How to Deadlift Correctly

How to Deadlift Correctly

The deadlift is a lift that is one of the best tests of overall physical strength. It is the one powerlift that does not feature an eccentric phase, so an athlete cannot gain any advantage before the concentric phase begins. To succeed, you must be able to generate high levels of force on demand.

Depending on how you design your programming, the deadlift can increase absolute strength, improve your rate of force development, target posterior chain weakness, or build muscle mass. As you can see, the deadlift is more than just a test of brute strength, it is a valuable training tool capable of improving multiple strengths and athletic capabilities. 

At Westside, we have been using the deadlift to train athletes for many years. While some strength coaches may believe the deadlift is more risk than reward, the truth is the deadlift provides strength benefits that can hardly be mimicked by another exercise. Deadlifts help significantly improve an athlete's strength and durability - simply put, deadlifts make you bigger, stronger, and tougher. 

As with any exercise, the key to success is understanding the proper way to deadlift. Execution is vital for two reasons. One, proper execution will keep you from injuring yourself, and two, proper execution ensures the exercise is targeting the correct muscle groups. Either way, failure to execute proper form will ultimately result in failure or injury. 

Fortunately, we have some advice and suggestions to ensure you are performing the deadlift correctly and reaping the benefits of the exercise. Here is how we teach the deadlift at Westside Barbell:

Choosing Your Style

The deadlift is a lift typically performed in two ways, conventional or sumo. A conventional deadlift is performed with the legs kept together, similar to how you would stand, while the sumo deadlift is performed with the legs in a squat-style position. Both of these forms will involve many of the same muscle groups, what differentiates them is the emphasis placed on specific muscle groups.

For instance, a conventional stance emphasizes the low back, glutes, and hamstrings, while a sumo deadlift will target the glutes, hips, adductors, and quads. While a successful program will include both styles of deadlifts, you should choose your go-to style based on which one allows you to move the most weight. 

Another thing to consider when choosing your deadlift style is the distance the bar travels until lockout. Reducing the range of motion is one of the quickest ways to gain an advantage over heavy barbell weight, so choose your dominant style based on which one requires the least amount of bar movement to achieve lockout. 

However, regardless of which style you choose, always be sure to program accessory deadlift variations to ensure you are reaping the benefits of the full range of motion deadlifts. While we want to move significant weight during our main exercises, we need to program accessory exercises that compensate for the loss of range of motion. Otherwise, valuable opportunities to build strength and muscle are lost. 

The best way to sum it up would be to choose the form that allows you to move the most weight without much pain or discomfort while still performing complete ROM accessory deadlifts featuring both styles. We will pull opposite stance deadlifts as a main exercise from time to time as well. 

Proper Sumo Execution

Here is how to properly execute a sumo deadlift:

1. Set your feet at the maximum width possible while remaining reasonably comfortable and able to exert maximum force. You will want to position yourself similarly to a squat or a bit wider, depending on your mobility.

2. Establish your grip in a location on the barbell that allows you to benefit from your arm length maximally.

3. Once a grip has been established, you will prepare to brace. The idea is to be in your stance with the barbell in hand with the torso parallel over the barbell. You will then take a deep breath into your stomach, bracing as you sit back into the deadlift.

5. As you brace, focus on achieving a vertical torso position. This will ensure the lumbar spine is safe from excessive force and allow you to exert tremendous amounts of lateral force.

6. You will begin the pull once you have achieved the ideal vertical torso position. The goal is to use the hips to apply lateral force to move the barbell, then use the glutes, hamstrings, and quads to lock out the barbell. 

Proper Conventional Execution

Here is how to properly execute a conventional deadlift:

1. Keeping your legs at shoulder width or closer, you will line the barbell up so that when you look down at your feet, the barbell cuts your feet in half. This helps to establish a proper bar path as the shins travel forward during the initial pull.

2. Establish your grip in a location to maximally benefit from arm length. For most, this means placing the hands on the bar to position them next to the legs. This not only helps to reduce the range of motion, but you will also notice the closer your grip is to your legs, the easier it will be to establish a solid brace.

3. Once a grip has been established, you will prepare to brace. The idea is to be in your stance with the barbell in hand with the torso parallel over the barbell. You will then take a deep breath into your stomach, bracing as you sit back into the deadlift.

4. As you begin the pull, keeping your chest behind the bar is essential. This means establishing as vertical of a torso as possible, which helps eliminate excess lumbar spine flexion. Due to the positioning of a conventional deadlift, the torso position will differ a bit from your sumo style. However, regardless of stance, keeping the chest behind the barbell will provide you with the best advantage over the barbell.

5. You will begin pulling once you have achieved an upright chest position with the barbell firmly gripped. Be sure to keep your arms relaxed and straight. Bent and flexed arms are a ticket to a torn bicep. Try to imagine your arms as hanging hooks lifting the weight. We want to use our arms and hands to apply a firm grip, but we want to keep as much tension out of the biceps as possible. 

Hip Position for Sumo and Conventional

One aspect of learning how to deadlift correctly is figuring out your hip hinge height. This refers to the height you set your hips at as you pull the barbell. The truth is, there is no rule regarding where you position your hips during the deadlift. However, some anatomical differences can play a role in deciding where your hips should be during the deadlift.

You want to set your hips in the position that allows you to generate the most force while efficiently moving the barbell. For instance, a lifter with longer arms will benefit from a high hip position, considering they don't require as much leg drive. Whereas a lifter with short arms will need to set their hips low to use leg drive to move the barbell off of the floor with great velocity to make up for anatomical disadvantages.  

It's simple, load up 40-60% of your max and practice different stances and styles. No article on the internet can tell you what will be most optimal for you. You are the only person who truly knows your most powerful stances and lifting positions, so take it upon yourself to figure out what works best for you. Do not let an internet movement coach tell you how you should move.

Movement and form are intuitive; the athlete must take the time to practice and manipulate lifting form. The ultimate goal is to quickly achieve advantageous joint angles once the barbell breaks the ground. 

Common Mistakes

When it comes to the deadlift, there are a few commonly made mistakes. These rules apply to all athletes regardless of stance. Here are some things to be sure to avoid while training the deadlift:

  • Improper bracing leading to the shoulders rolling forward, the chest collapsing, and flexion of the lumbar spine. We want to establish a strong abdominal brace, keeping the trunk rigid throughout the lift. 
  • Misaligning the feet under the barbell leading to a less-than-optimal bar path. The remedy is using the "cut your foot in half" foot placement. You may have to adjust the foot position slightly to keep the barbell closer to the shins, but placing the barbell over the center of your foot is a good starting point. 
  • Pulling with bent elbows and flexed biceps. The arms and hands are used as hooks. We want to apply a firm grip but keep the arms straight and tension out of the biceps. Failure to do so will lead to a bicep tear. 
  • "Hitching" the barbell to achieve lockout. This happens when an athlete bends their knees slightly to allow the barbell to rest atop the legs and alleviate some of the tension being absorbed by the posterior chain and torso. While this may be legal in some sports, it is best to train the deadlift to a strict standard. Save the hitching for competition day. 
  • Soft lockouts. A proper lockout is achieved when the knees and hips are locked out, with the chest vertical and the shoulders in line with the chest. Don't cheat yourself. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is the deadlift a dangerous exercise?

A: No. Poor form and execution make any exercise dangerous. The deadlift is one of the most beneficial exercises an athlete can perform to develop absolute strength and posterior chain muscle mass. 

Q: Should I deadlift with a sumo or conventional stance?

A: You should choose your dominant deadlift stance based on which stance allows you to pull the most weight. However, you should never neglect the opposite stance. At Westside, we will most commonly pull main exercises in our dominant stance. However, we will also include some opposite stance pulling for the main exercise. Typically, our opposite stance work occurs during accessory training. 

Q: How frequently should an athlete feature the deadlift as a main exercise?

A: Typically, we will program a max effort deadlift once every 3-4 weeks. However, you can pull every other week if you choose to. We would heavily discourage weekly max effort deadlifts. 

Q: How frequently should an athlete feature deadlift variations as accessory exercises?

A: You can perform a deadlift variation as an accessory exercise during any lower body training day. As long as you keep the volume and intensity properly regulated, there should be no issue regularly featuring deadlift variations as accessory exercises. 

Q: I've been experiencing pain when I deadlift. Should I reduce my frequency?

A: If you are regularly experiencing pain while performing the deadlift, consider replacing some of your deadlifts with good mornings. Then, once the issue has been resolved, increase your deadlift frequency back to prior levels. 

Q: Do you need specialty bars or equipment to deadlift?

A: Aside from a floor, a barbell, and some plates, no. However, having access to a deadlift bar, bands, chains, a lifting belt, and some squat briefs can be of great help. 

Q: What deadlift variations are most commonly used at Westside?

A: We typically use competition-style deadlifts, deficit deadlifts, mat/block deadlifts, and rack pulls. We can further alter the exercise by adding accommodating resistance if necessary. 

Q: Do you recommend deadlifting for beginners?

A: Yes, deadlifts are beneficial regardless of experience level. The key is understanding the proper way to deadlift and regulating volume and intensity accordingly. 

The Key to Brute Strength

The truth is that no other exercise can deliver the level of lower body brute strength and posterior chain muscle mass development provided by deadlifts. While the squat and good morning are worthy exercises, the training effects supplied by the deadlift cannot be mimicked. As Lou would often say, the strongest deadlifters are usually the toughest individuals in the gym. 

Why? Because the deadlift is a true test of brute strength, and most brutally strong individuals are tough and resilient. Unfortunately, the deadlift sometimes catches a bad rap due to poor execution on the part of the athlete. Remember, no basic exercise is dangerous; the athlete's ability to execute the movement decides how beneficial or harmful an exercise will be. 

If you want to be big, strong, and tough, you must learn how to deadlift. Following our suggestions, you can deadlift regularly without worrying about excessive fatigue or injury. Do not allow fear to keep you from accessing the strength benefits provided by the deadlift. Out of all of the lifts we perform at Westside Barbell, the deadlift is truly the key to brute strength. 

Where To Learn More

If you want to learn more about deadlifting - such as mastering the technique, learning how to program the exercise, and how to fix your sticking points so you can push past plateaus - check out our Squat and Deadlift Manual here

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Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.

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