How to barbell deadlift?
The main ingredients of a good barbell deadlift are tension, aggression and control. Beginners get usually at least one component wrong. Here are some tips to stay tight, hungry and level-headed.
What is your why
Before we go into the details of if the deadlift let me ask you a couple of questions:
- Why do you want to deadlift?
- Why do you want to get stronger?
- Why do you want to build muscle?
- What happens if you do?
- What happens if you don’t?
While these questions might seem trivial to you they make a big difference. Life will get in the way of your dreams and goals. When this happens you better be ready with good reasons to stay focus. Most people think about their goals in this way:
- What do I want
- How do I get it
- Why do I want it
Almost everyone knows what they want. Some think through how to get it. Only the very few really know why they want something. With this thought pattern, you will mainly react to your ever-changing wants and needs. If you want to take control and be happier change the pattern to:
- Why do you want something
- How do you get it
- What do you need to do to get it
This way you will focus on the deeper meaning of the things you do. It is less likely to be a victim of your circumstances and surroundings. At least it will feel less like it. If you want to know how this works on a deeper level I recommend that you read Daniel Kahneman's thinking fast and slow. If you are not convinced yet check out Simon Sinek's TED talk about the golden circle.
What helps me a lot is to plan out my days to feel like I am winning. Keeping a journal is what successful people do. It helps you to reflect on and assess whether the things you do get you to the desired goal. The best journal I found so far is the self journal from best self. Try it out or give it to someone you care about.
There are two main variations of the barbell deadlift, the sumo and the conventional deadlift. Most people instinctively do the conventional deadlift when they do the deadlift first.
For the conventional deadlift, you put your midfoot under the bar. Your feet are about shoulder width apart. Bigger lifters usually go a bit wider while smaller lifters go a bit narrower. Usually, you are strongest in the position you instinctively go to. Experiment a little with experience.
Place your feet slightly outward instead of directly parallel. This leaves you with more strength and stability for the entire lift. anchor your feet by drilling them into the ground. Think of a hawk grasping its prey with its feet. Do the same and hold on to the ground.
Grip the bar on a mixed or hook grip. Leave your arms as close as possible to your legs. This helps to build more tension off the floor. When you grip the bar squeeze it as hard as you can. Keep that tension.
Turn your elbows in and make the bar click. Think about this as if you wanted to squeeze lemons in your armpits while crushing coconuts with your hands. This manoeuvre will straighten up your back. Again keep that tension.
Be patient off the floor. Make the bar bend before you initiate the pull. The pull is started by pushing your legs into the ground as hard as you can. Try to make a footprint.
The conventional deadlift gives you better leverage off the ground the sumo deadlift. This comes at the expense of having to move the bar further to the lockout. The heaviest deadlifts ever done have been conventional pulls. It is usually a good variation for lifters with long limbs compared to their torso.
The sumo deadlift functions the same except for foot placement. Instead of placing the feet at shoulder width you put them far apart. You grip the bar inside of your legs instead of outside your legs. This makes you look like a sumo ringer about to take off. As this is counterintuitive and you places you in an unusual position must beginners don’t like this version.
Use the outer knurling as orientation for your feet. I personally like to set up in a way that my toes are at the outer knurling. You still keep your midfoot under the bar. Some lifters like to use an even wider stance so that they al ist drop the weight on their toes.
Your hands go between your legs. I like to grip the bar at the beginning of the knurling. You can experiment with this for yourself.
Once your set up the rest is the same as for the conventional deadlift. Stay tight and aggressive to pull a lot of weight.
The main advantages of the sumo deadlift are the shorter range of motion and lesser strain on the lower back. This comes at the expense of worse leverages to get the weight off the ground. While conventional deadlifts often start fast and get slower sumo deadlifts to take more time to break ground and are completed faster once moving. I personally like the sumo deadlift platform if I want to do more repetitions. It is just easier on my back.
The single most important concept to lift heavy weights is tension. This goes especially for the squat, bench press and deadlift. For the clean and jerk and the snatch, the single most important factor is speed once the minimum strength required to move the weight is established.
There is a reason why very successful deadlifters often get nose bleeds while deadlifting. They build maximum inner tension. Do the same. If you are soft like spaghetti or a sponge the weight will punish you. Be like a rod of steel.
The deadlift is a hinge. Your biceps and arms are not involved. This is important, especially off the ground. Many beginners tank the weight off the floor. This risks dislocating your shoulder and also makes your pull weaker.
Instead of this be like a crane driver. When they lift a heavyweight the bring the cables under maximum tension first before lifting the weight off the ground. They even stop shortly before the initiate the pull so that there is less momentum in the weight. This avoids that the weight swings like a pendulum when manoeuvred.
The deadlift is a hinge, not a pull. Keep that in mind.
Turning the elbows in is the most important thing you can do to protect your lower back. I found that all the tips to keep your back straight were rubbish. I first learned it from Layne Norton in his video on the deadlift on bodybuilding.com. The better reminder came from Chad Wesley Smith at Nugget sit Strength. Turn the elbows in as if you were to squeeze lemons in your armpits.
Breathing feeds into building tension. You want to breathe in and hold your breath. Brace your abdominal muscles to build a stiff cylinder. Depending on how big you are you can either breathe in before descending to the bar or when you grip it. Bigger lifters tend to be better off taking a second breath once they grip the bar.
Patience off the floor
If you observe elite lifters you will see that the bar begins to bend before even leaving the floor. This is not only due to the heavy weight they are moving but also technique. Make it bend and then drive it up. Not the other way around.
Making a footprint
Once you have build tension it is time to drive the bar up. Your legs have the biggest muscles in your body. Use them.
Drive your legs into the ground hard as if you wanted to make a footprint in the concrete. This will ensure that you activate your quads, glutes and ha strings to the maximum.
Many beginners are too timid about this part of the lift. Once you have take-off, you want to move the bar as aggressively and fast as you can.
Try to minimize slack and movement in other directions. The lift will take longer and you will expose your spine to a shifting heavyweight. Not something you want to encourage.
Squeeze your glutes hard to make your hips pop forward. Again be aggressive about this. Think that you have to crack a coconut with your butt cheeks.
Also here you want to avoid being indecisive and timid. You own the bar, not the other way around.
Deadlifts are an exception from the rule in terms of how many repetitions you do per set. Generally accepted gospel is that the deadlift is too taxing for your central nervous system to do sets of ten or higher.
On heavy training which is usually defined somewhere between 80 to 95% of your one repetition maximum many also are of the opinion that form breaks down in rep ranges higher than six. The repetitions per set should trend towards doubles and triples in this area anyway or you have to readjust your one rep max.
From my personal experience, I got my worst injuries on repetition 4 - 6 on an AMRAP set in the 85% Range doing the deadlift. I have learned from this and adjusted my training accordingly. The injuries I sustained from bench pressing were simple overuse and not a strain. The injuries from squatting occurred when I twisted my body on the walkout by banging into the rack.
I would caution you to do more than 6 - 8 repetitions on a set in the 50 to 80% range. Keep it in the 2 - 3 rep range when you go above. Crazy sets like Frank Duffin does are exceptions from the rule. He does this for a living. You most likely don’t.
The other decision to make is to do touch and go or stop repetitions. Touch and go deadlifts means that you use some bounce and momentum between each rep. This is what most people instinctively do. Stop repetitions means that you set the bar fully down on each rep and build tension anew. Stop repetitions have a lower injury risk but you also usually get less work done. Many powerlifters recommend stop repetitions because this stimulates competition the closest. I personally like to do my sumo pulls as touch and go because of the worse leverage off the ground and my conventional full stop. This is something you best try out for yourself with sub-maximum loads.
Depending on how heavy and which gender you are the benchmarks shift. It is also highly depending on how ambitious you are and whether you do recreational lifting or lift like an athlete. Here are some general guidelines:
- 225 lbs
The first barrier to breach for most unless you are very heavy or a natural talent/mutant. This means two 45lbs plates on each side
- 300 lbs
Very few people just walk into the gym and pull this weight off the ground without training. If you can do this for repetitions you are probably stronger than most people you personally know unless you are a professional athlete. This means three plates each side.
Four plates each side. With this, you are within reach of the gym record in most establishments unless you signed up for a powerlifting gym or frequent the facilities of a well-performing sports team. If you can do this for reps even better. Time to sign up for your first powerlifting meet or challenge your teammates to a deadlift duel. It’s not unlikely that you will win.
- 500 lbs
This is the demarcation line between the amateurs and the pros. If you pull 500 lbs and you are small you can already compete. If you are a big football or rugby player the pros will still pay you respect for being very strong. Regular gym rats will think you are a beast and sheepishly ask whether they can take your plates. If you pull this for reps you probably have won some local meets or take strength very serious in your life.
- 500 lbs to 900 lbs
You are strong. Very strong. Depending on your gender weight and age you might even hold a world record or pull tractors for your uncle on the farm. You know your way around weights and probably laugh about my puny blog and efforts. If you want to help me or anyone else get stronger please do. You have more than earned it.
- 900 lbs+
You belong to the world elite of deadlifters. Have fun and enjoy it. I hope you stay injury free and win some competitions which pay for your travels or gets you a sponsorship with Animal, Optimum Nutrition or bodybuilding.com
How to barbell deadlift
The most important thing is tension. This is what most beginners get wrong. If you want to have fewer injuries than me focus on the tension and quality. I overdid it and had to backtrack. Learn from my mistakes and do it better.
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