The simplest yet one of the most respected lifts is precisely the deadlift. This exercise has found its’ way into almost every strength training program there is, and usually, if it is missing from your program, the program needs to be reevaluated. The deadlift allows for almost full body use, unlike any other exercise, and is therefore irreplaceable by other lifts. No other exercise, including the squats, engages the musculature of the whole body in the way and the amount that the deadlift does.
Around 2600 years ago, on the Greek island of Santorini, a man by the name of Eumastas has supposedly hoisted a 481 kg (1060 lb) stone to his hips. He later carved into the stone the following sentence: “Eumastas, the son of Critobulus, lifted me from the ground”. It is uncertain if this is true, but the possibility remains. After that occurrence, there have been other records of lifted stones with similar text carved into them, specifically in Greece.
Over 2000 years later, in the 18th century came other lifts resembling the deadlift performed today. These were the harness lift, the health lift and the silver dollar deadlift. It is important to mention that none of these lifts have the same range of motion as the deadlift. They would most probably bear the name of “rack pulls” if invented today.
The one who turned out to have popularized the deadlift we know of today is the man called Hermann Görner (Goerner). When not wrestling with baby elephants, this man deadlifted weight that is incredibly heavy, even by today’s standards. At the age of 42, most probably in the year of 1933, Görner performed his heaviest deadlift, with the total weight of 380kg (836 lb).
The best pound for pound performance done by someone who was most probably a natural individual was the one by John Terry, the American Olympic weightlifter. At a bodyweight of only 60 kg (132 lb), Terry managed to pull 277 kg (610 lb) off the ground. This level of strength remains unmatched by natural individuals to this day.
The Muscle Work
As was previously mentioned, the deadlift is an exercise that engages the musculature of the whole body in the way that no other exercise does. It targets the complete posterior chain and the entirety of the back, while also using the biceps and the forearms.
The latissimus dorsi and the erector spinae are in an isometric engagement and prevent the back from rounding. The abdominal muscles are in isometric engagement as well and serve to stabilize the spine. The latissimus, the trapezius, the rhomboids and the rest of the back musculature are targets of the weighted stretch often associated with hypertrophy. An isometric contraction of the forearms is also required in order to hold onto the weight, while the biceps and the triceps act as stabilizers for keeping the body in place, the same being with the trapezoids.
The hamstring and the glutes extend the hip joint, while the quadriceps extends the knee joint. The deadlift covers every muscle group except for the chest. However, some people claim to get a strong, cramp-inducing isometric contraction during the deadlifts, depending on the weight and variation of the exercise used.
- Stand straight with the bar slightly in front of your shins. Do not touch the bar with your shins, but instead have it hover over the middle of your foot, around where the laces start, in case you are wearing shoes. Many prefer to deadlift in socks or barefoot. The width of your stance will depend on personal preference and anthropometry. Usually, people with wider hips will prefer to have a wider, semi-sumo stance, or even a full sumo setup.
- Grip the bar at shoulder width, ensuring that the arms are as vertical as possible. This will shorten the range of motion and allow you to lift more weight. Do not ever bend the arms while deadlifting. The grip you use can either be pronated (double overhand) or mixed (one hand pronated, the other supinated). Be careful with using the mixed grip too often, as it is able to lead to muscular imbalances in the forearms and the trapezius. To counteract this, switch the hands occasionally.
- Lower your body by bending the hip and knee joint. The hip position is widely dependent on anthropometry. It will thus require looking at a mirror or having a spotter to ensure proper positioning for the absolute beginner. If the hips are too high, the lower back will suffer more strain and bend much easier. If the hips are too low, the movement becomes a form of a squat and therefore uses the quads to a much greater extent. The aim is to have the hips somewhere in the middle.
- Have your shoulder blades above the bar at the start of the movement. This is also a way to see if your hip positioning is good: if your shoulder blades are behind the bar, there is a high chance that your hips are too low. If the bar is underneath your stomach and the shoulder blades are in front of the bar, your hips are too high.
