The deadlift is the king of all exercises. Every single muscle in the body is getting worked from this incredible exercise.
There is just one little problem, YOUR FORM!
That’s right! Your deadlift form is of vital importance. If your deadlift form is bad, then the deadlift becomes the king of all injuries.
This is just unacceptable in every way imaginable. Everybody out there should have the privilege to deadlift with the peace of mind of a healthy back. This is exactly what we are going to accomplish in this post right here, right now.
Why Do We Deadlift?
So why do we deadlift? Well because they are incredible! The deadlift helps to train every muscle in the body. When I write my training programs and programs for clients as well, I always try to “do more with less”.
Well, your body only has a certain amount of energy that it can use per workout. Obviously, the body is freshest at the beginning of the workout and burnt out at the end of a workout.
If we try to cram too many exercises into one single workout, you will stress the body too much and it will SLOW DOWN YOUR PROGRESS!!!
To avoid this, we pick fewer “bang for your buck” exercises. One of those is the deadlift.
Aside from form, which we will get into in a minute, the most common mistake I see beginners make is deadlifting too frequently in a weekly basis.
YOU SHOULD ONLY DEADLIFT ABOUT 1-2 DAYS A WEEK!!!
Earlier I stated that the deadlift is a “bang for your buck exercise”. The most common reaction to this statement by a beginner is to deadlift as much as possible. This is a mistake!
Since the deadlift works so many muscle groups, you can usually lift a lot of weight! I’m am going to take a big guess that it is probably your strongest lift. That’s great and all, but “with huge poundages comes huge consequences!”
The Positive Consequence: You get stronger and more jacked!
The Negative Consequence: Central Nervous System Fatigue (CNS Fatigue)
The Law Of Accommodation
Let’s take a short detour to some basic biology. (Don’t worry it will all make sense in the next section!)
In biology, when an organism (YOU!) are exposed to a stimulus (EXERCISE!) for a prolonged period of time, the organism’s response to the stimulus decreases with time.
Not to get all nerdy on everyone, but this one is important.
In order to excel at sport, training and competition, you must understand and fully grasp the law of accommodation.
So you now know what the law of accommodation is and you are aware of central nervous system fatigue. What’s the connection?
With heavy poundage (400-600+ lbs), the body is going to have an extreme biological response to such an enormous amount of weight. This response will cause the body to positively adapt to the stimulus (the deadlift). After a certain amount of time (~3 weeks), the stimulus from this heavy weight will decrease and progress will not only stop, but it will actually go backwards.
In order to avoid CNS fatigue you must switch up the stimulus so the body will not accommodate to the stressor.
Remember, the fatigue I’m referring to is merely just the adaptation potential of the body, once that is exhausted, progress stops.
In order to switch up the deadlift, there are all kinds of variations to keep your progress going. Some of which include:
- Sumo Deadlift
- Box Deadlift
- Loading Pin Deadlift
- Belt Squat Deadlift
- Pyramid Deadlift
- Rack Pulls
- Olympic Lifts
- Jefferson Deadlift
- Suitcase Deadlift
The list can go on and on, but one thing remains certain.
Unless You Understand And Master Your Deadlift Form No Deadlift Variation Of Any Kind Will Make You Progress In The Right Direction!
Why Deadlift Form Is So Important
The word sin, when translated from Hebrew, means “missed the mark”. It means you are making progress in the wrong direction.
For the deadlift, this can be very bad. Not only does your chance for a lower back injury skyrocket, but you are also leaving a ton of weight on the table!
Make sure to check your deadlift form. If you continue to lift with bad form you will be committing a sin against your own body and you will make progress with bad form and eventually hurt yourself.
So before you do any fancy programming or try some crazy variation, check your deadlift form FIRST!
This post was written with that in mind, so without further adieu let’s begin…
Deadlift Form Checklist
The following checklist is written in the proper order of operation. Be sure to run through this checklist before each repetition.
Table Of Contents (Link to each Specific Step)
Step #1: Learn How To Use Your Feet
Ironically enough, this is where most problems with deadlift form begin. Right here at the feet. The feet are the foundation of the body, so a fault here will cause a fault everywhere else.
To set up properly make sure your feet are positioned directly under your hips. For those of you with broad shoulders, you may have to widen your feet a little more. Once you have the proper position, make sure to have your feet facing forward. This will help to properly activate the hips. If you prefer to use the sumo deadlift then you will have to turn your feet outwards.
Now here comes the magic, screw your feet into the ground. Literally pretend that your feet are screwdrivers and grip the ground.
Gripping the ground is the most important thing you can do, this will lock the hip socket into external rotation and allow for greater glute activation.
The Spiral Effect
If you look down the barrel of a gun (just google it), you will notice that the barrel has a spiral carved in it. This spiral helps to create a spin in the bullet.
The spin is very important because without it the bullet would have less range and would probably miss its target. The reason being is because the spin of the bullet makes it travel in a straight line.
Likewise, screwing your feet into the ground creates a spiral of tension from your feet all the way up to your hips. Thus force is directed straight down into the ground.
