The Serious Guide to the Conventional Deadlift
Written by Keith Hansen
February 22, 2018
I'd say most people's conventional deadlift is anything but conventional so I've written this guide to fix your wonky deadlift.
The deadlift has the most carryover to daily life of any of the barbell lifts, and it is critical you learn to do it well.
"There is no reason to be alive if you can't do deadlift"
Yea. It's that important. Check out this video of Jon Pall Sigmarsson deadlifting 1,005lbs for a little extra motivation before continuing.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
BENEFITS & USES
GENERAL STRENGTH PROGRAMS
COmmon Faults & Fixes
ADDITIONAL READINGS ON deadlifts
Benefits & Uses
There's actually a nice write-up on the history of the deadlift.
Most myths surrounding the origin of the deadlift are related to soldiers picking up the dead from an ancient battlefield, but realistically people have been picking things up since the beginning of time.
Only in the last 100 years or so have we switched to the barbell deadlift, and that's what you'll learn reading this guide.
There is no truer test of raw strength & grit than the conventional deadlift.
Every muscle in your entire body is engaged in the deadlift.
The conventional deadlift is a concentric-focused lift that will take your CNS to over-drive.
The deadlift is picking up a heavy load with good form.
We use a barbell in the gym because it is easy to load, but the way you pick up 315lbs will be the same way you pick up a couch, a pencil, and your girlfriend.
Learning good form in the gym ensures you don't hurt yourself outside of the gym.
I'm going to ruffle some feathers saying this but the deadlift is not a great move for muscular development.
The reason for this is because we tend to neglect the part of the lift that really drives hypertrophy--the down portion(eccentric).
Rows build your back better than deadlifts. Squats build your legs far better than deadlifts. Do deadlifts to be better at deadlifts, and to develop strength for lifting heavy stuff.
You need four things for barbell conventional deadlifts:
-Round Plates(if you only have access to hexagonal plates switch gyms or just do Romanian deadlifts until you switch gyms, seriously)
That's what you'll need for serious training, but the true bare minimum is anything you can pick up. There are a lot of deadlift variations and you'll see them in strongman competitions.
For the sake of brevity this article will focus on teaching you how to use a barbell in the gym.
If your gym has hexagonal plates(LA Fitness), no barbells(Planet Fitness), or apparently, has "Fitness" in the title you should seriously consider setting up your home gym for strength training.
A quality weightlifting belt is the single most important thing you can buy to enhance your deadlift experience. A 10mm, 4" wide, single prong weightlifting belt will immediately increase the amount of weight you can lift and the reps you can perform. Watch THIS video to learn how to wear a weightlifting belt. It's basically like the PF Flyers Benny wears in The Sandlot. Which brings us to the next piece of equipment: shoes.
The PF Flyers are actually a phenomenal deadlift shoe. So is any flat bottomed shoe like Converse Chuck Taylors. You most likely have good deadlifting shoes sitting in your closet or maybe already on your feet. These types of shoes are great for deadlifts because they provide a stable platform and strong connection to the ground. There is minimal cushion so your feet will not shift as you increase pressure on them(unlike running shoes). They also have the same amount of cushion at the front of the shoe and the back. This is important because it helps your ankles assume the correct position. Even better than flat shoes is barefoot deadlifts. Most gyms frown on this, but at any real strength gym it is encouraged.
Tall socks are required for powerlifting competitions because they save your shins from scrapes and scabs. Say that five times fast. Good deadlifts require the bar to remain incredibly close to your body, and when you are learning the movement you are guaranteed to bang up your legs with the bar. Tall socks or knee sleeves pulled down to your shins will keep you from bloodying yourself.
Lifting straps are another important piece of deadlifting equipment. Read this article to learn how to use them. Few lifts will tax your grip more than deadlifts, and when you want to keep going beyond grip failure straps are the answer. Interestingly enough deadlifts alone will not develop great grip strength.
Setting up equipment for the deadlift is remarkably simple. Put plates on the bar, and put it on the ground. Done.
However there are a few more elements to consider.
Standard barbell height for the conventional deadlift is 9" off the ground, but not all plates are standard, and neither are people. Most 45lb plates are 18" in diameter, and all bumper plates are. Using metal plates smaller than 45lbs will lower the bar height, and this can make deadlifts challenging to learn. The lower the bar height the more challenging it is to get into a good starting position. This is so important that we begin teaching the deadlift at a height of 20" and work down to 9".
Taller people, or those with body dimensions that do not favor the conventional deadlift may want to start the bar higher than 9". This can be accomplished by deadlifting inside of a power rack, or on blocks.
In competition everyone pulls from the standard 9" bar height, but there is nothing magical about that height and for the sake of learning I highly recommend raising the bar higher to learn quality mechanics first.
Setup for the deadlift is sequential. Each step relies on the previous step for quality positioning, and it begins with your foot placement.
Always walk up to the bar. Never roll the bar to you. Bring Muhammad to the mountain okay?
This will ensure your setup is consistent.
Your feet should be hip-width apart(6-8" apart) and under the bar. When viewed from the side the barbell will be over your midfoot. When you're looking down at the bar you should not be able to see the knot of your laces.
Toes can be turned out slightly, but keep it to 10 degrees or less.
Your deadlift grip should be double overhand(palms facing behind you) and only as wide as is necessary(video here) to allow your legs between them.
An overly wide grip forces your body into an artificially low starting point, and if you read the above paragraph about bar height you will know the lower you go the harder good form becomes. The other negative of an overly wide grip means the bar must travel higher and that takes more energy. This means less weight in 1RM lifts and few reps in training.
