the deadlift guide

Part I: Deadlift guide for novices – building your foundation

Posted on Posted in Technique

Unless you lift in a true strength training facility, odds are that not many people in your gym include the deadlift as part of their routine. This deadlift guide is meant to help you build a foundation for yourself – in terms of both strength and technique.

Maybe you’re one of them! If this is true, then allow me to (temporarily) come to your defense. The deadlift has an intimidating name and the few guys or gals in the gym you may have seen performing it probably aren’t the most approachable people in the gym – muscle shirts, bulging veins, grunting – you get the idea.

But if you’re a healthy individual with no back problems you can probably guess the takeaway of this post:

You need to include some form of a deadlift in your fitness.

But before we dive into the good stuff, let’s get one thing out of the way – the name. Don’t let ‘deadlift’ be off-putting. It simply means that you’re lifting a dead weight. That’s all. Trust me, there’s no bro-nomenclature included in any shape or form.

Did you lift your small child off the floor this morning? You did a deadlift.

Maybe you lifted a bag of groceries out of the shopping cart yesterday. Yup. That was a form of a deadlift.

Were you in a fitness class at your gym recently? Well, you get the idea.

Basically, you’ve been deadlifting your whole life and didn’t know it. The deadlift is one of the five fundamental human movements and in my opinion, it’s the most simple and primal movement pattern there is.

The lifting cues and techniques in this deadlift guide will be of use to you whether you are beginning a strength based program all on your own or a Body Pump regular.

Deadlift guide: What this guide is

Bottom line is this: If you consider yourself a novice lifter or somewhere below proficient, then this deadlift guide is for you.

I’ve seen many people in the gym performing a deadlift with poor technique. And the deadlift is one exercise that you can’t cut corners on. You don’t need to lift like a competing raw powerlifter, but you do need to respect a handful of lifting cues that will protect your spine and keep you healthy.

If you’re an advanced lifter then guess what? You probably already know what I’m about to say. You did read ‘novice’ in the title, right? But if you consider yourself a beginning or intermediate lifter then I think this guide will help you. It certainly will if you had to look on YouTube to figure out what this blog post is about in the first place.

OK, are we all on the same page here? Good. Let’s get to it.

deadlift guide

The basics

The first thing I want to talk about in this deadlift guide are the basics.

In my recent post on single leg training, I mentioned briefly that one of the fundamental human movements was a squat. Well, now it’s time for another one – the deadlift.

As you may imagine, the simple act of picking something up off the ground is about as basic as it gets. We’ve been doing this movement our whole lives in some form or another. But interestingly, over time, we lose the nice smooth body kinematics that we once had. You see, when you were a kid, you probably had an awesome deadlift.

 

See how this young fellow is maintaining a nice neutral spine? He’s not rounding or excessively bending his back. Also, note the relatively straight lower leg. Simply put, this kid just bent over, grabbed hold of his toy and heaved it up. Don’t believe me? If you have young kids, take a look at their lifting form. Seriously, you’d be surprised that most children display great biomechanics.

But after years stuck in front of a desk and living a largely sedentary lifestyle, many people begin to lose their mobility and flexibility and in turn, our lifting technique will suffer.

We’ve all heard this advice before,

“Lift with your legs, not your back.”

I remember hearing it sometime in middle school and it’s good advice. Our legs are generally stronger than our backs and lifting with them will keep your back from growing fatigued. This is especially important for repetitive movements that may put your lumbar spine in an unhappy place.

However, what if you actually want to strengthen your back?

When this is the case, your back is going to play a major role in lifting the weight. And guess what, this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing – when you lift properly, that is. And to deadlift properly, you must understand one very, very important lifting cue before even thinking about approaching a barbell.

The hip hinge

The hip hinge is absolutely key to executing a good deadlift and a key part of this deadlift guide. Whether you are lifting a light weight for high reps in an organized class or doing 5 x 5’s for strength, you’ll still use the hip hinge. We do this because it is the most efficient way to lift. Hinging at the hip ensures that our spine stays neutral and safe and that our hips are being engaged to their fullest. Pure leverage.

But don’t race for the nearest barbell just yet. Do this: Grab a wooden dowel or PVC pipe if your gym has one (you may have to hunt for these – not many people use these, unfortunately). From standing, position the bar on your back such that it’s touching the back of your head, your upper back and your rear. Now, maintaining those (3) points of contact, HINGE from the hip. It may help to have a friend watch you and provide feedback.

 

If you round your back you’ll lose contact with the bar on your head. And if you arch your back too much, beyond a nice neutral spine, then your upper back may lose contact with the bar. Don’t do this either.

The whole idea is that your spine should remain neutral throughout a deadlift movement. Just like when you’re standing. And yes, this includes your head (cervical vertebrae). Some strength coaches still advocate gazing up at the ceiling, but this cue has a tendency to actually encourage people to arch their backs. Not good. Instead, tuck your chin down and imagine your whole upper body is bracing to form a nice strong column of awesomeness.

If you need a good cue to keep your chin down, try biting down on the front of your shirt. Or, keep your gaze up about 4-5 feet in front of you.

Try the above exercise a few times at home with a broom. Then do it in the gym prior to your deadlifting routine. Don’t underestimate the power of muscle memory. The cubicle isn’t going to teach your body correct movement so you’re going to have to take the lead. Even I will still grab a PVC pipe in the gym from time to time and check my own form.

Now let’s mix things up a bit. Lie down on the ground with your back to the floor (supine) and knees bent. Perform a simple bridge. You’ve probably done this before whether it was in yoga class or something you saw and pulled out of a magazine. But I want to focus on the movement itself, not the final position when your knees, hips and shoulders are all aligned. How did you get to that position? You performed a hip thrust. You’re glutes and hamstrings were working in unison to thrust your pelvis forward.

This is the movement we want to see in a deadlift. Why? Because the deadlift is a hip dominant movement not a quad dominant movement like a lunge or squat. So as you work on this movement keep in mind that the hips are the major players. In other words, there shouldn’t be any movement in your lower back.

Once you have this figured out, try holding the dowel horizontal now behind your rear-end and hip hinge again.

 

Let’s go just once step further. When you’re holding the bar behind you horizontally, imagine you are trying to bring your hands closer together. This is going to help activate your lats. When it comes time to start deadlifting with a barbell this will be important because engaged lats will not only help you to lift more, but help to shore up your spine and keep you healthy. Just be sure that when you squeeze your lats you aren’t compensating by arching your spine. You have a workout buddy, right? They can watch for this.

Get familiar with the above movements. You might want to incorporate them into your warm-ups or just prior to your big lifts. Focus on what your body is doing and how you feel. And when you’re ready, it will be time to introduce a little weight.

Kettlebell deadlift

When you have the hip hinge movement pattern locked down, it will be time to move a little bit of weight. We are going to keep things simple and safe by training with a simple kettlebell. Unless you have difficulty internally rotating your shoulders, the kettlebell deadlift is a great starting point.

Stand with your feet hip width apart and position yourself over a kettlebell. Hip hinge down to grip the bell. And when I say grip, I mean GRIP! Squeezing really hard will help to activate your lats and shoulders. You may not be lifting real heavy right now, but a strong grip and active lats are just plain old good practice for the future. Remember, a deadlift, any kind of deadlift for that matter, is a full body movement.

When you are ready, thrust your hips forward in a controlled manner and lock out in the standing position. At this point your body should resemble a nice strong column. Your glutes are contracted, your shoulders down and back (no shrugging!) and your gaze straight ahead.

Then, lower that kettlebell on down. And when you do lower the bell down, do so in a controlled manner, but don’t move at a snail’s pace. When your upper body approaches parallel with the ground your lumber spine can be under a lot of stress. During the concentric phase of the lift, when you lift the kettlebell off the ground, the muscles around your spine are contracting and shortening. But when you descend and enter the eccentric phase of the lift, your muscles are being asked to not only maintain strength, but to lengthen.

Therefore, it’s just good practice than when you get close to the ground to simply let the weight drop. Now I’m not saying you let go of the weight, you just let gravity do most of the work.

But what about the barbell?!

Oh, one more thing, why didn’t I discuss the barbell deadlift? After all, that’s a ‘true’ deadlift, right? Well, I’m saving that discussion for Part II of my deadlift guide. For some, lifting just the 45 lb barbell is a bit of a challenge. As is echoed many times on this blog, progression and proper movement mechanics are key to your success. The kettlebell deadlift is a great first step.

The wrap up

There is more than one ‘definitive guide to the deadlift’ out there in the internet ether. There are plenty of deadlift guides. Largely because the deadlift is not simply a deadlift – there are many movements that qualify as a hip dominant movement – trap bar deadlift, snatch grip deadlift, single-leg Romanian deadlift and so on. I’ll leave it up to wiser fitness gurus to debate which of these is the ‘definitive’ version.

The big takeaway: neutral spine and initiate movement from the hips.

Following these two considerations will easily separate you from the crowd in the gym. Hopefully, by this point, you feel a little better about your own deadlift after reading this post. And keep an eye out for Part II where we will get into the barbell discussions.

Before you know it, you’ll be deadlifting like Franco Columbu!

 

Do you know someone who would benefit from this deadlift guide? Please consider sharing my post with your friends :).

Further reading:

Are you ignorant when it comes to the deadlift?

How to deadlift: The definitive guide to proper deadlift form

References:

(1) http://kaseyesser.com/blog-post/the-deadlift/

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