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Dead-On Size & Strength

Mention deadlifts, and most people involved in some sort of strength training will immediately think of the sport of powerlifting. Those who train with weights in order to become more proficient in other sports, including Olympic weightlifting, typically shun them. The prevailing opinion is that the slower pulling movement is not nearly as beneficial as one of the dynamic exercises, such as power cleans, power snatches, clean and snatch-grip high pulls or full snatches and cleans. While I agree that the explosive lifts have more carryover value for any athlete, that doesn’t necessarily mean a static exercise is without value in the quest for greater strength.

I happen to believe that the deadlift is a very useful exercise for anyone who wants to improve overall strength. After the full squat it’s the very best core exercise in all of weight training. Deadlifts work the core muscles very completely and with a great amount of weight, making them an excellent choice for anyone trying to improve strength in the hips, legs and back. It’s the exercise where you can lift the most weight, and that places it in a unique position. True, in many powerlifting meets today, a few contestants bench-press and squat with more weight than they deadlift, but that’s primarily because of all the support garb they wear. Let them do the three lifts in T-shirts, shorts and shoes, as every competitor did in that sport in the beginning, and the deadlift would be where the greatest amount of weight is lifted.

While I don’t put deadlifts in beginning programs for younger athletes—and that includes college athletes—I do teach them how to do the exercise. In fact, I teach everyone I start on a strength routine, male and female, even senior citizens, how to deadlift a weight properly. I do so because it’s important for anyone to know how to lift a heavy object off the floor correctly. It’s something every person has to do countless times throughout his or her lifetime: a heavy bag of groceries, a case of books or motor oil, a lawn mower or a rolled-up rug. Lifting a heavy anything off the floor accounts for a large portion of back injuries, which is why knowing how to perform the movement in the right way can prevent a lot of pain and suffering.

Another reason I teach the deadlift to everyone interested in becoming stronger is that all pulling exercises that start with the bar on the floor begin with a deadlift. So even if you don’t plan to include the exercise in your strength program, it is most helpful to know how to do it correctly.

The deadlift is also an excellent exercise for older athletes and those who are unable, for whatever reason, to do any dynamic exercises. In cases like that the deadlift can be the primary hip and back exercise. I’ve written that athletes in their late 50s and beyond need to avoid the explosive movements that irritate tendons and ligaments far too much. A static movement such as the deadlift fills the bill for an exercise that works many large muscle groups and with a decent amount of resistance.

One reason I don’t include deadlifts in programs for younger athletes—unless they have a sound foundation of several years of diligent training—is that few can resist the temptation of trying to find out just how much they can lift off the floor and pull it to their waists. That’s especially true when a group of friends train together unsupervised and peer pressure takes over. Then, when the weights get really heavy, form breaks down, the back rounds excessively, and a weaker muscle or attachment gives. Injuries from deadlifting are usually more severe than others because so much more weight is being used. There’s a lot of difference between dinging your back trying to power-clean 200 pounds and tugging on 500 pounds.

Having said all that, let me emphasize that I believe the deadlift to be a perfectly safe exercise—when it is done correctly. That’s true for almost any exercise in weight training. Behind-the-neck presses and skull crushers are potentially harmful even when done correctly, but for all the rest the basic rule of thumb is this: Done right they’re safe; done incorrectly they’re risky. That goes for those seemingly harmless ones, like dumbbell curls, chins and dips. The bottom line is that when form is sloppy, injuries occur. So it’s imperative that perfect technique be used for all exercises, especially the deadlift.

Trainees wanting to include deadlifts in their strength program need to spend an ample amount of time making sure their form is perfect before loading lots of plates on the bar. Because the movement is so simple, many assume they know what they’re doing when they do not, and that situation generally leads to trouble. In addition to learning correct technique, you must spend time establishing a solid foundation of strength before moving to more taxing numbers. All those who add deadlifts to their program are always eager to see how much they can elevate. It’s only natural for a competitive individual to think that way, but it’s a mistake. No singles until the base of strength is rock solid, which may take six months or more. There’s no hurry. Besides, it’s not really necessary to max out with a single in order to determine how much you can deadlift. Just work off your best triple. For most that amounts to 20 pounds for each rep after the first. The aspiring athlete who is doing 450×3 can realistically expect to do 490 for a single. Some can do even more, but that’s close enough.

