Master the deadlift. Here’s the best advice from several top coaches and experts.
What’s your best deadlift tip?
This works better than just thinking about lifting the weight or leaning back. Lifters need to learn the “tripod” foot, which means the foot has three points of contact with the ground. That larger base of support is essential for creating a rigid foot through which you can put force into the ground.
Lifters and athletes have traditionally been taught to drive through the heel, and this isn’t necessarily incorrect. But as a result, many athletes will go to an “elf slippers” set-up where their toes lift up.
This creates a lean-back approach to deadlifting more than a true force production scenario. You’ll often see lifters fall backward after setting the weight down because this is a false positioning of the center of mass. You may even see the knees wind up behind the heels during the lowering phase, especially on stiff-leg deadlifts.
So get your feet firmly rooted to the ground and deliver force through them.
A lot can go awry when we grab a heavy barbell and attempt to lift it off the ground. A quick perusal of YouTube can provide hours of cringe-worthy entertainment.
One of the things lifters have a hard time understanding, especially those just learning the deadlift, is just how important full-body tension is. You cannot be loose or passive if you want to lift heavy things.
If I’m coaching someone and I see them lose position – shoulders or lower back excessively round, hips popping up too quickly – I know they’re not getting (and maintaining) appropriate full-body tension. If this is the case, I’ll take a three-fold approach:
- Tell them to never do what they’re doing ever again.
- Address setup. This alone can make or break someone’s success with the lift.
Most lifters have no reference point at just how meticulous and precise they have to be here. Most just bend over, grab the bar, and then lift. We might as well add a “meh” sound here for auditory effect. You know, as if to imply, “Meh, I’m not putting forth any effort here, meeeeeh.”
Now, this isn’t to insinuate everyone must belt a guttural “THIS… IS… SPARTA!” during every set, but more intent with the setup will make a profound difference.
Grab the bar and murder it. Melt the bar in your hands. Then you’ll want to use the bar as a counterbalance to “wedge” yourself in – to pull your chest up and hips down(ish). Another popular way of saying this is to “pull the slack out of the bar.”
- To get better at deadlifting you need to deadlift. However, it’s still important to use our accessory work to address any technique flaws or general weaknesses that may exist. If I find lifters are still having a hard time maintaining tension (lats on) off the floor, I’ll be meanie head strength coach and add some pause deadlifts into the mix.
This forces them to stay engaged and also to increase time under tension during a phase of the lift where they’re weakest.
For programming, it may look something like this, using 55-70% 1RM:
- Week 1: 3x3-5 – 1 second pause, 2-3 inches off the floor on the way up.
- Week 2: 3x3-5 – 2 second pause, 2-3 inches off the floor on the way up.
- Week 3: 3x3 – 1 second pause, 2-3 inches off the floor on the way up AND down (cue evil strength coach laugh here).
- Week 4: 3x3 – 2 second pause, 2-3 inches off the floor on the way up AND down.
Nope, not even kidding. Before a heavy deadlift, make part of your pre-pull setup a pooper clench. Technically, it’s a contraction of the external anal sphincter for all you anatomy geeks and rimming enthusiasts out there.
You naturally do this anyway, but try to make it an extra hard contraction. Just pretend you’re trying to hold in a fart when a pretty girl walks by. For whatever reason, squeezing that muscle seems to solidify your positioning and “put everything in the right place” when it comes to form. This probably has something to do with the principle of irradiation.
Go ahead, laugh. Then try it. You’ll see.
Master bar placement, hip position, and full body tension for a strong and safe pull. They’re all related. So if one is off, all are off, and that may lead to a weaker pull, or worse, back pain.
After the bar is placed close to your shins (approximately over the middle of your feet, heels included) grab the bar. From there, make your arms as long as possible, with elbows and shoulders extended.
Contract the upper back and pull your upper body toward the ceiling, HARD. This will pull the “slack” out of the bar. This upward pull makes the upper back a fulcrum for your hips to create tension around.
Now comes the key to a safe and effective pull. Push your hips down until you feel maximum tension building up. Done right, with proper spinal alignment and core activation, the weight plates should slightly raise from the ground when using warm-up weights. That is the effect of using the hips as a wedge against the bar.
A great teaching tool for the wedge-principle is the squat-to-stand drill:
In the pictures you’ll see the arms straight, upper back pulling up (shoulders down), and hips pressed down to make the whole body tight.
Note: The photos illustrate a squat in the bottom position. This is NOT a good position to deadlift from. Imagine the arms grip closer to the ankles and the hips higher, and you have a tight deadlift position. But the squat-to-stand is both a great warm-up drill and a teaching tool for the wedge-principle.
Now, perform the same movement during your deadlift set-up and you’ll feel a new kind of readiness before you pull. When you get it, you’ll instantly regret not having figured this out sooner!
The principle of specificity dictates that, in order to do all you can to improve your explosive power, you don’t just do exercises that involve moving against high loads, like traditional heavy deadlifts. You also do exercises that require you to move at high speeds.
