The Value of the Deadlift in Strength Training
The best way to train is a highly controversial topic in the world of strength and conditioning. There are a wide array of methods that find success both clinically and anecdotally.
While many of these methods are vastly different in terms of intensity, rep scheme, movements, etc. there are a small number of movements and exercises that maintain relevance among all them due to their effectiveness.
The “big three” being the Bench Press, the Squat, and the Deadlift.
They are incredibly vital as they can they are compound movements; they each require the use of several muscles or muscle groups in order to be properly done.
When done well, they can not only improve a person’s mass and strength, but also their mobility, which can lead to fewer health issues later on in life. Today, I would like use my 6+ years of experience working with beginner-to-elite level athletes to give you some tips on how to perform a proper deadlift.
Tip #1: Know where to begin
Something that warrants a reminder for every near-maximal lift. You need to know your boundaries and your skill level. The deadlift can be a compromising position for people with poor mobility, and if you want to avoid injuries to the hips or spine then it will serve you well to be aware of your weaknesses. For reasons I’ll dig into later, it would be rare for me to start a new athlete with a straight bar deadlift in the gym.
I would start most of my athletes on a hex bar or in the sumo-deadlift stance. The hex bar puts an athlete in a more neutral position and keeps the athlete’s arms at their side, rather than out in front. This makes it easier for the athlete to keeps their arms in the proper position, with their lats engaged, as opposed to letting the bar “get away from them.” This helps to eliminate lumbar stress during the lift, and allows the athlete to focus on all of their cues as they learn the lift.
If you don’t have a hex bar, then a sumo deadlift serves many of the same purposes. The sumo deadlift teaches the athlete to utilize their hips, reducing the risk of possibly over-flexing the lumbar spine. Another great exercise you can use to assist in learning the deadlifts “hip-hinge” movement is the kettlebell swing.
Tip #2: Engage your lats
This is vitally important to both the lift, and the setup. Engaging your lats first keeps the bar path closer to your legs during the lift. This prevents the bar from rolling out away from you and putting your lumbar spine into over-flexion during the lift. It also puts your hips and legs into a better position, giving you greater leverage during the lift. Bar path is incredibly important for an efficient, safe deadlift, and a good rule of thumb is that the bar should always drag across your shins as you perform the lift (yes, it will hurt at first, but it’s absolutely worth performing the lift properly).
Tip #3: Head straight, Stomach out
Keeping your back in the neutral position is key to performing a good deadlift, and will save you from loads of back pain now and in the future. Good head position can be incredibly beneficial to your posture. Keeping the head straight forward and tilted slightly up helps to pull the shoulders back and keep the lats engaged, putting the lifter’s back in a more neutral and therefore optimal position.
Likewise, pushing out on the abdominal wall (think about taking a deep breath and pushing out on your stomach) engages the core and helps to prevent arching in the back. Keeping these cues in mind will keep your spine healthy as you progress to heavier loads during your training programs.
Tip #4: Screw your feet in, and drive your knees out
Based on my experience, this is what lifters typically struggle with most. So many people tend to think “just push up” because that’s what it looks like when someone is performing a deadlift. If you want to get the maximum effectiveness from your deadlifts, you need to learn to drive through your legs properly. To do this, you must first think of your feet as “screws.” Strange, I know but you want to think about driving “out” rather than just up. In a similar manner, you want to focus on driving your knees out during the lift. This helps activate a muscle group that is often under-used in the deadlift, the glutes.
Activating the glute muscles, specifically the glute medius, will give the lifter greater hip stabilization, allowing other muscles throughout the posterior chain to function more efficiently during the lift. This ultimately allows the lifter to perform the movement more safely when attempting heavier loads.
Tip #5: Utilize all of your deadlift tools
A common question I got while working as a performance coach was, “How do I get my squat/bench/deadlift up?”
Very seldom was the answer to “just squat/bench/deadlift more.”
There are many ways to go about improving a movement. Understand your weaknesses as a lifter, and pick exercises geared towards fixing them.
For example, if you struggle locking out your deadlift, then consider adding high-pin deadlifts that allow you focus on that particular part of the lift. If you struggle with the initial lift off the ground, then deficit deadlifts are going to be more beneficial in the long-run.
Always have a plan, know what loads are appropriate for each movement, and never shy away from your weaknesses. If you do that you’ll be deadlifting massive weight for a long time to come.