The deadlift is one of the best exercises (second only to squats and the Olympic lifts) for overall development, particularly in the lower body. In addition, it’s a very functional lift. We often squat down to pick something up: groceries, a laundry basket, a child, the ratty couch that your deadbeat friend is making you move again, some guy with a gambling problem that your boss asked you to whack, etc. The deadlift, more than most other lifts, prepares you for “real life”. The premise of the deadlift is simply squatting down to pick something (a “dead weight”) off the floor.
It’s very important to get good form down on the deadlift, because doing it incorrectly, and/or with too much weight at the outset, can damage your lower back. Some gyms have a deadlift platform (which I am on; you notice that there are hooks at waist height to set the weight on) with some kind of rack apparatus to put your bar on when you are loading or unloading plates. If your gym doesn’t have one, just do these from the floor. It helps to have a partner who can steady the bar as you put your plates on.
Smaller plates are easier to manipulate, but do bear in mind, however, that the size of the plate will affect the height of your pull. The smaller the plate, the lower down you’ll have to squat to get into proper position. If you’re short, like me, this isn’t a huge deal. It’ll be a big advantage, in fact, when you do begin pulling with 45 lb. plates, because the bar will begin around mid-shin and you won’t have to pull it up very far. If you have difficulty squatting down properly with smaller plates, try either changing your stance, or gradually increasing your range of motion by starting with the pull higher, and progressively working your way down. You can do this by pulling the bar off the safety pins in a power cage, or you can simply put plates flat on the floor, underneath the plates on your bar, and elevate them slightly that way.
To the right, we have the classic bad deadlift.
Notice the rounded back, the shoulders pulled forward, the head down, and the hips up high. There’s a lot of pressure on the lower back here, and since the leg involvement has been minimized, it means this exercise is not only unsafe but highly inefficient. After all, the legs are much stronger than the lower back, and they should be the ones doing the work.
When the spine is rounded (flexed), the muscles that support and stabilize it are unable to do their job. They go off and have a nice coffee break, maybe even a little snooze. The load is then shifted to the connective tissues: the ligaments and tendons are forced to hold everything together. They’re strong, but much stronger when working as a team with the muscles, and eventually they’ll give out as the vertebrae are pulled apart from the shearing force.
This is the back injury equivalent of walking into a biker bar wearing a tutu, with your wallet taped to your chest, and insulting someone’s momma. You’re asking for it.
DIVA: CONVENTIONAL STYLE
DIVA: SUMO STYLE
There are two general styles of deadlifting: conventional and sumo. The left-hand pictures in each row show the starting position for both conventional and sumo deadlifts respectively. While there are general rules which apply to both, there is no right style of deadlift. It depends largely on your own comfort and individual biomechanics. Try both and see which you prefer.
Conventional: feet are placed about shoulder width apart. Hands are outside knees.
Sumo: feet are placed wide, toes pointing slightly out. Hands are inside knees, with grip slightly narrower than shoulder width.
In both cases, I’m using an alternating grip. You don’t have to, but it’s something that makes holding the bar easier. Just grab the bar with one hand overhand and one hand underhand. This minimizes the problem of the bar rolling around. Notice that in both cases, my hips are low, my back is straight with shoulders pulled back, and I’m looking forward.
The centre picture shows the mid-point of the ascent (or descent, depending on whether you’re an optimist or pessimist). Hips are still low, back is slightly arched, shoulders are still pulled back, and I’m still looking up. The leg muscles are providing the upward drive here, not the back. It helps to think of your hands as hooks from which the weight hangs, nothing more. You’re not pulling the bar up, you’re pushing yourself up. Try to drive your heels through the floor. Notice also that I’m not leaning too far forward, and that the bar stays close to my body. The farther out that bar is from you, the harder it is to bring it up. This is where the difference between sumo and conventional deadlifts really shows itself. If you have a short back and long legs, you’re more likely to take off your kneecaps trying to do a conventional deadlift.
The picture on the right in both cases is the top position of the deadlift. Notice that my hips are pushed forward, shoulders are still back, and knees are not locked. To bring the weight up through the top part of the deadlift, push the hips forward (really squeeze the glutes and contract the hamstrings to do this). When your hips extend in this way, your back just naturally comes up.
Do the reverse of this motion to lower the bar under control. Don’t just drop it at the end of a set unless you’re one of those lucky people who trains in a REAL gym with platforms, rubber weights, and all. Don’t allow your form to relax on the descent.
When learning the DL, begin with light weight—even just a broomstick—and learn the form first before adding too much resistance. Again, think of it as a squat that involves picking something up from the floor. You can do this movement with dumbbells if you like, and it’s up to you whether you hold them outside or inside your knees.
Sometimes incorrectly called the straight-legged deadlift, the SLDL involves the spinal erectors (lower back), glutes (butt) and hamstrings (back of thighs), and to a lesser extent, the grip, forearms, and upper back. Since this is a compound movement but is less complex than squats, put this after squats in your workout.
A cautionary note about this exercise. This is the exercise that gave me the back injury that still challenges me today. Years ago, at the end of a long workout when my back was fatigued, I decided on the final set of SLDLs to increase the weight. This, as it turned out, was a Really Dumb Thing To Do. At about rep number four, a stabbing pain shot through my low back and down my right leg. I found out much later that this was probably a disc herniation at the L5 vertebra.
There are some important lessons here. First, never do this exercise as a maximal lift. Do not test your 1 rep max, do not go to failure, and do not use a 100% effort. Treat it as a light endurance and conditioning exercise only, rather than a go-hard-or-go-home movement like I did. Focus on using the glutes and hamstrings to drive the movement. And if you have a history of back pain and injury, especially a disc herniation, pass on this movement. There are many other options for glute and hamstring training.
To the left is a bad stiff-legged deadlift.
Aside from the fact that I’m cracking up in the picture (my lovely and talented photographic assistant was making me laugh):
- my back is rounded
- my shoulders are pulled forward
- I’m looking down
- worst of all, my knees are locked and hyper-extended
Since women tend to be able to hyper-extend their joints with ease, this is a problem we should take care to avoid.
This position puts a lot of pressure on my lower back.
The picture on the left shows the starting position for a stiff-legged deadlift. My feet are shoulder width or narrower. My knees are slightly bent, the bar is close to my shins, my back is straight and my shoulders are pulled back. I am looking up, which helps to keep my back in the appropriate position.
In this position, I contract my hamstrings and glutes and straighten from the hips to bring the weights up, as in the centre picture. Although there is lower back involvement in this exercise, the drive should come mainly from the contraction of your hams and glutes. When you first learn this exercise, begin with very light weight, and concentrate on feeling the sensation of squeezing your hams and glutes.
The picture on the right (astute readers will notice that it’s the same pic as the top of a regular deadlift, which is kind of cheating coz it incorrectly shows my feet too far apart and hands too close together, but if you’re smart enough to read this you’re probably smart enough to figure out the difference) shows the top of the SLDL movement. I have used the contraction of my glutes to push my hips forward which helps to bring the weight up. My knees are still slightly bent and I never lock them. Shoulders are back and chest is up and out.