Some call the Deadlift the purest test of strength, and the king of all exercises. It hits more muscles, all in one movement, than almost any other exercise in existence. Deadlifts can be key for anything from building brute strength and size, to rehabilitating a chronically painful back.
The Deadlift is a simple lift requiring only that the lifter pick a barbell off the floor, but doing so properly is important to reap the benefits of this exercise. The Deadlift is used in Powerlifting, and Strongman competitions as a test of strength. In Powerlifting, the Deadlift is performed alongside the Squat and Bench Press.
How to Deadlift
Before approaching the barbell, be sure that you are pulling from the proper height. The size of a large diameter plate on each side should raise the bar to approximately 9 inches (22.5 cm).
In this guide we will focus on the most popular Deadlift style, referred to as conventional. Practice all steps on every set, even on warm ups.
- Stand over the barbell with your feet under the bar. The bar should start a few inches in front of the shins.
- Foot stance slightly inside shoulder width with toes forward or slightly pointed outward.
- Bend over and grip the bar (grip methods below) with arms hanging directly below shoulders.
- Take a deep breath into the diaphragm (and hold).
- Bend at the knees and hips while pushing the butt backward. The barbell should now be right against the shins.
- Flatten out the back and create a neutral spine position with the head in a neutral position, and hold this position.
- Relax the arms.
- Pull aggressively, but smoothly, pulling the bar from the floor by driving with the legs. Keep the bar as close as possible to the shins and thighs throughout the movement.
- Once the bar reaches above the knees, force the hips forward into the bar. Stand tall and erect to reach the locked out position.
- Lower the bar by again bending at the knees and hips while holding the neutral spine.
- Release breath.
Bar positioning, foot stance, and hand grip width all vary slightly between lifters. The proper positioning keeps the knees from collapsing inward (knee knocking), and allows the arms to hang as long as possible. If legs are too wide, and the hands gripped too narrow, the knees will interfere with the arms.
Neutral spine alignment sets the vertebrae into their strongest position. It is important to teach new lifters this position when performing movements that load the spine to reduce risk of injury. The deep breath helps pressurize and stabilize this position. Occasionally, very experienced lifters choose to use a slightly rounded back as an advanced technique.
Common Deadlift Form Problems
- Too much back rounding: Focus on keeping the chest upright while sticking the butt out. Lower the weight if deadlift form becomes too rounded to the point of risking injury.
- Feet too wide: As mentioned above, many beginners don’t allow enough room for the knees to travel without collapsing inward. A shoulder width and under stance is typically recommended.
- Leaning far back at lockout: Standing up tall with the shoulders back, and knees locked is where the repetition ends. Leaning back too far can risk back injury.
- Curling the barbell: Make sure arms are relaxed and hanging like chains. If you are having trouble, it is sometimes recommended to flex the triceps during Deadlifts to extend the arm.
- Rounding to set the bar down: Some beginners will have perfect form right up until the descent. Make sure you keep the back neutral to reduce risk of injury.
- Bouncing off the floor: Reset the bar on the floor each repetition, or touch the bar lightly on the floor.
- Bar drifting away from body: The bar should be close, almost dragging the shins and thighs all the way up, and all the way back down. If the bar is too far from the body, optimal leverage is lost, putting the body into a weaker position. You may need to setup with the bar closer, sit back more, or squeeze the lats to keep the bar close.
When using increasingly heavy weights, holding a grip on the barbell becomes difficult. When the barbell begins to roll out of the hands, it is time to use a stronger grip more suitable for heavy pulling. Defaulting to lifting straps is never recommended. The deadlift is a great grip strengthening exercise and a strong grip should not be neglected.
Once the weights get heavy, you will also need to use chalk. There are two grips used for deadlifting, the Mixed Grip, and Hook Grip.
This grip is the most common among deadlifters. With one hand, simply grip the bar underhand, with the other gripped overhand. This under/over grip keeps the bar from rolling out of the hands, and is a much more secure grip. When using this grip, be sure to never “curl” with the underhand which can lead to bicep injury.
The hook grip is a slightly more advanced grip that can take practice. The hook grip allows for both hands to be overhand, but still retain a strong grip. Some lifters prefer it to the mixed grip due to its symmetry and eliminated risk of bicep injury. This grip depends on chalk even more so than the mixed grip.
With the hook grip, the barbell is gripped deeper in the hand, allowing the thumb to wrap around the barbell first, before the rest of the fingers. Once the thumb is wrapped around the barbell, the rest of the fingers are wrapped around the barbell and the thumbs. When used properly, the friction between the thumbs and other fingers gives the bar a very secure grip.
Hook gripping can be painful in the beginning, but with practice the pain decreases. Lifters with already heavy deadlifts have a harder time transitioning.
Variations of the Deadlift
Different deadlift variations can shift emphasis onto muscles differently. These variations can be used for variety sake, or to assist Deadlift progress. Unless otherwise mentioned, the same setup and form is used from the standard Deadlift.
A great exercise for off the floor strength as well as lockout. Standing on plates or blocks creates for a longer ROM (range of motion). This will require you to reach down further to grab the barbell. All different heights are used to stand on from normal (2 inches) to extreme (bar resting on shoe laces). Typically lifters like to bring the hips down lower, and use the legs to squat the barbell up more than on a standard deadlift.
