Proper Way To Do Deadlifts – A guide to perfect deadlift form
You need to learn the proper way to do deadlifts because they’re F***-ing awesome!
No need for a long intro here. No self-indulgent story about how the deadlift saved my life. Coz’ it didn’t and you came here to learn about deadlifts for yourself, not to learn about me.
As a quick note, so you don’t waste your time, this guide is based around the conventional deadlift only. I lift conventional and prefer if over sumo for the majority of people.
I may do one on the sumo deadlift at some point since it is a lift worth doing and it seems to be becoming ever more popular on the powerlifting platform too. Until then, you can check out this sumo deadlift tutorial by DeadliftPotential.com
Click here for a nice conventional vs sumo form comparison from KateLiftFitness.
The benefits of deadlifts
If you have already read my how to squat properly article, many of the benefits of squatting can be said about deadlifting as well. So, in an effort to avoid repeating myself, I will list a few of the top benefits that are more specific to the deadlift alone.
Stronger core, legs and back
Not only does the deadlift work a lot of muscles, the main muscles that it works are absolute powerhouses.
Deadlifting puts a huge emphasis on your core muscles, upper/lower back muscles and your legs. All of those muscles are used heavily every single day and even more heavily in most sports.
Every athlete would benefit from strengthening their core, back and legs. An exercise that can strengthen all three simultaneously cannot and should not be ignored.
It also happens that weaknesses in those muscles, particularly the core and back, are very often a contributing factor to back pain and injuries.
With back pain and back injuries being such common occurrences, it really makes sense for everybody to be performing some kind of deadlift in their training plans.
Holding an effective, solid position for a deadlift demands good flexibility and a strong upper back.
It kind of works in a two-fold manner. If you have developed a poor posture of your shoulders/upper back over time, the deadlift can be used to discover the areas where you are lacking in mobility and strength.
For example, you will have a tough time keeping your shoulder blades tight and packed down if you have a rounder and hunched-shoulder posture.
When you become aware of the issues you have, you can then use the deadlift, alongside some other mobility work, to help improve the problem areas.
If you are able to build up enough flexibility and back strength to hold a solid spine position throughout a heavy deadlift, I have no doubt that your posture will improve as a result.
Mental Toughness and grit
To get yourself in better shape and to get strong takes hard work. At times, you are going to have to get uncomfortable and push past your current limits. Maybe even lift some weights that are a little scary.
Learning how to push hard and not give up at the first sign of difficulty can be a skill that you can improve upon over time. Deadlifting is probably the best exercise to learn how to do that.
Grinding through a hard set or rep and really pushing yourself from time to time is key to making progress. Sometimes, to conquer a barrier you are going to have to dig deep and grit your teeth.
Deadlifting can teach you how to do that in a much safer way than most other exercises.
With the deadlift, you aren’t going to get stuck with the bar on your back or with the bar crashing down on your chest. If you try to push and can’t quite make it, you simply lower the bar back to the ground.
I’m not talking about taking stupid risks here or lifting weights that are too heavy for you to handle safely. Your technique still needs to remain safe and pretty solid.
What I’m saying is that you can use the deadlift to learn how to dig a little deeper and maybe take a few more calculated risks than you can with a squat.
You also feel like an absolute king when you do finally stand tall, chest puffed out while holding the bending bar after grinding through a truly gut-busting personal best lift.
Works more muscles than any other lift
In my how to squat article, I said that a huge benefit of the squat was the sheer number of different muscles that are activated during the exercise.
The deadlift is very much the same, if not better. It pretty much engages the muscles of every main muscle group in your body. The only group that probably doesn’t get a huge deal of work is your chest. Everything else is hit in some way or another.
Of course, the more muscles that you work, the more muscle you have the potential of building.
Learning the proper way to do deadlifts allows you to work large numbers of different muscle groups with heavy weight in a single exercise.
Moving multiple muscles and joints in one exercise is an excellent way to get your body working as a single unit.
During daily life and in sports, your body functions as an entire unit. It makes more sense to spend the majority of your time training movements that require total body activation in the gym.
Muscles worked in a deadlift
Honestly, there are so many muscles worked at some point in the deadlift that I probably couldn’t even list all of them properly if I tried.
I am just going to stick to the main muscles worked. Those will be the ones that you are likely to care more about anyway.
Of course, to target all the muscles effectively, it is important to learn and consistently practice the proper way to do deadlifts before piling the weight on the bar.
The main muscles targeted by the deadlift are going to be your glutes, hamstrings and spinal erectors.
Other muscles that support and work as synergists are the quads, calves, adductors, abductors, all of your upper back and shoulder girdle muscles and your core musculature.
Your forearms and hand muscles will also be getting an extreme workout. Making the deadlift a great grip builder as well.
Your pectorals (chest muscles) are one of the few muscles groups that don't get a whole lot of work in the deadlift. They may tense up and stabilize your shoulder slightly but there won’t be a whole lot of work being done by them.
