How to Deadlift: The Best Guide Ever

By Ryan Anastoplus

Illustrations by Louis Durrant

Death Lift

Death Lift

You’ve deadlifted something today.

If you walked your dog and picked up her poo, you deadlifted dog poo. If you lifted your kid from the floor, you deadlifted your kid. If you dropped a pen and picked it up, you deadlifted that pen.

Charles sets an IPF record in the dog poo deadlift.

Charles sets an IPF record in the dog poo deadlift.

The deadlift is in the realm of exercise that I like to call “how complicated can we make everyday movements?”

It doesn’t have to be complicated —if you’re satisfied deadlifting babies and poodle shits then you needn’t read on.

But if you want to deadlift heavy things, like a wheelbarrow of babies or a sperm whale dump, you’ll have to think about how to lift that thing.

James tests out new Strongman events.

James tests out new Strongman events.

This guide will cover everything you need to know if you want to deadlift heavy stuff.

This guide is for you if:

You want to deadlift but don’t know how.

You deadlift but want to learn how to do it better.

This guide is not for you if:

You want to get into the finer details of deadlifting for specific things (powerlifting, weightlifting, bodybuilding, sports performance).

One more caveat:

The barbell deadlift is a great exercise, but not as necessary as people say. The Romanian deadlift or trap bar deadlift is as good or better for most people, and most of what I’ll go over in this article applies to those movements.

Of the “big three” lifts (squat, bench, deadlift), deadlifts may be the one that is up to the most debate and discussion. Which is funny, because it’s the simplest lift. You can achieve a strong deadlift without fancy accessory exercises, specialized programming, secret handshakes or animal sacrifices. The secret to a good deadlift is to become good at deadlifting. The purpose of this guide—like the squat guide—is to reestablish the importance of the basics.

Reading this guide is a good start at being good at deadlifting, but to become good at something you have to do it, a lot. People often assume mastering a lift happens in a matter of weeks. While most people can go from flaming murder scene to pretty good in an hour or two, mastering any exercise can take years. Don’t let that dissuade you though. The process of learning is the most fun since you get to try and learn new things each week. Plus, the gains are most bountiful when you’re new.

THE MUSCLES YOU‘LL USE

When you hip hinge to deadlift, you activate your posterior chain—the most powerful collection of muscles on the body.

When combined, the muscles of the posterior chain become Muscle Tron 5000.

When combined, the muscles of the posterior chain become Muscle Tron 5000.

Besides to the posterior chain, here are the primary movers in the deadlift:

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Erector spinae: your lower back to keep your back from snapping in half.

Quads: your quads will help you lift the bar off the ground. The four muscles of the quadriceps are responsible for knee extension. One of them, the rectus femoris, also aids in flexing your hip.

Adductor magnus: the hamstrings underappreciated cousin, responsible for hip stability.

Hamstrings: the four muscles of the hamstrings are responsible for flexing the knee and extending of the hip.

Glutes: the glute max is one of the most powerful muscles in the body. The glues are responsible for hip extension.

Core: the “core” are the pelvic floor muscles, transverse abdominis, multifidus, obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae. Your ability to work them synchronicity results in core stability.

Lats: in the deadlift, their main function is to keep the bar close to your body.

Laws of Force in a Deadlift

Imagine you’re on a hike somewhere. You come across what appears to be an ancient Neti Pot embedded in a stone. As you go to reach it, a plume of smoke rises from the spout, taking shape of an emaciated, spindly man.

“Oh please, get me out of here” he moans. His eyes are vacant and filled with desperation.

“I’ve been stuck in this rock for centuries. if you can get me out I’ll grant you any wish.”

You think to yourself that the standard for these things is 3 wishes but you don’t say anything. You’d rather not be bothered but you realize this may be the only way your crush, Carla Cornstock, would ever date you.

