The Deadlift: You love it or you hate it. Notorious as the best exercise to display just how strong you are, the Deadlift is one of the most functional, primal compound movement, recruiting more muscle groups than any other lift! Many variations of this exercise exist, which can be incorporated to suit each individual’s biomechanics and strengths, or to hit a specific muscle group more effectively. The benefits of Deadlifting are endless; increasing strength, increasing power, recruiting muscle fibers, burning calories: the list goes on. Learn some simple tips which will allow you to improve your ability to Deadlift and achieve some PBs today!
Technique is frequently discussed when it comes to ensuring you are lifting effectively and avoiding the risk of injury. Depending on your goal and the purpose of incorporating Deadlifts into your weekly regime, your technique will influence your ability to carry out this exercise successfully and attain your desired goals. For example, for the Powerlifter attempting to hit a 1RM, the technique used must ensure the strongest muscle groups are recruited and that muscles can exert maximal force and power as quickly as possible. For the bodybuilder seeking hypertrophy, a stance and technique which allows constant tension of a desired muscle group for a higher rep range is necessary. Therefore, technique is of utmost importance not only to keep you injury free, but to perform this lift to suit your desired goal. There are some basic pointers which will help you with your technique, regardless of what type of deadlift you are trying to perform.
- Maintain a Neutral Spine: From a side view, you will want to ensure when commencing your Deadlift that your spine appears straight: No rounding, no hyperextending: your spine and neck alignment should be straight.
- Grip and Arm Position: Your hand placement on the bar should be approximately shoulder width apart. Your arms should be straight with your elbows locked, while your shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar and your shoulder blades will be directly over the bar. if viewing from your side profile. If your hips are too low, as if you are sitting into a squat, your shoulders will fall behind the bar, which throws off your entire technique.
- Feet and Leg Position: You’ll want the bar to sit over the halfway point of your foot. Too close toward your toes, you’ll lose balance and add unnecessary strain on your lower back. Too close to your ankles, and you’ll scrape your shins. Starting and finishing at the midpoint of your foot provides the shortest possible path for your deadlift, which means less time required to complete the exercise! Although your stance may vary, your toes should slightly rotate outwards by approximately 15 degrees. This will encourage you to push your knees outward during the motion; a must when ensuring maximum glute activation and therefore allowing you to engage more muscle and lift more.
2. Grip Strength
You’ll often hear that many people’s Deadlift will suffer as a result of their poor grip strength or their wrists giving out. If you’re unable to hold the weight of the bar in your hands, you’ll have no chance of picking it up off the ground and completing the movement from top to finish. Many will use lifting accessories including Gloves, Wraps and Straps in a bid to enhance their grip strength and therefore lift more weight, but when it comes to Deadlifting like a pro, you cannot use these aids when it comes to competition. To increase your grip strength and improve your overall Deadlift, try the following:
- Instead of holding the Barbell in the palm of your hands, use your lower fingers, above your calluses, not on them. Aggravating your skin or enduring tears and bleeding will only cause you pain which will weaken your grip. By holding the bar in the crease between your fingers and your palm, you’ll endure less skins folds, less calluses and therefore a more sustainable, stronger grip. If you’ve not held the bar like this before, it may feel uncomfortable or no as secure to begin, but you’ll get used to it with continual adherence and it will eventually ensure you’re not limited by your grip in the future.
- Chalk: One thing you will see used in competitions is chalk. Chalk works by absorbing sweat and moisture on your hands, which in turn increases friction and reduces the incidence of the bar slipping out of your hands. Chalk can also reduce the incidence of tears occurring, which we’ve discussed is also important to ensure you can retain a strong, pain free grip.
- Forget the Straps, Wraps and Gloves. If you rely on these accessories every time you Deadlift, your weaker muscle groups will never improve or feel the need to get stronger. Greater dependency on accessories will cause your grip strength without them to weaken, as you’re never really challenged to manage the load on your own. Many individuals will partake in accessory work whereby they focus in isolated exercise which challenge and target their grip strength. However, by performing your Deadlifts without accessories, this will become the best way to improve your grip strength. When it comes to gloves, the added thickness from the material make the diameter of the bar larger, which in turn makes it harder to hold as the greater thickness makes it difficult to overlap your thumb on your fingers. If you use gloves to avoid calluses forming, know that these calluses actually protect your hands and make it less painful to grip the bar. While it may be uncomfortable or painful to begin with when it comes to losing the gloves, it will become less so in time and overcoming this discomfort is just one of many times you’ll need to do this in your lifting journey. You can use straps for some of your sets if necessary, but not all. Deadlifting without straps is key to improving your Grip Strength and therefore overall Deadlift.
