Pete McCall, MS, CSCS, is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and long-time player in the fitness industry. He has been featured as an expert in the Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Runner's World and Self. He holds a master's degree in exercise science and health promotion, and several advanced certifications and specializations with NSCA and NASM.
Technique Series: How to Deadlift
The name sounds intimidating, but the deadlift is arguably one of the most effective exercises your clients should be doing. The deadlift involves lifting a stationary object off the ground while performing a hip-dominant movement. The “dead” refers to the fact that the weight is at a dead rest, so no momentum is used. Research has shown that individuals trained in how to perform the deadlift can lift a greater amount of weight than can be used with any other free-weight exercise (Swinton et al., 2011).
The barbell deadlift is one of the three lifts used in competitive powerlifting (the other two are the bench press and back squat). This exercise can be extremely useful for helping clients develop total-body strength. The deadlift is especially important for teaching proper hip function, which can reduce the risk of low-back injuries by minimizing the strain on the bony structures and muscles of the spine.
Artemis Scantalides, owner of the Iron Body Studios in West Roxbury, Mass., and creator of the I am Not Afraid to Lift workshop for women who want to learn more about the benefits of strength training, is a huge fan of the barbell deadlift—as long as the client does not have any limitations in his or her hip mobility. “It is a relatively easy movement to learn and the learning curve can be fairly quick.”
As evidenced by Scantalides (and many others), the deadlift is NOT just for men. In fact, women can experience many health and fitness benefits by learning how to add the deadlift to their exercise programs.
Melissa diLeonardo, a Chicago-based ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor and Master Trainer for Life Fitness, believes the deadlift is the perfect lift for many women. “Women not only need to be capable of moving things themselves, but should also realize that a proper deadlift applies a simple (yet often underused) pattern of hinging at the hip. The hip hinge will strengthen the posterior of the legs and low back, but is can be difficult to initially master due to the amount of time people spend sitting in chairs.”
Scantalides agrees. “For women, it can be a very empowering movement in that it helps them to build strength, which in turn enhances their feelings of independence because they can lift heavy objects and manage loads outside the gym without the help of others. This strength builds empowerment, independence and confidence, which translates to greater freedom.” Scantalides herself is a great example: At just 117 pounds, she is capable of deadlifting more than two times her weight and can pull 245 pounds off of the floor.
Primary Movement Pattern
The primary movement in the deadlift is the hip hinge, but proper technique also requires mobility of the hips and ankles to allow for proper movement mechanics while maintaining extension of the spine throughout the lift.
A primary difference between the squat and the deadlift is that during a squat, the weight is carried across the upper back (for back squat) or across the front of the shoulders (front squat). Both the back and the front squat place a tremendous amount of force on the osseous structures of the spine as well as the muscle and fascia responsible for providing stabilization. During a deadlift, the weight is on the ground, which dramatically reduces the amount of stress on the upper body. Proper deadlifting form involves performing a hip hinge using the hip extensor complex to generate the upward forces to overcome the inertia of the weight.
Proper lifting technique for the deadlift requires mobility at the hips combined with stability of all three regions of the spine: lumbar, thoracic and cervical. The greatest muscle forces developed during a traditional barbell deadlift are generated at the hip, lumbar spine, ankle and knee, respectively (Swinton et al., 2011). It is important to ensure that a client has sufficient hip mobility and range of motion before attempting to deadlift using an external load. To reduce the load on the spine, the weight used during the deadlift must be kept as close as possible to the body throughout the entire exercise.
Major Muscles Involved
For the concentric (lifting) phase of the deadlift, the muscles involved are:
Prime movers: The gluteus maximus and quadriceps extend the hips and knees, respectively.
Synergists: The adductors and hamstrings help extend both the hips and knees, while the gastrocnemius provides assistance to extend the knees.
Stabilizers: The gluteus medius, piriformis, transverse abdominis, thoracolumbar fascia, external obliques, internal obliques and latissimus dorsi all help stabilize the hip joint and spine. The forearm flexors help maintain grip on the bar.