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What do you do?

a) admit that Carla probably has a boyfriend already and if not, she would never be interested in a guy who hikes alone.

b) deadlift it out

The answer is a bit of both, but for this article, let’s talk about B.

LAW 1: an object will remain at rest unless acted upon by a force. So a loaded barbell/genie lamp will stay on the ground unless you touch it.

LAW 2: Let’s say you decide to lift the lamp out of the stone. First, consider how much the lamp weighs.

With the genie and all his household goods, it's about 450 pounds.

Genie 50lb, flat screen TV 50lb, cookware 25lb, furniture 150lb, carpet (magic) 15lb, Dune by Frank Herbert 1lb

Genie 50lb, flat screen TV 50lb, cookware 25lb, furniture 150lb, carpet (magic) 15lb, Dune by Frank Herbert 1lb

To pry the lamp, you must overtake 450 pounds of downward force. In other words, to pick something up, you have to pull it with more force than gravity is pulling it.

Force is a product of mass (weight of the object) x acceleration (speed of gravity). When you lift a something, you are countering the item's downward force with the upward force you’re generating. Downward force in moves in a straight line, so you should also move in a straight line.

Top: straight bar path. Smooth, efficient lift. Bottom: squiggly bar path. Strenuous, ineffective lift.

Top: straight bar path. Smooth, efficient lift. Bottom: squiggly bar path. Strenuous, ineffective lift.

LAW 3: In a deadlift, we’re exerting force into the ground. In doing so, an equal amount of force bounces back to us. This is called Ground Reaction Force and is when the earth pushes you back.

To summarize the role of force in lifting, if you want to lift a bar you have to do a couple of things:

1. Touch the bar

2. Overcome downward force

3. Force applied reflects back to you, so it should be a straight line.

Inefficient use of these will result in lift failure.

To better understand how to best apply force onto the bar, let’s go over moments and moment arms.

Moments and Moment Arms in a Deadlift

You try to pull the lamp out, but you find it impossible. You’ve been trying for 30 minutes, but it hasn’t budged. Through all this, the genie is providing unsolicited advice, which you find quite annoying. With sunset approaching, you’re unsure if you can pull the lamp out today.

“Actually, I think you should life it like this. Just lookin’ out for ya brah.”

“Actually, I think you should life it like this. Just lookin’ out for ya brah.”

A. Pour concrete on top of the lamp to shut the genie up.

B. Come back with a different strategy

The answer is B.

The simplest explanation of moments and moment arms is unscrewing a bolt. The moment is the turning force where the wrench fastens to the bolt. The moment arm is the distance between the moment and the point of force (where your hand presses the wrench).

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In a deadlift, your hip is the moment. And the distance between your hip and the barbell is the moment arm. Imagine the bottom position as a tightened bolt. To unscrew the bolt, your hip must “rotate” upwards. In the deadlift, this is when our hips push forward. Where we hold the barbel is where your hand would pull the wrench up.

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To be effective, you want the bar to align with your center of gravity, around mid-foot. If you try to lift a box of kittens with the box close to you and again with the box at arm's length, it will be much more difficult with the box far from you. That’s because it of the longer moment arm requires more stability and strength from you. Don't do any more work than you need to. Use every physical and mechanical advantage you have to deadlift the most weight.

Holding kittens should never be difficult.

Holding kittens should never be difficult.


Let’s go over the three levers you’ll use most in the deadlift:

Your back: The closer the parallel your back is to the ground, the more work your back is doing. So, conventional deadlifts will be more taxing on your back than sumo deadlifts. Sumo deadlifts are more challenging on the hips and quads.

Your hips: The father your hips are to the bar, the more work your hips have to do. This usually leads people to think sumo is easier on the hips. But, hip extension is measured relative to the thigh, not the torso. An inclined torso in the conventional may appear to need more hip extension, if we compare hip extension at the thigh, they're about the same. If you have hip mobility issues, sumo could make hip extension more difficult. The bigger difference is in your back, since you are more upright in a sumo stance, sumo deadlifts have less strain on your back.

Your knees: Your knees are important for your starting position: whether they are too bent or not bent enough. When talking about the knees, we also talk about the inclusion of the quads, leg drive, and shin angle. It’s a lot of talk about nothing because your quads won't limit deadlift, and as long as your knees don’t impede your bar path, your shin angle is fine.

Bracing for a Deadlift

Bracing your core involves much more than flexing your abs. Your ab strength has very little to do with core strength or stability. Core strength and stability is when the muscles of your abdominals, back, pelvic girdle, and diaphragm all work together to protect the spine. Achieving this is a matter of learning how to breathe the right way.

To brace your core, take a deep breath into your stomach hold it, then try to force it back out but stopping it at your throat. You should feel a pressure building up inside. This is called intra-abdominal pressure and is the most effective method to stabilize your core. Imagine your belly like a balloon and you're trying to fill it up as much as possible. You should feel your stomach expand sideways and outwards.

How to Deadlift with Proper Form

After calculating the weight of the lamp, you realize that you’ll need some training to get this done. You promise the genie you’ll come back with a solution. He was not happy about this.

You hide the lamp with some leaves then go to the gym to learn how to deadlift enough weight to unearth the lamp.

genie3_edited.jpg

There are a few things in every good deadlift:

1. Hip hinge

2. Stability

3. Alignment/balance

4. Leg drive

Hip hinge

You can’t deadlift if you can’t hip hinge. You can move furniture without it, but you can move it much better if you did it.

There are a lot of ways to learn the hip hinge, so for simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on a drill that emulates the movement you’ll do for a deadlift.

The wall drill

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  1. Stand with your back against the wall.

  2. Take a small step forward and push your butt toward the wall.

  3. Progress by inching further away from the wall.

Tip: place the palm of your open hand it on your lower back. This way, you’ll be able to sense if your back is rounding.

Stability

Straight arm pull down & bracing

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Use either a resistance band or a cable machine with either a rope or straight bar attachment.

  1. Start with your arms shoulder-width and your hands at eye-level.

  2. With your elbows slightly bent, use your lats to bring your arms down to your side.

  3. Brace at the start of the rep and breath out at the end of the rep.

Bringing them together:

  1. Perform a straight arm pull down.

  2. When your arms are at your side, brace your core and perform a hip hinge.

  3. Lower yourself until your feel a decent stretch in your hamstrings, then come back up by raising your hips. Use your lats to keep the bar/band close to you during the whole movement.

Alignment & balance

Romanian Deadlift

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Learn the Romanian deadlift (or RDL) before the deadlift. This movement is essentially a 3/4 deadlift or a deadlift without leg drive.

  1. Hold the bar shoulder width apart.

  2. Engage your lats—they should feel like they do when you do a straight arm pulldown

  3. Hip hinge to lower the bar to about knee level, or until you feel a decent stretch in your hamstrings.

  4. Lift the bar back up by pushing your hips through.

The bar should serve as a counterweight against the force you’re driving against it. Think of it as the loneliest teeter-totter in the world.

Progression: Dead-stop RDL

A second phase in the RDL is a dead-stop RDL. This is more difficult because of the dead-stop.

  1. in a power rack, set the safety bars at about knee level. You can progress this movement by lowering the bars every week or two.

  2. Bring the bar to a complete stop, letting it rest on the safety bars. This forces you to readjust before each rep.

  3. Before lifting, ensure you are braced, lats are tight, and glutes and hamstrings are primed for firing.

Leg drive

The full deadlift

If you do an RDL, but use your legs to get it up to your knees, that’s a deadlift. You’re adding the distance between the ground and your knees (assuming you end your RDLs at your knees).

Deadlift Details

You’ve been training at the gym for a couple months now. It’s the same gym that Carla goes to. You notice she deadlifts really well. You approach her for some advice

We have all the essentials—you should be able to make use of a hip hinge, core braced, and tension. Now we’ll tweak some finer details to make your deadlift your own.

