Improving Your Deadlift – One Step at a Time

Written by Evan on

The deadlift is arguably THE best exercise you can perform to develop total body strength. Not only that, but it is one of the most functional movements that you can perform. How many times per week will you have to pick something up off the ground? For example, lifting boxes in the workplace, helping a friend move furniture to their new house, moving things around the yard, etc. The list goes on and on. Lifting objects from the ground, from a variety of angles, is enhanced through regular deadlifting. In other words, training the deadlift will get you stronger for life, plain and simple.

One of the main reasons it is so beneficial is because of how many different muscles it strengthens; it works more muscles simultaneously than any other movement. Specifically, the deadlift strengthens the:

deficit-deadlift-muscle-groups-worked-1Lower back
Upper back and lats
Forearms (grip strength)

When first learning how to deadlift, correct form is number one. As with any exercise, it is crucial to master safe and proper lifting technique before loading up the weight. Once you have developed proper lifting technique with the deadlift and have spent some time building up a good base of strength, you may eventually hit a plateau in terms of the amount of weight you are able to lift and/or the number of repetitions you are able to do. If this is the case, there are a few tools that can be used to address specific weaknesses.

When thinking about the deadlift, it is helpful to break the movement down into three main steps:

The initial pull off the floor;
Moving the bar past the knees; and
The lockout.

Each of these steps can be improved with exercise variations that strengthen specific muscles and improve movement patterns which will increase your deadlifting ability.

Step 1) The Initial Pull off the Floor

It is important to take plenty of time to set-up properly before you start the lift. The bar should be over the mid-foot; feet should be roughly hip width apart with the whole foot flat on the floor, toes turned out about 10-15°.

You can start with a double over-hand grip on the bar (both palms facing you) with lighter weights, but once the weight gets too heavy to hold in your hands, switch to the mixed grip – one palm facing you, the other facing away; this will enhance your grip strength dramatically.

Hips should be higher than parallel when setting up (don’t squat your deadlifts). Exact hip set-up will vary from person to person depending on limb length and torso build.

Lock your elbows. Your arms should be completely straight throughout the entire lift. Think of your hands as hooks attaching your rigid arms to the bar. Tighten your triceps during your deadlift setup to keep your elbows locked.

Focus on keeping your upper back tight by keeping your chest tall, head up and looking straight ahead, and lats engaged by pulling the slack out of the bar. Also known as ‘the pull before the pull’; think about using the weight of the bar to pull yourself into the starting position. This will engage the lats and keep everything tight before you go for the pull. The back should never be rounded as this will make it more susceptible to injury.

Take a BIG, DEEP BREATH in prior to beginning the lift, this will help to keep the core tight throughout the pull; if you’re wearing a belt, think about ‘breathing into the belt’ for maximal bracing and stability.

Don’t jerk the bar off the floor; stay in control of the weight while keeping the bar close to the shins on the way up. Lift the bar off the ground by pushing your feet through the floor.

Exercise Variations to Improve Deadlift Power Off the Floor:

Speed Deadlifts
The goal with speed deadlifts is to move the bar as fast as possible while maintaining good form. When performing speed deadlifts, the weight should be reduced to 40-60% of your one rep max, using a high number of sets and a low number of reps. For example, 8 sets of 3 reps or 12 sets of 2 reps are common training methods to use when working on dynamic effort. It is difficult to produce fast and powerful reps (with good form) when doing sets of 10, 12 or 15 reps. So, for this reason, the reps are reduced, but the volume is still generated with a higher amount of sets. Incorporating speed deadlifts will have tremendous carry over to your heavier deadlift training sessions as you’ll be able to move the weight faster off the floor.

A good way to incorporate speed deadlifts into your training is to do them on the same day as your squats; squat first, followed by your speed deadlifts. Then, later in the week, you would do your regular deadlift session using heavier weights.

Deficit Deadlifts
A deficit deadlift is a deadlift performed while standing on a weight plate or short platform, usually around one to four inches high. Essentially, you are purposely putting yourself in a biomechanical disadvantage by increasing the total range of motion of the pull – this will, over time, get you stronger throughout the whole range of the lift, thereby improving your ability to get the bar moving off the floor when you pull from the ground.

For a video demonstration of a deficit deadlift from our strength coaches:

Step 2) Moving the Bar Past the Knees
As the bar approaches your knees, think about shooting your hips through the bar. This helps your hips take more of the load and reduces stress on the lower back.

Keep the movement smooth from top to bottom. As with all exercises, a fluid motion is best to prevent a potential injury.

Exercise Variation to Strengthen the Mid-Pull:

Paused Deadlifts
Essentially, the paused deadlift is a standard deadlift from the floor but instead of pulling continuously until lockout, you pause at roughly mid-shin level for a 2-3 second count.

Paused deadlifts are a great assistance exercise to help train the mid-pull position as it develops the core strength needed to stabilize the spine in the hinge position. It also increases total time under tension which improves overall muscle growth.

It’s important to use sub-maximal weights when performing paused deadlifts. Too much load in the paused position can be harmful to your back. A general guideline would be to use between 50-60% of your one rep max for 3 sets of 5 reps.

Step 3) The Lock Out

If you can squeeze your glutes early and stay in a good position, you’ll be able to lock out correctly and finish the lift.

Do not hyperextend your back, this is very hard on the spine. Just focus on locking your hips and knees at the top and squeezing the glutes.

Hold the bar over your mid-foot and you’ll have proper balance.

Lower the bar by pushing your hips back first. Once the bar has passed your knees, bend them and complete the eccentric part of the movement by lowering the bar back down to the ground.

Exercise Variations to Strengthen the Lock Out:

Rack Pulls
The rack pull is basically a deadlift with really short range of motion. It works the whole back, the posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes) as well as the forearms. You can perform rack pulls off of the safety bars in a squat rack or use plates or a platform to elevate the bar off the ground (block pulls). Various heights of rack pulls can be used, with the bar being 16”-19” from the ground. This will put the bar around the upper shin level, just below the knee. Many people are able to move more weight when doing rack pulls compared to conventional deadlifts; through heavy weight you are able to overload the final part of the deadlift, thus improving your lock-out ability.

For a video demonstration of a rack pull from our strength coaches:

Deadlifts with Bands
Bands are effective because they make the weight get proportionally heavier throughout the range of motion. In other words, the band pulls the weight toward the floor. This helps to improve the lock-out as the lift will become the most challenging at the very top of the movement, forcing you to work harder to lock out the lift. When you go back to deadlifting without bands, it will feel like a breeze to lock it out! Deadlifting with bands also develops overall bar speed, as it forces you to increase your acceleration in order to lock out the lift.

A Final Note:

By breaking the deadlift down into three steps, you can analyze which part of the lift is most challenging for you and incorporate the relevant training tools to help you move forward with your training. The tools listed above can all dramatically improve specific areas in the deadlift, but these should not be used exclusively. Exercise variations are meant to be used in conjunction with the conventional lift to target weaknesses while improving overall proficiency of the movement.