How to Deadlift Properly: Correct Form, Tips, and Variations

How to Deadlift Properly: Correct Form, Tips, and Variations

YES, I know deadlifts are important and that I should be doing them at least once a week, but I don’t know how!

Sound familiar?

The importance of deadlifts is jammed into every fitness website and magazine out there. What’s the common message: You need to be doing them.

If deadlifts seem too intimidating or confusing for you, you’re probably sick of hearing about them.

Maybe no one has described the benefits of deadlifts for you, or maybe you’ve just never found a practical how-to guide that was easy to understand.

What’s more, if you’re considering joining the armed forces, guess which exercise is a part of your physical fitness test. Yeah, it’s the deadlift.

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. In this article, we’ll talk about how deadlifts can take your fitness game to the next level while preventing injury. We’ll also describe how to perform a deadlift from set-up to finish along with some deadlift variations that you can try to see which one you like best.

 

What are the Benefits of the Deadlift?

So, first things first: Why should you bother doing deadlifts? After all, aren’t squats enough? Here are some of the benefits of deadlifts associated with both health and fitness as well as their practicality for joining the Army or other armed forces.

 

Strength

As one of the three exercises that powerlifters focus on, it should come as no surprise that deadlifts are one way for you to significantly enhance your overall strength.

The deadlift is considered a compound or full-body movement, which means multiple muscle groups are working together to ensure you can move the weight. Deadlifts primarily activate your glutes, hamstrings, and core, but you’ll also feel it in your calves, quadriceps, shoulders, and arms.

Here’s a complete list of the muscles that the deadlift activates either directly or indirectly:

  • Vastus medialis
  • Vastus intermedius
  • Vastus lateralis
  • Rectus femoris
  • Biceps femoris
  • Semitendinosus
  • Glute maximus
  • Strong glute medius
  • Adductor
  • Abductor
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Lower back
  • Erector spinae
  • Trapezius
  • Abdominals
  • Internal obliques
  • External obliques

Studies show that deadlifts can increase full-body strength, especially in the legs. [1]

 

Grip Strength

Continuing with the point above, deadlifts are an excellent way to increase grip strength.

Just like the Farmer’s Walk exercise, you can go really heavy without the same level of risk as squats because the weight isn’t supported on your shoulders or floating above you like with a bench press.

Throwing on those weight plates and maintaining a firm grip throughout is going to help you increase your grip strength. As a result, you’ll see improvements in other grip-based exercises such as lunges and dead hangs.

 

Muscular Force Production

Most of us take for granted how easy it is to grab a weight and start lifting. This involves an immensely complicated process that starts at a cellular level with the end result being the moving of the weight.

Muscular force production is how we generate the power to move a weight, and deadlifts can significantly improve this process.

This circles back to what we talked about earlier; studies show that deadlifts are a fantastic way to improve force production given how taxing they are on the nervous system and due to how many muscles they activate. As a result, you’ll see serious gains in overall strength and power output. [2] [3]

 

Vertical Jump

Outside of sports, most people don’t see the necessity of being able to jump… until they need to jump.

Studies show that deadlifting increases power output of the lower body while increasing your vertical jump. [3]

 

Resting Metabolic Rate (Calories Burned)

Your resting metabolic rate is the number of calories that you burn while at rest. Naturally, the higher your RMR, the better it is for weight management.

Compound exercises like the deadlift have been shown to increase resting metabolic rate, promoting enhanced energy expenditure and overall weight management. [4]

 

Lean Muscle Tissue

It should be a given by this point that the deadlift is a great muscle builder. It’s why so many bodybuilders are using deadlifts and other deadlift variations week after week.

Deadlifts promote muscle growth in two important ways:

First, they activate some of the largest muscles in your body. As long as you’re pushing yourself to use enough weight that will allow you to reach the appropriate amount of time under tension, you’ll see an increase in the size in your legs.

Second, by activating these large muscle groups, deadlifts promote a growth hormone response. Growth hormone like testosterone plays a big role in muscle recovery and repair, helping your muscles get bigger and stronger. [5]

 

Injury Prevention

One of the most common reasons that people visit their doctor each year is lower back pain. A sedentary lifestyle combined with weak glutes and hamstrings sets the stage for overcompensation issues, and as a result, an increased risk for injury.

