The deadlift and squat are often called the king and queen (or the two kings) of all exercises – and for good reason, there are few other human movements that are better designed for progressive resistance training! Some form of these two compound lifts should be an important part of every strength trainees exercise repertoire, as they are essential multi-joint movements that rely on the coordinated actions of several large muscle groups. The press, bench-press, chin-up, dip, clean, jerk, etc. are also valuable exercises that could be classified as the princes and princesses of strength training, while the hip-abductor machine is the distant cousin that no one likes, but they can’t get rid of. In between these two ends of the spectrum there are several types of exercise equipment that can be valuable to strength trainees if used right, such as dumbells, TRXs, and kettlebells.
I’ve found that although there isn’t an optimal program or technique that fits everyone, there are a set of basic principles that set you up for effective training. One of these essential principles is to always aim to get stronger in the basic lifts, and this is where the deadlift and squat really shine. Progressive overload basically means that you have to increase the weight, intensity and/or number of repetitions/sets over time to create an adaptive response, and while you’ll quickly stagnate on exercises such as biceps curls and triceps extension, beginners-intermediates can usually keep adding weight on the deadlift week in and week out if they’re adhering to a good program, eating well, and properly performing the exercise.
The deadlift engages primarily the posterior chain, which includes large muscle groups like the hamstrings, glutes, and erector spinae (lower back). The abdominals and quadriceps are also involved in the deadlift, essentially making it into a full body exercise. However, the sad thing is that most lifters aren’t getting full benefits from the deadlift since they fail to properly engage their posterior chain.
While most athletes find that they can train the squat several times per week, heavy deadlifts can take its toll on your muscles and central nervous system, and should therefore be programmed more infrequently.
A lot of people can’t start with the deadlift right away
Only about 5-10% of the clients I’ve coached over the years have displayed okay-good form the first time they try the deadlift. A lot of people can’t jump in right away with technical movements like the deadlift because they haven’t mastered the hip hinge and/or have “muscular imbalances” that need to be worked on. One especially common issue is that people have have trouble engaging their posterior chain correctly and therefore end up using the deadlift as a squat.
While our physically active hunter gatherer ancestors would have no problem doing the most basic compound lifts, a sedentary lifestyle has set us up for anterior pelvic tilt, poor hamstring mobility, and upper crossed syndrome – all of which are conditions that result in a less than ideal deadlift technique. This is the reason I always teach my clients the hip hinge and work on postural/muscular/mobility problems before moving on to heavy deadlifts.
Hips too high and a rounded back
Hips too low/excessive knee flexion
No hip hinge
My top cues and tips for a perfect deadlift
I want to emphasise that although these cues set you up for a good deadlift, there’s a huge difference between getting help from a competent coach and learning exercises online. It’s difficult to address individual sticking points over the net, and hiring an experienced trainer could therefore be a good decision if you’re serious about your health and training goals. Most people need at least a couple of sessions to get a grasp of the complex barbell movements, some folks a lot more.
It’s also important to note that although there are a couple of guidelines that set you up for a good deadlift, there are variations in exercise technique. Some lifters regularly round their upper back during heavy deadlifts, and some find that they do better with a more horizontal back angle. Antropomethry will also have an impact on exercise technique.
- Maintain a neutral spine
For the majority of people this means “arching the back” (at least in the bottom portion of the lift), but people with anterior pelvic tilt (ATP) should be careful not to overextend their spine. For people with ATP, the deadlift can do more harm than good if they end up placing too much load on their lower back.
- Spread the floor apart!
This cue is a game changer for a lot of people and applies to both the squat and deadlift (Especially relevant to the sumo deadlift). Push against the outside of your heels like you’re literally trying to pull the floor apart beneath you.
- Drive through your heels!
This also a game changer since it forces you to hinge the hips and engage the posterior chain. I’ve sometimes instructed my clients to lift the toes, and this is also something I tend to do myself. When doing strength exercises the load should always be kept on the mid-back of your foot – never the toes! (A couple of exceptions exist)
- Pull, don’t jerk
A deadlift should be smooth and controlled.
- Hips back
Your shins should be almost vertical in the deadlift (some variations depending on anthropometry). The deadlift isn’t a squat!
- The bar should always travel in a vertical line over the mid-foot
A lot of people end up with the bar in a vertical path somewhere over their toes because they are not distributing the load correctly. To avoid this problem, make sure your sticking to all the cues above. The bar should skim the shins and thighs.
- Chest up!
- Finish the movement by squeezing the glutes
This can be tricky on heavy lifts, but I’ve found it to be a good cue on sets with light-moderate weight since it teaches the trainee to use the hips and engage the gluteals.
- Take a deep breath at the bottom of the lift and breathe out at the top
- Keep your head in a neutral position
- Use chalk and a mixed grip when the weights get heavy (if necessary)
- Start light
- Use shoes with flat soles or go barefoot