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How to Deadlift Properly


bradley lawson Written by Bradley Lawson: BA(Hons), Level 2&3 Personal Trainer.

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The deadlift as an exercise is riddled with contention. Fitness commentators across the board are in a disarray when it comes to the discussion of if and how you should deadlift.

The main worry is injury, but this article aims to invite you to understand the deadlift, and how to avoid the risks it may pose if performed incorrectly. 

We shall cover the following points:

  • The deadlift
  • Deadlift variations
  • Involved muscles
  • Cues and tips
  • Conclusion

The Deadlift 

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It is true that to the uninitiated beginner, the deadlift, is best learned and completed slowly to register injury preventing habits and muscle memory.

This article will illustrate how you can deadlift sensibly, with explanations as to how and why a mode of long-term thinking can help you strategically deadlift from zero to hero. 

To begin with you will want to learn the movements that comprise the deadlift and learn how to do them in a slow and controlled fashion.

For the beginner, or a person who hasn’t deadlifted before; it is advantageous to learn the movement patterns with an unloaded bar, or even to practice without the bar. [1]

Another tip before you start, is if you have a mirror – to practice side on to the mirror. This is so you can observe the angle of your back and register the feeling of having a well-arched back.

You should be able to draw a right angle from your upper legs along your lower and upper back, or instead, you might imagine a ruler being able to align with the slight upward trend of the spine - that starts at the lower back and gradually tilts up with your lumbar spine.

If this is followed, there shouldn’t be a bend or dip in your spine, and your glutes shouldn’t be hiking up or sticking out either. Your body should be in a great position to lever the weight up, bringing your body and the suspended weight into an upright position. 

Why should you deadlift like this?

What this posture does is allows you to lift the weight on the bar to an upright position without compromising any single segment of the back.

This means you will more uniformly use your back muscles and spine in the movement, aided by a solid posterior chain stabilised by solid, stable legs. 

Now, the reason why it is forward-thinking for you to adhere to these techniques and movements, is to solidify them in your muscle memory early – before you’re lifting through the roof and bulging in the eyes.

When you’re lifting heavy progressively, setting PRs and training at high RPEs you will revert to what you know in the heat of the moment. It is in these windows that stiffening up everything, bending at the back and pulling for your life can lead to you abandoning all the form and grace you promised to show.

If you think about your spine as a knight’s armour, you can imagine that there are nooks and crannies that are weak points. Just like the weak points of armour plate, if your form and back falter doing heavy pulls of the deadlift, you too are vulnerable – these are your weak points, where you’re most prone to injury.

You won’t always need to pull like a moving statue. In time, when the movement pattern is learned you’ll be able to pull heavier weights in the deadlift without thinking about it. 

Like the mirror, the video camera: 

The video camera reveals all. On your phone or camera, you can set it in a position to record yourself from all angles. You can revise the footage and figure out if your form is lacking somewhere.

It might not feel good to do in the beginner or even if you think you’ve got everything sorted out, but being your own critic is what will allow you to break through plateaus. 

This is, however, a general practice for a conventional style deadlift. The deadlift in totality has many variations which differences in technique for each version. [1] 

Deadlift Variations

how to deadlift properly

Here is a list of deadlift variations: 

  • Conventional Deadlift
  • Trap Bar Deadlift
  • Romanian Deadlift
  • Rack Pull
  • Sumo Deadlift
  • Jefferson Deadlift

 Each variation offers a different style of deadlifting that will compliment people differently based on their fitness goals, anthropometry, and preference. Additionally, they will isolate different muscle groups, for example take the trap bar deadlift which namely loads the trapezius. 

The most basic to learn variations to begin with are the conventional deadlift and the sumo deadlift. 

The most notable thing that separates these two is the feet placement and the width of grip on the bar. 

The conventional has the hands grip the bar outside of the foot placement and is narrower of a stance than the sumo variation. 

In contract, the sumo has feet placed wider than shoulder width, and has the hands placed inside the foot placement. This is noted to be beneficial to people with the long torso phenotype, as it reduces lower spine torque and allows them to leverage weight much more aptly without the added stress on the lower lumbar spine. [2] 

Which Muscles are Involved?

how to deadlift properly

Pertaining to the barbell deadlift the muscles worked are the erector spinae, gluteus maximus, quadriceps femoris, hamstrings, trapezius and lats.

Other assistor muscles engage to a lesser degree in the calves, forearms, abdominals and around the hip. 

Deadlift Cues and Tips 

Attentional focus in the discussion of sport and exercise is how a person allocates their mental faculties toward a goal. In relation to the deadlift, performing the deadlift smoothly with proper form would be the goal.

How you get there can be through the use of cues.  Cues are a proactive way of tightening up form by homing in on an aspect of technique or having a phrase or sequence in mind that allows you to retain your setup.

These cues inform your setup – which includes your posture, position of your feet, hands, your grip type and position on the bar, and the movement actions comprise the deadlift.

Cleaning up an exercise by giving an athlete cues is often the job of a coach or a trainer. Studies indicate a higher rate of performance in relation to the use of cues.

Internal cues: such as your own mental pointers, phrases, and reminders about the setup and movement.

External cues: such as a coach giving you these verbal instructions, or your workout space being marked by a visual clue like chalk from which you know where to pull or stand, etc. 

Why can this be useful?

  • Having cues in place is helpful to learn spacial awareness – particularly to do with the body.
  • Having cues in place has been correlated with higher levels of muscle activation. Cues are often used by fitness enthusiasts and trainers alike to develop the ‘muscle mind connection.’
  • Having cues in place primarily helps you learn form and proper technique.
  • Finally, a coach might use these cues to improve your performance, by enhancing form and correcting bad habits. It also serves a reference point through which you can communicate about the micro elements of an exercise. 

Conclusion 

The deadlift and deadlift protocols have been used to enhance and improve performance in a range of sports and physical feats.

In addition, it teaches fundamental safe-lifting technique that should be applied to living most objects at home or while labouring.

The deadlift initially can feel awkward to some, which is why this article includes some variations that you might benefit from researching – as a different variation may suit your body and limb proportions.

In total, this exercise can be performed properly and adhered to safely. The greater message this article hopes to instil is that with compound exercise like the deadlift; there is no rush. [4]

A slow and steady approach to learning the deadlift can be optimal in the long-term and is an investment of your time and energy that will repay you with health, strength, and experience.

For a beginner it is encouraged to follow guides or consult a trainer when learning the deadlift.

In your quest to refine the deadlift, observe your form in videos or with feedback from a coach.

And over all – experiment with the variables to see how you can optimise how you feel and respond to the deadlift. 

Happy deadlifting. 

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References 

[1] Holmes, C. (2020) Understanding the deadlift and its variations. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal: 5/6 2020, volume 24 – issue 3, p. 17-23. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7046193/

[2] Escamilla, R. Et al. A three dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10912892/

[3] Taylor, L. (2017) The impact of attentional focus cueing with a training intervention on back squat and deadlift performance in team sport athletes. Masters Research Project. Open Research Archive, St Mary’s University Twickenham London. Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/96702151.pdf

[4] Ronai, P. (2020) The Deadlift. ACSM Health & Fitness Journal. American College of Sports Medicine. Colums: Do It Right. Journal ¾ 2020, vol 24. Issue 2, p. 31-36. Available at: https://digitalcommons.sacredheart.edu/pthms_exscifac/59/