Conventional Deadlift Setup
You must achieve optimal positioning before moving the barbell, no matter the lift. Finding your optimal positioning for any barbell movement lowers your risk of injury and allows you to display higher levels of absolute strength. When you find form and positioning that works best for your body type and leverages, you will lift more weight and feel better moving it.
Deadlift setup is a bit different from squat or bench setup. The squat and bench both feature an eccentric phase of the lift, while the deadlift only features a concentric phase. An eccentric phase allows a lifter to reposition and gain some leverage during the phase if the lifter happens to start moving the barbell in a disadvantageous position.
The deadlift offers no chance to improve leverage or position. This means that the positioning you achieve before moving the barbell dictates your chances of completing the lift.
We have discussed sumo deadlift in past articles and will in the future. However, this article will focus on achieving an optimal starting position for individuals who deadlift using a conventional stance.
Here are a few parameters we use at Westside Barbell to assist lifters in finding their optimal conventional deadlift setup:
Cut Your Feet in Half
The first step to setting up any deadlift is to get your feet set. Now, to the beginner, this may seem like a relatively straightforward process; stand with your feet under the barbell and pull like hell. However, this approach almost always ends with the barbell swinging forward, followed by a strained back.
To get your feet close to optimal position, you will want to set them so that when you look down at the barbell and your feet, the barbell should be cutting your foot in half. The purpose of this is to get the barbell in a starting position that allows it to best follow the shins on the way up.
Depending on your body type and leverages, you may have to bring the barbell closer to your ankle or your toes, but placing the bar over the middle of your foot is a good starting point. The goal is to get the barbell to drag the shins to ensure no unnecessary strain is placed upon the lumbar spine.
Set Your Hands
The style of grip you choose to use for the deadlift is up to you. Some prefer mixed grip, while others prefer hook grip. Remember, no grip will protect you from a torn bicep or upper-body injury. However, the mixed grip has been known to increase the chance of a biceps injury.
As far as where to place your hands when setting up your conventional deadlift, you want to set your hands in a position that allows you to keep your arms tight to your body as you move the weight. This will enable you to utilize your back and grip strength fully, and it also allows you to use arm length to reduce the overall ROM.
Whatever grip you choose, always properly chalk your hands before the lift. Additionally, remove any excess chalk from the barbell between sets to allow the knurling to make as much contact with your palm as possible.
Shorten The Hamstrings and Brace
Now that we have gotten the feet and hands set, we can begin an attempt at lifting the barbell. You will want to get your hips set in an optimal position to allow your hamstrings to shorten and your trunk and shoulders to be properly positioned behind the barbell.
The end goal is to achieve strong, shortened hamstrings and good overall posture to ensure the lift succeeds. As soon as the hamstrings or spine are placed in a disadvantageous position, the risk of failure or injury rises.
To do this, I recommend taking three breaths while setting the hips before moving the barbell. You will sit into the deadlift three times, shortening the hamstrings more and more as you do. After the second “sit in” you will take in as much air as possible to brace your trunk before sitting into the pull for the third time and moving the barbell.
When you engage the barbell, the hamstrings should be shortened as much as possible while the trunk is filled with air. Achieving this positioning will help protect the hamstrings and spine from unnecessary wear and tear during the lift.
Make It Work for You
Remember that the above advice describes parameters to help you find your optimal form. No two individuals will utilize the same form, so take the parameters we provided and make them work for you.
Ultimately, what is good movement? Movement that feels good to the individual and allows them to lift both light and heavy weight safely and without pain. Do not get caught up in listening to individuals who try to get athletes to fit cookie-cutter ideas of how lifters should move a barbell.
Every athlete has different physiological advantages and disadvantages. The goal should be to achieve form and movement that provides the athlete with the best opportunity to complete the lift based on their build and leverages.
Until they begin making humans on an assembly line, it makes no sense to speak in terms of “good” or “bad” form. You want form and movement that is optimal for the individual. What may look like bad form to your eye could be the form that takes the individual you are judging to world record strength. Find what works for you, refine it, and get on with training. Don’t spend endless amounts of time online studying movement and rebuilding your form every week.
How successful you’ll become depends on optimizing your form and programming. The only way to sharpen the blade is to experience the process of training, achieving success and failure along the way. Trust the feedback your training provides and make adjustments accordingly.
The training process will enlighten you far more than the internet ever will.
Simmons, L. (2015) Special Strength Development for All Sports. Westside Barbell.
Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.
Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.
Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics.