About a decade ago it was rare to see athletes, bodybuilders, and those interested in general fitness perform deadlifts – many powerlifters too would ditch the deadlift in favor of focusing on squat or bench-press competitions. Likewise, few commercial gyms had platforms, preferring to go the “safe” route by only offering Smith machines for heavy barbell work. But “the times, they are a-changin,’ and in recent years all these groups have rediscovered the deadlift.
Why should we care about the deadlift? Because it is an exercise that works the big, beefy muscles of the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and the powerful cable-like muscles of the lower back called the erector spinae. It also improves upper body strength, developing the Hulk-like trapezius muscles of the upper back, and the grip. Yes, the squat is the number one result-producing exercise in the gym, but there is a strong case for the deadlift being Number 2.
If you’re interested in rediscovering deadlifts, or if you’re already doing them and want to jump-start your training, here are 10 deadlift tips you might find useful.
Tip 1: Deadlift on a stable surface: There are functional training experts who believe that there are special benefits to performing deadlifts on unstable surfaces, such as a Bosu ball or a rocker board (also called a T-bow, which is a platform that tilts laterally). Research suggests otherwise.
A study that looked at unstable deadlifts was published in the October 2010 issue of The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research under the title, “Deadlift Muscle Force and Activation Under Stable and Unstable Conditions.” The researchers concluded that “…the use of instability devices in deadlift training does not increase performance, nor does it provide greater activation of the paraspinal muscles, leading us to question their value in the performance of other types of exercises.”
Tip 2: Be aware of head position. Wherever the head goes, the body follows. Looking down at the start of a deadlift is a common habit with beginners, but this can cause the lower back to flex and cause the bar to drift forward at the start. Looking up excessively also has its own set of problems, such as causing the lower back to hyperextend and possibly reducing the involvement of the quads at the start. Generally, the best advice is to look straight ahead and focus on a point on a wall, just above horizontal.
Tip 3. Keep the bar close, but not too close. “Feel the steel!” is a motto used by many strength coaches when teaching the deadlift. With tall athletes, however, having the bar against the shins may cause them to move the weight forward at the start. The bar needs to be pulled back during a deadlift, towards your center of mass (about the middle of your feet), so you have to find the optimal starting position that enables you to do so.
Tip 4: Use straps when you absolutely need them. When using maximum weights for several sets, or at the end of a workout performed for a high number of reps, your grip can wear out before the major muscle groups. Often, when the grip is fatigued, you might try to compensate by bending your arms, which not only places excess stress on the biceps but can also alter your technique. In these cases, use straps. Further, consider adding a few exercises to specifically strengthen your grip for deadlifting, such as deadlifting with thick implements or performing the Farmer’s walk exercise.
Tip 5: Do long-range deadlifts. Long-range deadlifts focus on trying to increase the range of motion of the exercise, which from a performance standpoint helps develop a more powerful pull off the floor. From a bodybuilding standpoint, increasing the range of motion on a deadlift will increase the muscle-building potential of the exercise.
Weightlifters have often employed long-range deadlifts and pulls, and the great Russian super heavyweight Vasily Alexeev – the first weightlifter to clean and jerk 500 pounds – was known to use smaller-diameter plates to increase the range of motion during his pulling exercises. Because using smaller-diameter metal plates can be rather abusive to the barbell and the platform, another option is to simply stand on a low, sturdy platform. When you do this, the platform should not be so high that your feet cannot wedge underneath the barbell. For the ultimate long-range exercise, perform the deadlift on a platform and use a wide grip, but be aware that you will use considerably less weight than you can with a conventional deadlift.
Tip 6: Do short-range deadlifts. Shortening the range of motion of a deadlift allows you to focus on a weak area. Two ways to shorten the range of motion are to place a barbell on small platforms or to set the bar on the crossbars of a power rack. The advantage of using platforms is that it’s easier on the bar (as the plates will touch the platforms) and it’s easier to get in the perfect position for the lift because the bar is less likely to roll.
One form of short-range deadlift is the Romanian deadlift (although it’s a matter of debate as to how many Romanians actually performed this exercise). A distinct feature of this exercise is that you start the movement from the strongest position and then work towards the weaker position. Also, the exaggerated lean forward places more emphasis on the hamstrings.
In contrast to conventional and long-range deadlifts, with the shorter-range deadlifts more repetitions can be performed. As an example, to achieve the same volume of training you get from 5 reps in a conventional deadlift, you may need to perform only 3 reps in a long-range deadlift but 8 reps in a short-range deadlift.
Tip 7. Avoid heavy straight-leg deadlifts. If the legs are locked in the deadlift, or hyperextended, this exercise can only end badly. One popular explanation for this involves the iliotibial band, a band of fibrous tissue that is attached to the hip and extends down the outside of the thigh. If you feel along the outside of your knee as you flex it, you’ll find that the IT-band tension increases. With the glutes less active, it’s argued that the stress on the lumbar vertebrae increases. Also, consider that with the knees straight you create a longer lever arm, which also increases stress on the vertebrae. By bending your knees, you shorten the lever arm, which reduces the stress on the vertebrae.
The seated toe touch is considered a standard measurement of hamstring flexibility in US school systems. If toe touching is considered a standard physical fitness test that is safe for children, then shouldn’t an exercise that simulates this movement, such as the straight-leg deadlift, also be safe? Well, no, because the toe-touch test is not administered with the spine under load. So it’s one thing to perform extremely straight-leg deadlifts – such as with an empty bar -- as a stretch, but another to use it as a strength training exercise.
Tip 8. Avoid rounded-back deadlifts in training. Performing a deadlift with a rounded back shifts much of the stress away from the muscles to the vertebrae and ligaments – it’s often described as “hanging by your back ligaments.” In a competition with maximal attempts, the spine might flex to enable the athlete to lift more weight, but this method should be avoided in most training programs.
Tip 9. Introduce yourself to good mornings. If your weight tends to shift towards your toes as you deadlift (rather than towards your heels), your quads may be overpowering your glutes and hamstrings. To resolve this issue, many powerlifters use the good morning the key assistance exercise for the deadlift, and Olympic weightlifters have used good mornings as a key assistance exercise in their sport. There are many variations of good mornings, but you should keep the knees slightly flexed as you perform them to avoid the problems associated with the straight-leg deadlift.
Tip 10. Study the technique of good deadlifters. One of the problems with following the advice of champion powerlifters is that they often teach the style of deadlifting they are most comfortable with – and this may, in fact, be the best style for their body type. When you study the technique of good deadlifters, pay attention to those who have a body type similar to yours. Although known for their world record breakers in the squat, the Westside Barbell Club has produced some incredible deadlifters, so studying their athletes is an excellent source to enhance your deadlift education.
In recent years deadlift has been resurrected as a popular training tool for both athletic and physical fitness populations. Give these training tips a try and pull your way to progress!