There is no “best” lift that covers all the bases when it comes to strength training, but if we tried to pick one, the deadlift might just be it. The deadlift is a classic barbell exercise that has been part of strength training programs for decades, and with good reason. A compound lift that exemplifies the concept of efficiency in lifting, the deadlift provides great benefits over a wide variety of muscle groups. Primarily, the deadlift works the back, traps, and hamstrings. Its secondary benefits are applied to the spinal erectors in the low back, the hips, and the glutes. Pound for pound, so to speak, the deadlift packs about as much bang for the buck as is possible for a barbell exercise. There is little reason to leave this one out of your lifting program, so here’s a brief overview of how to execute the lift.
1. Find your stance for Deadlifting
Stand at the center of the bar with your feet roughly shoulder width apart. The exact distance will vary from lifter to lifer. What you want to be able to do is lower your hips without your ankles rolling to either side and with your feet flat on the ground. Shoes with little or no sole or that have an incompressible sole are ideal for this and some lifters even deadlift barefoot. The bar should cross your foot over the center. Don’t make the mistake of centering the bar over your instep, but rather think about where the middle of your foot is when viewed from the underside. This should put the bar just a little bit behind your instep, and one to six inches from your shin. The distance from the bar to your shin is important: too close and your knees will be in the way, and too far will place load on the lower back before the hamstrings. Both situations take away from safe lifting form, so spend some time finding the sweet spot for you.
2. Get a grip
Bend at the waist and reach down to grip the bar with both hands just outside of your legs. Until you are pulling one and a quarter to one and a half times your bodyweight, stick with a double overhand grip. The benefits on grip development and the avoidance of imbalances are vital in this stage of weight training. When it comes to the thumb placement, wrapped around the bar is the way to go. Do NOT grip the thumb under the fingers; this is a technique for specific Olympic lifts, and has no place in deadlift training.
3. Breathe and get set
Before you drop your hips to start the pull, you need to create tension throughout your body. This protects the spine and joints, making the lift safer. A couple of common cues you’ll hear from experienced lifters are “big air” and “get tight”. In terms of the deadlift getting big air is as simple as taking in as big a breath as you possibly can. Getting tight is a little more complex, but quite doable. Give a slight pull on the bar and retract the shoulders while setting a slight extension in the back. This is called “taking the slack out” and you want to hold this tension, as it is critical to a safe and effective pull. Breathing in and setting the tension on the whole body like this lets everything work in unison, a key factor in the efficiency and effectiveness of the deadlift.
Lower your hips, while keeping your air and tension with a straight to slightly extended back and drive your feet into the floor, extending the hamstrings. Do not bend the waist or let your hips rise without the bar also doing so. Think of yourself as trying to push the earth away from you. Once the bar has reached the knees, contract the glutes and give a little bit of a hip thrust. The thrust does not have to be much, just a little forward motion to finish the extension. By now you should be standing up straight and the lift is complete. Lower the bar to the start position and that’s it. You should have noticed that nowhere in this description was anything said about moving the arms, shoulders or back. They should still be in the “set” position from the previous steps in the setup. All the work being done by the upper body muscles is isometric, so they don’t move.
Programming and progress for the deadlift can be tricky; because it is so taxing it is very easy to overdo it with this lift. Usually programs incorporate a weekly heavy deadlift session at the end of the week using heavy weight and low reps. Typical set and rep schemes are 3×5 or 1×5 depending on the programs particular training methods, and progress at the beginner level is anywhere from five to ten pounds a week. With all the benefits and the efficiency of the deadlift, it really is in the best interest of a lifter to find a place in their program for it. The benefits are there, the technique can be trained, and the return in investment is phenomenal.