How to deadlift
Q. Should I start doing deadlift?
Ans. Definitely you should do. It is one of the rare exercises which involves almost all the muscles of your posterior chain.
Q.Heard that deadlifts are dangerous for back, even more in case of weak back or low back pain, is it true?
Ans. During any back pain it should be avoided, for sure. But don’t shy away from this great back builder after the pain is gone. Deadlift with progressive overload in good form can really make your back muscles extremely strong bulletproof. You can be cured of your low back issues permanently.
Q. Can you tell me about proper positioning and form cues before starting the lift?
Ans. Remember the following points during deadlifting:
- Maintain a neutral spine (that you keep during standing straight), no bending or arching at any point
- Feet placement hip wide (not wide like squat) and feet pointing 15 degrees outward
- Bar placement should be just over midfoot, or rather vertically over your shoelace
- Arms should be vertical over the bar with elbows locked. (Never dream of pulling that heavy shit with your weaker arms muscles)
- Thighs should never be as low as squat or parallel. For longer thighs hips should be higher than that of shorter ones.
- Keep the shoulder blades directly over the bar (shoulders being slightly forward) and do not retract your shoulder blades.
- Keep your chest up and grip the bar as hard as you can, in the lower part of the palm near fingers.
- Your shins may touch the bar, with the knees slightly bent like a half or quarter squat as per your thigh length.
- Use the double pronated grip during deadlift. Alternating grip (one pronated and another supinated grip), albeit more powerful, is not the ideal grip for beginners. But you can use the mixed more when the load gets heavier.
Q. How should I lift the bar with proper form and replace it back on the floor to perform a proper deadlift with correct form?
Ans. First understand it is not a squat or a bent over row. Keep the following in mind during the movement:
- Take deep breath in, contract the abs and the back/leg muscles as hard as you can and then start the movement. Any laxity here may lead to injury and that may be serious. Hold the breath throughout the movement and release it after you replace the bar on the floor.
- During initial movement of pulling from floor think about it as a pushing movement (like a leg press) as if you are driving the floor away with your feet.
- As the bar rises, it can touch or even scrape your shin (people use long pants or socks to minimise it).
- After the bar passes knee, use powerful glute contraction added to hamstrings and thrust the pelvis forward to complete the lift.
- Do not hyperextend lower back at the top, just stand tall at the end of the movement.
- During the big pull, never contract your lats, biceps, traps etc. There are several other exercises for those. Simply use the glutes, hamstrings and quads (initial part). The stronger muscles of the lower part of the body will see you through this movement.
Q. Should I use belts, knee wraps, straps shoes or any other gear for injury protection?
Ans. 1. You can use belt, definitely. It helps to contract abs against a resistance and helps lifting heavy. Actually powerlifters use them routinely. But it is never a guarantee of lower back safety. Tight core and proper form helps to create a natural belt called ‘block’ which protects your spine.
2. Straps help in gripping but at the cost of grip strength. Grip strength and forearm development are utilities of deadlift that is compromised to some extent by straps and even gloves (prevents callus formation to some extent)
3. Shin scraping is common during deadlifts. Long pants or socks prevents those bruise marks. Knee wraps stabilize the knees and help to some extent.
4. Shoes need to be flat sole and those running shoes are strictly no no. They prevent stable foothold. Even barefoot deadlifting is ok.
5. But please remember, if the form is not good, you may be in trouble some day despite all those protective gears.
Q. Can any deadlift variation be used?
Ans. Yes, there are a few like Sumo deadlift (wider feet placement), Romanian deadlift (plates not touching the floor but knees bent), stiff leg deadlift (similar to Romanian deadlift but knees not bent), dumbbell/kettlebell deadlift, trap bar deadlift etc.
But the classical deadlift is the real power move. It starts and ends from the floor. That is why it has been named so. Think of lifting a dead body from floor and keeping it back. (wow, what an imagination!) Also the weights used in the classical version is much more than its variations.
Let us talk a bit about Romanian deadlift…
Regarding Romanian deadlift, you can use it to learn the move in the beginning stage. Also it stretches and works the hamstrings and glutes very well and can be used as a great leg exercise too.
I am a great fan of Romanian deadlift and appreciate the better feel of the hams and glutes while doing it. Remember you should keep knees straight as you lower the bar and break knees after the bar passes the knees. Keep the back neutral and go as low as you can without breaking form and touching the floor with plates (and feel the stretched hamstrings on the way!) and then thrust the pelvis forward and pull the shit up. Practice Romanian deadlift and you will feel your form in classical deadlift improving too.
Q. Should I try deadlift if I have lower back pain?
Ans. It should never be done during acute lower back pain. After being totally pain free from that back injury, definitely do deadlift with good form and progressive overload. That will prevent low back pain recurrence.
I am telling you with my own experience. I had slip disc and low back spasm in the past. I was afraid of the move and avoided deadlifting despite doing almost all other exercises in the gym. Finally I decided to have a go and found that I can easily move more weight than squat (I have advantage of longer thighs). Slowly I progressed and now I can deadlift 110kg with decent form for several reps without any pain at all.
REMEMBER THAT DEADLIFT CAN BOTH MAKE OR BREAK YOU.
Q. I feel extreme back and shoulder soreness day after deadlift. Is it unnatural?
Ans. Trap and lower back soreness next day is different from acute sharp pain during or immediately after workout. The traps, erector spinae, hamstrings work very hard during the exercise, the first two isometrically to support the torso with heavy load.
A dead hang from pull up bar (as much as your grip allows) can be a win win situation in having a perfect post workout stretch. It gives a nice decompression of spine and relaxes the muscles of your posterior chain.
Q. How many days a week should I deadlift and what is the best no. of reps and sets to be completed?
Ans. Deadlifts are devastating on CNS and cruel on several muscle groups of your body. Never do it frequently, once to twice a week of classical heavy deadlift is more than enough. To hit those muscles for more times try other exercises or tts variations.
No. of reps per set should be on the lower side, 8 to 12 reps per set may be two harsh. People tend to keep it at 5 to 8 reps per set or even lower and increase the no. of sets to reach the target volume. If it gets too tiring, replace 2 to 3 sets by Romanian deadlift.
Deadlift releases lots of testosterone but also makes you tired. So try to do it in early part of your workout after proper warmup.
For more detailed reading on how to deadlift, read stronglifts deadlift article