The squat is the king of lifts and my all-time favorite exercise. If you told me I could only perform squats for the rest of my days I'd be perfectly content, though I doubt I'd find many training partners willing to join me.
However, if the scenario changed to picking just one exercise to train my athletes, I'd swap my beloved squat for the deadlift.
The deadlift works the entire posterior chain – the massive group of powerful muscles that runs up your backside that most mirror-focused trainees ignore.
A well-developed network of traps, mid-back, glutes, and hamstrings can make or break a bodybuilder's contest placing, and these muscles are especially important for athletes due to their ability to generate power and explosiveness. Show me an athlete who feels he's tapped out in terms of speed and I'll show you a guy who needs to make variations of the deadlift priority number one.
But not everyone is able to pull huge loads off the floor, at least not right away. I've always struggled with the straight bar deadlift. Part of the problem was in high school we only did trap bar deads, which is essentially a squat with the bar held in your hands. I never really learned to hip hinge properly until college, and as I grew larger it only got more difficult.
So while I was always a gifted squatter, deadlifting is something I had to fight tooth and nail to get good at it. The good news is, I learned some very important tips along the way that can save you literally years of frustration and stagnation.
My 5 Pulling Tips
- Pull the slack out of the bar.
- Keep tension in the lats.
- Push the earth away.
- Push your hips through the bar.
- Crush the bar.
Here's a good example of what a heavy conventional deadlift should look like, using all the tips from above:
Looks pretty simple, huh? Let's break each tip down to the basics so you can learn how to apply it to your own pull.
1 – Pull the Slack Out
This is likely the most important tip. You need to imagine your arms as just hooks; you shouldn't have any bend in your elbows at the start of your pull. Lest you think this is just a minor distinction, simply "yanking" the bar with your arms is a fine way to wind up on the operating table with a torn biceps!
Instead, use the weight of the barbell to pull yourself into position by engaging the lats, upper back, and hip flexors. Keep the hips fairly high and sit way back. Remember again to pull yourself down – don't "squat" into position.
One of the best cues I ever received was from Mark Bell. He instructed me to imagine I was on a teeter totter. You want to try to throw your body weight behind the barbell – the more body weight you have behind the barbell, the more available leverage to pull massive weight off the ground.
It's crucial to maintain a neutral spine, which will be difficult if your degree of hip flexion is limited. Fortunately, there are a few drills that will help improve your ability to get into a great deadlift starting position.
These drills also dynamically stretch the hamstrings, allowing you to start with more tension in your pull while teaching you to dissociate your hips from your spine.
Add these drills to your warm-up along with some sort of soft tissue work for the hamstrings and hip flexors. The beauty of doing these drills on your back is that it's extremely difficult to get into lumbar flexion as you're lying supine. Check out the progression series below.
2 – Keep Tension in the Lats
Lat tension is key to maintaining tightness in the deadlift. Coaches talk about getting the abs tight, but the lats are just as important. Start by pulling air into your stomach and bracing in all directions while pulling the bar into your body. Whether you're a conventional or sumo deadlifter, the bar should be touching your shins at the start of the lift.
In a conventional pull you'll typically see a bit more dorsiflexion, so I recommend initially setting the bar at around mid-foot (shins 1-2 inches away from the bar). (For sumo pullers it's best to get the shins right against the bar once you set your feet.)
Once you pull the slack out, next pull the bar into you, which brings the bar in contact with your shins. It's not uncommon when learning to pull to get a bloody shin or two, so feel free to wear high socks to protect your shins.
This stage of the set up is crucial. You're more apt to round your back or just fail the lift if the bar starts out in front of you. A good rule of thumb is the bar should be in contact with the body at all times.
A good drill to teach lat tension and bar path is the Romanian deadlift with partner RNT (reactive neuromuscular training), which is essentially the coach pulling the athlete into compensation.
In this drill, the coach pulls a stick away from the athlete's body, forcing him to reactively pull the stick back into their body, thereby activating the lats and creating more tension. You can use bands or manual resistance for this drill.
I highly recommend including lots of lat work in your deadlift training. All types of rows are excellent, although I really enjoy dead stop rows with dumbbells and barbells.
What's cool about these variations is that you're building starting strength from the floor, which is exactly what you need at the start of a deadlift. Be sure to check out my Perfect Pulling Exercise for a Bigger Back article for more lat training ideas.
Dead Stop Rows
Dead Stop Trap Bar Rows
3 – Push the Earth Away
A great cue from Dan John that always stuck with me was to "Push your heels to China. If you live in China, then push them to Utah!"
Pushing your heels through the ground delivers a much better start to the deadlift, whereas a "yanker" will often use too much lower back to finish the pull.
It may help to think of the start of the pull as a standing leg press. The initial knee extension puts your body into the perfect hinge position where you can finish the lift with your glutes and hamstrings.
The pause deadlift, sometimes called the halting deadlift, is a great assistance exercise to help train this initial push while developing the core strength needed to stabilize the spine in the hinge position.