- Use the Right Barbell: The best type of Rarbell you can use for Deadlifting will be small in diameter (28mm is preferable), contain a sharp knurling (rough pattern indented into a barbell which enhances ones’ grip) and posses revolving sleeves (the sleeves (ends of the barbells) should spin to some extent as opposed to remaining fixed, but need not rotate to the extent that a Barbell used for Olympic Lifting should). Some rotation should occur, to allow the weight plates to rotate as you move the bar. This reduces the amount of torque created by the plates, which provides a more secure grip and reduces stress and impact on your wrists and elbows.
3. Programming: Sets and Reps
You should give some thought prior to performing a workout which incorporates Deadlifts, in respect to the number of sets and reps you are to perform. If you’re trying to improve your 1RM and wanting to hit a new PB, continually attempting to hit it each session won’t actually help you get there. Any quality program designed to increase your strength or increase your maximum Deadlift numbers specifically will utilise a variety of different sets, reps and amount of weight lifted. A popular program utilised in the fitness community is Jim Wendler’s 5 3 1 program, whereby these numbers dictate the desired repetition range you’ll perform each workout. If you’re attempting to increase your maximum lift for a single rep, it may seem counter intuitive to strip the bar down to a weight that allows you to achieve 5 repetitions for a series of working sets. However, by improving your strength at these lighter loads, this provides you with more room to progress. Instead of hitting your 100% of your maximum effort each time you lift, focus on approximately 90% of your maximum, attempting 2 or 3 reps with this weight.
Working with this higher volume allows your body to achieve greater neural adaptation, greater muscle fibre recruitment, greater muscular force application and greater strength gains. In addition, completing 2 – 3 repetitions taxes the Anaerobic Alactic Energy Pathway more than when performing a single rep. This fatigue and stimulation of fast twitch muscle fibres will be greater during this higher repetition range, which stimulates more tissue growth and muscle fibre recruitment! Many Russian Olympic Lifters will rarely max out during their training sessions, typically working within the 2 -3 rep range. However, this doesn’t mean you should disregard testing your 1RM all-together, especially if you plan on competing in the future. But if your main goal is simply to gain strength, aim for maximal efforts for a 2-3 rep range and gradually increasing the load.
4. Power and Speed
Deadlifting, especially when working close to your maximum load, requires a lot of power on the part of the lifter. The Deadlift, particularly when performed at a low rep range, requires a great amount of force to be exerted and maximum muscle activation. The Rate of Force Development describes how rapidly you can recruit muscle fibres at a single time, which will determine the amount of force you produce. The greater force you can apply, the better your chances are at lifting heavy loads off the ground and improving your maximum lifts. One way you can improve the force you are able to produce is to visualise yourself performing your lift and picking up the bar with speed and explosiveness. Simply visualising this can help send messages to a greater number of muscle fibres to fire more quickly. The result? More power, strength and weight able to be lifted! In addition, you can also incorporate some additional techniques within your current training to help you become more explosive. The addition of training methods such as Olympic Lifting, sprinting and Plyometric Training will all aid in enhancing your explosive ability and therefore improving your Deadlift potential. Some exercises that you can incorporate include Snatches, Clean and Jerks, 50 – 100m sprints and Box Jumps. Think improved muscle firing, improved motor unit communications and improved force generation.
In addition, you can add some sets of Speed Pulls to your workout, whereby you perform Deadlifts at anywhere between 40% – 70% of your 1RM, focusing purely on the speed at which you pick it up off the ground (or rack). Typically, you’ll want to incorporate 6 – 10 sets of a single rep. If you’re speed isn’t up to scratch, you’ll have zero chance of hitting those lifts as your load gets heavier and heavier. Practise getting faster by conditioning your body and muscles to lift the weight as quickly and explosively as possible. This will result in increasing your ability to apply a greater amount of force at a single time. You ability to apply force quickly is dependent on your intent to apply force rapidly, so don’t disregard your warm up sets and accessory exercises.
5. Accessory Exercises
Accessory exercises work to target and strengthen supporting muscles groups which are relied upon to carry out your main lift. When it comes to the Deadlift, accessory exercises should be incorporated in your program which work to support the Glutes, Hamstrings, Hips and Back. Movements should be selected which mimic the primary movement (the Deadlift in this instance) but emphasize different parts of the movement, which you may experience weakness in. While endless accessory movements exist, the following are our favourites, proven to benefit the Deadlift.