Mixed grip(also known as over/under) should be saved for heavy lifts and your hands should alternate which is over and which is under each set. Failure to do so will lead to imbalances. It's best to avoid over/under completely in training and favor the use of straps. If your grip is weak download The Seriously Strong Grip Program and watch this video on how to use a gripper.
The rest of your body
I'll briefly describe what else needs to happen in your setup, but it's easiest to just see it.
With your stance set, and your grip in place, you need to move into thoracic & lumbar extension(arch your back). Your lats must engage fully and the bar should not move at all. When you are in place your shoulder blades will be directly over the bar when viewed from the side, your back will be flat, and your shins will be very close to if not completely vertical.
Engage you core by acting like someone is going to punch you in the stomach, and begin to put tension on the bar.
Just watch the video to make sense of it all.
With tension on the bar your focus is lifting the bar perfectly vertical(eliminate any horizontal motion) by keeping your spine locked in place.
Imagine you are a crane. Your hands are the hooks. Your arms are the crane cables. Your torso is the crane arm. Your glutes & hamstrings are the engine at the bottom doing the lifting.
Good cranes have a rigid crane arm--if the crane arm gives at all it is a sign of serious structural failure. This is the same in your deadlift. Your torso is only a lever used to transfer force from your hips to the load.
Your arms aren't doing any of the lifting. They are hanging on to the load with maximal force.
The bar should rise to pass your knees and then your hips should drive forward to complete the lift.
To lower the bar safely ensure your core is braced and your shoulders are set(squeezed down and back).
Next begin the hip hinge pattern to lower the bar to your knees, and after passing the top of your kneecap your entire body should descend as a unit.
Do not relax until the bar is completely on the ground. Never lose rigidity in your spine. Keep the bar close.
All of this is easier seen than read so watch this video on how to deadlift.
Common Faults & Fixes
The most common indicator of poor deadlift form is an overly sore low back. If these muscles go through too much motion during your deadlift you will feel a terrible low back pump, and a soreness that lasts for days. You also risk back injury.
Getting your setup right is the most important part about your deadlift. If you start with garbage you will most certainly end with garbage. Review the section above on setup. Review videos & pictures of a quality set up. Record video of yourself to compare. If all of that fails ask an expert for help.
This typically stems from a poor setup, and when you see it in a video there are a two things to watch for.
The first is horizontal movement in the bar. If the bar moves toward you it's because you started with it too far away. If it moves away then your lats were not fully engaged.
The second thing to watch for is loss of arch in the spine. Your back should be in as much extension as possible. Any loss of this means your core needs strengthening or you simply need to brace harder(a weightlifting belt works wonders here).
Failure to Finish
This can be due to a loss of tightness in the low back on the ascent, or simply a lack of understanding on proper deadlift finish.
A good deadlift finishes with the shoulders fully back, behind the bar, a natural S-curve in the spine, knees at or near lockout, and hips under shoulders.
If you find yourself getting to the top of the deadlift but unable to extend fully through your body you may have some weaknesses to work on. Read this article on the six best exercises to improve your deadlift.
This occurs when you try to set the bar down by rounding your back in the beginning or the end of the down portion. Never do this!
It is critical that you treat the eccentric(lowering) portion with as much deference as you treat the concentric(lifting) portion.
Before you begin to lower the bar take in a big breath, brace your core, push out on your belt(if wearing one), and hinge from the hips. When the bar passes your knee it is time to squat the rest of the way but do not relax yet. Keep your torso locked in an extended position until the bar is safely on the ground.
General Strength Programs
Every good strength program incorporates deadlifts, and the Seriously Strong Beginner Program is one of those. In the beginner program you will deadlift every other workout for 5 sets of 5 reps.
This is a good frequency for learning the movement, and the program also incorporates your other big lifts.
Instead of deadlifting every other workout you will now deadlift once a week. For 12 weeks of the Seriously Strong Intermediate Program you will know what every deadlift workout will be. That's both fun and frightening.
On Wednesdays you will work up to a heavy set of 5 reps in addition to the other programmed work.
Deadlifts can be incredibly taxing, and for most people one deadlift workout per week is plenty for strength development.
Congratulations. You've made it to the Seriously Strong Advanced Program.
You've unlocked DEADLIFT DAY.
Once per week you will work up to an AMRAP set on deadlifts. And then you will do more deadlifts.
AMRAP deadlifts are the most fun you will have in the gym. You will be pushed to your limits, and then even further the following week.
I'll also mention:
-trap bar deadlifts
-farmers walk deadlifts
Most of these exercises have the name deadlift in them, but they begin to stray from the core mechanic of the deadlift: the hip hinge.
They are closer to a squat pattern. They will increase your leg & posterior chain strength, but will not have as much carryover as the variations listed in the article above.
This has been covered most thoroughly here.
Any exercise that will improve your posterior chain strength(back, glutes, hamstrings) or grip will improve your deadlift.
Romanian deadlifts are the single best accessory exercise you can do. It will cause massive hypertrophy in the hamstrings, and develop incredible strength that carries over nicely to your deadlift.
The Serious Guide to the Low Bar Squat
The Serious Guide to the Bench Press
The Serious Guide to Nutrition
The Serious Guide to Core Training
The Serious Guide to Glute Training
The Seriously Strong YouTube Channel
The Seriously Strong Beginner Program
The Seriously Strong Intermediate Program
The Seriously Strong Advanced Program