If there was only one exercise I was allowed to do for the rest of my life it would be the deadlift.
Some will argue the squat. And there’s a good argument for that. But I can’t think of a better move that works more muscles at more joints and has more functional application to life than the deadlift. All my clients can deadlift, and they can all deadlift well.
I have two women in their 40s who can deadlift 260 lbs and 290 lbs. I have a male client at a bodyweight of 132 lbs who can deadlift 295 lbs. Another male client of mine deadlifted 442 lbs and could’ve done more, but because of the style of weights we have at my gym we couldn’t fit any more weight on the bar!
When done properly, the deadlift works the entire backside of your body from your heels to your neck. It’s amazing for your core/abdominals and truly requires cooperation of your body’s entire global system of muscles. Bottom line is if you’re not deadlifting and deadlifting often, you need to start.
Some people can’t start deadlifting right away. Muscle/joint tightness, weak abdominals or other problems could hinder someone from starting to deadlift. Make sure you are ready to deadlift before you go attempt your one rep max for goodness sake!
Having said all that, let’s talk about how to do it properly…
Proper set-up is essential. Deadlifts always start and end from the floor so the bar should be on the floor ready to go. Your feet should be hip to shoulder width apart and when you look down at your feet, your shoelaces should be under the bar. Reach down and grab the bar without bending your knees. Now bend the knees and sit your butt down and back until your shins touch the bar. Arch your back & raise you chest. This is proper set-up for the deadlift.
Some people can’t get into this position for various reasons – mostly tight muscles & fascia. In these cases, I work the deadlift from an elevated rack while I work on the tight muscles until I can get the client to be able to pull the bar from the floor. Ab strength can, mainly the transverse abdominus and lower also be a limiting factor in the deadlift. If you can’t stabilize your spine then your back will round and you risk injury. Perfect the bent over row as well as strengthen your deep abdominals before attempting the deadlift.
Heels Through the Floor:
To fully activate the posterior chain muscles, I want you to concentrate on pushing your heels through the floor. You obviously won’t literally push your heels through the floor, but pushing through your heels versus your toes will better recruit the muscles we are trying to target.
Drive Your Hips:
A common mistake I see when people first deadlift is they don’t stand up fully and leave their hips behind them. When you get to the top of the lift I want you to squeeze your butt and push your hips into the bar. This will get full activation of your glutes – a common area in people I see lacking strength as well as a trouble area many women especially want to work on.
As I’ve stated in previous posts, there needs to be a tempo applied to your exercises. I see people all the time at the gym practically drop the bar rep after rep each time with a more rounded back than the previous rep. This does nothing to help strengthen your abdominals and eliminates a great portion of the training stimulus. The tempo can vary depending on your goals but try starting with a 3 or 4 second negative (the lowering portion of the deadlift).
You need to keep the lordosis (arch) of your lower back and start the motion bending at your hips not knees.
Now that the weight is back on the ground, bar over the shoelaces, back arched and butt back attempt rep #2!
As a side note: I almost always put deadlifts at the beginning of workouts as they are physically draining and demanding on the nervous system.
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About Phil Gephart:
Phil Gephart is a certified personal trainer with a Master's Degree (MS) in Exercise Science with a focus in Coaching & Athletic Administration, received in 2009 from Concordia University in beautiful Irvine, California. Phil’s passion for fitness is reflected in his involvement in sports throughout his life—in high school, he played basketball, baseball and soccer, in college he continued playing basketball and soccer. Phil also played basketball professionally for five years.
Phil Gephart is currently a professor in the exercise science department at Concordia University, where he teaches an Advanced Personal Training course to undergraduate students.