Simply push the ground away to break the barbell off the floor and pause at a point just below the knees for 1-3 seconds, then finish the lift. A few sets of 5 will do the trick nicely.
Speed deadlifts are another way to build strength off the floor and practice pushing the earth away. The key to this (or any other dynamic effort exercise) is to not change your form – just try to move the bar faster. Multiple sets for low reps with submaximal weights are the perfect way to ingrain solid technique and movement patterns.
You should set up for each rep of your speed sets the same way you would a new one-rep max attempt. Adding accommodating resistance such as bands and chains helps ensure you're pushing constantly through the end range of motion and that you aren't slowing down. Lifters that are really strong off the floor can get lazy at the lockout and stop pushing their heels through the ground. It's important to keep accelerating throughout the range of motion.
4 – Push your Hips through the Bar
Once the bar breaks the floor and reaches just below knee level, you're essentially in a pure hip hinge position with your knees soft and hips high and back. As the bar approaches your knees, think about shooting your hips through the bar. This helps your hips take the brunt of the load and not your lower back.
Novice trainees often try to lean back too much and hyperextend their lower back to lock out the weight, but it's much safer and more effective to extend the hips instead. A big sign that you're doing this is that your knees are bent when you're finished and your back is extremely arched.
Try to finish in a straight line just as if you were in a plank. Your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles should form a perfectly straight line at lockout. Clench the glutes tight when you finish. If you're still having trouble locking out, make sure your hip hinge is spot on.
The stick good morning is a good way to groove this pattern and warm up for the deadlift. Make sure you have three points of contact on your spine. If you're having trouble with your head position, try pressurizing the back of your neck and bring your tongue to the roof of your mouth while keeping your eyes up. Check out the video below.
If someone has really jacked up hips they should start off with block pulls to ingrain proper hinge pattern. I prefer block pulls over rack pulls since the bar will flex the same way as it does off the floor, though both are viable options.
Again, the key here is to not squat the weight. The hips should be pushed back as far as possible. For more information check out my Hardcore Hinging for Hamstrings article.
It's also important to include supplemental hip extension work. Adding glute bridges and hip thrusts to target end range hip extension has helped my pull considerably. That said, it's also important to train movements that closely mimic the deadlift pattern and are more "straight leg" in nature than bent knee exercises like hip thrusts and glute bridges.
Some of my favorites are the 45-degree back extension and the strict reverse hyper, which are favorites of Bret Contreras and Ben Bruno. Both variations are designed to focus on training the glutes and hamstrings while minimizing the participation of the lower back. If you're an athlete or train athletes, don't forget to also perform the single-leg versions of these exercises.
I use very little load so I can focus on moving purely at the hips while getting a strong glute contraction at the top of every rep. Leave your ego at the door and do the exercise with perfect form. It will transfer to your deadlift that much more.
Another important point is that to effectively work the hip extensors you must have adequate hip extension. Most lifters sit at a desk or in a car all day so it's important to work on hip mobility. If you can't reach full hip extension you'll never be able to truly lock out your deadlift, nor will you ever be able to optimally train your posterior chain.
Here are my favorite hip flexor stretches for improving your deadlift lockout:
5 – Crush the Bar
Grip strength is key to all aspects of strength. The stronger your connection with the bar, the more tension you can create and the better your position will be.
There are two easy things you can do to work your grip for the deadlift. The first is to simply hold your deadlifts for a few seconds at the top of each rep. I've experimented with as much as a 5-second hold between each rep, and you'll be surprised at how hard the set becomes when you do this! This is a great variation for lifters who have trouble holding onto their deadlifts at the top of the pull.
Another easy way to get in some extra grip training is to go double overhand for as long as you can before switching to an over-under grip. For lifters with biceps, elbow, or shoulder problems, I recommend using a hook grip instead of an over-undergrip.
Here's a quick video of my friend Todd Bumgardner explaining how to set it up. This will be somewhat painful at first, but if it allows you to keep deadlifting it's well worth sticking with!
Two exercises you can use to improve your grip as well as the start of your pull are the snatch grip and deficit deadlift (standing on a block). Both exercises extend the range of motion so the movement actually takes longer to complete than a traditional deadlift. This increases the time under tension, which helps with grip strength and endurance. Only go to as much of a deficit as your current mobility will allow.
Snatch Grip Deadlift
Standing on a 45-pound plate is a good place to start, then progress to standing on a 100-pound plate. A 1-3 inch deficit should do the trick.
All Together Now
The deadlift is an amazing lift for both size and strength, but it isn't as easy as "picking it up and putting it down." Pumping out clean, back-friendly deadlifts requires considerable technique, mobility, core stability, and body awareness – not to mention patience and perseverance.
Follow the 5 tips outlined in this article and make perfecting your pulling technique a priority. Your strength will go up, your posterior chain will grow, and best of all, you'll no longer be known as the skinny, slow guy with the lower body development of Justin Bieber.