Hands down, the deadlift is one of the most efficient exercises around when it comes to building strength, power, and a solid core in addition to improving overall sports performance. When performed properly, it will go a long way in helping you improve your posture and aiding injury prevention. How many exercises can you say do that?
Put simply, a deadlift is an exercise that trains your body to pick up a heavy object from the ground in the most efficient way possible. It is one of the 3 main lifts in the sport of powerlifting where an athlete will attempt to lift or ‘pull’ as much weight as possible.
In this article, you will learn how to use proper deadlift form to ensure safety and that you are getting the most benefit out of this awesome lift. I’ll cover everything from the proper setup to the complete execution to various styles to suit your needs.
Proper Deadlift Form: The Setup
1. Foot Position
A good deadlift is always the result of a good setup. Period. This means that your first step in performing a deadlifting is finding proper foot and body positioning in relation to the bar or object. When using a barbell you always want your shins to be as close as possible the bar.
This allows you to get your hips back rather than shifting your weight forward towards the bar. It will also prevent a heavy weight from pulling you forward or having the weight swing back and hit you in the shins, neither of which are good.
Foot placement will differ for different variations of the deadlift, all of which I will go over in a bit. Learning proper foot placement for your specific lift is VERY important.
2. Hold Your Breath
A key element when lifting any heavy weight off the ground, this allows you to maintain core rigidity and a neutral spine throughout the lift (See: How to Breathe Properly During Weightlifting). Use your diaphragm to take a big breath in and fill your belly with air then hold it in and get tight. Hold this breath until you reach the top of the lift. For multiple repetitions, you can learn to hold your breath for 2 or 3 reps or reset your breath after each rep.
This won’t matter as much with very light weights, but when you’re lifting something heavy off the floor it becomes increasingly important to train this way.
3. Maintain a Neutral Spine
This means your back is neither excessively rounded nor excessively arched. You want to maintain the natural curve of the spine, which for most people means keeping the low back flat and staying ‘tall’ in the chest. Excessively rounding your back when pulling a heavy weight off the ground is a surefire way to get seriously injured.
Training Tip: Learning to maintain a neutral spine for not only the deadlift but most exercises is the best way to train your core and prevent injury!
As in the previous step, holding in a big belly breath will help you maintain the tightness throughout your midsection to keep your low back flat and spine neutral throughout the lift.
Check out this video I recorded to demonstrate:
4. ‘Hinge’ at the Hips
It is an essential part of the lift to hinge mainly at your hips rather than your knees and low back. What you want to do to hinge at the hips is maintain your neutral spine and push your hips back as far as you can before lowering your body to the bar. What this is doing is ‘loading’ your glutes and hamstrings and preparing them for the lift.
Once your hips are back, you’re able to bend your knees just enough to lower yourself to the bar. Do NOT allow your knees to bend and your body to drop.
5. At the Bar
Grab the bar with an overhand grip, keeping your hands directly under your shoulders or just outside of your hips. Grip the bar tightly and focus on isometrically ‘bending’ the bar around your body to create extra tension throughout your lats and upper body.
Training Tip: You only need an alternating hand grip when grip becomes an issue and you are unable to hold the bar through the set. This technique is only needed by advanced lifters and powerlifters.
Once you grab the bar, pull your shoulder blades tight together and simultaneously take the ‘slack’ out of the bar. Pulling your shoulder blades back and down will help you create tension in your upper body to maintain a neutral spine.
Taking the slack out of the bar means you are pulling the bar tight to create tension before you even lift the bar off the floor. Essentially, you should feel like you are lifting or making the bar bend before you initiate the lift. This will make your deadlift feel much lighter and smoother.
At this point your upper torso should be roughly at a 45 degree angle. If you have made it this far you should be ready for the lift!
Proper Deadlift Form: The Lift
1. Keep the Bar Close and Push Through the Floor
If you’ve setup properly, you should be close to the bar and tight throughout your entire body and right through the bar. The first move as you begin the lift is to pull the bar into your body, NOT up. This will allow you to maintain that tightness throughout the lift. Keeping the bar or object close to your body allows you to maintain the proper center of gravity to make the lift much easier.
Initially, you should visualize driving your feet through the floor rather than pulling the bar up. If you are still tight up top and have a good grip on the bar, you’ll be able to let your legs do most of the work.
2. Drive Your Chest Up and Hips Forward
Once the bar leaves floor, keep pressing your feet through the floor while focusing simultaneously on bringing your chest up and hips forward. If your hips shoot up first , you’ll be doing most of the pulling with your back; if your chest comes up to fast, your knees will come forward and you will essentially be squatting the bar up.
If you’ve kept your back tight it should be easy to lead with your back and drive your hips forward towards the bar. To bring your hips and hamstrings into the lift you should give your glutes a hard squeeze.
The final move is to lockout by fully extending your knees and hips and pulling your shoulders tight, which will resemble a soldier standing at attention. Get tall!
It helps to give your glutes an extra squeeze to lock them hard at the top. Also make sure to NOT pull back too hard with your chest/upper back because this will cause you to arch your low back. This will often happen if you aren’t using your glutes efficiently.
Once you are tall and tight it’s okay to let out your air.
To finish the exercise and bring the bar back to the ground you will essentially do the same thing you did to start the maneuver by hinging at the hips first. Still maintaining a neutral spine, bring your hips back first and then break at the knees guiding the bar back to the start position.
Deadlift Considerations and Variations
To perform a deadlift well requires a certain degree of hip and thoracic spine mobility as well as ample posterior chain (calf, hamstring, glute, back) flexibility.