This variation of the deadlift adds focus on the eccentric portion of the deadlift and shifts emphasis onto the lower back and hamstrings. This movement typically does not start from the floor, instead is walked out of a rack. With a tight lower back arch and only a slight knee bend, the bar is lowered under control while forcing the hips far back and letting the bar ride down the thighs. The weight is reversed and lifted back to lockout before the lower back loses its arch. For most people, the plates never touch the ground. An alternate (under/over) grip is typically not recommended with this variation. Lifters sometimes use this exercise to improve deadlift lock out strength.
Rack Deadlift / Block Deadlift (Partial Range of Motion)
This style is used to reduce the range of motion by setting a barbell in a rack, resting higher than the normal starting height. Similarly, blocks are also used under the plates to raise the barbell off the floor.
Lifters use this variation to overload the body by handling heavier weights. Many use this variation to improve lockout strength on the deadlift. Recommended heights range anywhere below the knee, and most prefer to use Blocks.
Band / Chain Deadlift
Both of these methods add an increasing amount of resistance toward the lockout. By using this method, you are able to overload the top of the movement by using a heavier weight than the lifter could normally deadlift. At the same time, it decreases the amount of resistance at the bottom, making for a unique force curve. Bands and Chains both are typically used to help a lifter who is struggling with the lockout.
Some lifters say accommodating resistance like this also helps the lifter learn how to lift quickly and carry momentum into the lockout. When ascending slowly, the repetition may be difficult or impossible to lockout as the resistance builds and the lifter fatigues.
Snatch Grip Deadlift
The Snatch Grip Deadlift is a deadlift with a very wide grip. The grip width should be wide enough to bring the bar up to the hip crease at lockout, like the olympic lift, the Snatch. This variation keeps the upper back tight, and creates a longer range of motion. Typically this deadlift is performed with a tight arched back, a very high chest, lower hips, and gripped with straps or hook grip.
Trap Bar Deadlift
Trap bar deadlifts require a specialty bar called a trap bar. This not-so-popular variation uses more quadriceps and typically has good carryover to the squat. This variation also allows for some extra overloading.
Deadlift Tips & Mental Notes
- Pull explosively! Don’t lose form and positioning, but practice being fast from the floor to lockout.
- Get your mind right. Make sure you are ready, and don’t rush the setup. Rushing into a deadlift you’re not feeling ready for usually doesn’t make for the best performance.
- Use chalk, and a strong grip. This one was already mentioned above, but it’s important. It is hard to progress and apply power with a loose, weak grip.
- Film yourself. If you don’t have a seasoned coach watching your every rep, record yourself for instant feedback. Post it up so others can critique or share some tips.
- Control the weight, don’t let it control you. When you setup to break the bar off the floor, your body shouldn’t move around before the bar leaves the ground. Your body and the barbell should lift together when force is applied.
- Go barefoot or get a good pair of shoes. Soft and squishy running shoes are unstable and soak up the force you want to apply to the barbell. Shoes with thin soles are best.
- Reset each rep. While not required, it’s a good habit to use when first learning the deadlift. You will pick up the form more quickly if you can re-gather yourself between each repetition.
- Push the earth away from you. Mentally pushing the ground away instead of pulling the bar upward is a popular mental queue some lifters say helps technique.
For those chasing every last pound or kilogram, there are some extra technique tweaks. Beginners are recommended to ignore this bit until proficient with the recommended technique.
- Take the slack out of the bar. Building just enough tension to give the barbell some bend before breaking it off the floor can help positioning off the floor and reduce the range of motion.
- Relaxing the upper back. Some Powerlifters use controlled rounding to their advantage. Hanging the shoulders and slightly relaxing the upper back can reduce ROM while allowing a higher starting position and more speed off the floor. The amount of rounding is locked in during the deadlift setup, and does not increase during the rep. It can be difficult to keep the lower back in a neutral position with this technique, use at your own discretion.
Deadlift Assistance Exercises
The deadlift variations mentioned above work well for improving the deadlift, but there are other exercises that work well in addition. Here’s some popular deadlift assistance exercises worth using:
- Squats (all variations)
- Good Mornings
- Back Extensions
- Leg Press
- Zercher Squats
- Glute-Hamstring Raises
- Reverse Hyper
- Weighted Abdominal Work
Deadlift Injury Risk and Prevention
The most common injury relating to deadlift is to the biceps. When lifters use the mixed grip, the under hand’s bicep can turn into a risk for bicep strain or tear. It is important for lifters using the mixed grip to always avoid pulling, or curling, with the bicep while deadlifting.
Back muscle pulls and strains are also common, especially for the beginner lifters who are increasing quickly in weights and may not have perfected their form. Typically they are never serious long-term injuries, but are uncomfortable and can take awhile to heal. Easing into heavier deadlifts and always maintaining recommended form as a beginner can help prevent strains.
Lifters unable to position themselves into proper form are strongly recommended to read about increasing mobility. Lack of the proper mobility can leave the lifter in vulnerable positions during any lift, increasing risk of injury.
Video Demonstration of Proper Deadlift Form
The video below goes over tightness, foot stance width, and more.