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Getting Started: The Deadlift

The deadlift is the most literal form of “lifting weight.”  You are simply taking a heavy weight from the ground, grasping it firmly, and picking it up.  Simple as that.  The deadlift is one of the most effective exercises for building raw strength, firing up your metabolism, and stimulating muscle growth. Additionally, it is one of the most effective exercises that newbies can learn to reinforce the importance of maintaining good form.

If all of this is true then why are so few beginner-intermediate lifters doing deadlifts? Well that’s because the deadlift has a bad reputation for hurting backs, but don’t worry because that reputation is undeserved.  The problem is that the deadlift is the lift that most people are able to start pulling some big weight with and, inevitably, the ego gets involved and they do more than they can safely.  It’s different with the squat and bench press, when things get too heavy you have the fear of that weight coming down on top of you to keep you in check.  The deadlift doesn’t stimulate that fear and so people are more likely to just keep pulling heavier and sacrifice good form in the process.

So with that said let’s start with what a good deadlift looks like.  For the purpose of this article we are going to focus primarily on the conventional barbell deadlift.  We will briefly go over how to change your approach for dumbbell, and kettlebell deadlifts towards the end.

Ego Warning

The deadlift is a very powerful exercise for very powerful people.  As I stated earlier, the deadlift is usually the first exercise that people can start to pull some large weight with.  As such, it can easily become an ego driven lift.

For the first few years of my deadlift practice I was infatuated with how much I was able to pull without prior training (I was able to hit 225 lbs for 6-9 reps within a month of learning how to deadlift). I wanted to push my deadlift as hard as I could.  Within a few months I was pulling 315 lbs for 3-6 reps regularly.  What amazing progress!

Unfortunately, my obsession with increasing the weight took priority over emphasizing a solid set up, and executing a good pull.  I pulled the weight with an extremely rounded back that I tried to keep in check with a weightlifting belt and attached the weight to my hands with the aid of lifting straps.  Eventually I hit a wall and couldn’t pass 315 pounds and even started to regress.  I stubborning kept pulling 315 pounds and eventually my back had had it. I was forced to spend the next few months without any heavy lifting and to be in pain any time I lifted my legs.

Needless to say, I learned my lesson and began to respect the deadlift.  I started over with a small 65 pounds and focused on pulling with solid mechanics instead of heavy weight.  I lost the weightlifting belt and the straps, making sure that I didn’t have any crutches to mask bad habits.  At the time of writing this it has been 2 years since my back injury and I recently pulled 455 pounds for 6 singles in under 10 minutes without the use of a belt or straps.  My back wasn’t even sore the following days.

Photos from the Jack Katz Memorial Strong Man Competition, Courtesy of stu_spivack

Set Up

Bar Setup

The deadlift begins with the weight resting on the floor, typically the bar is elevated by the weight plates.  If you’re not using any plates yet simply use something to elevate the bar 6-9 inches above the ground.  This can be done with yoga blocks, stacking plates up on either side to rest the bar on, some racks have low hooks for such occasions.

Foot Placement

Sink down like you’re going to go for a vertical jump but don’t jump.  Now stand up and note the position of your feet.  This is likely going to be your ideal deadlift foot arrangement.  I like this test because it allows people to discover the foot position they intuitively assume when trying to generate a large amount of power.

Approach the bar and position your feet such that half of your foot is in front of the bar and the other half behind.  Now you know your ideal foot placement and position.

Grip and Starting Position

In very general terms there are two set up techniques for getting into the starting position.

The first is the standing set up.  Start by positioning your feet underneath the bar.  Inhale sharply while pulling your shoulders back and contract your core tightly.  This will activate your back muscles and brace your spine.  Next, hinge at your hips to bring your torso down and grasp the bar, your hands should be positioned just outside your legs.  Once you have a firm grip on the bar pull your knees forward and bring your butt down, while positioning your shoulders directly over the bar.

The second is the bottoms-up set up.  Start by positioning your feet underneath the bar.  Reach down and grasp the bar firmly, your hands should be positioned just outside your legs.  Position your shoulders directly over the bar and take a deep inhale.  As you exhale imagine you are trying to bend the bar to wrap around your ankles and pull your back flat.  Remember to keep your shoulders over the bar.

The Pull

While the set up is the most important part of the deadlift, the pull is where the magic happens.

To start, you will need to remove the ‘slack’ from the bar.  From your set up position tighten your lats (imagine bending the bar around your ankles) and pull yourself down towards the ground.  If you pause and hold this position you should feel as though every muscle in your body is tight and braced, especially your back muscles.  Next, ‘break’ the bar from the ground by pushing with your legs, think as if you are trying to push the ground away from you.  Once the bar is at or above your knees drive your hips forward by contracting your glutes forcefully, imagine someone is about to kick you in the bum.

