In the beginning—in the world before Universal Gyms, Nautilus and personal trainers—everyone who wanted to get stronger did deadlifts. Oddly enough, not all of those early strongmen did squats, yet they always did deadlifts. It was considered the one lift that showed who were the strongest overall, and some of those old-timers were extremely strong in that lift. Bob Peoples did 700 pounds in the early ’40s, and the great John Davis deadlifted 705 pounds while weighing only 193 in the ’50s.
Then, in the late ’60s, powerlifting became an official AAU sport. Deadlifts were a part of the competitions, and, almost immediately, those who did not participate in the new sport-—i.e., Olympic lifters, bodybuilders, aspiring strength athletes—stopped doing this basic, primary exercise. It became the exclusive property of the powerlifters.
I have always been a fan of deadlifts. I did them early on, using a standard bar and smaller plates, so I was pulling them from a lower position than I would with an Olympic bar and big plates. I knew they were helping because I could feel the soreness throughout my back on the day following a session when I worked the deadlifts hard—and also because the pulls on my snatches and cleans were stronger as well.
Many coaches shun deadlifts, saying that they are too risky. Those who do the Olympic lifts avoid them because they feel the slow, static movement is a hindrance when you’re performing the more dynamic pulling motions required in the two quick lifts. The truth is, deadlifts are just like any other exercise in strength training. Done incorrectly, they can result in an injury. Done right, they greatly improve leg, hip and back strength. As far as the slow motion being a negative in terms of doing snatches, cleans and jerks, that is simply illogical. By practicing the competitive lifts and making the muscles involved in the quick lifts appreciably stronger, you ensure that those muscles and attachments will react more quickly. Strength is the basis of all physical movement. Deadlifts make you stronger.
They certainly didn’t slow Davis down. He snatched 330 1/2, clean and jerked 402 and threw in a 375 1/2 press for good measure. The deadlifts helped him get stronger and move faster.
Whenever I start people, male or female, young or old, on a strength program, I teach them how to deadlift. In my mind it is very important for everyone, in all walks of life, to know how to lift a heavy object off of the floor correctly. Every human will be faced with the problem of lifting a heavy bag of groceries, a case of motor oil, a box of books or a heavy sack of mulch off of the floor. Knowing how to do it correctly can save a lot of pain and misery.
What a lot of coaches don’t understand about this lift is that you don’t have to use really heavy weights and low reps to get the benefit. Done in higher reps—20s, for example—it is an excellent strength builder for older athletes who want to keep their backs strong. It’s also a great exercise for rehabbing any sort of injury to the back—again, with high reps, to flush blood into the damaged area.
Deadlifts are a great substitute exercise for back squats for older lifters who cannot fix the bar behind their heads, for whatever reason. After full squats they’re the single best exercise for strengthening the body because every part of your body is involved in the movement.
Let’s start by reviewing the technique for the conventional deadlift. To find the ideal grip, extend your thumbs on an Olympic bar until they touch the smooth center. If you have a standard bar, use a shoulder-width grip. Use straps and an overhand grip, which will enable you to use more weight and do more reps. Should you decide to test yourself in a power meet, simply use a hook grip.
You can set your feet a bit closer than you do for cleans. Your toes should be pointed straight ahead. To find your strongest thrusting stance, close your eyes and get in position to do a standing broad jump. That’s where your feet should be for the deadlift. Tuck in the bar snug to your shins. The bar must stay close to your body from start to finish. Whenever you allow it to stray, you will lose valuable leverage, and if it moves too far away from the correct line, you will not be able to finish the lift.
Tighten every muscle from your neck to your feet. Lower your hips, and fix your eyes straight ahead. Make sure your front deltoids are out in front of the bar. If your back and legs are very strong, you can set your back as high as parallel. That will provide you with a longer lever, but most trainees are unable to do it because their hips come up too fast. A key point on all pulling exercises: Your hips must come up at the exact same speed as the bar—no exceptions. If your hips come up too fast, you will not be in a solid position to complete the lift. Your back must stay flat throughout the exercise.
To accomplish that, lock your shoulder blades together, and keep them locked for both the up and down movements of the deadlift. If you concentrate on your lower back instead, the middle and upper parts will round when the going gets tough. When you squeeze your shoulder blades tightly together, however, the rest of your back will stay tight and flat.
Once you’re in the set position and are about to put the bar in motion, think about pushing your feet down through the floor rather than pulling the bar upward. That more positive action will enable you to stay extremely tight and guide the bar in the correct line. Staying rigidly tight is extremely important, especially when the weights get heavy and you’re knocking out those final reps on a work set. Whenever any part of your body relaxes, even slightly, the bar will try to run forward. By staying tight, you’ll be able to guide it in the perfect line.
Your arms play a very minor role in the deadlift. They’re no more than connecting links, and you must hold them straight, like powerful chains. If you bend your arms at all, your upward thrust is greatly reduced.
When the bar comes to midthigh, contract your traps dynamically. Most wait until they’re almost completely erect before involving their traps, which generally leads to their hitching and jerking the bar around to finish the lift. There’s no reason to wait that long to bring the powerful traps into the mix. Contract them early, and it’s simply a matter of bringing your hips forward—and, like magic, the lift is complete.
Lower the bar in a controlled fashion. Do not let it crash to the floor. That works against you in two ways. One, it can irritate your shoulders and elbows. Two, it will throw you far out of position for your next rep. Lowering the bar deliberately works like a negative and will enable you to gain more strength in the groups responsible for the exercise. Plus, the same rule applies to lowering the weight as it did for elevating it—your hips should move at the same speed as the bar.
Do not get in the habit of rebounding the plates off the floor. You need to start every rep from a dead stop in order to build the muscles and attachments that work in that part of the lift.
Unless you’re planning on entering a power meet, do deadlifts only every couple of weeks, and vary your set-and-rep formula each time you do them. For example, you can do four sets of eight, five sets of five, two sets of five and three sets of three. Every couple of months go after a max single.
Next time, I’ll go over several variations of the deadlift that are most useful to all serious strength athletes.
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 www