This is where the deadlift jump come in. It’s like a squat jump but performed in a more deadlift-type position, which makes it more hip oriented. In other words, the barbell deadlift is to the barbell squat what the deadlift jump is to the squat jump.
Stand with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart and your arms at your thighs.
- Hinge at your hips and bend toward the floor.
- Keep your back straight and your knees bent at a 15-20 degree angle. Let your arms hang in front of your body, keeping your elbows slightly bent.
- Jump straight up by simultaneously extending your hips and knees.
- Land as lightly and quietly as possible. Return to the starting position. Don’t allow your back to round out at the bottom of each rep.
- Each time you set up for the next jump, keep your knees in the same line as your toes. Your knees should not come toward one another at any time. Jump as high as you can on each rep.
You can add some light load to this movement by holding a medicine ball, dumbbell, or kettlebell.
This exercise is a great dynamic effort-type deadlift movement option.
You can use these as a “contrast set” following deadlifts. For example, you’d perform heavy deadlifts for 3-5 reps, rest about 45 seconds, then do 3-5 deadlift jumps. That’s one set. Rest about 3-5 minutes between sets. Do 4 to 6 total sets.
Compared to most other lifts, the deadlift requires a unique mindset that you’re likely not born with. You’ll need to acquire it in the gym.
When you squat, even if you’re in a rack with the safeties in place, motivation is ensured by the implicit fear of getting stapled to the floor. Once you’ve reached the bottom position and it’s time to push, you’ll give it 100% effort by default. Deads, not so much. After all, you can just let go without consequence whenever you feel like it, right?
Deadlifting teaches you how to fight… and how to want it bad enough to go out and get what you want. It teaches you how to impose your will on your environment.
Whenever I walk up to a 500 pound barbell, there’s always a big part of me that wants no part of that nonsense (and I LOVE deadlifting). The question is, is there an even bigger part of me that does want it? This is what I mean by learning to fight for what you want, despite every cell in your body screaming, “Let go of this you idiot and your suffering will be over!”
So my question to you is, do you want it more than you don’t want it?
As you pull, particularly when the bar is near your knees, your chin should be high. People for some reason think it’s important to pack their neck and look down and this can really hinder lockout strength.
If you happen to be a lifter that does keep his eyes on the floor and your lockout is awesome and you never miss a lift at your knees, then fine, don’t change what isn’t broken. But when you start lifting heavy weights and the bar slows near your knees or you fail to finish it, then look up when you pull.
Keep your chin high when the bar is near your knees. I was just watching my friend Mike Eaton, who pulled 900 in the gym for the first time this week (raw, drug free, and only weighing 240) and he keeps his chin high when he pulls. If he kept it low he might miss the weight.
Here’s a picture of me pulling 700 pounds and my chin is high as well.
The majority of powerlifters (and virtually every Olympic lifter) pull with this style. You should too.
In the collegiate strength and conditioning setting, this is a common response to the deadlift: “I just feel it in my back.” Even with a laundry list of cues, like keep your chest up, sit back with your hips, pull the slack out of the bar, etc. – athletes will still have issues with the deadlift. The potential culprit? Sacroiliac joint issues and a lack of spinal rigidity.
So squeeze your glutes and take a breath in with the belly. Why? A couple reasons:
- The glute squeeze helps to normalize minor SI joint abnormalities. This decreases and sometimes eliminates back pain and discomfort. Most often this helps those who have back pain only on one side.
- The belly breath increases intra-abdominal pressure, improving spinal rigidity. This stabilizes the spine against shearing forces. This usually helps those who have back pain on both sides.
These simple cues can take athletes from back pain and frustration to feeling great and setting PRs.
Strength-skill refers to doing submaximal sets with heavy enough weights that it does feel heavy, but not so much that it taxes the CNS or hurts your form. A typical example is doing most of your work in the 70-80% range, not anywhere close to failure (3-5 reps per set), and doing plenty of sets. Consider that “heavy practice” and focus on perfecting technique, positions, and bracing.
PRM is a method that was used both by Paul Anderson and Bob People, two strength legends from the early days of “experimental” training. It consists of using partial ranges of motion on the deadlift (pin pulls) with the weight you’re aiming to reach at the end of your training cycle. Here’s Ben Bruno demonstrating a pin pull from mid-shin (he’s using a wide snatch grip, but you can use whatever grip you prefer):
Every 2-3 weeks you increase the range of motion (using lower pin settings in the power rack). The goal here is not to max out on the partials, but to get your body used to handling maximal loads.
Pushing the deadlift hard is the most taxing thing you can do in training. Except for the Olympic lifts, it’s the lift that has the greatest neurological demand. If you push it very hard either by maxing out (or doing too much work at 90% or more) or going close to failure (up to a point where you’re grinding the weight up) you’ll negatively impact recovery, which could affect the next one or two workouts.
Only those who are structurally built to deadlift or have an amazing tolerance for heavy work (high dopamine sensitivity, very high serotonin level) can do unlimited work on the deadlift regularly. That’s why I like the strength-skill method on the deadlift. It allows you to work on technique and improve the neurological factors involved.
