by Andrew Coates & Tony Gentilcore
Master This Big Basic Lift
Learn how to deadlift or just refine your skills. This will help you pull more weight, use better form, and feel good afterward. Watch this!
How To Deadlift: Almost Everything You Need To Know
Every lifter should know how to deadlift. It’s the purest demonstration of raw strength. Unlike the squat and bench press, the deadlift doesn’t begin with an eccentric or pre-stretch action. It’s 100% concentric – you versus gravity.
You can’t “cheat” it. You’re either breaking inertia and locking the barbell out at your hips, or it’s going to stay cemented to the floor. Do it well and you’ll have one of the best tools for a strong, healthy body. Do it poorly and you’ll risk lower back pain and injury.
Let’s go through the proper setup and some helpful techniques.
The Floor and Bar: You Can Change Both!
Not every lifter should deadlift from the floor with an Olympic bar. Competitive powerlifters and Olympic lifters are the only ones who have to. The diameter of Olympic plates sets an arbitrary height standard. But not everyone has the limb lengths or mobility to pull from the floor safely.
The fix? Modify the bar height and range of motion to better suit the lift to YOU since you aren’t planning to compete.
The trap bar (hex bar) is your best option. Due to improved mechanics regarding center of mass (you’re inside the barbell) and axis of rotation (hips are closer), the trap bar is a safer, more user-friendly variation.
A deadlift is a deadlift is a deadlift. So long as you hinge at the hips (and yes, the trap bar is a bit more of a “squatty” hinge), maintain a neutral spine, and lift something off the ground from a DEAD stop, it’s a deadlift. It doesn’t matter if you’re picking up a straight bar, a trap bar, or a Volkswagen.
If you want to lift long term, choose the most suitable exercise variations given your injury history, ability level, and goals. With these in mind, the trap bar is probably going to be the best option for performance and safety.
But let’s assume you’re going to deadlift with a straight bar anyway. Fine. Let’s hammer in the other point: You do NOT need to pull from the floor. There’s no golden rule that states you must. We can modify ranges of motion by elevating the bar with risers under the plates.
Safe, effective, and enjoyable deadlifting supersedes blind adherence to an arbitrary one-size-fits-all standard.
What To Do With Your Feet
Strong deadlifts require maximized leverage. This means straight arms so you can shorten the range of motion as much as possible. Your feet need to be inside your arms (conventional) or outside (sumo). Conventional deadlifts will have the feet straight and just inside your hands.
Sumo deadlifts don’t require your feet so wide that you’ll lose a toe when you lower the bar carelessly, but your feet are outside your hands. Generally, adopt a toes-pointing-outward position.
You may also feel strong and comfortable in a hybrid stance with the feet just outside your hands. Others seek to maximize leverage by placing their feet as wide as the plates allow, shortening the distance to lock out at the top. Sumo foot position will vary based on the angle of your hips.
To find your best approach, experiment. See which variation feels the most stable and powerful. Which one allows you to maintain a “neutral” spine throughout? Choose that one. Which one makes your low back or hips feel like they’re being eaten by fire ants? Don’t choose that one.
Many lifters prefer shoes with a firm flat sole. These allow for a better feel of the floor, better center of gravity by avoiding an artificially-elevated shoe heel, and less soft cushioning, which can absorb some of the force exerted through the ground to maximize deadlift load.
If your gym allows it, deadlifting barefoot (or with lifting socks) is advantageous because it ensures you’re closer to the ground, shortening the distance the bar must travel. And it makes it much easier to “push through the heels” to engage the posterior chain to a higher degree.
Rule of thumb: the less heel lift, the better. Think about foot pressure/grip and its role in ensuring a solid deadlift setup. Much like the squat, think about having a tripod or “active” stance. You want to feel even pressure on three points of contact on both feet and the floor: the big toe, the pinky toe, and your heel.