1. Dumbbell or Kettlebell Deadlift
I understand that for many people, a heavily loaded bar is a little intimidating, but that is no reason you can’t start with a lighter weight. For most beginners, I recommend starting with a lighter object such as a dumbbell or kettlebell but any small object will work here. I have even had in-home clients using 1-gallon milk jugs filled with sand!
Personally, I find that kettlebells work excellently in this situation since the weight is even in the bell and most come with a raised handle. Make sure you start with the bell directly underneath you or in-line with your midfoot. For those with mobility restrictions, it may be better to start with a wider, sumo stance (which I will discuss below).
2. Trapbar Deadlift
For those who are a little stronger, or have access to a trapbar, I recommend starting your deadlift training here. This bar is specially designed to allow you to stand in the center of gravity, making it a mechanically easier lift. Most trapbars also come with raised handles which is a huge benefit for those with mobility restrictions as you won’t have to bend as far down to pick it up. This makes it significantly easier to maintain a neutral spine throughout the lift.
Just remember that this is still a hip and back dominant exercise and you still need to hinge at the hips. Make sure to not turn this into a squatting movement and remember to push your hips back as far as you can and drive your butt forward when you perform the lift.
3. Sumo Deadlift
The sumo or wide stance deadlift is suitable for those with mobility restrictions, or beginners with weaker backs, as it allows you to get closer to the bar and doesn’t place as much emphasis on the lower back as the conventional deadlift. The one downside is that when lifting heavy weights, it puts more stress to the hip joint so this may not be suitable for those with SI joint dysfunction or pain.
The setup for the sumo deadlift is anywhere from slightly wider than hip width (called semi-sumo) or extremely wide with your toes almost touching the plates. Most people will fall somewhere in between these extremes. It is important to make sure your toes point out – depending on the person this can be about 45 degrees to almost 90 degrees (almost straight out).
The grip should be directly under your shoulders. This is different than the conventional deadlift where you grab the bar outside your hips/stance.
As with any deadlift variation, make sure you push your hips back and down first. Unique to the sumo deadlift, your hips will start much lower than other variations and your chest higher. To initiate the lift push outwards with your feet like you are trying to ‘spread’ the ground and give your glutes a hard squeeze.
4. Conventional Deadlift
For most people, I recommend learning the conventional pull last because you need superb joint mobility and a strong back to perform this lift efficiently.
The starting position of the feet should be somewhere between a narrow hip width to shoulder width with the toes pointed straight forward or slightly toed out. Remember to keep your shins close to the bar!
Grip the bar right outside your stance with either overhand or alternated grip. Maintaining your neutral spine, get your hips back AND down as they will be more inclined relative to the sumo deadlift. Keep your back tight and your chest tall as you drive into the floor to perform the lift.
Since this lift places a lot of emphasis on the back as well as your whole body, proper form is imperative to keep you strong and healthy with the king of all lifts!
The deadlift is one of the best ways to improve overall strength, core stability, and posture as long as you practice proper form and choose the variation that is right for you. Go practice some deadlifts and make sure to ask questions below!
No love for the Romanian/stiff legged dead lifts? I did some yesterday, and they are making me glad today is a rest day haha
There is always a place for RDLs! Maybe one of the next articles will be on accessory lifts to improve your deadlift 🙂
I have some piriformis issues. Can I still do deadlifts? It does feel better getting the stretch but just concerned I may be hindering recovery. I do ice and use heating pad. Thoughts?
It depends on what kind of issues you are having. My number one rule is always ‘if it hurts, don’t do it’. If you lack proper hip mobility you might want to start with elevated deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts or cable pullthroughs to work within your range of motion.
Also, foam rolling or other soft tissue work may be the best place to start to address mobility issues in the hips. 🙂
Thanks. Will give it a try.
this is the most interresting fitness article i have ever read,it’s like a part of a professional fitness course…a good introduction of the exercise,how to perform it exactly,injury prevention & videos! wonderfull article
conventional deadlifts and squats are the basics of lifting. MUST MUST MUST keep that bar close to your shins. Try to keep it in contact with you through the lift, with your weight on the heels. Slow negatives on deadlift force you to use proper form…. the guy in the last video wasn’t great.
awesome info..just required to know which one develops overall physique..i mean all in one..
Thank you for this great article and video demonstrations. After lifting weights for the past year, with dead-lifts being one of my favorite strength training moves, this article really helped me be more aware of form. I read it and watched the clips before I began my usual routine. It injected a nice freshness and renewed dedication to the micro-adjustments in my back, hips, and gluteals.
Concentrating on “driving my feet through the floor” and engaging my glutes made a surprisingly big difference in muscle activation.
I only use dumbells and would appreciate feefback on position of the them for the lift. I would assume the same as the trapbar, to the side and neutral or are there any deviations that are more benificial
Dumbbells work great for deadlifts as well. To mimic the trapbar variation I recommend using a couple of boxes or steps to elevate the dumbells to allow you to use proper form. The dumbbell handles should be roughly mid shin or slightly higher.
Don’t be afraid to use heavy weight 😉
Thank you for the advice
Wow, that’s a really great tip, hadn’t even thought of that!
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I have been regularly training the Deadlift as my main strengthening exercises for the last few years now. It is truely an awesome exercise. Thankyou for your superb article. It is the best I’ve read on the subject since reading articles by Pavel Tsatsouline.
@Paula – that’s a really nice thing to say and we’re super happy you enjoyed the article! I agree, I think Steve did an all-star job on this article.
Thanks for the kind words, Paul! That means a lot! 🙂