Deadlifting 101

The deadlift is by far one of the easiest compound exercises to learn, in my opinion. Then again, there are technicalities to it that cannot be avoided, and if done improperly, deadlifts can leave you in a lot of pain due to strain or injury.

So while it’s not a difficult lift in theory (pick up the weight, put it down again), there are right ways and wrong ways to do it.

I’m going to break it down in points, and hopefully you can note an issue that you may be having as well and how you can fix it. This post will be covering conventional deadlifting.

THE SET-UP

Everyone has a certain stance that suits them best. I have seen some people pull with feet no more than an inch apart, and I have also seen people pull in a semi-sumo stance, with their arms still on the outside of their knees. The key here is finding a stance that works for YOU. If you do not know exactly what that is, a good starting point is having your feet hip-width apart, or a little bit narrower.

If you are a slow puller off the floor (i.e. harder for you to lift the weight the first 2-3 inches rather than locking out), you should aim to have your feet a little straighter in front of you, at least while in training. Doing so will help you be a little faster off the floor. Pointing your toes out slightly will make it a little easier to engage your hamstrings and get your hips through at the top, which will support your lockout if you have the opposite problem (weak lockout, strong off the floor.)

After you have gotten your foot width decided, the next step is to see where the bar is relative to your feet. You want the bar right over the middle of your foot. You do NOT want to start with the bar already at your shins.

Next is your hand placement. Place your hands just outside your knees. I find that the closer my arms are to my legs, the tighter everything feels. I also use a mixed grip, which means one hand under and one hand over. It’s much easier to lift heavier weights with this grip rather than double-over-hand. Especially if your grip is weaker and you are still building it up.

Some people prefer to bring their hips down and hold that position for a few seconds before pulling. In my opinion and in my own experience, this is very inefficient. I like to make use of a bit of stretch reflex at the bottom before I begin pulling, since it helps me engage everything and make sure that my muscles are tensed and ready to go rather than relaxed. So after I set my feet, I always set my hands, and then I do not dip down until I am ready to pull. I find that waiting in the pulling position before you begin limits the amount you will pull, because your muscles are not as tense and there is no “bounce” in a way.

SO. Set your hands first, and bring your hips down to pull only right before you start to make sure that you are engaging everything properly with no muscles relaxed.

THE PULL

A big problem some people have that can result in bad injury is retracting their shoulder blades before they begin the pull. This is an absolute NO, and should never be done. When you stand up your shoulders are going to come back anyway. Retracting your scapula before pulling will only lead to injury.

Now that everything in the set-up is correct and you have your hands in place, bring your hips down just low enough so that your shins touch the bar. This is where you should be pulling from.

However, there are those of us who are a little bit at a disadvantage due to leverages, and sometimes you get what is known as a “high hip puller”. I am one of them. Even bringing my hips down until they touch the bar is not always enough sometimes. What I suggest in this situation is a little bit of a “dip” at the bottom.

What I mean by dipping, is to bring your hips down a little lower than you would normally pull from, and then “bounce” them up to the correct height. The second you feel that your hips have met the appropriate height, begin your pull.

Here is an older video of myself as an example:

And for those of you who are even higher hip pullers, a larger dip may be more appropriate at your discretion. Here is another example from my friend Robert Trettin:

Again, this is what I do because I have a short torso and long legs, so it works well for my leverages. If you have great deadlifting leverages and can pull without having to dip down, then that’s awesome. If your hips are too high at the start, try dipping down like I suggested. It makes a world of a difference.

Remember to keep your chest up and out. Take a deep breath and hold it. Arch your back. Your head should be in a neutral position. Fix your gaze on a spot in front of you and/or slightly down. Slightly up is fine, and I find that looking up as I’m locking out can help sometimes. Never look straight down on the floor when you pull because you will throw yourself off, and of course, never look in the mirror.

As you begin the pull, you want to keep the bar as close to your body as possible and try as much as you can not to let the bar drift in front. Ever see those guys with bloody shins after a deadlift? That’s how close the bar needs to be to your body. Keep it in at all times.

QUICK TIP

What I like to imagine, is that I am not pulling the bar off the floor, but rather I am pushing myself into the ground. This automatically tenses your glutes and hamstrings, engaging them in the movement. If you concentrate of pulling the bar off the floor a lot of the tension tends to shift to your upper back, taking your legs out of the picture. Your legs play a big role in deadlifting, so make sure that everything is fired properly.

Also, when you feel like you’ve been grinding it for an hour, it’s probably been closer to a couple of seconds. Next time you feel like failing it when you’re almost there, just give it a couple extra seconds (provided your form is at least passable). It may be all you need to lock out the weight. :D

FINAL NOTES:

Everyone has different pulling styles, and it takes time to find your own groove. The best thing to do is play around with different widths, hand placements, etc. and find which one suits you best.

Most basics have been covered in this post, and pretty much anyone can benefit from at least starting with this form, and from there tweaking it to match their own bodies perfectly.

Never be one of those people that trains AROUND their weak points. If you have lagging body parts, build them. If you don’t have good flexibility to get your hips lower, then stretch. Don’t be one of those guys (or girls) that says “Oh, I’m not flexible enough for that, I’ll just do it this way” or “My hamstrings are weak, so I have to pull more with my back”, etc. All I hear is a bunch of lame excuses for your ineffective training. Admitting to your weaknesses is one thing, so long as you make a constant effort to improve upon them. Admitting to them and then doing nothing to strengthen them is what’s the wrong thing to do.

Hope this helps. Happy deadlifting!

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30 thoughts on “Deadlifting 101

    • Same reason you wouldn’t look into the mirror when you squat. It has a tendency to make you shift the weight toward your toes and lean forward more. It kind of distorts your perception, seeing as you are a 3-dimensional person,and the mirror displays you as flat. Also it distracts you when what you should be doing is focusing on how the lift feels, and your mental cues for the lift.

      If you notice in professional olympic lifting gyms for example, there are never mirrors all over the walls or anything. They are taught how to do the movement by feeling the movement, and they know if they did it right by the way it felt, not how it looked in the mirror. Only in commercial gyms will you see them everywhere, since they are for vanity purposes only. :)

      • Wow…didn’t know that. I always look in the mirror when I squat :x I’ll have to try it without doing that now!

        I had one more question. I’m not a pro-deadlifter by any means, but from what I can tell from videos my form seems to be decent (I also haven’t gone super heavy so that probably helps). I’ve been trying to help my boyfriend learn how to deadlift, and one thing he always does is bring his hips up too early. So it’s almost like he does the DL in two movements (hips up, then upper body up) rather that a fluid motion. Any advice for fixing that? Not sure if this is a factor, but he’s 5’10” and kinda has long legs.

  1. This is actually a big load off my mind. I’ve always had a bit of a dip before the pull myself, and I had been wondering if I was doing something wrong. I’ve never had any pain or issues with the lift, so I didn’t stress over it too much, but I’m glad to see that I’m not on the fast track to disaster.

    Nice pull, by the way. What are you up to now in terms of your working sets for the DL?

    • Definitely not doing anything wrong. So long as your back is arched and you’re not “butt winking” at the bottom, it’s all good!

      Thanks. That was way back last February. I’m going for a 315 pull this coming Thursday! My last max was 300, and I usually have my working sets between 225 and 275.

      • Definitely let us know how that 315 goes. I’m extremely impressed with your numbers relative to your size. Most women I see in the gym are pumping out smith squats with 20 lbs. loaded on the bar, or doing a quarter deadlift with the pre-loaded 40 lb. bars, and here you are outstripping several of the guys I see almost every morning. Keep it up.

  2. That’s a strong dude, that last pull took forever. I bet no one in the gym says anything about his pink shoes.

    Good article.

    • He is very strong. I’m sure he’s gotten looks, haha. They probably didn’t know whether he was joking around with them or entirely serious, and decided it’s better not to take the risk in offending. ;)

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  4. I was going to ask about the mirror too. I usually try not to look in the mirror when I squat, but I didn’t even think about doing the same for deadlifts – must go try now!I have quite long legs (I’m 5’9″) so I have a little dip at the bottom but, like you, I don’t hang around at the bottom. Great post, it’s definitely given me a bunch of things to think about.

    • Sounds just like my brother! Generally speaking, if you have a long torso, sumo deadlifting is a better option for you just because it works better for your leverages.

      However, if you are a conventional puller, all I can really suggest is that you build up your lower back and glutes a lot. Also do deadlifts from a deficit to get your back stronger and help strengthen your pull off the floor.

      Are your legs basically just as long, or are they pretty short in comparison to your torso?

  5. Lovely tutorial! The deadlift is my absolute favorite lift — there’s just something so badass when you haul it off the floor.

    Your comment about the dip makes a ton of sense now. At my Crossfit gym, a guy who was watching me deadlift started getting on me about dipping some. The coach walked up and told him I was fine. I’m like you in that I have long legs and short torso.

    Question though! I always find myself getting weaker at the top — like, just as I’m allllmost straight up, it’s a huge effort to get it all the way compared to first getting it off the ground. Any suggestions?

    • If your lockout is weak, you need to build up your glutes, upper back, and lower back. I suggest rack pulls (below the knee), good-mornings, SLDLs, rows (seated, DB, BB) and weighted hyperextensions. :)

      It could also have something to do with your form and position when you begin the pull. Videos of course would help the most.

  6. Nice article. You gave me a few things to think about…which is pretty awesome considering I tossed $20 at Andy Boltons deadlift ebook and it was garbage.

    I recently put together a few ideas on the deadlift in my site (thestrengthreview.com) I’d appreciate your feedback.

    Respectfully,

    Ken Friend

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  9. i really really hate the conventional deadlift. no matter how many form adjustments i make, how low/high i use my hips, grip type, grip length, etc i always end up injuring my lower back somehow. i think i have crappy low back genetics and am just going to live with SLDL or sumo deadlift :(:(

    what a pathetic man i am

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  11. One exercise I love to do with dumbbells is running or jogging.
    This can add some good resistance to your chest
    workouts, your legs, stomach, or ab workouts as well.

    But in reality the ideal exercise routine to reduce weight is “the exercise you do.

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