But the deadlift is a highly psychological lift and you need to practice handling heavy weights. Strength-skill work will get you stronger, but you need to practice handing maximal weights to be able to readily transfer that increased strength to a max effort performance.
This is where the PRM method comes it. It allows you to get your body (tendons, GTOs, muscles, skeletal system), brain (CNS efficiency), mind (getting used to the feeling of maximal weights) and technique (bracing) ready for the big weights without the same neurological cost as maxing out.
First you train your deadlift using the strength-skill approach. Then you do ONE set using the PRM approach with your target at the end of the cycle.
Now select that target weight appropriately. If you deadlift 315 don’t expect to deadlift 500 or even 405 in 9 weeks. I recommend planning for a 7.5 to 10% increase for a beginner or low intermediate, 5 to 7.5% increase for an intermediate to low advanced, and a 2.5 to 5% increase for an advanced lifter.
In that one set you do as many technically perfect reps as you can, not going to failure. The goal isn’t to burn yourself out, it’s to get your body used to handling that load.
It would look something like this:
- A. Deadlift: 5 x 5 at 70% of 1RM
- B. Pin pull from just above the knees: 1 x max reps at 102.5 to 110% (goal for the end of the cycle) of the full range lift
- A. Deadlift: 6 x 4 at 75%
- B. Pin pull from the knees: 1 x max reps at 102.5 to 110% of the full range lift
- A. Deadlift: 7 x 3 at 80%
- B. Pin pull from just below the knees: 1 x max reps at 102.5 to 110% of the full range lift
- A. Deadlift: 5 x 1 at 85%
- B. Pin pull from mid-shins: 1 x max reps at 102.5 to 110% of the full range lift
You can add one assistance exercise to fix a weak point.
Do this once a week. The deadlift is one movement that doesn’t need to be trained often. But you should do a second session during the week targeting the key muscles in that movement.
The wide-stance box squat develops the musculature of the hips, hamstrings, glutes, and adductors like no other.
Because of the vertical shin angle we sustain with the wide stance, we’re able to effectively target the posterior chain which later can have a profound effect on our deadlift numbers. The wide-stance box squat is so effective that it’s used almost exclusively at Westside Barbell, and their numbers clearly speak for themselves.
Other cool things about it? The box squat breaks up the eccentric and concentric portions of the squat. As a result you’re forced to use less weight, which improves your ability to recover between sessions. It also improves rate of force development because you’re not able to use the stretch reflex. By sitting back on the box, you release stored kinetic energy that would otherwise be used for the concentric (lifting) phase of the squat.
The deadlift is the most taxing lift on the central nervous system, so lifters often make the mistake of deadlifting more to improve their deadlift. But their efforts would be better spent by devoting more time to improving primary movers for the deadlift. This is where the box squat can be your new best friend.
Use the box squat for dynamic effort work and do 8 sets of 3 at 60-70% of your 1RM (If you’re using accommodating resistance, use 50-60%) as well as for max effort work where you use a different variation each week.
Conventional deadlifts are missionary position. They’re the lettuce and tomato on hamburgers. They’re what happens when something starts off being utilitarian and strictly goal-focused but ends up becoming the default setting for people who don’t even realize what they’re missing out on.
If you asked the majority of lifters to “demonstrate a deadlift,” they’d do a conventional dead with feet roughly shoulder-width apart, double-overhand grip, big leg drive and hip hinge. Only problem is, there’s absolutely no reason why conventional deadlifts should be the automatically assumed technique.
The position of the feet relative to the shoulders and hands is the biggest factor in determining deadlift type because it affects body position, leverage, and pulling angles. Your ideal foot position and setup is determined by a bunch of factors like injury history, limb lengths, body structure, and quad vs. glute dominance.
Unfortunately, there’s a very good chance you’ve only ever used conventional deads, so you may not even know if a different style suits you better. There’s the wide stance sumo, the not-quite-as-wide semi-sumo (or modified sumo) and any sort of in-between, not quite sumo/not quite semi/but totally where your body needs to be-stance. You need to take some time to rotate through different setups to see if you’re really doing what’s best or if you’re simply doing what’s familiar.
To give each style a fair shot, it can’t be a one and done deal. Choose a new stance and take one workout to settle in and get the general feel for it, starting light and working up to some almost-heavy but manageable sets. Next week, use the same setup, start light again, and work up slightly heavier but no grinding reps. The week after, same thing. Go even heavier and start to really push it.
If it’s feeling good and starting to click, stay with it another week or two before starting over with a new stance and repeating the process. All in all, expect to spend 3-6 weeks working on each position. It’ll feel odd, awkward, maybe even uncomfortable at first, but it shouldn’t feel painful.
Also, don’t over-stress trying to figure out ratios as if your sumo deadlift “should” be a certain percentage stronger than conventional. It’ll vary person to person, which is the whole reason we’re doing these tests.
Treat them as separate exercises and work gradually. It’s a short-term investment in time that brings a high potential pay off with more strength, more muscle, and fewer injuries.