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How to start with deadlifts

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft

Mar 1, 2015 8:31:00 AM

Mixed Grip Deadlift

How to start with deadlifts

Hafthor Bjornsson, to you probably more known as the mountain out of Game of thrones, has a tattoo on his shin which says "There is no reason to be alive, if you can't do deadlift". There are other reasons to be alive in my book, but I agree that the deadlift is the most awesome lift you can do in the gym. I find it even more surprising that some gyms do not allow this highly effective exercise. Here is your guide on how to get started and then take it to the next level.

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What is the deadlift ? A compound weightlifting exercise

A deadlift is performed by lifting a barbell up from the ground with your legs roughly shoulder width apart and the hands positioned on the barbell outside the legs very close to the legs. The barbell is than pulled of the ground until the legs and spine are fully extended and depending on the lifters physique the barbell is slightly above the knees. In the final extension the arms stay extended. Current world record stands at 460 kg, lifted by Benedikt Magnusson.


The deadlift is a compound exercise, like the squat, clean and jerk and snatch, which means that it addresses multiple muscle groups within one repetition. A biceps curl for example is an isolated exercise which just focuses on a few muscle groups. Of the four mentioned compound exercises it is the one that involves potentially the most weight, is the quickest to learn and has the least risk of injury, at least in my book. The snatch and clean and jerk need considerable more technique and mobility than the deadlift and are therefore harder to learn. Same goes for the squat as your ankle mobility might inhibit optimal performance if it is not up to standard. Especially when you start lifting it is not unlikely that you will not have the ankle mobility or technique necessary to perform these other lifts.

In regards of risk of injury the deadlift does not expose you to as much risk, as you can exit it very easy and do not perform an overhead lift. The snatch and clean and jerk expose you to risk of dropping the weight on your head or getting buried beneath the barbell. Same goes for the squat. If you fail a rep a 100kg+ barbell will come crashing down with you for these lifts.

The muscle groups being worked during a deadlift are (taken from wikipedia):

  • The grip strength (finger flexors) and the lower back (erector spinae) work isometrically to keep the bar held in the hands and to keep the spine from rounding.
  • The gluteus maximus and hamstrings work to extend the hip joint.
  • The quadriceps work to extend the knee joint.
  • The adductor magnus works to stabilize the legs.

If you follow the deadlift link you will find a full list of all the muscles and their Latin names, if you wanted to dig deeper into the topic.

Experienced lifters also describe that the deadlift is one of the most challenging lifts for your central neural system and apart from a physical challenge is also a psychological challenge.

Who should deadlift ? Those who want to get strong

There are several programs around which involve deadlifting. If you want quick results of gaining strength it might not be the best source to turn to as I believe in organic long term, sustainable training methods which keep my body potentially going for years, rather than breaking down after reaching a quick climax.

It depends on where you are at with your bodily development and what your goals are. If you are a teenager and you have not completed your growth phase yet I would recommend to stick with bodyweight exercises and not go into deadlifting too soon. Knuckle down and harden yourself. Focus on your grip strength and explosiveness with box jumps and hand exercisers. Once you've completed your growth and you have to shave yourself it is time to step to the plate and kill the deadlift. No worries, your time will come soon enough.

If you want to lose weight the deadlift would not be my weapon of choice, because added weight actually helps you to be able to lift more. Basically this is physics (Newton's second law) as it easier for a body of the same mass to move another object than when it has lower mass, as there is more energy already stored in the bigger body. For losing weight I recommend running, circuit training of any kind or tabata exercises. All of them worked for me with running having the best yield for time invested vs lost weight. 

If you are looking to put on as much muscle mass as you can in the shortest amount of time the deadlift might be an option for you, but maybe not the first choice. When i watch youtube videos and programs for bodybuilding and compare them to powerlift templates they usually focus more on higher repetitions on machines which help you do isolated exercises. This completely makes sense to pump as much blood as possible into the muscle to make it look big, but does not have the most impact on strength. Bodybuilders want to target one muscle at a time to make it look best according to the criteria of their competitions. The deadlift is not targeted in that sense. If you compare the physiques of bodybuilders and power lifters, usually the bodybuilders have a more triangular shape and the power lifters look more like a kitchen cabinet.

Finally if you are slightly overweight or a guy/ woman who feels like some strength would do you some good, the deadlift is just the right exercise for you. Accompany it with other exercises which I will get into later on.

How do I get started with the deadlift ? Stronglifts 5x5

If you read a bit into the deadlift you will realize that it is not recommended to do it too often, because it takes quite a toll on your body. I personally follow the Stronglifts 5x5 template for a year now and made it to a 150kg deadlift at 80kg bodyweight. Follow the link to see more details on the 5x5 program. If you just start out I would recommend it as it easy to follow and produces quick results without being at danger of overloading. Download the free app from this website. 5x5 means 5 sets with 5 repetitions of the same exercise. 

Stronglifts 5x5 will provide you with the right templating for beginners and necessary surrounding exercises to develop a good base for the deadlift to go further from. It is easy and does not need a lot of equipment which should be available to you in your local gym. If you want to read more about programming and get a better handle on things I recommend Olympic Weightlifting by Greg Everett. One word of caution is that some people feel that 5x5 is a bit boring and also does not go into too much detail about how to do a proper warm up.

How do I take my deadlift to the next level ? Variety is key

Here starts territory where I can not share my own experiences from lifts as I am just at the point to change from the 5x5 template to a different one. I will share my thought process based on what I have read so far and update in my blog at a later stage with the results of the training I will choose. For now this is me reproducing what I have seen and read.

The stronglifts 5x5 program recommends to move on to a 3x5 template after you plateau with 5x5. Plateau means that you do not get any more gains out of the routine you are currently doing and start to continuously fail reps at the same amount of weight without proceeding to higher loads. I personally do not know if that yields the most benefits.

Second option is to change to the west side method by Louie Simmons. Currently this is the option I will go with. The west side method is named after the supposedly strongest gym in the world when it comes to total weight lifted in powerlifting. In a powerlift competition athletes compete doing the bench press, squat and deadlift for a total maximum in weight lifted out of the three. Only the best one rep try counts. What is interesting with the west side method is that it incorporates a lot of variation into its program to constantly challenge the muscle groups involved. To me that makes sense and to be honest, I'd like a change after a year of 5x5. 

Band Deadlift

The variety is brought in by using elastic bands and chains to alter the load curve of the lift as the resistance is higher the higher you pull the bar for the deadlift when a band or chain is attached. There more variations to it and please follow the link above to do your own research and use this article as a starting point to give you ideas.

If there are any inaccuracies or if you want to share your own experiences with the deadlift please do in the comments below. I read them and take them seriously.

Further reading


Topics: Lift stronger