From here you should be in the top position.  To return to the bottom position lead with pushing your hips back and lower the weight along your thighs towards your knees.  When the weight is just about to your knees you can start bending the knees to complete the lowering portion of the exercise.  Alternatively, you can just drop the weight but you do miss out on the eccentric portion of the deadlift and risk becoming “That Guy” at your gym.

During the pull it is important to keep the weight close to your body.  Typically, when people are starting out they have this tendency to hold the bar 6-8 inches away from their body.  This causes unnecessary stress on the shoulders and is incorrect.  Try to keep the bar as close to your body as comfortably possible.

Using Dumbbells and/or Kettlebells 

You may not always have access to barbells, or you may be new at deadlifts and don’t want to start with a 45 lb barbell.  In any case, do not worry! Performing deadlifts with dumbbells and kettlebells is very similar to performing them with a barbell and just requires a small change in your set up.

For Dumbbells

Set up: Grab both of your dumbbells and assume a standing braced position.  Place your hands over your hips such that when you lower your weights they track down your thighs.  Pull your shoulders back and keep your elbows locked and arms straight throughout the movement.

Lowering: Pull your hips back and begin lowering the weight along your thighs.  When the weights reach your knees push your legs forward to complete the lowering process.  The weights do not need to touch the ground, go as low as comfortable before beginning the pull.

The Pull: From the bottom position make sure your shoulders are over the weights and your shoulders pulled back.  Start by pushing the ground away with your legs.  Once the dumbbells are at you knees thrust your hips forward to complete the pull.

For Kettlebells

Set up: Start with your feet in the starting position described previously.  Place the kettlebell between your feet.  Set up using one of the protocols described for the barbell deadlift.  The only difference is that you hands are between your legs instead of outside.

The Pull: Position your shoulders directly above the kettlebell and tighten your lats by trying to bend the handle.  Push the ground away with your legs until the body of the kettlebell is level with your knees. Next, thrust your hips forward to complete the pull (Guys, don’t thrust any sensitive equipment forcefully into the kettlebell).

Getting Started

You may notice that in the Squat and Bench Press sections of the “Getting Started” section there were a lot of mobilizations and introductory exercises, and these are not in the Deadlift section. The reason for this is that most people have the prerequisite mobility to accomplish a decent deadlift and there isn’t a need for an introductory exercise.  The deadlift is easily scaled to any weight that is needed.  The more important aspect of the deadlift is to focus on a good setup, a solid pull, and practice, practice, practice.

If you’re new at the deadlift then try to train it at 1-3x per week for 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps.  Start at a weight you’re comfortable with and stay there until you can perform at least 5 sets of 6 reps while maintaining a flat back throughout all reps.  Once you have the form down you can start to increase the weight incrementally, I suggest adding 5-10 lbs every time you can successfully complete 6 perfect reps in one set.  Keep the number of reps per set low as this will enable you to maintain a flat back much easier.

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Getting Started: The Squat

The squat is without a doubt one of the most effective exercises you can ever do. It’s evident by the fact that it is literally everywhere in the fitness world:

  • Bodyweight training? Air squat
  • Weight Training? Weighted Squats
  • Kettlebell? Goblet Squat
  • Crossfit? All the squats!

The squat has innumerable iterations each with it’s own particular areas of effectiveness and doing some form of squatting is sure to strengthen your legs, protect your knees, and make you feel all around more powerful in everyday life.

Despite it’s stellar reputation in fitness circles the squat has a less-than-great reputation in the normal world. People are underneath impression that squatting is bad for your knees, back, and hips. And this is sort of true. Squatting badly can lead to some problems but squatting well can prevent those problems. And before you think you can just avoid squats altogether and be fine you may want to think of how many times you sit down in a day. Every time you lower yourself into a seat you are squatting, it’s seriously unavoidable so you may as well learn to do it correctly and effectively.

Getting your bearings

Go ahead and sink into a deep squat and hold it for 30 seconds, I’ll wait here.

How’d you do?

Most people have some general immobility that prevents their hips from sinking deeper than the level of their knees or makes them fall backward if they do sink below comfort. This instability is a result of a poorly controlled center of gravity. You’re inability to control your center of gravity may arise from various sources but the end result is the same.

Simply put, if your center of gravity is near the center of your body you can maintain stability throughout the movement and if it drifts backward then the rest of you will follow.

Taking control of your center of gravity has two requirements; ample mobility to perform the squat, and the ability to sense & manipulate the location of your center of gravity. To achieve both of these goals we are going to go through a short series of mobilization drills and introduce the goblet squat.