You have probably heard the term “most bang for your buck” mentioned when people talk about the best exercises to do in the gym. I think the deadlift probably wins that argument and, in my opinion, beats the squat for the title of the king of lifts.
For a more in depth look at individual muscle involvement, check out this very helpful deadlift muscles article from allaboutpowerlifting.com.
Video guide for the proper way to do deadlifts
Much like most of the exercise guides I post, this is a general guide on how to perform the deadlift properly and safely.
I understand, and you should too, that everybody is built different and has individual strengths and weaknesses that will change how the deadlift looks from person to person.
There is not one set-in-stone way to deadlift and this guide isn't trying to portray that. This is a guide for you to learn a solid, safe technique that you can tweak and optimize for yourself over time.
Having said that, there are a small set of universal guidelines that all deadlifts should follow. This guide will cover those.
Once your deadlift technique adheres to the main guidelines, you can then go on to more advanced methods and tweak your form to get more out of it.
I have embedded a video version of the guide below to accommodate the more visual learners. It was originally made for my online coaching website, Online Strength Academy.
Step-by-step guide to proper deadlift form
1. Foot position and stance width.
Stance width is one of those things that can vary quite a bit from person to person. I suggest beginning with your feet around hip-width apart and then adjusting based on your own preferences from there.
One good little test to try and find a naturally powerful position for you is to perform a few standing vertical jumps and see how far apart you naturally position your feet before you jump. That width will likely be a nice starting point.
Once you have your stance width, you then need to approach the bar with it. Position your feet in your chosen stance width underneath the bar. As look down on your feet, the bar should be cutting straight across your mid-foot.
2. The start position of the pull.
Take your grip right outside your legs. You should aim to grip as narrow as you can without your arms getting in the way of your legs.
You can then focus on getting your torso set by bending your knees until your shins come into contact with the bar.
The bar should be positioned directly below your shoulder blades.
Common mistakes people make here are getting their shoulder too far in front of the bar or sitting down too low and starting with their shoulder way behind the bar. Both of these will have negative effects on your lift.
2 things MUST happen in a truly heavy deadlift if the bar is to rise: The bar must be over mid-foot and the shoulder blades must be over the bar.
3. Get you upper back set and tight!
This one is commonly ignored or not thought about. Before you pull the weight from the floor, you need to get your upper back in a solid and tight position by engaging your lats properly.
A good cue to get your lats and to pack your shoulders pack and down is to imagine you are trying to bend the bar around your body during the lift.
Keeping this cue in mind throughout the whole lift will go a long way to preventing your upper back from rounding during the lift.
A rounded upper back is used on purpose by some lifters as it can help them produce a bit more power during the initial part of the lift.
However, this does tend to make the final stage of the lift (known as the lockout) harder. You also don’t want your back to round at all during the lift for safety reasons.
4. Pulling the slack out.
“Slack” in the bar, is that little bit of wiggle room and play that you have between the barbell and the plates. If you shake the bar when it’s loaded on the ground, you will feel and hear what I mean.
Before you lift, you should already be pulling against the bar and removing that little bit of play or “slack”. If you are yanking on the bar and hearing that little clanging noise as you lift, you haven’t pulled the slack out properly.
5. Start the pull, keep the bar close.
The very last step before pulling is to take a big breath into your belly and tense your abs hard. Just like in the squat guide.
You can then initiate the pull by driving your legs hard into the ground. Focus on keeping the bar extremely close to your body during the lift.
As the bar starts to pass your knees, you can then begin the lockout by engaging your glutes forcing your hips forward to finish the lift.
There’s no need to overextend your lower back or lean backwards at the top of the lift. Stand dead straight with your shoulders back and your glutes squeezed hard.
Deadlift Drills and Variations
If you lack the mobility to lift with good technique from the floor, you can start with the weights elevated on some blocks.
Lifting the weight up means that there is less of a demand on your flexibility. You can work on your mobility limitations outside of the block pulls. Over time, the idea would be to gradually lower the blocks so that you get used to deadlifting from closer to the floor. Eventually, the block will be removed and you can deadlift with a full range of motion.
These are an excellent tool for helping you to maintain a flat back position when deadlifting.
It does require a bit of extra mobility but the idea is simple. Take a grip that resembles an Olympic lifter performing the snatch instead of your usual grip.
You will be taking a much wider grip than normal, which forces you to engage your upper back. In turn, you will find it more difficult to round your back as you lift.
Perhaps the most common deadlift variation outside of the conventional lift. Sumo deadlifts are sometimes used by competitors that benefit from the extra demand on the quads and the shorter range of motion for the lift.
Of course, if you are a competitor then you want to use the style of lift that allows you to lift the most. You can only really find that out through trialing them both.
I do think there is a place for training both types of deadlift since they do work different muscles in different ways. If you want to be a well-rounded lifter or athlete, then there is a case for training both styles.
I actually used sumo deadlifts recently in an effort to help increase the mobility and strength of my hips. They definitely did the trick, in turn helping my squat technique quite a bit.
Closing Thoughts and Summary
Go and deadlift. A lot!
Oh, and have a look at these other articles to help your deadlift training: