The Dirt on Deadlifts

by on January 4, 2012

January 2012: The Dirt on Deadlifts

It’s definitely the most primal test of manhood out there. Nothing like getting down and seeing how much weight you can pick up off the ground like a real brute. That’s why the deadlift is one of my top 3 favourite exercises of all time. When we deal with any major barbell movement, it’s all a game of physics (and yeah, some strength too) that makes big weights get thrown around like marching band batons by heroes like you.

One thing scientists still can’t understand is the reason why most lower back trauma to lifters and athletes happens away from deadlifting – we can pull 505 off the floor in a workout for reps with no problem, but then get shooting pains down the spine picking up a pencil or putting our socks on an entirely different day – Kind of scary – Having said that, we’d be idiots to forego a review of our techniques so we’re not fudging things up during the actual lift itself.

There are several schools of thought towards the deadlift. I am humbly going to state mine (while giving credit to those from whom I’ve learned, of course). To me, it comes down to two main groups – those lifting for performance, or those lifting with targeting certain muscles in mind. I’m not prepared to knock any given method – for example, the westside methodologies have produced dozens of very accomplished lifters with ground-breaking contest numbers. Most can agree that the prime movers of a conventional deadlift are the muscles of the back, glutes and hamstrings. We need to use all 3 of these guys to their max contribution in order to stay safe and lift big.

The Setup

In his book Starting Strength,Mark Rippetoe thoroughly breaks down the conventional deadlift from A to Z. He’s definitely my go-to guy where most barbell movements are concerned. In the book, he mentions the importance of a good start position. The shoulders should be positioned in front of the bar so that the scapulae are located directly above it. This sets up the support system perfectly for the barbell to be lifted through. The scapulae being set up over the bar means a few other things have to be in place; namely, the feet would have to get in tight against the bar, and, dependent on your proportions, the hips will probably be slightly higher than most would normally keep them.

Let’s get back to the foot position for a quick second. The width of the feet shouldn’t be much wider than your hip width. The toes can be in one of two positions. The pulling position, where the toes face directly ahead, is commonly used today. The receiving position, where the toes face out about 15 degrees is acceptable too. I personally recommend a receiving position if you suffer from tightness in the hips, or are just a bigger guy. This way the hips get a chance to stay open, and the knees can be brought out slightly wider for proper clearance.

The next tip Rippetoe often uses (which is a cue I find to be very, very effective) is to “squeeze the chest out”. It helps make the back flatten out and be ready to pull safely. Here’s one thing to keep in mind. The muscles of the glutes and hamstrings contract downwards. Their force in contracting will tilt the pelvis backwards. The muscles of the back will do the opposite and pull upwards. Being able to dissociate the pelvis from the low back is important if we want to achieve the right pulling position. He really brings this to the fore here:

Get Tight!

Too often I see videos or live examples in the gym where lifters try to rip the heavy bar off the floor. It has to be the most dangerous thing out there. Sacrifice all the tightness and tension you just created in the blink of an eye by attempting to seemingly do a backflip with the bar in your hands? No thanks. Here’s an example of what I mean.

It’s that big “jerking” movement just before pulling that has to go. Granted, this guy was lifting some serious weight, but his back forewent any added tightness it could have achieved by that one brief fragment. And we all know that can be the difference between a herniated disc or staying safe and strong. A shotty movement like this just before pulling depletes all potential or stored energy in the muscle and makes it have to rapidly “charge back up” to its max force. It makes sense to me that doing this makes the movement feel more powerful – hell, you’re making an explosive movement to start it off. But it gets tricky here. As a former sprinter, the same principles apply. When you ascend to the “set” position in the blocks with your knees leaving the ground, you need to get tight. You press the balls of your feet against the blocks as hard as you can and maintain that tension, letting the stored energy, muscle contraction, and tightness finally be “freed” on the sound of the gun. If we didn’t do this, the muscles involved would have to re-contract, press against the blocks, and project the body forward. Very inefficient, and in that case, wasted vital time. Likewise, the body should be at its absolute tightest just before the lift, which means “half-pulling” on the bar before you actually make your max effort. If you hear the “click” of the bar coming off the ground, you weren’t tight enough. Here’s an example of a lifter getting nice and tight for his pull. No wasted jerking motion, and he gets his back nice and tight just before pulling. Granted, at 881lbs, the lockout has a few issues, but a good setup regardless:

The Pull

When you pull from a poor starting position (i.e. the bar not located under the scapulae, positioned far away from the shins), you’ll notice what happens. Once the bar moves even an inch off the ground, the hips will shoot upwards and the bar will move right into the shin, under the scapulae – where it belongs. Rippetoe’s advice is to set up in preparation for this before pulling. It makes sense.

I hear a lot of different cues to explain hip drive. Many of them involve a subtle forward thrust of the hips to encourage the glutes to activate, especially nearing the end of the lift at lockout. I like to think of a basic pulley system, something like how elevators work.