Mobilizations

Some people can sink into a perfect squat easily without any tissues feeling tight. I am not one of those people and I’ve yet to have a client that is, however I have been assured they exist… somewhere in the universe. In reality you’re probably like the rest of us and spend enough time in a seated position that you’re adapted for that position.

Being adapted to sitting all the time means shorter hamstrings, and chronically tight hips, among other problems. The good news is that we can restore our tissues to their optimal state using mobilization drills.

There are a lot of different mobilizations, or “mobs,” that people use to loosen up their stiff tissues. I’m going to share my staple mobilizations I use to keep me squatting with ease.

Banded Hamstring StretchIMG_2437

 

Assume a split legged stage with your banded leg forward. Keeping your back flat hinge towards your toes. When you reach the end of your comfortable range of motion pulse back up and repeat.

You can do this without a band but it will be less effective for hip mobilization.

Forward Lunge

The forward lunge allows us to simulate the bottom position of a deep squat one leg at a time while simultaneous stretching our hip flexors in the opposite leg.

Once you are comfortable in a normal forward lunge you can start opening up your hip by driving your hand against the inside of your forward knee.

Side Lunge & Twist Up

IMG_2436Start this one by sinking into a moderately deep squat. Next place a hand on the inside of the same-side knee and drive your shoulder against your knee. Now twist such that your free hand is reaching upwards. Hold for 10-20 seconds and switch sides. Continue switching sides as needed to comfortably sink into a deep squat, I usually do 3 rounds per side.

The Goblet Squat

Trying to master control over your center of gravity using an air squat has one major issue: it’s very difficult to find the mechanism(s) responsible for this shift. Using the goblet squat we are literally placing a manipulandum for controlling your center of gravity in the palms of your hands. In general when I have people start squatting with a goblet squat they have to hold the weight out very far in front of them to offset the shift towards their backside. Over time and with a few simple drills that weight comes closer and closer to their chest demonstrating an emerging control over their weight distribution.

To get the most out of doing the goblet squat we are going to squat a lot.  Start with a light weight.  Despite what you may think it doesn’t take much weight to counterbalance yourself, in the above picture I am using a 15lb kettlebell to offset my shift in balance and I’m 220lbs!  Aim for a handful of sets, 3 to 6, in which you will perform in the upper rep range of your ability, 12 to 18 reps.  As you perform each rep be mindful of where you hold the weight and try to hold it a little closer to your chest than before.  Before long you should be squatting like Victoria here:

IMG_2441

Right here she is using a 20lb dumbbell for 15 reps but do not let the light weight fool you. This girl is not afraid of putting heavy plates on the barbell and lifting heavy.

 

Barbell Back Squat

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This is the archetypal variation of the squat that typically comes to mind when people think of the exercise. The barbell back squat is exactly what it sounds like; you place a loaded barbell into your back and squat. Sounds simple but this exercise is deceivingly technical. Ideally you should be familiar with the handful of mobility drills we introduced earlier and can perform a solid goblet squat with the weight firmly pressed to your chest before you tackle this exercise.

Unlike for the goblet squat I’m not going to write in detail about how to best execute a barbell back squat. There’s a lot of nuances in this exercise that will just be missed in writing. In this case I believe video to be the appropriate media for instruction. Below are the two most helpful squat instructional videos I have used personally and have my clients watch regularly.

High bar and low bar back squat – TechniqueWOD

 How to squat with Dr. Layne Norton

 

Putting it all together

As we said before, you should start with using the goblet squat and bringing the weight closer and closer to your chest.  Aim for completing 3-6 sets of 12-18 reps.  The goal with this high volume protocol is to get you used to the movement pattern of a good squat.  Take each rep slow and controlled, don’t butt dip your way through each set.  When you’re regularly performing the goblet squat with the weight against your chest you should start doing some barbell back squats.

Ease into the barbell squats.  Work in some goblet squats in-between sets of barbell back squats to keep the movement pattern fresh in your mind.  Once you’re confident in your ability to perform a goblet squat and a barbell back squat you’re ready to start a traditional squat program. Depending on your experience with weightlifting there’s a few options you can consider:

  1. If you’re really really new to all of this I’d suggest starting out with squatting 1-2 times per week and performing 3 working sets on each of those days (working sets come after warm up sets).  Aim on completing 9-12 reps, if you can easily do 12+ reps the weight is too light and if you can’t do 9 reps then it’s too heavy.  I find this works best when people are new to squat training because they are likely to make huge leaps in the amount of weight they can move much faster than people with training experience.  Do this for a few months and when you finally seem to hit a ceiling in your squat progress then you should start considering a more traditionally structured program.
  2. If you have some experience with resistance training then there are tons of programs you should look into to get stronger.  I’d suggest looking into our “Big 3: The Squat” program.