Romanian (Stiff-Legged) Deadlifts
This movement is one of the most effective exercises for strengthening the Glutes, Hamstrings and Lower Back. Due to the nature of this movement, the long range of motion you need to achieve to complete a repetition will stimulate your lower back, and as a result, improve you ability to utilize your posterior chain and become more hip dominant. When performing this movement, focus on driving with your glutes predominantly, squeezing them both at the start and end of the motion. To further challenge yourself and strengthen these muscle groups, perform this movement from a deficit, whereby you stand on a blockt but still lift the weight off the ground. This increases the range of motion even more, whilst better recruiting the hamstrings, lats and traps.
Barbell Hip Thrust
This exercise is extremely beneficial for targeting the Glutes, but also is effective for teaching you how to snap your hips effectively to maximise power output. Visualise your glutes driving the movement, pushing up from the ground with your heels. This will ensure your quads and hamstrings are not the predominant drivers of the movement. You glutes are key when performing Deadlifts, specifically when working closer to your 1RM. Therefore, strengthening this muscle group whilst also improving your ability to fire your glutes will provide you with a serious advantage during your Deadlifts.
Block or Rack Pulls describe a variation of a Deadlift from above ground level. Blocks or a Rack are commonly perfromed, particularly useful for those who are unable to maintain a neutral spine during their main deadlift off the floor. Working with this partial range of motion can seriously transform your ability to carry out your full Deadlift, while limiting the activity and involvement of the quads. When performed from slightly below the knee, this movement forces the glutes and hamstrings to to drive the movement. Incorporating Block or Rack Pulls improves your ability to carry out that portion of the Deadlift movement, Commencing a deadlift from a variety of starting positions will benefit you when performing a standard Deadlift, as if will allow you to grow stronger during all phases of the movement.
6. Mobility Work
Just when you thought the topic of stretching, rolling and massage could be avoided! To perform a Deadlift to the best of your ability, your technique needs to be on point to ensure you pull with greatest efficiency. Adhering to specific mobility work will ensure you can maintain hip flexibility, central to your success at performing a Deadlift. If you ensure the muscles which are responsible for providing you with hip mobility such as the hamstrings and calves aren’t tight, you’ll be able to tilt your pelvis in the right position to allow you to maintain a neutral spine during your lifts, which is integral to remaining injury free and performing your lift with greatest efficiency.
Using Foam Rollers will become your best friend when it comes to loosening up tight muscles that are affecting your hip mobility. They work by taking advantage of your body’s natural response to pressure, whereby rolling over tight areas or muscle fascia adhesions will results in the loosening these muscles and breaking up ‘knots’. Your muscles will relax when pressure is applied to these trigger points. You should attempt to place the majority of your body weight onto the Roller, to allow it to effectively treat and access the targeted area. The firmer the roller, the higher the pressure (and pain) will be. You can support yourself by keeping some of your body weight on the ground, to reduce the amount of pressure initially, and slowly apply more bodyweight onto the roller as muscles gradually loosen. Areas of focus when it comes to rehabilitation for improving your deadlift include:
- IT Band (the strips of connective tissue that run along the outside of your thighs),
- Hip Adductors (inner thighs)
- Lower Back
- Upper Back
A massage ball is another handy way to target isolated, tight, isolated, smaller muscle groups or to target specific areas which are giving you grief or are more prone to tightness. The ball will allow you to break up adhesions in muscle fascia and therefore allow you move more freely and enhance hip mobility. Areas that can be focused on include:
- Hip Flexors
- Shoulder Blades
These can be completed prior to training, to warm up your joints and prepare them for going through the full range of hip motion. Do not recklessly attempt these as your hips are delicate before warmed up and you increase the risk of injury; begin these exercises slowly andin a controlled manner, working up to greater ranges of motion as your joints become warm. Ideas include:
- Leg swings: front to back and side to side
- Static Squat Holds: using your elbows to push your knees outward
- Reverse Lunges with a Twist: twisting your torso in the direction of the leg that is forward to lengthen the hips
- Piriformis Stretch: Lying on your back, bring one bent leg up toward you, hugging your knee and directing your knee toward the opposite shoulder.
- Frog Stretch: On all fours, ensure your knees are aligned and wider than shoulder distance apart, with your ankles in line with your knees. Place your forearms on the ground and press your hips backward until comfortable. Then, bring your hips forward and push your arms into the ground to elevate your upper body
- Butterfly Stretch: Sitting on your bottom, bring the soles of your feet together, with your heels as close to your body as possible. Open your knees outward so you groin muscles are wide, and hold onto your ankles and pull your feel toward your hips. Lean forward to achieve an even deeper stretch
- Pigeon Stretch: This stretch focuses on one leg at a time. The resting leg will be straight behind you, with the leg of focus being bent in front of you, with your knee slightly outward and your heel close to your body. You will feel the stretch in that glute muscle. Lean forward to achieve an even deeper stretch.