Heavy Deadlifting 101

Tips from an 810 Pound Deadlifter

Here's what you need to know...

  1. With deadlifting, you don't need fancy techniques like drop sets, super sets, or rest/pauses. Stick with simple training and reps of 1-10.
  2. Smaller, thinner lifters tend to perform better with the sumo style. Larger, thicker lifters tend to be stronger in the conventional style.
  3. Conventional deadlifting is better for bodybuilders and has a greater carryover into everyday movements and athletic performance.
  4. At the beginning of the lift, move the bar away from the floor as fast and explosively as possible. The momentum will help with a successful lockout.
  5. If the bar path moves in toward you as it leaves the floor, you're setting up too far away from the bar. If it moves away from you, you're setting up too close to the bar.

Deadlifting is the base upon which all real back strength is built. There's not a more true-to-life exercise. You bend over and pick up something heavy. That's it.

The deadlift's simplicity is also the reason it's so effective. It stresses every major muscle group in your posterior chain, but none more so than your back. It works your back from the base of your erectors to the top of your traps and everything in between.

You can always spot a guy with a big deadlift. He has powerful, yoked traps and a back thickness that you can't obtain any other way.

Ronnie Coleman and Johnnie Jackson possess two of the thickest and most powerful looking backs to ever appear on a bodybuilding stage, and it's no coincidence they're both capable of deadlifting over 800 pounds.

Training the deadlift is also surprisingly simple. Hit it hard and heavy and then let your body rest and grow. Generally the rep schemes are going to be lower than most other compound movements.

Sets of 5-10 reps work best for bodybuilding purposes. For pure strength it's effective to work up to heavy triples, doubles, and even singles on a regular basis.

There's also no need for fancy techniques like drop sets, super sets, or rest-pause sets. While it isn't a highly complex movement, deadlifting is incredibly taxing, and you have to be cautious not to overtrain your back. This is especially true if you're also squatting heavy and working your back hard with heavy rowing movements.

The deadlift can be increased most effectively by working in short three-week waves followed by a deload week. The weights are increased each week for a three-week period, often with a decrease in the rep range, and then trained lightly or not at all the fourth week before entering the next wave with progressively heavier weights.

Another key factor of programming the deadlift is recognizing and preventing overtraining. As you get significantly stronger, your volume and training frequency will need to be decreased. This is especially true with very strong powerlifters or strongmen.

For those that are able to deadlift in excess of 700 pounds and prefer to train with heavy weights, deadlifting every other week works well.

The lower back is still trained hard on the in-between weeks but with different exercises like good mornings, weighted back raises, reverse hypers, and pull-throughs. This allows the lifter to train consistently heavy, thereby facilitating significant strength gains but also effectively mitigating the likeliness of overtraining.

Key Points:

  • With deadlifting, you don't need fancy techniques like drop sets, super sets, rest/pause, etc. Keep training simple with rep ranges of 1-10 reps.
  • A progressive three-week wave with every fourth week off is one effective way to program the deadlift for building strength and size while preventing lower back issues.
Big Back

There are two main styles of deadlifting. There's of course the sumo style, aptly named due to the fact it resembles a sumo wrestler's stance where the feet are out wide and the hands are placed inside the legs.

The other technique is the conventional style where the stance is narrower - generally shoulder width or closer - and the hands are placed outside the legs when gripping the bar.

Typically smaller, thinner lifters tend to perform better with the sumo style and larger, thicker lifters tend to perform better with the conventional style due to the individual leverages involved. But there are exceptions to the rule.

For example, many-time world champion Lamar Gant was able to deadlift over 600 pounds at a 132-pound bodyweight using the conventional style. Vince Anello was another lifter who set world records in the deadlift by pulling in excess of 800 pounds pulling conventional.

At the other end of the spectrum, O. D. Wilson was a mammoth super heavyweight that deadlifted close to 900 pounds using the sumo style. Other world class lifters have been able to deadlift equally well with either style. Chuck Vogelpohl did well over 800 pounds using both styles and he's even switched between the two styles on consecutive attempts in the same meet.

So while we're able to make generalizations, it's really up to the individual lifter to figure out what style suits him best based on his individual strengths, weaknesses, and leverages.

Sumo style is considered to be a more technique and leverage-driven style in contrast to the conventional, which is considered to be more about overall brute strength.

When using the sumo style the athlete's stance, setup, and technique must all be perfect or the attempt will fail. The conventional style has a larger margin for error, but technique is always an important factor in moving the most amount of weight possible.

While both styles utilize many of the same muscle groups, the conventional style works the entire posterior chain, including your hamstrings, glutes, erectors, upper back musculature, and traps. Sumo tends to involve the hips more while taking advantage of optimal leverages.

If you're not a competitive powerlifter and are merely using it as a tool to increase the strength and size of your posterior chain musculature, then it would definitely be preferential to train using the conventional style.

Conventional deadlifting will have a greater carryover to everyday movements outside the gym and be more applicable to increasing performance in other athletic endeavors.

Key Points:

  • Conventional deadlifting is preferential for bodybuilders and athletes.
  • Smaller, thinner lifters typically perform better with the sumo style while larger, thicker lifters tend to be stronger in the conventional style.
Deadlift Set-Up

Your head should be up and be in a neutral position looking straight ahead. It's neither necessary nor desirable to look upward excessively and can lead to a loss of balance.

The lower back shouldn't be excessively rounded or arched and instead kept in a neutral spine position. The hips should be down and back which will leave the shins in an almost vertical position.

Now, you may hear some coaches that advocate a high hip position at the start of a deadlift. Works very well for some, but generally speaking those lifters are genetically gifted with a very short torso and long arms and legs, giving them perfect leverages for the deadlift.

When lifters who aren't built this way attempt to use a high hip position, they often find themselves stiff legging the deadlift and locking out their knees too early. Lifters with extremely short torsos can also often get away with excessive rounding of the upper back during the lift. There have been a few world record holders that used this technique to their advantage.

When initiating the lift you should engage the quads and attempt to push your feet straight down through the floor. Some lifters find it helpful to envision themselves actually pushing the floor away from the bar or thinking of the movement as a sort of leg press done while holding the bar.

It's important at the beginning of the lift to move the bar away from the floor as fast and as explosively as possible. The momentum will help with completing the lift.

This is why you often hear coaches at meets yelling, "Grip and rip!" as their lifter sets up at the bar. This doesn't mean that the bar should be jerked from the floor. On the contrary, it's important to move the bar smoothly away from the floor so as to stay in the proper groove while initiating the lift.

To avoid jerking, take the slack out of the bar just before exploding upward. Pull up on the bar just hard enough to make it bend a little right before ripping the bar off the floor.

This tension is only placed on the bar for a split second before initiating the lift and this will effectively ensure a smooth start without wasting energy. It's almost indiscernible by the naked eye when performed properly by an experienced lifter as it happens so quickly. You should be down at the bar for as short a time as humanly possible before initiating the pull.

Of the three main power lifts, the deadlift is the only one that begins without an initial eccentric phase. This almost entirely negates a stretch reflex, which would ordinarily help a lifter in the majority of exercises.

Fred Hatfield, world record holder in the squat, was known to leap high into the air several times right before starting the deadlift in an attempt to establish a stretch reflex. The longer you take to set up at the beginning of the deadlift, the more difficult it becomes to initiate the lift explosively.

Once the bar reaches the knees, you should bring your hips forward and throw your shoulders back. In fact, you should attempt to keep your shoulders behind the bar during the entire lift. While this isn't technically possible, envisioning it will help you maintain the optimal upper body position.

As the bar nears lockout, attempt to push your hips through and pull the shoulders back while the hips and knees straighten simultaneously. If the knees lock out before the lift is complete, it'll leave you in poor position, leverage wise, with the bar out away from the body.

Key Points:

  • When initiating the lift, engage your quads and attempt to push your feet straight down through the floor.
  • Move the bar away from the floor as fast and as explosively as possible as the momentum gained from this will aid greatly in completing the lift.
  • Aim to get your shoulders back behind the bar during the lift. It won't be possible but trying to will give you the best upper body position.

When setting up for a sumo deadlift, you usually want to be as close to the bar as possible so it's close to your center of gravity. This often means the bar will be resting against your shins at the start of the lift. Your feet will be out wide with your toes pointing out.

It's important that when you reach down to the bar you do so using the same groove and with the same technique that you're going to lift the bar. This is because your body will instinctively want to follow that same path.

If you just bend over and grab the bar with your butt in the air, you'll have to fight against your hips wanting to shoot up and out on you, which is something you definitely don't want.

