Deadlifting – The Why and How
By Michael Bailey
Forward Fitness & Performance
The deadlift is king.
Maybe I am a little biased due to my love for the deadlift, but a strong argument can be made.
What I love most about the deadlift is it is a true test of full body strength and will. You are either going to lift the bar and lock out or you aren’t. There is no discrepancy about it.
Put my opinion aside and just look at the facts. The deadlift is a fundamental stronglift that has numerous benefits that only the squat could compete with.
1) Deadlifts work many muscle groups in one simple movement: the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, lower/middle/upper back, traps, core, shoulders, arms, and forearms/grip – basically what I am saying is your entire body.
2) Deadlifts work the entire body as one unit. All major muscle groups must contract simultaneously to lift the load – huge power development that can transfer over to all other lifts.
3) Deadlifts have real world application. How often do you bend over to pick up something? – You are deadlifting.
4) Deadlifts improve posture. Our society sits continuously in a flexed state. The deadlift is the best pull movement known to man – helping strengthen your extensors – helping improve posture.
5) Deadlifts actually help alleviate lower back pain. Lower back pain can stem from weak glutes or weak spinal erectors, both of which are immensely strengthened during the deadlift.
6) Deadlifts result in a massive increase in muscle building/fat blasting hormones – Testosterone and Growth Hormone.
7) Simply the best exercise to add slabs of dense muscle to your back.
8) Deadlifting increases bone density and soft tissue (tendons, ligaments) strength.
9) Deadlifting works your core harder than any plank/Bosu ball/sit-up variation ever could.
10) Deadlifts improve top end speed and running economy – both of which are very beneficial for runners.
11) The deadlift builds mental toughness. If you are not mentally prepared for the task at hand the bar is not going to budge.
12) The deadlift improves performance in any sport through an increase in strength and force production.
13) There is a variation of the deadlift to suit anybody regardless of their mobility.
14) You want bigger/stronger arms? Deadlifts put way more tension on your biceps and shoulders then any curl or lateral raise ever could.
15) The deadlift builds a great butt. (Worth mentioning again)
Why Deadlifting May Be Hurting Your Back
You are probably sitting there thinking – “wow, now I really want to go pick up something heavy, but… I heard the deadlift is horrible for my back.” Well, my answer to that is yes it is – when you lift with horrible form.
Obviously, the guy above is placing a large amount of stress on his spine. Below, you have Tony Gentilcore showing you how a deadlift is supposed to look.
I see a lot of people just like the guy in the first picture, sacrificing form when deadlifting in order to pull a few extra pounds. Not only are you setting yourself up for stalled long-term development, but more importantly, you are putting yourself at risk for a herniated disc, spinal stress fractures, or lower back problems.
A little science for you – a study conducted by Tony Leyland measured the spinal compression and shear force on the lumbar spine during a 300 and 600 pound deadlift with a rounded back and a neutral spine.
The results for the 300 pound deadlift showed a reading of 3799 N (Newtons) of shear force on the spine when lifting with a rounded back. How about when lifting with a neutral spine? Only 699 N.
Even the 600 pound deadlift showed an incredible difference. A measured reading of 6700 N was recorded for the rounded back deadlift and only 1200 N for the neutral spine deadlift (which is still only one-third of the shear force created by the 300 pound rounded back deadlift).
This shows that deadlifting with a rounded back produces about 5.5 times more shear force on your lumbar spine than if you were to you deadlift with proper form. This is why people hurt their backs while deadlifting. Not because deadlifting is an unsafe exercise, but because they deadlift with poor form.
Contrary to popular belief, deadlifting is actually a safe exercise for your back and spine when performed correctly.
How You Should Be Deadlifting
Do you want to reap all the benefits of the deadlift mentioned earlier without getting injured?
Then concentrate on form before you start adding weight to the bar. Better yet, start with variations that make learning proper form a little easier, such as the kettlebell deadlift, rack pull, or deadlift from blocks.
Here are cues that I like to use when teaching the deadlift:
Keep the bar close - the bar should stay as close as possible during the entire movement. From set-up to finish, the bar should literally be almost dragging across your body (or actually dragging across your body).
Push the hips back (hip hinge) – during the set-up, break at the waist and push your hips back behind you. Do not sit down into a squat.
Put your shoulder blades in your back pocket (I stole that one from Tony Gentilcore) – pull your shoulder blades down towards your back pocket to engage their lats. This plays a huge role in protecting the spine as well as increasing your strength.
Tuck your chin - pick a spot on the ground about 10 feet in front of you and stare at it throughout the duration of the lift.
Push the ground down – instead of thinking of picking the bar up, think about driving your feet as hard into the ground as possible.
Push the hips through – at the top of the lift, push your hips to extension.
Think about pushing your feet as hard as possible into the ground, driving the ground down, until the bar reaches knee height. Once the bar reaches knee height, think about pushing your hips forward to extension, finishing the lift. It is vital that the bar stays as close as possible throughout the entire lift, as this will help keep form in check and prevent rounding of the back.
Once you are able to perform the deadlift with proper form, then you may start adding weight to the bar. Adding weight to the bar is one of the best ways to continually getting stronger; however it should not come at the expense of poor form and possible injury. As you add weight, continue to make sure your form is in check. A little wiggle room is allowed in certain instances, but proper form should come as a priority.
Performing the deadlift with proper form will not only result in a much safer exercise, but will go a long way in increasing your strength in the long run.
If you want to reap the many benefits of deadlifting, improve your deadlift, and save your spine, then start deadlifting with proper form and make that a priority as you increase the weight.
Form over weight.
Leyland, Tony. "Biomechnical Analysis of the Deadlift." (n.d.): 1-7. Web.