Deadlifts have been shown to alleviate lower back pain. More importantly, deadlifts can strengthen your core muscles and those muscles surrounding your lower back to keep you pain and injury-free. [6]

 

Be a Better Soldier

For the Army Combat Fitness Test, you’ll be expected to execute three flawless repetitions with a pyramid-style weight increase. What’s the point?

Deadlifts are a functional movement that you’ll be using a lot in the forces. Whether you have to pick up and carry a box of gear or a wounded soldier, deadlifts mimic this motion and help you get better at it.

 

Proper Deadlift Form

Now that you’re sold on deadlifts as an important exercise, let’s talk about how to perform them the right way.

Warm-Up

The first thing we would recommend is to stretch and pre-activate certain muscles through hip hinges. This will better prepare you for the workload to follow.

Focus on stretching the adductors, hamstrings, and glutes because they will be doing most of the grunt work for this exercise.

It’s important to be loose and limber for the deadlift, and that’s why hip hinges are one of the best ways to warm-up before the exercise.

Perform 5 to 10 minutes of stretching and 3 to 5 sets of 15 to 20 repetitions of hip hinges.

 

Setup

Now that you’re all warmed up, let’s cover how you should set yourself up before pulling the barbell. We’ll break it down from bottom to top:

Feet: Place your feet at the same width of your hips. For most people, this means that your shins will be lined up with the smooth part of the barbell.

Bar Distance from Shins: Make sure that the barbell is covering the knot in your shoelaces.

Grip Type and Grip Width: Use a double overhand grip as this helps to avoid unequal weight and effort distribution, which means it decreases your risk for injury. As far as placement, you want to grip the barbell about an inch outside of your feet. If you go too wide, you set yourself up at a disadvantage from a strength position and increase your risk for injury.

Lower Body: Kick your hips back so that you begin to lower yourself, but don’t allow your hips to drop below the knees. From here, you’ll be ready to engage the upper body.

Upper Body: Bring your chest up and shoulders back while maintaining a neutral gaze. Remember, you haven’t started lifting yet; you’re just preparing to lift.

 

Bracing

We’re not talking about wearing a brace or belt here. Bracing refers to preparing the core muscles to act as a support structure during the exercise.

Think of your core like a pillar during a deadlift. You want your pillar – your core – to be strong throughout the exercise. If the pillar collapses, so does your form and exercise execution, potentially resulting in both an injury and a bruised ego.

To brace, focus on contracting the muscles in your core – your abdominals, obliques, and lower back. By bracing, you also support proper posture during the exercise.

 

Breathing

Take a deep breath at the bottom of the movement before you begin to pull. This deep breath will also help to brace the core.

You’ll breathe out as you perform the exercise, taking in another deep breath once you reach the starting position.

 

The Pull

You can breakdown the pull of the barbell during a deadlift into three parts: from the ground to the knees, from the knees to the hips, and from the hips to the ground.

Part One: Focus on pushing your feet into the ground. Don’t worry about pulling for this first part as that comes next. As you push your feet into the ground, maintain a straight upper body.

Part Two: Once the barbell reaches the height of your knee, contract your hips. This will simultaneously straighten your legs and allow you to pull and bring the barbell up your thighs to the height of your hips.

Part Three: Reverse the movement by performing a hip hinge like you practiced during your warm-up. Once the barbell is back at the height of the knee, drop it straight down, keeping it close to your shins.

Importance of Deadlifting Safely

It might be one of the most effective exercises you can do, but it’s also an exercise that it’s easy to perform incorrectly. This is why it’s essential to practice and master the form of the deadlift before you start throwing on too many plates.

If you’ve never performed traditional deadlifts before, consider starting out with Romanian deadlifts, which it the same movement but you’ll be using dumbbells.

If you are serious about perfecting your deadlift, especially if you plan on going into the Army, then we highly recommend hiring a personal trainer. Working with a strength coach for just one month can save you months (if not years) of trial and error. You’ll master the deadlift faster while keeping yourself out of harm’s way.                                                                                           

 

Common Deadlift Mistakes

We’ve all botched a few sets of deadlifts as beginners. Here are the most common deadlifting mistakes to watch out for.