From there, you want to think about two things:
1. PRETEND YOU’RE TRYING TO RIP THE FLOOR APART BETWEEN YOUR FEET.
Similarly, pretend to rip a paper towel apart or even “corkscrewing” your feet into the ground. This will create more external torque in your hips and help to ramp up full-body tension. The objective is to increase torque in the hips.
2. THINK ABOUT PUTTING FORCE INTO THE GROUND.
The deadlift is often deemed a pulling exercise. It is. However, it’s useful to reframe it as more of a pushing exercise. You’re trying to push the ground away as you lift the bar.
Many lifters don’t put much thought into what their feet are doing during a deadlift and how it can improve their performance. Place more emphasis on this component and you’ll experience a profound improvement immediately.
What To Do With Your Knees
While deadlifting off the floor is hip dominant, there is knee movement. You begin with a flexed knee and extend through your lockout.
If a deadlift is too “squatty,” your knees can feel like they’re in the way, causing the bar to drift away from your body to clear them. This puts you at a leverage disadvantage. Elevating your hips out of a deeper squat position will create a more vertical shin and pull your knees back, out of the bar path.
Moreover, inching your hips up a little higher will also create more hamstring tension, which is a crucial component.
What To Do With Your Hips
The deadlift is a hip hinge. It starts with your hips flexed. Your glutes and hamstrings are the primary hip extensors recruited to power the lift.
A common fault is having the hips jump up at the start of the lift. This may be a clue you’re seeking tension in your hamstrings and glutes by starting with your hips too low. To fix this, create a lifter’s wedge, something that every lifter should adopt.
The lifter’s wedge is accomplished when you bend over and grab the barbell and begin to use it as a counterbalance to pull your chest up and hips down. The result is a more upright torso angle and neutral spine where you’re wedging yourself between the barbell and the floor.
Not everyone is going to have the same starting hip position. The goal is to find maximal hamstring tension with your armpits directly over the bar. You want to find the point where your hamstrings and glutes feel like loaded springs ready to unleash their fury.
At lockout, one or two bad things can happen with the hips:
- The lifter doesn’t end with their hips fully extended but rather with their butt sticking out.
- The lifter exaggerates and ends up falling into lower-back hyperextension. Competitive powerlifting often requires an exaggerated lockout for judging. For most regular lifters, this serves no purpose for improving strength or muscle mass.
In both scenarios, there’s a lack of awareness about finishing with the glutes. At lockout, it’s important to think about “finishing tall” or upright and squeezing your glutes as hard as possible. The descent (lowering the bar back to the ground) should be initiated by pushing the hips back. A few cues:
- Push your hips back.
- Push your butt toward the wall behind you.
- Pretend you’re trying to shut a car door with your butt.
In addition, the barbell should always stay as close to the body as possible. Think about pulling the barbell INTO your thighs the entire time with your lats. You’re basically going to “slide” the barbell down your legs while pushing your hips back, resisting bending your knees until the barbell passes them.
What To Do With Your Lower Back
For beginner and intermediate lifters, try to keep a neutral lumbar spine. In truth, there’s always some flexion and extension of the lower back during deadlifts, no matter how neutral your spine appears. Your lumbar spine can tolerate this through smart training, good form, and focusing on progressively getting stronger.
For all but the most experienced lifters, avoid lifting in exaggerated lumbar flexion. The most experienced lifters can use a round lumbar spine as long as it’s supported with a strong core brace. We could make the case that, for some lifters, deadlifting with a rounded lumbar spine is biomechanically advantageous.
However, that’s really a caveat to the 0.5% of absolute deadlifting Terminators out there who are able to get away with it because they’ve learned how to avoid end-range spinal flexion (or have spent a significant amount of time training it with appropriately progressed overload). Also, they’re just brutally strong and can stay out of precarious positions.
For most lifters, though, avoiding (aggressive) loaded spinal flexion is a good habit to adopt. Taking the time to learn how to get (and maintain) an abdominal brace will be crucial.
What To Do With Your Upper Back
For the upper and mid-back (thoracic region), it’s generally best to limit the amount of rounding. Getting and ramping up tension is the name of the game here.
To do so, hone in on your lats. What connects you to the barbell isn’t your hands – it’s your lats. Often, when a lifter’s mid-upper back rounds on their initial pull, it’s either because the load is too heavy or they’re not getting enough tension in that region.
The thing is, you may not understand what it means to “turn on” your lats. Without going into a boring anatomy diatribe, your lats are a massive upper-back muscle that extends, internally rotates, and adducts the humerus (upper arm bone).
This means jack-all for deadlifting. However, another lesser-known function of the lats is to help posteriorly tilt the shoulder blades, providing a smidge more of a biomechanical advantage. Hey, every bit helps!
The easiest way to turn on your lats is to think: “Squeeze an orange in your armpits to make orange juice” or to “squeeze textbooks in your armpits.” Once you accomplish this, the goal is to keep squeezing throughout the ENTIRE rep/set (even on the descent).
Another common tactic used to improve upper back tightness/tension is to pull slack out of the bar. This gives you better leverage and connectivity.
Many lifters yank the barbell off the ground with “loose” or bent elbows, which makes us cringe because we’re always afraid they’re going to rip their bicep tendon off the bone. Moreover, the yanking motion elicits a loud “clanking” noise, which is the barbell hitting the inside of the plates.
Getting slack out of the bar means using the barbell as a counterbalance (the lifter’s wedge, discussed above) to gain leverage and to get everything connected. The inner cylinder of the plates needs to “connect” with the barbell BEFORE you initiate the lift.
What To Do With Your Hands
How and where you hold the bar affects performance. To have the greatest leverage to pull, you want your arms as straight as possible. So we begin with arms straight down from your shoulders with your knees, either inside (conventional) or outside (sumo) your hands.
You have four primary grip options to choose from. Each has its pros and cons:
- Better overall grip development
- Safest option
- Weakest for max effort
MIXED GRIP (ONE HAND OVER, ONE HAND UNDER)
- Strongest legal powerlifting grip
- Allows for more load and reps in training
- Creates some risk of a biceps rupture for the underhand side
- May lead to asymmetrical arm and upper back development
HOOK GRIP (THUMB PINCHED UNDER FINGERS)
- Stronger than non-hook double overhand
- Legal in competition
- Increases degree of hoity toityness (I’m better than you) in some people
- Takes getting used to
- Painful for your thumbs
OVERHAND WITH STRAPS
- Better grip for overhand without the risk of biceps rupture
- Allows for more training volume before grip fails
- Illegal in competitive powerlifting
- Not ideal for grip development if used too often
Here’s what we recommend: Use a double-overhand grip for as long as you can or until your grip becomes the limiting factor. From there, adopt an over/under grip, making sure to alternate which hand is over and which is under with each subsequent set performed. This will help reduce the risk of both tendon rupture and developing an asymmetry.
Obviously, for any max effort attempts, revert to your dominate grip.
What To Do With Your Head
Head position is often a matter of individual coaching opinion. A viral gym fail video once showcased a coach spotting and helping a deadlifter by pushing up on their chin during a max effort. Please, never do this.
A slightly tucked or packed neck position may be preferred to help focus on anterior core bracing. Imagine locking your chin to your collarbones along with locking your ribs down to your pelvis. This helps keep your lumbar spine from flexing or extending excessively during a deadlift. This often means looking at the ground or at the base of the wall in front of you.
Some lifters elevate their chin as they set up and lift. This may help someone maintain a neutral spine who’s prone to rounding during their lift. This is safe if it’s not extreme and doesn’t involve an aggressive snap. You’re safest avoiding extremes of either excessively packed or extended.
Experiment to see which option feels best to you.
This isn’t an exhaustive end-all-be-all approach to deadlifting. Our goal was to showcase some tenets or “big rock” considerations regarding the setup (in addition to technique cues) that will resonate with the most lifters possible.
If you take the time to learn and practice these skills and tips, you’ll see a marked improvement in your deadlift performance as well as lower your risk of injury.