I’ve trained a few powerlifters, however, who insisted that they had to single out in order to know what attempts to take in a contest. That’s more for mental security than necessity, but whatever works. In those cases, I have them max out a month before the meet, then move their workload up with eights, fives and threes, assuring them that if those numbers move upward, the single will follow.

Getting stronger in the deadlift has a nice carryover effect on other exercises. The two Olympic lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk, are done in a very dynamic fashion and require a high degree of athleticism. They are in direct contrast to the static deadlift, which is why people so often assume that it has no place in an Olympic lifter’s routine. Yet I’ve found that deadlifts can be most helpful. I discovered that, as I did most things in strength training, by accident.

In the early ’60s, while attending graduate school in Chicago, I competed in Olympic meets throughout the winter. Sometimes there was a meet every week. After the Olympic competitions there was a physique show and occasionally a test of strength on some exercise, such as the flat bench, curl or deadlift. That was before powerlifting became organized, and the events were called odd lifts. I always entered them in hopes of gaining another medal, plaque or trophy. Plus, I was always curious to find out how much I could lift in the various exercises.

When I entered the deadlift competition, I had no idea what to expect. For one thing I’d already cleaned for my presses, snatched, and cleaned for my jerks. I hadn’t done a deadlift in more than two years. Since I wasn’t sure what I could lift, I stayed conservative but managed a 525 weighing 181. I got a second-place medal and was content—that is, until the following morning. My back was sore to the touch and stayed that way for another two days. It wouldn’t have been a problem, except for the fact that I was going to lift in an Olympic meet in Moline, Illinois, the following Saturday. I was convinced I’d made a huge mistake in doing a heavy deadlift after all the pulling in the Olympic contest. It turned out, however, that deadlifting had given my pulling strength a tremendous boost. I broke my snatch and clean and jerk records and recorded my first 800-pound total, a benchmark for the light-heavyweight division for the presteroid days.

When I moved to York in the mid-’60s, I found that none of the lifters believed in the value of the deadlift, so I stopped doing it. Then Ernie Pickett began driving up from Baltimore to train with the York team on a regular basis, and he did do deadlifts—not in training but at powerlifting contests, which he entered frequently. He and I both thought they helped our pulling strength. Olympic meets were held, as a rule, from January through June, and powerlifting contests were conducted in the other months. Ernie and I would go to meets in areas where we could also party afterward, like the Jersey Shore. We never trained for those meets, though we did back squats religiously and worked the pulling muscles hard and heavy. The heavy overhead presses also prepared us for bench pressing, although Ernie did a fair amount of flat benching as well. We used the power meets as heavy training sessions. The change was refreshing, and the highly charged atmosphere was motivating and helped us improve our personal records on many occasions.

There was no doubt in our minds that doing max efforts in the deadlift was helping our power cleans for our presses, snatches and full cleans. The trick was not to go after a heavy deadlift too often.

I include deadlifts in the programs for all of my advanced strength athletes, even those doing the Olympic lifts, though I have them do deadlifts only about every three weeks. That makes it a novelty rather than a burden. I have those who are interested in competing in power meets deadlift once a week, changing the sets and reps at each session. I’ll come back to that later, but first I want to go over the form points for the lift. If an athlete knows how to do power cleans correctly, the deadlift is a snap because the same line of pull is used in both exercises.

I use several different versions of the deadlift in my programs, depending on the athlete’s individual needs, but I start with the one most frequently used, the conventional deadlift. Use straps. In the early stages of building a solid strength base, where the weights are relatively light and not all that demanding, they may not be needed. I’ve found, however, that it’s beneficial to get used to employing them from the very beginning rather than waiting until the weights are taxing. If the straps aren’t wrapped around the bar and your wrists correctly, they can be more of a bother than a help.