Benefits of the Deadlift
The barbell deadlift can help clients improve their total-body strength, while placing a specific emphasis on the posterior muscles involved in hip, knee and back extension. Increasing the strength of the posterior chain muscles can help clients reduce or avoid low-back pain while also teaching them how to synchronize movement of the ankles, knees, hips and back into one pattern. The deadlift can help an individual develop a level of strength that can be used for a number of other exercises or to improve performance in activities requiring significant levels of hip and core strength.
A weight belt can help create tension through the muscles to stabilize the spine and may be important when attempting lifts at a maximal load. However, it is not necessary to use a weight belt when using low to moderate weights as long as the client demonstrates sufficient mobility through the hips while also maintaining stability through the trunk and spine. According to diLeonardo, learning proper lifting technique can actually significantly improve back strength. “Learning how to safely engage your lower back is a good thing and can help decrease the chance of back pain and injury,” she says.
Dave Dellanave, owner of The Movement fitness studio in Minneapolis, Minn., and author of Off the Floor, calls the deadlift the “king” of all lifting exercises because it uses so many muscles at one time. One of the primary benefits of doing the deadlift, explains Dllanave, is that it allows a lifter to move heavy weight, which can be extremely effective for strengthening bones, tendons and ligaments.
The deadlift also offers numerous functional benefits, including an enhanced ability to do everyday tasks like pick heavy objects off the ground (such as groceries, suitcases and kids).
“An often overlooked but equally important effect of the deadlift is the tremendous sense of accomplishment people feel when picking a heavy weight up off the floor,” argues Dellanave. “Don’t underestimate this benefit. Many clients become hooked on weightlifting after the first experience locking out a heavy deadlift.”
There are three specific phases: the setup, the pull and the lockout.
Here’s your set-up:
- Stand with feet hip- to shoulder-width apart. Rest your shins against the bar.
- Hinge at the hips and sink back into your glutes while keeping your spine extended and chest lifted up toward the ceiling.
- Grip the bar with one hand facing palm-up and the other hand facing palm-down. This over-under grip is for safety and can keep the bar from rolling out of your hands.
- Squeeze the bar with your hands as you sink back into your hips. As you sink into your hips, think about pulling your back and down to engage the lats. This will help keep your low-back stable.
For the pull:
- Push your feet into the floor to straighten your legs and lift your chest as you lift the weight off the floor. As you stand up, think about pulling back on your knees and pushing your hips forward.
Finally, for the lockout:
- At the top of the movement, hold your shoulders back as you keep your spine straight and tall. Pause for a moment before descending into the lowering phase.
- Slowly push your hips back while keeping your spine long and chest lifted into the air.
- Use your thigh muscles to resist the downward pull of gravity as the weight lowers back to the floor.
- At the bottom, pause, reset your hips and repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Teaching the Lift
When teaching the deadlift, make sure the client can perform a successful hip hinge. Teach the hip hinge by using exercises like the glute bridge, Romanian deadlift or lateral lunge, all of which teach mobility of the ilio-femoral joint of the hip and strengthen the muscles and connective tissues responsible for controlling hip extension.
It is essential that you know how to regress the deadlift so you can teach your clients the important components of the movement before allowing them to perform the movement with complete range of motion. If a client does not demonstrate sufficient hip mobility, Dellanave recommends using blocks or jump boxes to help clients learn how to properly execute the movement required for a successful deadlift. From here, you can teach the client how to move into full hip extension from a partial squat. Elevating the weight can also help the client learn how to use his or her existing level of hip mobility while maintaining a straight spine.
A second option is to use a hexagon-shaped bar (hex bar), which allows the client to stand in the middle of the weight and hold handles on either side of the body. The hexagon bar is a more comfortable option for clients who don’t like the feel of the bar against the front of their shins or who are concerned about developing a possible back injury. In a study comparing a traditional barbell deadlift to one using a hex bar, the authors found that the hex bar significantly reduced the torque on the lumbar spine, and participants were able to lift more weight when compared to the standard barbell. The authors also found that using the hex bar allowed the lifters to create more hip flexion, ultimately developing more force from the hip extensor musculature (Swinton et. al, 2011).
Scantalides uses kettlebells to teach her clients how to deadlift. “The kettlebell dead-lift is a great way to have a new lifter start dead-lifting because a single kettlebell is less intimidating than a barbell. Once a client learns how to successfully hip hinge with a kettlebell, I will have him or her work on double kettlebell dead-lifts before introducing the barbell version. I’ve found that training double kettlebell dead-lifts helps clients learn how to wedge over the weight, sit back in the hips and generate upper body tension,” explains Scantalides.
A common mistake made by beginners is trying to lift the weight with the back rather than with the hips. Another is allowing the spine to bend and round during the lifting phase. Both mistakes can be addressed by teaching clients how to perform a proper hip hinge before progressing to doing an actual deadlift.
Using too much weight too soon is another mistake that can easily be avoided. Teach a client the proper lifting technique using a weight that he or she can easily control before progressing to heavier loads. A client should be able to perform eight to 12 repetitions with a weight that he or she can easily control before attempting lifts with heavier weights.
“Often new lifters will not know how to engage their upper body (i.e., pack their shoulders and engage their lats) and allow their upper body to work simultaneously with their hips to lift the weight,” says Scantalides. “New lifters will rush the movement and not take enough time with their set up, which means they won’t generate enough tension between their back and lower body before lifting the weight.”
Tips for Beginners
“One of my favorite deadlift teaching tools is a wall,” explains diLeonardo. “If a client is having trouble performing the hip hinge, we start standing facing away from a wall. I cue the client to keep the knees slightly bent, then lead with the hips and touch the wall with their butt. This exercise typically helps the client understand the difference between hinging and squatting. Due to our current culture's state of prolonged sitting, this pattern often needs to be relearned. The brain and the body need to work together to relearn the pattern.”
diLeonardo also recommends the following coaching cue: “The shoulders should rise at the same time your hips (don't lead with your rear end), keep your chest up and your neck neutral. If the weight does not feel right, leave it on the floor. Listen to your body and don't be afraid.”
Dellanave coaches beginners to learn how to keep the barbell close to their body. “The bar should be skimming the surface of your shins—this is why power lifters wear tall socks in competition. Any space between you and the bar is leverage that is lost, and more load will be transferred into the lower back. Keep the bar in tight.”
“The biggest difference between kettlebell deadlifts and barbell deadlifts,” explains Scantalides, “is that when the client starts using the barbell, he or she can no longer stand over the weight. Instead, the weight is in front of them, so they must learn how to keep the bar over the middle of their foot and tight to their body when barbell dead-lifting. I always have the client start out with a light weight on the bar so that he or she can practice this set up and technique.”
The study mentioned earlier by Swinton and colleagues (2011) comparing the barbell deadlift to the hex bar version concluded that if a client’s goal includes strengthening the muscles of the lumbar spine, the standard barbell deadlift be used. “Because the hex bar deadlift more evenly distributes the load between the joints of the body,” the researchers wrote, “[trainers] may find this version to be an effective exercise to use for clients with a history of low-back pain.”
Regardless of which version you choose to use, it is paramount that you personally learn how to properly perform the deadlift before you introduce the exercise to your clients. Once you start adding the deadlift to your clients exercise programs, they will quickly come to appreciate the benefits, including more powerful (and well-defined) glutes, a strong back and the confidence that comes with knowing they are capable of lifting hundreds of pounds of weight all at once.
Hales, M., Johnson, B. and Johnson, J. (2009). Kinematic analysis of the powerlifting style squat and the conventional deadlift during competition: is there a cross-over effect between lifts? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23, 9, 2574-2580.
Swinton, T. et al. (2011). A biomechanics analysis of straight and hexagonal barbell deadlifts using submaximal loads. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25, 7, 2000-2009.