In this guide, David Dellanave, IAWA world record holder and owner of The Movement Minneapolis, tells us all about the deadlift, its benefits, and why you should incorporate them into your training program. Would you like to train with David for less than $3 a day? Click here to reserve your spot!
The deadlift is, in my never humble opinion, the king of all exercises. Long ago known as the health lift, the deadlift confers so many benefits that if it could be administered in drug form it would be added to public drinking water. Performed correctly, the deadlift may (arguably, of course) have the highest benefit to drawback ratio of any exercise available to us. Correctly performing a deadlift, however, is something that is always of contentious debate and over-complication. I’d hope to simplify it so that everyone can profit from this tremendous exercise.
First, we need to clarify our starting point for what is a “correct” deadlift. The only correct deadlift is the one you can perform right now, without pain or difficulty. For some people this will preclude them from using some of the arbitrary conventions typically associated to the deadlift, for example the bar being exactly 8 3/8 inches from the floor. The important thing is that you understand what the intention of a good deadlift is, and you start wherever you are.
The Conventional Deadlift Setup
The setup for a conventional deadlift starts with feet about shoulder width apart, butt back, chest up, back mostly flat, and hands outside the legs. The idea of keeping your “chest up” is that someone across the room from you should be able to read what is on your shirt. For most people, this is the single most important cue to remember. The bar should be touching your shins, and in fact should be in contact with your body the whole way up. Form is individual, but this point is non-negotiable.
A quick word on grip: I recommend everyone use a double-overhand (palms facing you) grip until you can’t hang on anymore. At that point, you can turn one palm out and use a mixed grip. If you do the vast majority of your deadlifting double-overhand, you are unlikely to ever need to train your grip specifically to deadlift big weights.
At this point, we have our first checkpoint for intervention. If you can’t successfully get into this position, with the back mostly flat, it may very likely be more productive for you to raise the bar (or kettlebell[s]) up to whatever height you can maintain that position. I often use a yoga block under a kettlebell to achieve the perfect height. This simple modification alone allows most people to get down to bar height within a month, or about 12 workouts.
Once you’re in the starting position, you’ve got to stand up with the weight. I do not like to complicate this any more than “Chest up, stand up.” The bar, your hips, and your shoulders should all move consistently throughout the movement. Bar and shoulders move up, hips come forward. Taking a video of yourself to see what you are doing is the most helpful thing you can do. If your hips are shooting up, then the bar rises with your shoulders, and your hips finally come forward to meet the bar you have a little bit of work to do. Raise the bar, or take some weight off it until you can perform the deadlift with everything moving roughly in unison. Finish the lift by standing tall.
There are dozens, perhaps hundreds (if you consider all the possible implements), of deadlift variations. Once you understand the basic intention of a deadlift, which is to use the back muscles to provide a stable lever by which the hips can act on, you can use the same foundation for any deadlift variation.
Progressing in Weight
The only people who are wrong about how to progress in the deadlift are those who say a certain scheme is wrong. Performing low reps of heavy weight is ideal for some people, and yet knocking out sets of up to 20 has worked for many great deadlifters. As someone who has made deadlift mastery the cornerstone of my own training, I have done it all and have benefited from everything. I have pulled 225lbs (about a third of my max) for 50 reps in less than a minute, and I have lifted over a thousand pounds in a short-range partial deadlift movement.
If you’re just learning the movement, do no more repetitions per set than you can make all look the same. If your form changes, or breaks down, you are doing too many. There is a time and a place for bouncing the bar (especially if you are at a gym with bumper plates) but it is not for beginners. Simple rule: don’t do touch-and-go deadlifts unless and until you can deadlift double bodyweight. The intention is to lift the weight from the floor with it starting motionless, from a dead stop. Keep it that way.
I cannot, will not, give my clients exact sets, reps, and weights. If you so choose, there are countless programs you can choose from that either focus on the deadlift, or use it as a foundational lift. I wouldn’t. I am a staunch believer in auto-regulating your training. Your weights should be challenging but doable, and you should simply do as many sets and reps as you can that day without breaking speed or form – striving for improvement each and every session. It truly doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.
There are several variations that can make the deadlift easier, harder, or just different.
The bar height can be raised up by placing it in a power rack. This can be used to make the movement more accessible to someone who can’t maintain good form when the bar on the floor, or it can be used as an overload movement with heavier weight than a full deadlift. If you don’t have a power rack, a thick phone book or a bumper plate can be used to raise the bar to a better starting point.
Trap Bar, Suitcase, or Double Suitcase
The trap bar deadlift is great because it places the load in the most favorable possible position – directly in line over the hips, with the arms dropping straight down. This position greatly reduces the degree to which the back must be stabilized to act as a lever. The suitcase (one arm on the side) or double suitcase (pictured below) is useful for the same reason, and is easy to set up with a kettebell or dumbbell. This position, often combined with a rack pull to raise the starting point, is perhaps the safest starting variation for someone with back issues. Keep in mind the suitcase deadlift will add an anti-rotation element since you will have to work to stabilize throughout the lift.
The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is useful for both strengthening the hamstrings, and strengthening the muscles that stabilize the back and spine, turning it into a powerful lever. The RDL movement actually starts from the top. Deadlift the bar into position with your hands on the outside of your legs. At the top, with your knees “soft” but not significantly bent, push your butt back towards the wall behind you, keeping your chest up the entire time to maintain a flat or slightly arched back. When you feel a strong stretch in your hamstrings (typically when the bar is just below your knees), you should then stand up tall. Keep your back flat throughout the movement — if at any point you begin to round your back, you are going too low.
Standing on a box or plate effectively lengthens the range of motion of the deadlift. This challenges the mobility of the hips and back to a greater degree, as well as requiring more strength to initiate the movement. In my experience, deficit deadlifts are the kind of advanced variation that you will find appropriate when the time is right. “When you know, you know.”
The sumo stance for some people will be a far stronger, and potentially safer position. In the sumo variation, as the name implies, the feet will be placed very wide, and hands go inside the legs, straight down. Otherwise, the cues are exactly the same: “Chest up. Stand Up.”
This strange-looking deadlift variation is a favorite among clients at my facility, and is especially useful in people for whom a traditional, symmetrical, deadlift stance causes pain. The Jefferson involves stepping over and straddling the bar. Alternatively, two kettlebells (of same or different) size can be used, with one in front and one behind you. Because the position introduces a degree of rotation, you will really want to start slow, and work within your limits. But don’t think this is just some sort of goofy exercise you can only do with light weights – I hold the current IAWA world record with 605lbs.
There is a lot of information to digest and take action on here, and I’ve barely scratched the surface on what could be said about the deadlift. These are just a few of the most useful deadlift variations that I use myself and with my clients. Your job now is to become a deadlift master in your own right. Take the time to become proficient at the movement, but don’t be afraid to load up the bar once you feel comfortable.
Remember, you can train with me personally for less than $3/day. Click here to reserve your spot!