Step #2: Mobilize Your Hamstrings
I have placed hamstring mobilization in the second position of the deadlift steps because I believe it creates plenty of problems in the deadlift setup.
If you lack either flexibility, or mobility, then you will not be able to get setup in the proper position and as a result you will compromise your lower back.
Strong supple hamstrings will serve you well in any sport that requires the use of your legs (pretty much every sport). Failure to neglect this muscle group will result in disastrous consequences for both your deadlift setup and your sports career.
Why Do The Hamstrings Get So Stiff?
It makes you wonder, why do the hamstrings always seem to get so stiff and immobile? The answer can be found in one or both of the following ways:
- Hamstring Weakness
- Long Periods Of Sitting
Obviously if the hamstrings are weak there are plenty of things you can use to strengthen them, there will be a post on this topic very soon. Weak hamstrings are easy to fix.
Long periods of sitting are very tough to fix because they are a lifestyle factor which is beyond the control of the coach and programming.
If you train for 1 hour a day and sit for 10 hours a day, you are probably not going to be able to use your hamstrings to your full potential and leave pounds on the table.
Fixing The Hamstrings
Should you stretch your hamstrings or should you strengthen them? The answer, DO BOTH!
Soft tissue work on your hamstrings, should help to break up the fascial tissues, then just stretch them to the range of motion necessary to perfect your deadlift form.
You can do this flexibility work on your “off” days. If the inflexibility is severe enough, then you can perform some flexibility at the beginning of your workouts as well. It should be of no surprise that you should perform flexibility work of some kind at the end of EVERY WORKOUT!
Step #3: Use Your Glutes
This should come as no surprise. The glutes are the strongest muscles in the body and they are vital to the health of your lower back.
Provided you have followed the previous two steps, then this step should be relatively easy. All you have to do is squeeze the glutes once you have screwed your feet into the floor.
Squeezing the glutes ensures that they are firing and will ensure that they will continue to fire throughout the lift.
*Quick Tip For More Power
At the beginning of every squat and deadlift workout, be sure to stretch your hip flexors dynamically while squeezing your butt as hard as possible. By stretching the antagonist muscles (hip flexors) the glutes will receive more neural drive from the CNS and as a result fire more powerfully.
Step #4: Arch The Lower Back
The lower back is one of the most vulnerable areas of the body. As a result it is one of the most susceptible to injury.
The lower back exists in the region of the body which is on the receiving end of most of the bodies external weight distribution. This is because of the lever system that controls the body. Unfortunately, whenever you bend over to pick something up, or stand up with it, most of the weight gets dumped on the lower back.
To counteract this we arch the lower back after we squeeze the glutes. This helps protect the back from injury and adds pounds to the barbell.
Step #5: Pinch The Shoulders
Another mistake often made by most lifters is failure to engage the upper body, in particular the upper back. This can be fixed by one simple trick. PINCH YOUR SHOULDER BLADES TOGETHER!
Before you lift the bar, be sure to PINCH!
Step #6: Breathe Into Your Groin
Most of us don’t breathe correctly, we inhale into our chest which creates stress and tension in the wrong places. We want to inhale into our belly instead. This will place tension in our core which will help to stabilize and protect the lower back.
Doing lots of ab work will ultimately be useless if one doesn’t understand how to use the abs. Without proper breathing for abs the abs will not work properly.
A lifting belt will try to mimic this effect to help protect the spine. However, I often recommend that people only use the belt once they understand how to breathe properly.
Step #7: Engage The Lats
Just before liftoff, Pull the bar as close to your body as possible with STRAIGHT ARMS! When the weight gets heavy, some lifters are in the habit of bending at the elbows. By bending the elbows this takes the weight off the upper back and will stress the lower back.
By keeping the arms straight pulling the bar into out shins, we will engage the lats. This will further add to spinal stabilization and also help to increase the poundage on the bar.
I may sound nit-picky, but believe me, every little bit helps to improve your deadlift form.
Step #8: Drive Through The Heels (Liftoff!)
Now comes the fun part! Liftoff. Now we are officially done setting up and we are taking action. If you have gone through the proper setup steps listed above. Then the lift should be pretty straight forward.
One thing to emphasize throughout the lift is to drive through the heels. From beginning to end make sure you stay on your heels. Chuck Taylors help with this. Chris Randise wrote an excellent post about Chucks, be sure to check it out.
Plenty of other coaches emphasize driving through the mid foot. If it works for you then by all means go for it. However, I feel the mid foot technique works best for the squat (whole other topic). Pushing through the heels will help give better leverage on the bar. Remember the bar is in front of you. It will be trying to pull you forward onto your toes so don’t worry about loosing your balance (you won’t).
If you want to conquer the king of all exercises, then you first want to respect the king of all exercises. It is much more than just screaming and picking up a heavy bar off the ground. In powerlifting, we have squat suits and bench shirts to help us lift significantly more weight. The deadlift has none of these, the only gear that a deadlift has is a belt, straps and chalk. Great technique is key to a great deadlift! Now quit reading and rip up that bar!
Take this infographic with you as a mental checklist: