Deadlift is the third of three events performed in a powerlifting competition. It is one of the most important strength training movements for the upper body, especially the back. In my opinion this exercise requires the least technique compared to bench press and squat. Nonetheless, straightforwardness and simplicity is what made it so popular.
The deadlift is a simple compound movement, which means that utilizes multiple muscle groups. Brian Batcheldor, president of the British Powerlifting Congress (BPC) summed it very nicely: “Deadlift is the simplest and purest measure of strength that we have”. It is used to develop muscles and strength of the major muscle groups of the body, namely back (erector spinae), legs (hamstrings, quadriceps, and soleus) and hips (gluteus maximus and adductor magnus). Forearms (grip strength) are developed as well. Other muscles are involved in stability control.
There are a lot of versions of this exercise. Each of them has a specific purpose, depending on the sport and goals. I will focus on explaining the two most used techniques in powerlifting: the powerlifting deadlift also called the conventional deadlift, and the sumo deadlift. Conventional style predominantly recruits muscles of the back, while sumo uses more leg and hip power. I’ll cover the exact differences between styles at the end of this post. Only IPF rules of competition and allowed apparel will be covered here. If you compete in a different federation, check their rules because they may be different.
Phases of the Deadlift (Conventional Style)
- Phase 1: Setup (Prepare yourself for the lift by putting on your apparel: socks, slippers, suit, belt, and wrists wraps, in that order. Apply chalk to your hands to get a strong grip and powder on your suit and front part of the thighs to allow smooth traveling of the bar in case they come in contact).
- Feet Position (Put the middle of your foot under the bar. Be sure to measure your whole foot and not just the part that you can see. Middle is somewhere above your shoelaces, where the bar stands approximately 2″ (5cm) away from your shins).
- Stance Width (Position your feet slightly narrower that shoulder width. Feet can stand parallel to each other or with toes pointing slightly to the sides. This is something you should play around with and see what works the best for you. ADVICE: Try to jump vertically a couple of times. The landing position of the feet will be your deadlift stance).
- Bar Grip Type (Usually, two grips can be used. First one is mixed grip, also called alternating or offset, where stronger hand uses overhand (pronated) and weaker underhand (supinated) grip. Important thing with this grip I want to stress out is that you ALWAYS use a fully wrapped grip. Never use a thumbless (monkey) grip which is often practiced by bodybuilders where the thumb comes behind the bar with the rest of the fingers. Second one is hook grip where both hands use overhand grip with thumbs inside, allowing the lifter to “hook” onto them with the rest of the fingers. Olympic lifters are known for using this technique. In oppose to a classic overhand grip, where the bar can roll out of the hands, these two grips are used for bypassing the forearm weakness and holding heavier weights, thus preventing the bar from rolling out by using less grip strength. NOTE: Although some lifters practice the overhand grip for their lower weight sets and move to the mixed or hook grip when they surpass the strength capabilities of their grip, I don’t advise you to do this. It is better to get accustomed to one position because it is important to build your technique properly from the beginning. DISADVANTAGES: The mixed grip keeps shoulders and elbows in an asymmetrical position which can cause a lot of stress on the joints, while the hook grip is extremely uncomfortable for the thumbs. In my opinion, both of these so called discomforts will pass once you become accustomed to them. ADVICE: If you use the hook grip wrap the thumbs in a protective tape to reduce stress exerted on them).
- Bar Grip Position (Either grip you choose there are two schools of thought on this matter. Both are right to some extent. First says that the bar should be put close to the fingers, not in the palms, thus minimizing callus formation and skin tearing. But in this way you get a weaker grip. On the other hand, different schools advocate putting the bar deep in your palms, resulting in more reliable grip, but damaging the skin much more. ADVICE: For lower sets, while your grip strength is still enough use the first variant to prevent any palm hurting and the other one for max sets to ensure the maximum grip performance. NOTE: This won’t hurt your technique at all, it is meant to save your palms from long term problems).
- Bar Grip Width (Arms must be completely straight and vertical (perpendicular to the floor). This is achieved by holding your arms shoulder with apart. In this position arms are closest to the ground which means that distance the bar has to travel is shortest possible. If the grip is wider or narrower than that, the bar will travel a greater distance which in result will cost you more strength. In addition, narrower grip than shoulder width will make your shoulder blades come forward and break your back arch and prevent smooth rising of the bar by rubbing your hands against your legs).
- Shoulders Behind (Remember, you need to lift the bar up in a straight line as possible. To do so, the shoulders should be positioned slightly behind the bar. More accurate, the mid-line of the deltoid when watched from the side, not the front deltoid, should come slightly behind the bar. From this position you will be able to pull straight up and back). Bad technique is shown on the left: shoulder blades stand directly above the bar. Proper form is shown on the right: shoulders are directly above or slightly behind the bar.
- Arched Back (Arching your back is the most important thing you can do. Push your chest up and forward to prevent rounding of the back. Maintain strong arch throughout the entire movement. NOTE: Some lifters use more advanced technique, called round back deadlift that involves rounding of the upper back. Although it shortens the path I do NOT recommend it, because it’s way too advanced and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can destroy your spine permanently very easily).
- Hips High (Drive the hips/butt up as high as they can possibly go without sacrificing the arch in your back. Sinking the hips too low will turn deadlift into front squat or going too high will turn it into stiff-leg deadlift. You don’t want either of that).
- Chin Up (This may seem as a detail of less importance, but it is way more important than you think. Look forward or slightly up to navigate the lift. Looking down during the lift can mess up you balance pretty fast or round your back which can lead to disaster. Your focus should be unbreakable).
- Phase 2: Ascent (Here I will use the example of performing a deadlift set with just one rep using maximum weight. Note: this example is actually a simulation of the maximum lift performed like the one on a meet. The only step that is different than in normal training is “Inhale Deep”, where you will inhale before every repetition and not just before the first one).
- Inhale Deep (Take a deep breath, to take in a lot of oxygen supplies, because the next time you will breath in will be when you return the bar on the floor at the finishing point of the lift! NOTE: Don’t exaggerate by taking too much air. Take just enough to make your stomach hard and push it out on your belt).
- Hips Forward (Explode to the top! Contract and drive your hips forward by pushing from the heels. Pull the weight up and back explosively and controlled in a completely straight line. Try not to pull from your lower back but instead bring your hips forward. Make sure not to bend the arms at any point. Keep the bar as close to you as possible to reduce the traveling path. NOTE: This may scrape your shins and knees, but in time you’ll get use to it. To prevent the scraping you can wear deadlift socks and light protective shin guards).
- Extend Knees (Once the bar passes the knee level start straightening your knees. Assume an erect position by locking your knees and hips. There is no need to roll the shoulders too far back or hyper-extend the lower back).
- Phase 3: Descent (Once you’re in the final upright position with knees and hips locked wait while the weight stabilizes. Referee will then give the down signal. Descent must be done in a very controlled and somewhat slow manner. Descending too rapidly or losing contact with the weight is not allowed. So be sure to control this part of the lift. Don’t let the fact that you managed the weight so far to steal your focus, because it isn’t over yet).
- Hips Back (Bend your hips back and start lowering the luggage. Continue shifting your hips back until you pass the knee level).
- Flex Knees (Once you’re below the knee level, start bending the knees. This will save your lower back from excessive pressure).
Watch and learn how to deadlift with proper conventional technique
Konstantin Konstantinovs does perfect round back deadlift with 405kg, 425kg and 430kg
Phases of the Deadlift (Sumo Style)
- Phase 1: Setup (Since sumo and conventional are very similar styles, there is only one step that differs between them. Be sure to read all the phases of the conventional style above before you read the following step that is specific to sumo deadlift).
- Stance Width (Position your feet as wide as you can with toes pointing 30-45 degrees to the sides. Make sure to assume wide enough stance to shorten the distance of the bar as much as possible and engage legs more than back, but narrow enough to have a lot of power for the lift. Exact position depends on flexibility and mobility of the hips and length of the legs. Not every lifter can use an extremely wide stance. This is something you should play around with and see what works the best for you).
Watch and learn how to deadlift with proper sumo technique
Common Errors and Misconceptions
- Hips Too High (If you raise the hips too much your back will start to round and back arch is the last thing you would want to sacrifice here because it is a foundation of your huge deadlift. High position of the hips turns conventional into stiff-leg deadlift).
- Hips Too Low (Going low with hips simulates squatting position. This increases distance between the bar and the hips and will turn deadlift into front squat. With proper hip positioning the path of the bar will be 3″ to 4″ shorter).
- Rounding the Back (This is the fastest way to a complete disaster. Spine is very vulnerable in such position. If you don’t arch your back when using heavy sets you are just looking for trouble. One of the potential consequences is a herniated spinal disc, especially of the lumbar region of the spine. Nerve conditions like sciatica and lumbago can be nice rewards for neglecting the proper deadlift form. NOTE: Round back deadlift refers to rounding of the upper back not lower back. Repeat this a thousand times to yourself before you go and try anything stupid).
- Hyper-Extending the Back (This is completely unnecessary! Once you achieve an erect position at the top, STOP! Don’t be an idiot and sway 10 inches backward just to prove to other morons in the gym that you have finished the lift successfully. This may potentially cost you some nasty spinal injury).
- Bent Arms/Wrists (If you pull with flexed arms your biceps can tear very easily, especially on the arm that uses supinated (underhand) grip which shortens the biceps muscle. In fact, rapture of the biceps muscle and tendons are the most often deadlift injuries, alongside hamstrings injury).
- Shrugging (If you shrug during deadlift the bar will have a longer road to travel. I’ve seen too many people shrugging that it ain’t even funny anymore. Try to resist this urge. It will not make you stronger. You’ll only lose your strength and potentially jeopardize your trapezius muscles).
- Too Wide Sumo Stance (You’ll know that your stance is too wide when your knees start coming in and back starts rounding. This way you lose necessary power for the lift).
In essence, deadlifting does not require some fancy equipment. All you need for deadlift is a barbell and weight plates. But make sure you always pull the bar from the same height that is pulled in the competition, which is the height of the largest weight plate (450 mm). If you have smaller plates put something underneath them to improvise the correct plate diameter.
Additional equipment can be used for achieving advanced results. For practicing partial deadlifts and rack lockouts a squat rack or a squat cage can be used. Chains, bands and weight releasers are heavily used in powerlifting training, to accommodate the resistance and work with the athlete’s natural strength curve. For example, the bands can be attached to the floor and to each side of the bar. When the lifter raises the bar the bands will stretch and give resistance. So when the lifter is at his weakest at the beginning of the movement the weight will be at its lightest. On the way up, the lifters becomes stronger while the weight gets heavier. This way the resistance curve is used alongside the lifter’s natural strength curve and weaker points of the movement are bypassed.
Benedikt Magnusson pulls the amazing 426kg (940lbs)! Image credit: Egill Bjarki
Apparel and Accessories
- Deadlift suit is worn for safety and additional support during the lift, especially at the bottom where it behaves like a slingshot helping you to raise the weight up. Deadlift suit must be made from a single-ply polyester material. Canvas and denim are prohibited. I don’t recommend using a suit during all training cycles. Usually, I would introduce the use of a suit somewhere around 6th week before the meet. But if you never used a suit before or you want to get accustomed to a new one, include it in your training even earlier. Learning to use a suit is not easy and requires a lot of time. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not good at it in the beginning. Maybe you still haven’t found a suit that will fit you the best. For example, Ed Coan -- a powerlifting legend, sometimes doesn’t wear a suit during deadlift. Unlike squat suit and bench shirt, that help you increase your raw maximum lifts quite a bit, deadlift suit can’t help you as much. For example, I don’t use a suit, because with my technique suit is only getting in the way. Ironically I can lift less in a suit. This is something you will need to figure out for yourself in time. For those of you that never used a suit before, don’t worry, I will be covering this topic in detail in future posts.
- Weight belt is used to support the torso and lower back and prevent any possible injuries of the spinal cord like sciatica and lumbago. Maximum allowed width of the belt’s body is 10cm.
- Wrist wraps ensure stronger wrist support and relieve the stress that weight puts on your joints. A wrist covering must not extend beyond 10cm above and 2cm below the center of the wrist joint and must not exceed a total covering width of 12cm. Maximum allowed length is 1m and width 8cm.
- Socks of shin length must be worn to cover and protect the shins while performing the deadlift. Light protective guards between sock and shin are allowed.
- Slippers, shoes or boots must have uniform underside on both sides. I recommended you to use deadlift slippers because it is important to get as low to the ground as possible in order to shorten the distance that bar needs to travel. Inner soles are limited to 1cm thickness.
- Gym chalk (magnesium carbonate) on your hands will provide stronger grip on the bar. Make sure you apply it heavily across the entire palm and fingers, especially the area where thumb meets the index finger.
- Talcum powder (baby powder) should be applied across the front of the thighs and suit to allow the barbell to travel smoothly in case it comes in contact with the thighs or the suit. NOTE: Ask someone to help you apply the powder after you chalk your hands because powder on your palms makes them slippery and you won’t be able to achieve the strongest grip.
Competition Judging (Unsuccessful Lift)
The following list defines criteria that will make your attempt unsuccessful. In your training be sure to avoid all these errors. While rules in general are similar across federations, there are certain differences. Following rules only cover IPF (International Powerlifting Federation).
- Failure to observe the Chief Referee’s signals at the commencement (raising the bar before receiving the signal) or completion (lowering the bar before receiving the signal) of the lift.
- Any rising of the bar or any deliberate attempt to do so before the commencement of the lift.
- Any downward movement of the bar before it reaches the final position.
- Failure to stand erect with the shoulders back at the end of the movement.
- Failure to lock the knees in a straight position at the completion of the lift.
- Supporting the bar on the thighs during the performance of the lift. If the bar touches the thigh but is not supported this is not a reason for disqualification. The referee has the right to decide whether the contact was legal.
- Stepping backward or forward (movement that would constitute a step or stumble) although lateral movement of the sole and rocking the feet between the ball and heel is permitted.
- Allowing the bar to return to the platform without maintaining control with both hands, i.e. releasing the bar from the palms of the hand (dropping or dumping of the bar after the lift has been completed).
IPF World Championship 2009, men 110kg, deadlift
Competition Judging (Referee’s Signals)
From time to time you should try to mimic the real competition situation in your training. Because sometimes, lack of experience in this area may throw an athlete off course, disturb his natural peace and concentration and all that hard work invested can be lost because of such a trivial thing. These are the two (2) signals which Chief Referee gives on a meet during the deadlift.
- When the lifter is motionless and erect with knees locked, and the bar is laid horizontally in front of the lifters feet the Chief Referee will give the signal to begin the lift. The signal to begin the attempt shall consist of an upward movement of the arm. After receiving the signal, the lifter performs the lift.
- Once the bar is motionless and the lifter is in the apparent final upright position (with the shoulders back and the knees locked) the Chief Referee will give the signal that shall consist of a downward movement of the arm and the audible command “Down”. The lifter must then return the bar to the floor with full control.
Different Types of Deadlift
- Conventional Deadlift (When the term “deadlift” is used, it is usually referred to a conventional variant which is thoroughly described in the text above. This technique heavily employs the back muscles, amongst many other secondary muscles, like legs and arms).
- Sumo Deadlift (The legs are spread far apart to the sides, almost reaching the weight plates on the barbell, with arms reaching down inside of legs, mimicking a stance of sumo fighters. In oppose to conventional sumo deadlift involves heavier use of legs (especially hamstrings) and glutes instead of the back. If you have a massive waist or if you are really tall but have short arms I recommend you to do sumo. This technique may place greater stress on the connective tissues of the pelvic bone, so be careful how you do it).
- Romanian Deadlift (This variant is used by Olympic weightlifters. Emphasis is on the hamstrings, glutes and lower back. At lowest position waist should be straight with back parallel to floor. The bar is grabbed by extending the hips and bending the knees while the back is fully arched. It is raised by contracting glutes and hamstrings. Usually, a very wide snatch grip is used).
- Stiff-Leg Deadlift (This is another variant very similar to Romanian style that is primarily used in bodybuilding for developing hamstrings and glutes. The only difference between these two is that with stiff-leg you bend from the waist and with Romanian deadlift from the hips).
- Single Leg Deadlift (This is actually a stiff-leg deadlift only performed standing on one leg. Dumbbells or barbell is used, either with one or two hands).
- Trap Bar Deadlift (Trap bar has a hollow part in the middle where a lifter can step in and grab the two side handles. This creates more room for the knees to pass through thus recruiting the legs and glutes more than back).
- Side Deadlift (Also known as the suitcase deadlift, it is very similar to trapbar version where instead of the bar two dumbbells or suitcases, like in Strongman competition, are deadlifted).
- Rack Pull (Also called a partial deadlift, it is performed in squat rack or power rack for strengthening the lockout part of the motion. Due to its shortened range of motion considerably higher amount of weight can be lifted. The only limitation lies in the grip. To overcome this weakness, wrist straps can be used in training).