a deadlift makes it function like a ballistic lower body exercise to develop more power. It works like this:
If you train the deadlift with chains attached “as fast as possible,” you can produce peak force and acceleration, similar to that achieved in other ballistic exercises such as jerks, cleans and bench throws.
Researchers found that although conventional strength exercises are not commonly effective for power training due to the need for deceleration during the latter stages of the concentric action, a fast deadlift at 30 percent of the 1RM will allow lifters to produce significantly more power than if they lift the 30 percent 1RM, or even a 70 percent 1RM load, at slower speeds.
Adding chains to the lift is only applicable with deadlifts and other lifts that have an ascending strength curve such that the exercise becomes easier towards the end range of the movement, as it does with deadlifts, squats and presses.
Descending strength curve lifts, in which you don’t use chains, include chin-ups and rows. However, you could train upper body power by adding chains to a bench press, whereas in the squat, chains will improve neuromuscular drive rather than peak power.
#10: Varied Deadlifts Give You Stronger, Leaner Legs
By now you know that deadlifts will pretty much make everything about your life better because doing them will make you stronger, leaner, and more mobile. So, let’s consider some of the deadlift variations and what exactly each one can do for you.
• The traditional bent-leg deadlift maximally recruits the posterior chain, particularly the lower back muscles of the erector spinae and the glutes. It requires a decent amount of dynamic hip flexibility that can help support a full range-of-motion in the squat.
• There are many useful variations of the bent-leg deadlift you can use as you advance. First, you have the Romanian deadlift, in which the knees are only bent about 20 degrees, whereas with the popular conventional or clean-style deadlift, the knees are bent about 75 degrees.
• If you’re weak off the floor, increase your range of motion by standing on a low platform. This variation requires greater flexibility in the hips and allows the knees to bend significantly more than 75 degrees.
Using a wider grip will also increase the difficulty and place greater overload on the body. These two long-range deadlift variations also increase the involvement of the hamstrings and the VMO of the quads.
• Widening the stance for a “sumo” style deadlift increases stimulus to the adductors.
• The single-leg deadlift is ideal for working on imbalances between the left and right side of the body. It can also help to train ankle stability.
• The straight-leg deadlift should be reserved for advanced trainees because it requires perfect technique to avoid injury: It’s critical you avoid locking the legs out on the straight-leg deadlift because this hyperextends the knee, significantly decreases the contribution of the glutes to the lift, and places extra stress on the lumbar vertebrae.
• The hex bar, which we’ve already talked about as being ideal for newbies, puts greater emphasis on the quads, distributing the weight evenly over your center of mass.
Bottom line: Whatever your training goals, deadlifts can help you reach them.