Since wraps aren’t legal in a contest, many use the reverse grip instead of wraps. The reason I prefer wraps is that when both hands are gripping the bar in an overhand grip, it is much easier to bring your traps into the lift than it is when one hand is under the bar and the other over. Ultimately it’s a matter of personal preference and has little bearing on how much weight is finally deadlifted.

I should also mention that using a hook grip in a contest works as well as straps and still enables athletes to engage their traps in the final portion of the exercise. Yet the hook grip for some is so hurtful that they’d much rather use an under-and-over grip.

Foot placement for the deadlift needs to be a bit closer than for any other pulling exercise. Your feet need to be on a line, with your toes pointed straight ahead. Your shins should be touching the bar, and your grip should be the same as for the power clean. In the event you’ve never done that lift, use this method of finding the right grip. Extend your thumbs until they barely touch the smooth center of the Olympic bar. That’s your best grip. Some like to grip the bar a bit wider, which is okay as long as you feel comfortable with it.

Look straight ahead or a bit upward, flatten your back, and set your hips. Where you place your hips has a great deal to do with your height. Taller athletes can benefit by setting their hips rather high, at parallel to the floor. That’s advantageous in that it provides a longer level from which to begin the pull; however, the higher hip positioning is effective only when you’re able to maintain it as the bar climbs upward. Should your hips move up faster than the bar, you need to set them lower at the start. Regardless of where you place your hips, the rule applies. The bar and hips must elevate at exactly the same pace—no exceptions. When the hips rise too fast, that causes the bar to run forward, and with heavy weights there’s no way to bring it back into proper line.

Once you’re set in a starting position, take a moment to tighten every muscle in your body. Although that’s important for any pulling exercise, it’s doubly so for the deadlift because you’re handling so much more weight. Before starting the pull, make sure your front deltoids are a bit in front of the bar. That’s a key point. If your front delts are behind the bar, you’ll pull the bar backward rather than in a straight line upward, and the higher it goes, the farther backward it will move. When that happens, you lose a great deal of pulling power because the bar is not in the proper line.

Take a deep breath, get set, and then, instead of thinking about pulling the bar off the floor, think instead of pushing your feet down through the floor. That will help you stay extremely tight, which is most important. Should any part of your body relax even just a bit, it will have an adverse effect on the lift. Naturally, it doesn’t matter that much when you use lighter weights, but it makes all the difference when the bar is loaded to maximum poundage. As you push your feet strongly into the floor, the bar will move upward as if by magic.

Your arms must stay straight throughout the movement. They’re no more than connecting links or, more exactly, powerful chains. If you bend your arms for any reason, you’ll dilute the power coming from the legs, hips and back into the bar. Earlier I mentioned that I like to use the hook grip so that both my hands are over the bar. That enables me to elevate my traps as the bar reaches midthigh, making the finish a snap. If you wait till you’re almost completely erect before bringing your traps into play, it’s too late, and most deadlifters who wait end up twisting and jerking in an attempt to fully complete the lift. If you lift your traps when the bar is at midthigh, however, all you have to do to make a smooth finish is bring your hips forward—quite easy.

Lock the bar out solidly, take a breath or two, and lower the bar back to the floor in a controlled manner. Don’t just let it crash to the floor. If you do, your back will invariably round, and a rounded back, whether you’re lifting the weight or lowering it, is an invitation to injury. Second, when you let a weight crash to the floor, it gets jarred out of the proper positioning for the next rep. So guide the bar back to the floor, and place it close to your shins. Take another breath, check to be sure your hips and shoulders are where they should be, hesitate just a moment, and then do another rep.

A habit many beginners get into, particularly if they’re using rubber bumper plates, is to rebound the weight off the floor in order to get a jump start on the next rep. That, however, is counterproductive. When the weights get really demanding, you can’t jump-start that first rep. That’s why it’s beneficial from the very beginning to hesitate just for a brief moment between reps. It will pay off in the long run because it will help make the start stronger.