Once you're in the proper starting position and are ready to initiate the pull, take the slack out of the bar just before ripping it up. When you start your pull, force your knees out hard and push out sideways with your feet. This will help to move your hips in toward the bar, giving you the best leverage possible.

To help visualize this, picture the floor as if there's a large crack running straight between your legs from front to back. Your goal is to push the floor apart and make that crack wider. Keep your head up, back flat, and throw your shoulders back.

The bar should stay in tight against your body throughout the pull and gently slide up against your legs the entire time. Knees and hips should lock out simultaneously.

Key Points:

  • When starting a sumo deadlift, force your knees out hard and push out sideways with your feet as you start your pull.
  • Get as close to the bar as possible so it's close to your center of gravity. The bar will be resting against your shins at the start of the lift.
Hook Grip

The type of grip you use and your hand placement will essentially be the same whether you're pulling conventional or sumo style. With a few minor exceptions, the width of your hand placement on the bar is determined by your shoulder width.

Grip the bar with your arms hanging straight down from your shoulders. This allows you to use the maximum length of your arms, which shortens the range of motion and leverage-wise, puts you in a more advantageous starting position.

If your grip is too narrow or too wide you'll have to bend down farther increasing the range of motion, and negatively affecting your leverage at the start.

One notable exception to this rule would be for thickly-built lifters with a large midsection. Many lifters with this build find it to be advantageous to grip the bar slightly outside shoulder width and open up their stance wide enough to allow their stomach to descend in between their legs when they move into the starting position.

This setup allows them to keep the bar closer to their center of gravity throughout the lift, thus increasing their leverage and the amount of weight they're able to move.

Deadlifting is typically performed with an over/under grip or what's referred to as a mixed grip: one hand is an overhand grip and one hand is an underhand grip.

This provides a stronger grip as it allows you to hold on to larger weights than you would be able to otherwise since the bar is prevented from rolling out of your hands. Most people will find it beneficial to put their dominant hand in the underhand position.

There's also the hook grip. It's long been used by Olympic weightlifters, and powerlifters have recently taken notice. It's helped a number of lifters that lack the grip strength to hold onto heavy deadlifts with the over/under grip. It also takes some of the pressure off of the distal biceps tendon.

The hook grip is performed by taking an overhand grip with both hands while trapping the thumbs within the grip. This is done by gripping the bar with the thumbs of both hands wrapped around the bar as far as possible and then placing the fingers over the top of the thumb, effectively trapping it against the bar.

The greater the amount of weight on the bar, the more the thumbs are trapped. While this can be a very effective technique when used correctly, it also requires a higher degree of pain tolerance as the pressure on the thumbs can get pretty bad, especially when deadlifting very heavy weights.

This technique is also a bit easier for people with larger hands; it's easier for them to wrap their thumb farther around the bar, which gives them more surface area to trap the thumb.

If you plan to utilize the hook grip, be sure to have patience with it. A lot of lifters find it very painful at first, but they usually grow accustomed to it. Keep in mind that this grip wasn't designed for high-rep sets (8 reps or more).

Key Points:

  • Hand placement on the bar is determined by your shoulder width. Grip the bar with your arms hanging straight down from your shoulders.
  • The mixed grip with the dominant hand as the underhand grip allows you to hold on to heavier weights and is easy to use.
  • The hook grip is an effective alternative, but requires patience and pain tolerance. It isn't intended for high-rep sets.

While you'll hear a lot of coaches say you should stand as close to the bar as possible, it's not true in all cases. Some will find that standing too close to the bar will force them to pull the bar forward as it passes the knees, thus making the lift longer and more difficult to complete.

The best way to determine your optimal starting position is to observe the lift from the side. If you don't have a trusted training partner, use a video camera. You want to watch the bar path as the bar leaves the floor and starts to ascend; it should travel upward in a straight line.

If it moves in towards you as it leaves the floor, then you're setting up too far away from the bar. Conversely, if the bar moves out away from you, you're setting up too close to the bar.

Pay attention to the position of the bar when you set it down after each rep during a multiple rep set. This lets you know what's most often the optimal place to begin the lift.

Key Points:

  • The best starting position is the distance from the bar that allows the lifter to move the bar upward in a straight line.
  • If the bar moves in towards you as it leaves the floor, then you're setting up too far away from the bar. If the bar moves out away from you, you're setting up too close.
  • Notice where the bar is when you set it down after each rep. That'll probably be the optimal bar placement before starting each rep.