All humans should possess the ability to lift stuff from the floor, our survival depends on it. If squats are the king of gym exercises, deadlifts are the queen. One thing to love about the deadlift is the fact that there is no way to cheat in this movement. There is certainly room to seriously hurt yourself if you don’t understand how to build tension and lift a weight safely. Generally speaking, if you are not strong enough to pick it up, it's not going budge. I’m no deadlifting champion, but the tips I share here are some of the things I think about on deadlift day.
My mantra has been put together by reading up on different deadlift methodologies, talking to experienced lifters, and experimenting with different training protocols. I typically don’t share this much detail when coaching the deadlift, as most athletes struggle to get the basics right. Each step contains additional layers that require lifter to STOP AND THINK about position, tension and small details like the position of the tongue. 😋
1. Keep the bar close, set your stance width
It’s important to start with the bar as close to your centre of mass (COM) as possible. The closer we can keep the bar the lighter it will be. Stance width will vary from athlete to athlete based on individual body types, limb proportions and strengths/weaknesses but a good starting point is where the athlete would typically do a vertical jump form. In a conventional deadlift our toes should be pointing straight ahead, in a sumo stance the toes will be slightly turned out.
2. Load the posterior chain (ass and hips baby)
Let’s get one small thing straight, it’s not a squat, and it’s not a stiff leg deadlift. We often see athletes setup for a deadlift with their shins at a forward angle, their hips at the wrong height and their shoulders behind the bar. This is a dangerous position that places the load on the quads and the lower back. It’s a deadlift, people! You need to be using your biomechanical leverage correctly if you are going to lift heavy shit safely and successfully. Limb length and torso length make the setup an individual thing, but everyone should still aim to get the basics right.
3. Pull yourself down to the bar
How you approach the bar dictates how the muscles are loaded in preparation for the lift. After reading Andy Boltons Deadlifting Dynamite I started to think more about how I approach the bar and pulling myself down to the bar.
"There is a saying in powerlifting: the harder it is to get down, the easier it is to come up. Surovetsky stresses a very focused descent to the bar: '…an easy, unfocused descent to the bar leads to serious negative consequences. First, you will have a harder time assuming the correct starting position and preparing all the muscles for the beginning of the movement. Second, you will end up lowering the pelvis more, which will increase the distance of the lift. The preparation phase is a crucial part of the movement which is often ignored in training.’”
4. "Grip it" and "Snap it."
I ring the bar’s blood neck. I don’t hold the bar like a cup of English tea, I give the barbell a “Chinese burn” and show the bar I mean business. At this point, it is important to make sure your hands are placed evenly on the bar, I then bend the bar towards my pinky fingers so that my elbow pits are facing forward. I then pull my shoulders down away from the ears—an “anti-shrug”. If you pay attention, you will get a cramp in your armpits, and your waist will feel more stable.
5. Head in neutral position
We talk about neutral spine and neutral head position all the time in the gym. When lifting heavy, it’s important to align your spine correctly. It's never good seeing people deadlift and squat while looking up. What the hell is up there?
Our bodies have a tendency to move in the direction that our eyes are looking. When you look up, you put your cervical spine into extension, your thoracic and lumbar spine will then want to follow. As your spine goes into extension, your abdominals tend to switch off, not a good idea when your aim is to build tension and produce high levels of force.
Slightly shorten the distance between your sternum and your pelvis, obliques (“push your sides out”), and lats (“push your arms down and back, as if swimming”, “break the bar”) while relaxing the traps and the neck. Think of your body as a cylinder. Neither lean back, nor forward. Neither blow up or collapse your rib cage. Keep your neck neutral, a continuation of the spine. Neither chicken it forward or crank it up. You will notice that tension will increase throughout the body as you focus on this.
Please, please, please keep your chin tucked and your head in a neutral position. I usually keep my eyes focused on the floor about 2m in front of me.
6. Breathe motherfu**ers
Often athletes breathe into their chest, and this does nothing to help stabilise their midline. This is by far the most important step in the whole process. Just hang out in the bottom position of the deadlift and take 3-5 deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth until you feel your diaphragm is pushing down into your abdominals and my midline is set with “washboard abs”. If you were wearing a belt (we should not wear a belt when deadlifting as we want to train our abdominals), you would be pushing your stomach out into the belt 360deg of expansion.
After inhaling we hold our breathe and complete the remaining steps to lift the bar to lockout. As we reach lockout, we can exhale safely. We then need to breathe deeply again at the top and hold our breath as we lower the bar back to the floor.
7. Push your tongue into the roof of your mouth
Singers have long known the role of tongue position in singing, not merely in altering sound production, but also in altering the strength and control of the diaphragm for power production. In strength, letting the tongue simply flop around in the mouth reduces the tone of the neck muscles, which decreases cervical spine stability. As the shoulder blades are essentially hanging off the spine, it’s necessary to have some significant levels of stability at play. Pushing your tongue into the roof of your mouth helps to increase intra-abdominal pressure and stabilise the spine.
Here is an awesome video on breathing 101 for deadlifting:
8. Take the tension, push the floor away
Creating tension in the start position is critical to a big deadlift. Taking tension on the bar is often called “taking the slack out of the bar.” More stiffness is going to be your friend in the deadlift, try to get maximal tension through your entire body, pulling the bar up into the plates to generate additional tension before you begin the movement phase. Never go from zero tension to maximum effort in a split second, build the tension slowly, and the bar will feel lighter.
“Grip it and rip it” is a load of crap, if your coach is telling you to do this you need to find a new coach! Tension equals strength! Tension will keep the body aligned correctly and produces the force required to lift big boy weights. If you rip the bar off the floor without building tension, you will never maintain a strong lifting position. Slowly building tension in the bar by aggressively driving the feet into the floor, as if you’re trying to jump up and backwards, will generate power from the floor.
A flat foot typically results in the legs rotating inward (tibia and femur rotating internally), which pulls the hip into an anterior pelvic tilt, and alters how well we can stabilise our midline. Conversely, a high arch pushes more weight to the outside of the foot, which can externally rotate the legs and result in a posterior tilt of the pelvis. This small change can make a big impact on how you deadlift, and screwing the feet into the floor is the queue to set this up. Your feet should be flat on the floor with the weight slightly back on the heels.
The intent of “pushing the floor away”, while keeping the torso locked, helps.
9. Crush a walnut
“Pull up your kneecaps up” and “crush a walnut” with your glutes on the top of the deadlift. When approaching lockout, many people want to throw their head back, but again this will put the spine into extension. Not a good idea when you’re holding onto a heavy object. The distance between the bottom rib and the top of the pelvis should NOT change. This comes back to the neutral spine and maintaining tension.
At the lockout position the load is now resting on the skeletal system, and hence this is the best opportunity to reset, brace your midline and take a breath or two.
10. If you pick it up, you put it down
By slightly bending the knees first I put tension in the hamstrings and then I send the hips back to add further tension to the glutes and hamstrings. If your knees are locked out, you will put more pressure on the lower back and increase the chance of injury. I keep pushing the hips back until the bar passed just below the knee (torso is roughly 45* angle), and then I bend the knees to lower the bar to the floor.
Don’t drop the bar, if your aiming is to build strength you need to complete the repetition. If your goal is 5reps, don’t do 4.5 reps.
The deadlift is one of the best movements to build strength and to prevent back injury if done correctly. The steps above are the things I currently focus on when I’m deadlifting. Some of these points may help you improve your lifting technique, and you may also have some of your own to add to the list. I’m not saying this is the bible of deadlifting success; you need to have your mantra to deadlift, squat, bench and to be awesome in the gym.
Don’t just step up to the bar and try to throw it around, the weights on the bar are indestructible and they will have the last laugh if you don’t learn to control your movements.