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The Barbell Deadlift

A Safe and Effective Exercise for Nearly Everyone

The barbell deadlift is a safe and effective exercise for nearly everyone; however you must use proper form!


Standard vs. Sumo -- The standard setup for a barbell deadlift has the feet about shoulder width apart or a bit more narrow.  This is the position that you would take if you were about to perform a vertical jump.  As a result of this placement of the feet, the knees will be over the bar at the beginning of the lift.  The athlete may scrape the skin of the shins during the pull.  For this reason, special lifting socks are often used to protect the shin.

This lift emphasizes the musculature of the posterior chain (e.g., the glutes, the hamstrings, etc.)  By contrast, the sumo deadlift is performed with a much wider stance with the hands between the knees.  This lifting style emphasizes the strength of the adductors (the muscles on the inside of the legs) and the quads.  In addition, because we are shorter when our stance is wider, the sumo deadlift actually requires the athlete to pull the weight through a shorter distance.  In the sumo version, the back can stay a bit more vertical as well.

Grip - Of course, you may grip the bar anyway you like!  However, here are some facts that may influence your decision.  If both palms are facing the same direction (either forward or rearward) the bar may try to roll out of your hands and grip when the weights get high.  Pointing one palm rearward and one palm forward will increase the amount of weight you can support with the same grip strength.  More lifters use opposing grips but some do not.  My advice on lifting straps: do not use them.  If you cannot hold onto the bar you should not be lifting it!  When you grip the bar, wrap your thumb on top of your index, middle or both fingers.  This provides a lock that will help you maintain your grip as the weights increase.

The wider the grip you use, the lower you must descend to start your lift and the more strength is required in your shoulder joints.  Choose a hand width that 1) is wide enough to comfortably clear your knees; and 2) that creates the normal angle for a strongly contracted shoulder (including lats, serratus, and rhomboids).

Stance - The feet should start under the bar.  Your base of support is your feet and at the completion of the pull, you will be supporting the bar with your feet.  As you descend to grip the bar, your shins will probably touch the bar.

Pull into the hole – Correctly lifting the bar requires preparation.  Imagine that you are pulling yourself down into the starting position against a strong resistance.  (If you are lifting in a powerlifting suit you MUST do this!)

The muscles in the entire chain of lifting MUST be activated PRIOR to beginning the pull.  Everything must be connected and strongly contracted or you will run into a wall.

Pulling force vector -- The bar is in front of you at the beginning of the lift.  The bar is in front of you at the top of the lift.  To lift the bar straight up, you must pull backwards.  In other words, you are pulling up AND back.  This is required to pull the bar straight up.

Breathing - Insufficient air in your lungs just prior to the pull will make you weak.  Too much air in your lungs just prior to the pull will make you weak.  Sniff in about 60% of your lung capacity through your nose as you prepare to lift.  This will pressurize your abdomen and prepare you for the pull.

Anatomical belt - Whether or not you are wearing a support belt, you must engage the supporting musculature to create a virtual, protective belt.  This belt includes the abdominal muscles, the obliques, the pelvic floor, and the sphincter.  The air that has been sniffed in during the descent is used to pressurize the abdominal contents.  This pressure will try to escape unless resisted.  This can cause hemorrhoids among other problems.  So, strongly contract your abdominal wall muscles, pull up the pelvic floor (as if stopping a bowel movement), and imagine you are stopping your urine flow.  All of these actions will help protect you.

Ocular reflex - Our body and its associated neural wiring are highly adapted towards survival.  As a result, we have developed some reflexes.  One of these involves the eyes.  When you rapidly move your eyes upward your body will reflexively increase the strength in the back muscles and all extensors.  Notice that I did not say point your head upwards.  You must move only your eyes upward in a rapid movement.

Connectivity -- Ultimately we are holding onto a bar (loaded with heavy weights) and lifting this bar with our body.  The force that is required to lift this bar MUST be directed downward into the floor through our feet.  Any place between the feet and the hands that is not strongly connected acts as a point of "power leakage".  Imaging trying to pull a car with a chain, however you have connected the chain to the bumper with a bungee cord. This would be a power leak.  Injuries are likely to occur at points of power leakage.

Lowering the Bar - It is much more difficult to lower the bar with proper form. Powerlifters drop the bar after each lift.  I suggest you do the same.  If you cannot do this, then "chase" the bar to the deck.  If you want to work on your pulling strength at specific stages of the lift, you may either lift to the sticking point and perform isometrics at this point.  Or, you can put the bar on blocks and pull from your specific sticking point.

Getting Injured - The risk of injury increases when lifting heavy weights.  Therefore, proper form is essential.  The number one rule for injury prevention is maintaining a flat or slightly extended spine.  If the spine rounds forward, this means that the musculature has failed and the weight is hanging on the vertebrae, discs, and ligaments.  This is NOT GOOD!  The number two rule is to maintain connectivity.  Try to minimize the space in all joints of the kinetic chain: the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, and wrists.  And, the third rule is to insure that all essential body elements move at the same time: the knees, hips, shoulders, etc. 

Here is a link to some interesting, old school strength training:

















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