Rounding the Back: To correct this, focus on the bracing portion of the deadlift. This is when you want to contract the muscles in your core, specifically the abdominals and lower back. One trick to helping with this is to imagine that you’re performing a straight arm pulldown as you set up the barbell. Focus on contracting your lats and this will help to straighten your back.

Improper Breathing: This one can be tricky to get the hang of if you’re just starting out, so before you start loading up that barbell, practice syncing up your breath with your movements. We recommend performing 3 to 5 sets of 12 to 15 reps with just your bodyweight. Get in the rhythm of taking that deep breath after bracing, releasing as you go, then taking in another deep breath at the bottom.

Not Pulling the Slack Out: The barbell needs to be tight to your body to ensure you’re able to perform the exercise properly and use all of your strength while doing so. To pull the slack out of your form, get the barbell on your shins but not so much so that they are cutting them as you pull up. Keep your hips above the knees and push into the barbell like a straight arm pulldown as you set up.

Too Heavy Too Fast: Avoid the temptation to go heavy until you’re told by a professional or veteran lifter that your form looks good. Too heavy too fast dramatically increases your risk for injury so don’t do it.

 

Deadlift Variations

Once you feel comfortable with the conventional deadlift, there are other variations to consider:

Sumo Deadlift: Move your feet outside of shoulder width and turn your toes out 45 degrees. Perform the deadlift with the same form as mentioned above.

Deadlifting with Bands: Wrap a band on each end of the barbell just outside of your hands, then step in the middle of the slack. Perform the deadlift with the same form as mentioned above.

Deadlifting with Chains: Wrap chains around each end of the barbell inside and next to the weight plates. Perform the deadlift with the same form as mentioned above.

 

How to Start Deadlifting

That’s a lot to digest, especially as a beginner. If you’ve never performed a deadlift before, we believe that slow and steady wins the race.

You can start by performing a full-body workout, incorporating bodyweight deadlifts as your warm-up, and performing Romanian deadlifts for a few weeks.

Once you’ve built up your hip hinge strength and feel comfortable with the form, move to a barbell, but only the barbell – no weight plates yet.

Focus on form and execution for a few workouts. Have a trainer or friend watch your form and give your feedback. You can also record yourself and critique yourself by watching your performance and comparing it to this list.

When you finally throw on some weight plates, don’t worry about going for glory. If you stick with 25-pound plates on each end for a month, that’s okay so long as you’re doing them properly.

Eventually, you’ll want to challenge yourself and this is when you can start to upgrade those plates. Remember, this is one tough exercise. It’s incredibly beneficial but when it’s rushed, it can do a lot of damage. Stay smart and consistent and you’ll be doing heavy deadlifts in no time.

 

References

 

  1. Schellenberg F, Taylor WR, Lorenzetti S. Towards evidence based strength training: a comparison of muscle forces during deadlifts, goodmornings and split squats. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2017;9:13. Published 2017 Jul 17. doi:10.1186/s13102-017-0077-x.
  2. Holmes, Clifton J. M.S. UNDERSTANDING THE DEADLIFT AND ITS VARIATIONS, ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: 5/6 2020 - Volume 24 - Issue 3 - p 17-23 doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000570.
  3. Del Vecchio, Luke. (2018). The health and performance benefits of the squat, deadlift, and bench press. MOJ Yoga & Physical Therapy. 3. 10.15406/mojypt.2018.03.00042.
  4. Aristizabal, J., Freidenreich, D., Volk, B. et al.Effect of resistance training on resting metabolic rate and its estimation by a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry metabolic map. Eur J Clin Nutr 69831–836 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2014.216.
  5. Shaner, Aaron A.; Vingren, Jakob L.; Hatfield, Disa L.; Budnar, Ronald G. Jr; Duplanty, Anthony A.; Hill, David W. The Acute Hormonal Response to Free Weight and Machine Weight Resistance Exercise, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: April 2014 - Volume 28 - Issue 4 - p 1032-1040 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000317.
  6. Berglund, Lars1,2; Aasa, Björn2; Hellqvist, Jonas1; Michaelson, Peter3; Aasa, Ulrika1Which Patients With Low Back Pain Benefit From Deadlift Training?, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: July 2015 - Volume 29 - Issue 7 - p 1803-1811 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000837.


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