- Brace your abdominal musculature by breathing into the diaphragm and contracting the muscles isometrically. This will stabilize the spine and prevent the lower back from rounding. If you are not a beginner anymore and are not afraid of the possibility to faint for a few seconds, try the Valsalva maneuver. To perform this, do as follows: breathe into the diaphragm and forcefully “try” to blow the air out through your closed mouth, as if you were blowing up a balloon. If performed right, you will resemble a frog with your blown up cheeks.
- Stand up straight while extending the hip and knee joints. Keep the lower back straight: not arched, nor rounded. As excessive arching may be difficult to notice, having someone watch you for the first few times is a good idea. You could also record yourself. Have your neck follow the rest of your body the whole time. This means not to look up or down, but instead let the body control where you look.
- Lock your hips out and lower the bar back onto the floor. Once you have locked out the weight, do not arch your lower back. This serves no purpose and is harmful to the lower back. Let the bar lose its’ momentum before lifting it again. Do not drop the weight. This is the same as curling a barbell up, and then throwing it onto the floor before curling again. It means that you only train the concentric part of the movement. Do not bounce the weight off the floor. While some are able to get away with this technique, it is nonetheless notorious for bringing about injuries.
- Conventional Deadlift
The previously explained variation, performed exactly as previously said. Rounding the lower back is okay only if you are not a beginner and only sometimes. Perform this technique as rarely as possible, as it is unsafe, even for elite lifters.
- Sumo Deadlift
Performed exactly as previously explained, with the only difference being stance width. The stance resembles the one of sumo wrestlers, hence its’ name. Aim the toes outwards so that they follow the knees. The knees are not to bend inwards, or cave in. If this occurs, training with bands around the knees is what we suggest to fix the issue over time.
- Romanian Deadlift
Performed as the conventional deadlift, with the difference being that the bar only touches the floor on the first repetition. From there on, the bar reaches only near the floor, a bit underneath the knee. Higher hips are preferred for this movement. You can also perform this movement from a rack, by gripping onto the weight and then stepping away before beginning the repetition.
- Trap (Hex) Bar Deadlift
This variation is using a hexagonal bar, which makes the individual utilize a neutral grip. It puts less stress on the lower back and more on the legs, thus being much better suited for beginners than the conventional deadlift. Due to this and the fact that the handles are higher than the standard barbell with weights, this exercise has a higher loading potential.
- Jefferson Deadlift
Lifting the bar between the legs, with the knees pointing in 90° from each other. This position is not set in stone as anthropometry plays a role here as well. Try out different stances and see what works for you. Remember to keep your knees from caving in. Bending the lower back on this exercise is much safer due to the center of mass being placed vertically exactly underneath the spine.
- Behind the Back (Hack) Deadlift
This variation has evolved from the exercise created by Georg Hackenschmidt. In the original exercise, the athlete was to lift the barbell from behind his back, with the hands touching, all while standing on toes. The variation performed today is much more similar to the conventional deadlift. It is performed almost exactly the same as the conventional deadlift, only with the bar behind the back. Bending the lower back is actually even beneficial in this exercise as it allows the individual to lift much more weight at a very low cost, as the stress on the spine is minimal.
- Zercher Deadlift
Ed Zercher, a famous lifter during the 1930s, invented this lift. To perform it, one must lift the barbell off the floor while holding it onto the elbows. Due to the much deeper range of motion and the painful sensation on the forearms throughout the lift, this variation does not allow for as much weight as the conventional deadlift does. One more factor contributing to this is also the fact that there is no momentum in this movement. In the other variations, one may jerk the bar before lifting it and therefore create small amounts of momentum to kick off the hardest part of the movement: the bottom. Rounding the lower back is almost mandatory on this movement due to the deep range of motion.
There is much disagreement in the fitness community regarding strength standards. Some consider the standards too low while some consider them too high. The standards featured here are from ExRx.net, which is an organization recognized by both NASA and the US Department of Defense. The unit used is kilogram.