The Pull

In the picture, the weight (m) represents your barbell. The rope (on the side that the hand is pulling on) represents your hamstrings, and your fulcrum (the block) would represent your pelvic girdle. Drive your heels straight down into the floor and feel your hamstrings and glutes contract downwards. Keep the tension on them as the bar travels up your shins and thighs to correspond. Your lower, mid and upper back will be working whether you like it or not, so don’t worry about anything other than keeping it flat as a board, just the way you started.

I don’t focus on “producing” a hip drive, because the angle will close on its own, especially if the cues above are followed properly. Another reason is because at the top of the lift, a false drive can – and always does – make the low back just go into hyperextension, with the glutes just coming along for a free ride. This in mind, the next step is to unlock the pelvis so that the glutescan assist in completing the lockout. Use exercises like Bret Contreras’s RKC plank

and a proper unloaded glute bridge shown here by Mike Robertson:

These will help the body achieve the desired finished (standing) position. Putting it all together, the glutes should tilt the pelvis backwards at the end of the lift, to squeeze the hips straight. You’ll know when you’ve got it. I hope…. Here’s a video of me doing a few light deads to show what I mean. Watch my ass in the video. You’ll get the picture.


Different strokes for different folks, I guess. Some enjoy a true, raw pull from the floor every rep. for low rep sets, like heavy sets of 5 and under, I recommend this method. Deadstop deadlifts, like the ones I was doing above, allow the back to reset to achieve desired tightness for each individual rep, and finally enable the body to pull more weight for more reps due to the “mini breaks” the back and hands get from briefly resting between reps. Deadstop deadlifts serve as a great strength training tool.

For higher rep sets (say, 8 to 10), I like using the tap-and-go method. Since we’re working with lower weight and start making our way out of the anaerobic system with such rep ranges, I like the isometric tension that the upper back can benefit from just a gentle touch off the ground. Just don’t be an idiot and bounce the barbell off the ground like you just scored the game winning touchdown for Green Bay. Here’s a good example of how it should look:

If you’re a competing powerlifter, or maybe just a really tall guy, a method often used to decrease pulling space is the sumo deadlift. As long as this causes no discomfort, use it. But stay open to the prospect that everyone is not built for this lifting variation. Depending on where the “socket” of the ball and socket joint of the hip is positioned on your pelvis, it may encourage unwanted impingement or abrasions. If your acetabulum (socket) on your pelvis is located towards the front, it may be a little unnatural to bear load while assuming such a wide, toes out stance. Check out ways to test your optimal foot width in my article here:

Use your discretion!

Sumo Deadlifts: A great movement – but be sure to use your discretion!
Sumo Deadlifts: A great movement – but be sure to use your discretion!

Common Fall-offs

As a writer, people most commonly know me as a “weak links guy”. And such a big movement just means there are that many more places in which you can screw up. Dormant muscles can equal poor posture, a wonky pull, or worst of all, an injury. Let’s nip that in the bud.

Weak traps

This issue will make itself manifest through what I like to call the Turtleback. See, a strong set of traps (specifically the lower traps,) will help pop the ribcage up and avoid a kyphotic posture. A body in kyphosis makes an upper back look like a camel’s hump. Not good. The fix? Focus on supplementary exercises like face pulls, trap 3 raises, and foam roller extensions to the thoracic spine.

Bambi Legs

If you notice a case of the knock-knees when you’re pulling heavy, often times it means 3 major muscles aren’t doing what they should to their full potential:

  • The inner thighs (to stabilize the upper leg)
  • The VMO (to stabilize the knee and counter the outside quad muscles’ dominance)
  • The external rotators of the thigh (like piriformis and glutes, to keep the thigh rotated outwards)

The answer is simple. Do more single leg work. All three of the above muscle groups will benefit ten times more from unilateral training. So split squat and lunge to oblivion. You’ll probably also be much more sore in those areas following workouts that involve split stance work.

Low Back Rounding

Think fascia.
Many will advise to stretch the hamstrings, but I believe that in the case of hamstrings, their tightness is usually a direct result of a hamstring issue. Work on releasing the plantar fasica under the feet and along the calves, to release some tension on the entire posterior chain of the lower body. Second, focus on stretching and lengthening the tissue of the hip flexors, so the hamstrings can be allowed to fully lengthen without the hips blocking the pelvis.

Pickin’ Up What I’m Puttin’ Down?

It’s all out there in black and white. Follow these tips and you’ll be pulling a thousand pounds raw in no time. Rippetoe is right – we need to use physics to our advantage when playing with big lifts like the deadlift. Don’t be concerned with just moving weight – doing so will only turn into muscle imbalance and eventually an injury. But hey, If your goal is to pay off your chiropractor’s private yacht in the near future, keep on doing what you’re doing.

Lee Boyce

Lee Boyce is a sought after strength coach based in Tronto, Ontario, and is a regular contributor to TNation, Musclemag, and has been featured in Men’s Health. His ego-killing approach to strength training has created a splash in the industry. You can follow him on twitter, and be sure to check out his website to hear more of what he has to say about training.