The Deadlift is one of the most fundamental lifts for athletic performance. The Deadlift and its’ variations are used by strength and conditioning specialists, sports medicine professionals, physical therapists, and the general public primarily to increase strength but also to benefit power and hypertrophy development.
Traditionally, the Deadlift has been used in training for athletes in powerlifting and strongman competitions, but its variability has proven to be useful for field and court athletes (Football, Baseball, Basketball and more). Because the Deadlift trains the athlete to produce more force, the athlete will benefit from an increased rate of force development, showing greater power outputs.
In this guide, I am going to explain how to properly deadlift, the muscles worked, and also give some good variations and alternatives.
Table of Contents
How To Deadlift
- Bumper or Iron Plates
The deadlift is a very basic movement; there is a setup, a concentric movement (pulling the bar off the ground), an isometric hold (locking the repetition in), and an eccentric movement (lowering the bar back to the ground before the start of the next repetition).
One of the most important considerations for Deadlifting is the setup. Two stances need to be considered; traditional, slightly wider than shoulder-width stance, or a wide, sometimes referred to as a “Sumo” stance.
An athlete should determine their deadlift stance based on a number of factors:
- What feels comfortable.
- Limb-Torso length ratios (An athlete with longer arms may find that they prefer a wider stance).
- Sport Specificity (An Olympic lifter would find more benefit from the traditional stance as it is more specific to their sport. Conversely, a defensive lineman may find some benefit from a wider stance depending on the time of year in their season).
Once a stance is chosen, a proper setup is critical for executing the lift properly, to reap the benefits of the movement and minimize the risks of injury.
When the athlete approaches the barbell, they should:
- Place their feet slightly wider than shoulder-width (The width of a stance for an athlete choosing a wide stance will vary based on height and comfortability).
- Slightly turn their feet outward (engaging the glutes).
- Take a deep breath to brace the abdominal muscles.
- The athlete should hinge at the waist and bend at the knee simultaneously until they can comfortably squeeze the barbell with both hands pronated (I will talk more later about mixed grips later in the article).
- As the athlete pulls themselves down into their setup position, they should maintain a neutral head posture, with their eyes fixed on something about 1-2 feet in front of them.
- In the final setup position, the athlete should pull their chest up, and shoulder blades back, while still maintaining a brace in their abdominal muscles and ready to lift.
The athlete is now ready for the concentric movement of the Deadlift. The athlete needs to pull the “slack” out of the barbell.
This is where the lifter needs to create tension by slightly pulling into the barbell and pushing their feet into the floor before maximal contraction/attempts.
Once this tension is created, the lifter drives their feet through the floor, drives the hips forward, keeping tension in the abdomen and upper back (DO NOT ROUND YOUR BACK), maintaining the barbell over the midfoot, the lifter stands tall with the barbell, and locks the repetition in.
It is important that each repetition is locked in and controlled at the top of the movement. This is considered an isometric hold. This hold generally only needs to be about 1 second.
Specifically for powerlifting, a judge will tell the lifter when they can lower the weight but it is also important for athletes and general lifters to maintain good control of their repetitions at all times and with all attempts.
After locking in the repetition for about 1 second, the athlete is ready to lower the weight. The athlete will take in a big breath, maintaining a braced core and shoulder blades pulled together. The hips will push back and the knees will bend simultaneously.
The bar should maintain a position over the midfoot and should never rest on the thighs during this movement. The athlete will continue to lower the barbell until the weights rest on the floor and prepare for the next repetition.
Now, let’s talk about gripping the bar. For most field and court sports athletes, gripping the bar with an overhand grip is what I would recommend.
The main reason I recommend this grip is that the athlete is deadlifting to gain strength and athletes should be training symmetrically as much as possible.
This is not to say that a mixed grip is bad for lifters. A mixed grip in some cases will help the lifter pull more weight. But again, I must stress, that lifting more weight for “more weight’s” sake is not a good reason.
Some lifters may switch which grips they mix (right-supinated, left pronated and vice versa) but this will be hard to track after hundreds of reps and sets over the course of a lifter’s career.
Obviously, a powerlifter will be training with the grip that they see that helps them pull the most weight.
By far the most common mistake with Deadlifting is improper form. Because the lift is very technical, uses the whole body, and requires patience and persistence, lifters often times have incorrect form without realizing it, go up in weight too quickly, and may injure themselves.
- Video your sets and reps
- Have an experienced lifter/trainer watch your sets and reps
- In regards to your setup and form; treat every rep like it’s a 1 rep max
- Put a tremendous amount of detail in your setup (Do it the exact same way, every rep)
- Make small gains in weight over time. Deadlifting is not a race.
- Upper Back
- Lower Back
There are a lot of variations to the Deadlift. I will discuss some variations that are specific to the Deadlift and for athletes that would like to benefit from the movement but may not be ready for the barbell and its accompanying risks/rewards.
A rack pull is a variation of the Deadlift where the starting position of the barbell is fixed at an elevated height, allowing the lifter to focus on the top half of the concentric movement.
A Romanian deadlift is a variation of the deadlift where the lifter deadlifts the bar off the ground but then executes the eccentric movement of the deadlift with a slight bend of the knee, focusing on hinging at the waist, until the barbell is about 3/4 down the shin, at which point the lifter concentrically returns back to the starting position.
Trap Bar Deadlift
A Trap bar deadlift is a variation of the deadlift where instead of using a barbell, the athlete will utilize a hexagonal-shaped trap bar. Most trap bars are designed so that the lifter can stand inside the implement and lift. This is also a very friendly option for injury-prone lifters.
The Deadlift is a compound, full-body movement, with an emphasis on hip extension, and full-body tension, focusing on creating as much power as possible. With this understood, there are many alternatives to the Deadlift.
Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift
A kettlebell sumo deadlift is an exercise where the lifter straddles the kettlebell with the handle beneath them and performs the deadlift with a “sumo” stance.
A kettlebell swing is an exercise where the lifter will deadlift the kettlebell to get into position and to execute the swinging motion, the lifter will forcefully drive the hips and hinge at the waist, executing hip flexion and extension.
Med Ball Overhead Toss
The med ball overhead toss is an exercise that sounds exactly what it describes. The athlete will assume a position over the med ball, hinge at the waist, forcefully lift the ball, drive the hips, and lifting with the arms, throw the med ball as high into the air as possible.
I would be doing the reader a disservice without discussing the potential risks of the traditional barbell Deadlift. This lift is highly technical and requires a tremendous amount of attention to detail, practice, and a slow gradual increase in weight. An athlete who does not consistently set up the right way and sacrifices form to lift more weight will get hurt.
It is also important to consider rest, recovery, and balancing other life activities.
Because the Deadlift stresses the entire body and is very hard on the central nervous system, it takes time to recover from a serious Deadlift session. Some powerlifters only train the deadlift as they get close to their competitions, and that’s because it is so hard to train the back squat, bench press, and deadlift in conjunction with each other. Field and court athletes should take note of this.
As an athlete, it is important to make sure the lifting in the weight room is correlating and in conjunction with your sport. Rest and recovery are absolutely critical to reap the benefits of any lift and should be taken seriously by all athletes.
More Links and Info
Head over to our Exercise Library to find more Lower Body Lifts, all complete with step-by-step instructions.