Stance width

Here’s a test. Jump and see where you’re feet are when you land. There’s your stance. Couple reasons why this makes sense—a jump and a deadlift both have you exerting vertical force into the ground. How you land in a vertical leap is where you feel the most comfortable exerting this force. Start here and tweak as necessary.

For sumo—your starting point is to have your shins perpendicular to the floor. Scoot in or out as you feel necessary.

Should you deadlift sumo or conventional?

People talk a lot about limb lengths and stuff when talking about who should deadlift what way. Limb length, torso ratios, hip socket anatomy. Here’s a much more practical way of finding out how to deadlift: try them both for a training cycle or two and see which one feels better. You’ll know.

Toes

In most instances, toes slightly pointed out might help engage the glutes a little bit more. For sumo, be careful, as the more horizontal your feet are, the less stable you will be. This one requires some experimenting too.

Grip width

Ideally, you want to grip the bar at shoulder-width. In a conventional deadlift, this is usually not possible since your legs get in the way, so go as narrow as possible. In sumo, let your arms hang straight down.

You can grip the bar with an overhand grip, mixed grip, straps.

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Overhand is the most limiting. Once you get to heavier weights you will need at least a mixed grip. A mixed grip will prevent the bar from rolling out of your hands.

Straps—you can use straps if your grip is a limiting factor. Bear in mind, straps are not allowed in any sort of competition. A good alternative is chalk. Any pair will do, here’s a pair for $8 on Amazon (affiliate link).

For chalk, many commercial gyms don’t allow chalk. In those cases, liquid chalk works just as well. Here’s a $10 bottle on Amazon (affiliate link).

Hook grip is when you trap the thumb underneath the bar. This will hurt initially because you’re crushing your thumb between the barbell and your fist. Eventually, the nerves in your thumb will die and you won't feel anything. Not even sadness or joy.

The setup

If you ever watch people deadlift on Instagram, you might notice some of them do some crazy shit before a big pull. You have to find your own crazy shit to do. In a deadlift, the setup is vital. Find your own rhythm, and perfect it.

Here are a couple common set up strategies you can start out with

Hip hinge, then tighten

setup12.jpg
  1. Secure your foot position

  2. Hip hinge down to the bar and secure your grip width.

  3. Lower your hips while keeping your back straight. Find a spot where you feel a tension in your hamstrings.

  4. Squeeze your lats and create full body tension

  5. Brace and lift.

Kneel down, then tighten

setup2.jpg
  1. Secure your foot position

  2. Kneel down by the bar to secure your grip

  3. Raise your hips and keep your back straight. Raise your hips till you feel some tension in your hamstrings.

  4. Squeeze your lats and create full body tension.

  5. Brace and lift.

Initiating the pull

The key to initiating the pull is tension. Without tension, your hips and lower back will rise before the bar leaves the ground, and you'll look like a cheap fishing pole trying to reel in a shark. By creating tension and using your leverage, your lift will be more akin to a crane reeling in a shark.

To create tension, grip the bar as hard as you can, hams and quads tensed. It helps some people to imagine the hamstrings as a loaded spring. Squeeze your armpits shut and keep your lats tight. Brace, and ease the bar off the ground. Once it’s cleared the floor, let it fly.

From the floor to the knees you are using your legs to drive the bar up. From the knees to lockout, it’s hip extension.

hips_knees_edited.jpg

Over the last few months, you’ve gotten to know Carla pretty well. As your feelings for her have grown, you wonder if she feels the same. You ask Carla if she would in have dinner with you, and she says yes.

carla4_edited.jpg

Unfortunately for the genie, after you and Carlie began to date, you’ve forgotten all about him. And he remains forgotten.

Deadlift Form Tips and Ques

Here are some basic movement cues to think about when you are doing a deadlift. Not all of them will work work for everyone, but these are the most popular ones.

Chest up

This cue helps maintain an upright posture during the lift.

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Drive the Floor Away/Split the Floor

Another way of saying this would be to emulate a leg press. The basic idea is to press into the ground to ensure you’re generating efficient upward force (remember the 3rd law?).

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For sumo lifters, breaking the bar off the ground is less of you pressing into the ground and more of you spreading the ground.

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Hips Through, Shoulders Back

Once the bar is at your knees, its the job of your hips to push through

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Lockout

Lockout the lift by standing upright. You don’t need to go any further than that. Squeeze your glutes, stay tight. Don’t hyper-extend your back during the lockout. This is unnecessary and has no benefit.

Lowering the bar

Lowering the bar under control will have better hypertrophy and will prime you for the next rep better.

Common mistakes (and simple solutions)

FIxing balance issues.

In a deadlift, the barbell serves as a counterbalance. As you lift, your weight will transfer from mid-foot, to towards the heel. If you are off balance, you’ll fall forward or backward. Balance in a deadlift is usually naturally achieved, but we find ourselves needing some re-calibration.

The quickest and easiest way to go from zero to a successful lift is a straight line. If you have balance issues, your bar path might be wonky. Your weight is too far forward or back. In general, begin with the bar lined up with the knot of your shoelaces (you’ll need to tweak this, larger people will fair better with the bar farther away). Establish a stable base with your feet by digging if your big toe.

Most balance issues reveal themselves between the floor and the knee. When you feel like your balance has gotten a bit off, diagnose problems in that area. Here are a couple of things that work pretty well to ensure your deadlift is balanced:

Pause deadlift: Slowly lift the bar and when you reach the point where you lose balance, pause for a couple seconds, adjust, and finish the lift when you’ve reestablished balance. If you’re not entirely sure where you’re messing up, pause at about mid-shin or lower.

Tempo deadlift: lift and lower the bar at about half of your usual speed. This will make any form errors you’re experiencing much clearer.

For both of these deadlift variations, and anytime you’re trying to correct form errors, drop the weight to 50-60% of your 1 rep max. (in other words, go really light).

Should I touch-and-go or dead-stop each rep?

In general, do what feels better and what helps you keep better form. Some people just get sloppy doing touch-and-go reps and end up resembling those tube men at car dealerships.

Where should I look?

Doesn’t matter.

How do I Improve Grip strength?

The most practical grip training for deadlifting is a static hold of the last rep of your last set for as long as you can. This is enough for most people.

Should I protect my shins?

If you train in a public gym, for your own safety and others, wear high socks, calf sleeves, knee sleeves over your shins, or long pants to protect your shins. While scraping your shins is annoying, even worse is catching staph from a gnarly bar.

Should I Wear a Belt?

Wearing a belt will increase intra abdominal pressure and thus, help you with stability. It does not have any negative impact on strength. So yes, wear one.

What Shoes Should I wear?

Since the goal is to transfer force into the ground, some non-compressible, flat soled shoes are great for deadlifting. Some people deadlift barefooted, that's fine, but if you want to compete, you’ll need shoes. Also, if you pull sumo, shoes will offer better traction to spread the floor than bare feet. Converse Chuck Taylors are a popular choice. I have used wrestling shoes for years.

Sources

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Cholewicki, J., et al. “Lumbar Spine Loads during the Lifting of Extremely Heavy Weights.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, vol. 23, no. 10, 1991, doi:10.1249/00005768-199110000-00012.

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Escamilla, Rafael F., et al. “Biomechanical Analysis of the Deadlift during the 1999 Special Olympics World Games.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 33, no. 8, 2001, pp. 1345–1353., doi:10.1097/00005768-200108000-00016.

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Vecchio, Luke Del. “The Health and Performance Benefits of the Squat, Deadlift, and Bench Press.” MOJ Yoga & Physical Therapy, vol. 3, no. 2, 2018, doi:10.15406/mojypt.2018.03.00042.