The two key form points to keep in mind for the deadlift are 1) maintaining a very flat back and 2) keeping the bar extremely close to your body. To help keep your back flat, pull your shoulder blades together tightly, and keep them that way throughout the exercise. When your back stays tight and flat, it’s much easier to guide the bar upward close to your shins and thighs. Remember, if the bar moves away from your body even so much as an inch, you’re giving away leverage. Be sure to keep it close when lowering the bar to the floor as well.

Even if athletes want to improve their deadlift numbers, I still confine them to deadlifting only once a week. It’s plenty when they fully apply themselves. Here’s the formula that I’ve found to be most effective. Week 1: five sets of eight; week 2: five sets of five; week 3: two sets of five followed by three sets of three. The eights expand the workload, the fives do the same and engage the attachments a bit more, and the threes take dead aim at the tendons and ligaments. The three workouts are just diverse enough that they build a bit of variety into the routine. I have my athletes go through the three sequences for three cycles. Then, if they want to test out on a single, they can do so.

Another very effective way to do deadlifts—and insert some variety into your program—is to do them with a wide stance, or sumo style. I like those because they involve the adductors to a much greater degree than the conventional style, and that muscle group is difficult to hit directly. Set your feet fairly wide—wide enough so that you can grip the bar firmly inside your legs. Make certain your toes are pointed straight ahead. You won’t have nearly as much thrust and control if they’re pointed outward. When you pull, push down on the outsides of your feet. The main point to concentrate on is not letting the bar run forward because it has a tendency to do so on the sumo style. Tuck it in tight to your shins, push down with your feet, and simply lie back. The bar will slide right up your legs to the finish position.

One thing to know about the sumo style: It doesn’t involve the lumbars nearly as much as the conventional deadlift. So make sure you’re doing some specific lower-back exercise or alternating the two forms regularly.

Whenever I see athletes having trouble holding their position at the start of a heavy clean or deadlift, I have them do low deadlifts to strengthen their start. They’re exactly like conventional deadlifts except that the movement begins from a lower starting point and 25-pound plates are used instead of 45-pounders. That forces lifters to lower their hips and use them more fully. They have to learn to squeeze the bar off the floor while keeping their hips low and, as the bar climbs upward, making sure their hips move at the same rate as the ascending bar.

Once athletes have established a solid base for their deadlifts and want to give it a jolt, I have them do halting deadlifts for a change. Halting deadlifts are just what the name implies. Instead of coming all the way erect, you halt the pull at midthigh. You do them more in a rhythmic fashion, or it becomes herky-jerky, and you don’t want that. A smooth up-and-down motion with a taxing weight for five or eight reps will have your back screaming for mercy.

For the very advanced who are seeking something to break through a sticking point, I prescribe halting deadlifts with a rounded back. While I don’t encourage you to round your back while building a solid foundation, athletes with years of experience can get away with it. All powerlifters round their backs to some degree during competition, so they might as well make their lower and middle back stronger in preparation for that eventuality. Since much more weight can be handled on halting deadlifts than in any flat-back version, you should only do them every couple of months.

While the exercises I’ve been describing are great for strength athletes who want to get a great deal stronger to become more competent in their chosen sports, the deadlift is also a valuable exercise for anyone wanting to maintain a higher level of strength fitness. If you’re unable to rack a bar across your back, the deadlift is an excellent substitute for the squat. Many people also assume that for deadlifts to be of any use, the weights have to be heavy. Not true at all.

Older athletes can benefit by using relatively light poundages for higher reps, such as two or three sets of 20s. I correspond with a 65-year-old health enthusiast who has only an Olympic bar and a set of 44-pound bumper plates at his disposal. So he runs the reps up when he feels he can handle the increase instead of adding weight. It comes out the same in the end. The workload is increased, and that means he’s improving his overall strength.

One of the best things about the deadlift is that it requires very little in the way of equipment—a bar and a few weights, a small amount of space—and it can be done safely without an assistant or spotters. If you’ve been avoiding this basic exercise because you thought it was a lift exclusively for powerlifters or those wanting to get superstrong, give it a try. It benefits anyone at any strength level.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit IM

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