Monday, May 28, 2012

A Mighty Pull: The Deadlift

The most misunderstood and underutilized lift is the deadlift. One of the most common chores an individual must do is picking stuff up off the ground. It could be groceries, small to medium sized children, bags of salt, sand, or cement, books, weeds, dog crap and the list goes on. Most people have never thought about how to pick things up with efficient ideal bio-mechanics that protect the spine from injury and use the proper musculature. Back injuries are far too common and often stem from poor mechanics and/or the lack of supporting musculature. Wouldn't it make sense to devise an exercise that teaches good lifting form and strengthens the back such that the chance of spinal injuries occurring is minimized? Yes I agree! That is what the deadlift does. If you want to protect that all important spinal column and be able to lift sickening amounts of weight, learn how to deadlift properly and train it hard.

Franco Columbu pulling well over 700 pounds

I think one of the reasons the deadlift gets a bad rap is simply its name. "Dead" is a negative word unless your talking about Voldemort of course. The reason it is called the deadlift is because the weight is lifted from a dead stop. It has no potential energy at the outset (compare this to the starting position of the squat or bench press) and therefore can be considered dead. The other problem with the deadlift is the notion that one should only lift heavy objects with a vertical back and only use the legs. Lets see if this idea has any relationship to reality. Imagine an 80 pound bag of cement mix that you need to hoist up from the ground. Now how do you cradle this weight in you arms so you can stand up with it without bending over? It is impossible! I have also heard that the only proper way to lift something heavy is to hold it in your arms, put your back up against the wall, and slide up the wall until you are standing. This is ridiculous. If a wall is not around to lean against I guess it is impossible to pick up the bag of groceries. One last bit of logic for the deadlift: The largest muscle groups in the human body function by stabilizing the back (spinal erectors), extending the hips (glutes and hamstrings), transferring force from the arms to the back (trapezius, and latissimus dorsi), and extending the knees (quadriceps). These muscles perform normal anatomical functions during the deadlift. Large muscles are not there to be ignored by sliding up and down a wall they are waiting to be used. They are waiting for you to deadlift.


How To:

The deadlift starts with the bar loaded with 45 cm diameter plates. The lifter places his feet under the bar such that the middle of the foot is covered by the bar (about at the top of your shoelaces). The lifter grips the bar such that the hands are just outside of the knees. The knees are then bent until the shins touch the bar. The chest is raised to extend the back then the bar is dragged up the shins and the heels push into the floor until you are standing with the weight in your hands. 

More simply, you just pick the bar up! 

That is all the deadlift is. Picking up a heavy weight off the floor. 


The deadlift can only be completed if the bar can be held by the lifter. Regularly training the deadlift will develop and iron grip that would make rock climbers envy. The mixed or alternate grip is often used. This is when one hand is pronated and the other is supinated (over under).

Double overhand grip

Mixed or Alternate grip

The bar wants to roll your fingers out. You can prevent this in two ways. (1) train often enough to get a strong grip so you tell the bar what to do and not vice versa or (2) used the mixed grip. The bar can only roll one way. So the mixed grip allows for heavier loads to be carried, although this grip puts unnecessary torque on the torso and can result in bicep tears. I only use the mixed grip on my heaviest sets because if I used it all the time I'd never develop much grip strength. Many lifters don't use the mixed grip at all. Here is Chris Riley Pulling 705 pounds earlier this year. If Chris can pull 705 double overhand I should be able to train into the mid-400's with double overhand.


When you first learn the deadlift the weight will be light enough that you can train it up to 3 times a week. This only lasts a week or two. Then it needs to be tapered to every other workout, once a week, once every two weeks and finally once a month for advanced lifters. The reason for tapering the frequency of training the deadlift  is recovery. Every time you train the deadlift you lift more weight than before. Pretty soon the weight will be so heavy that recovery will be very hard. The deadlift, like the squat, is a full body exercise and therefore very taxing. For the same reason the deadlift should not be trained in sets across. One heavy set and your done. 

The RDL (Romanian Deadlift): 

A popular variation of the deadlift is the RDL. The RDL was named after American weightlifters saw the great Romanian weightlifter Niccu Vlad doing this deadlift that started at the top and had a stretch reflex at the bottom. This may be hard to visualize so please let Rip or Justin explain it instead of me.

Training RDL is a good way to develop the posterior chain without over-reaching (killing yourself). I do the RDL on days when I don't deadlift. I look at it as active recovery. I do 3 sets of 10 on the RDL and add 5 pounds every time I do it. The higher reps promote blood flow and healing (recovery) to the lower back and hamstrings (which get beaten up pretty badly from deadlifts and squats). I started my RDL training at 135# when my deadlift was somewhere around 250-270#. 

I'll leave you with a Bill Starr quote and a heavy deadlift set I did a few weeks ago. I believe it was 335#

"The deadlift is not only a useful exercise to help build greater hip, leg, and back strength, it’s a movement everyone needs to know how to do properly because it will be done in some form or fashion countless times in a lifetime."

 - Bill Starr

1 comment:

  1. Although I'm not currently working out at all (and feeling the effects of it), I love this blog. It's inspiring. After moving cross country next month, I'll officially run out of excuses for not "training". :)