Deadlift: The Forgotten Exercise
Very rarely do you ever see people deadlifting. Those that do are usually
powerlifters or someone who is actually performing a variation of a deadlift.
Often missing, the deadlift is an integral component of a strength building
program. That's not to say that everyone should be performing this movement or
one of its variations, but the benefits of the deadlift for a power or strength
building program are innumerable.
Though it is one of the three lifts in powerlifting competition, it is not given
the respect that the squat and bench press are. You never hear people bragging
about how much they can pull. In fact, the deadlift may be a better measure of
total body strength than the other two lifts by nature of the sheer number of
muscles that are needed to perform the deadlift. The deadlift is a compound
exercise targeting several muscle groups in the lower and upper body including
the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, erector spinae, gluteals, hamstrings,
quadriceps, and psoas (hip flexors). Your forearm muscles, which are involved in
gripping the bar, are strongly involved, as are muscles involved in trunk
stabilization such as your obliques and abdominals. In all, nearly three
quarters of your total muscle mass is involved in performing this compound
The deadlift also has many benefits. As a compound exercise, the movement
involves action at almost all of your body is joints, including ankles, knees,
hips, the vertebrae, shoulders and fingers.2 When compared to isolation
exercises, compound movements that involve larger muscle groups elicit a
hormonal training response that result in greater strength gains.1 The dynamics
of the lift itself may also lead to greater gains in hypertrophy.1 In laymen�s
terms, you will get stronger and bigger muscles!
The deadlift also has possible rehabilitation benefits. It has been hypothesized
that the moderate to high hamstring activity elicited during the deadlift may
help to protect the Anterior Cruciate Ligament during rehab.2 The movement of
the deadlift translates well into real life as it mimics bending and lifting.
Anyone who has a toddler is quite familiar with the motion of the lift already.
There are two basic styles of deadlifting; sumo and conventional. The key
difference between the two styles is the placement of the feet and the width of
the grip. In the sumo style, you assume a very wide stance and your arms hang
down between your legs as you grip the bar. In the conventional style, your
stance is relatively narrow, and your arms hang outside your legs as you grip
The sumo style has gained a reputation as decreasing the stress placed on the
lumbar vertebrae by as much as 10% when compared to the conventional deadlift.2
It also seems to be favored among those who are leaner and have longer than
average torsos. Since the sumo style requires less hip flexion and a more
upright trunk position in the starting position of the lift, this may benefit
lifters with a relatively longer torso by reducing the shear forces on the
lumbar vertebrae. We also know that the sumo style deadlift requires much larger
knee and ankle moments- these joints are at a more acute angle at the start of
the lift then when compared to the conventional style.2 This implies that the
quadriceps may be more active in the sumo style than in the conventional style.
Because of the wide stance utilized in the sumo style, this method requires less
mechanical work than the conventional.2 The bar actually moves less distance.
In comparison, a conventional grip will place less stress on the knee and ankle
joints and more stress on the lower lumbar. The increased angle of hip flexion
at the start of the lift will also require hamstring and gluteal movement to
overcome the angle. Though you may have to move the bar farther, the amount of
distance would not really be that much greater for a shorter person.
Furthermore, the combined strength of your gluteals and hamstrings may allow you
to lift more weight than if the majority of force output was from your
quadriceps. It is important to note that world records in powerlifting have been
established using both styles.
Performing the Lifts
- Feet should be flat on the floor about
shoulder width apart in the conventional style and slightly farther apart in
the sumo style.
- Grip bar with a closed, alternate grip (one
palm facing you the other away from you).
- Knees should be flexed as in a full squat
- Bar should be as close to the shins as
- Back should be flat.
- Head should be up or in a neutral position.
- Begin pull by extending at the hips and
knees, such that the hips and shoulders move at the same rate, keeping the
back flat, with the shoulders above or slightly in front of bar.
- As the bar passes your knees, thrust hips
forwards and your shoulders back.
- The hips and knees should be fully extended,
and your shoulders back (as opposed to rounded forward).
- In the downward phase, release the tension in
your muscles so that gravity alone allows the bar to descend to the floor.
- Rules in powerlifting competition require
that you maintain a grip on the bar so as to control its descent.
- Do not attempt to lower the bar at an
extremely slow rate, as the eccentric stress is taxing and causes undue micro
trauma and vertebral stress.
- The lift ends when the bar is motionless on
the floor in front of you.
Points to Remember
- Your back should be flat throughout the
- At no portion of the lift should your back or
shoulders be rounded o keep the bar as close to the shins as possible during
the initial pull, and as close to your thighs as possible after the bar passes
- Feet should always be flat on the floor, with
your center of gravity over the back half of your feet.
- Exhale through the sticking point of the pull
(some lifters find it advantageous to exhale forcefully as in screaming).
- Do not jerk the bar off the floor. The pull
should be a smooth, max effort from the beginning.
- Pay attention to good form. If your technique
begins to break down from the sheer weight on the bar, you predispose yourself
to injury. Rounding of your back, knees buckling inward and initiating the
pull with your back instead of legs and hips are examples of common technique
errors that are potentially damaging.
- Because of the many muscles involved in the
lift, you may require more rest between sets than normal.
The deadlift itself has many variations. You can use barbells for lighter
weights or use a limited range of motion if the situation calls for it. For
instance, I recently had an ankle injury that limited my range of motion in that
joint. Instead of doing reps from the floor, I only lowered the bar halfway.
There are also specialized bars that some people find more comfortable such as
the Combo Bar, "U" bar or Trap Bar.
Keystone deadlifts are a great exercise that can help you increase your deadlift
totals. They are done in a power rack and the weight is only lifted from your
knees. There is an exaggerated pelvic tilt such that you go into mild hyper
flexion of the lumbar spine. This forward pelvic tilt pre-stretches the
hamstring and allowing you to overload them more effectively.
Stiff-legged deadlifts, also called Romanian deadlifts, target your hamstrings
and erector muscles (the muscles in your lower back). To perform this exercise,
place your feet about 8 inches apart and place your hands on the barbell
shoulder width apart. Keeping your legs and back straight, lower the bar to
mid-shin level and bring the bar back up. Though your legs are straight, your
knees should not be locked. The positioning of your body and movement plane of
the bar is similar to a deadlift.
As in all exercises, the deadlift is not for everyone. If you have lower lumbar
injuries or any other joint injuries, it is important to get your doctor's or
chiropractor's release before adding this lift to your regime.
Because of the wide range of muscles the deadlift targets, some people use it as
a warm-up lift before their workout. In whatever form you use, the deadlift
should play an important role in your training program.
A short bio on me:
I hold my Bachelor's degree in Exercise Science form the Pennsylvania State
University and am currently completing my Master's degree in Health Psychology.
I also work for the International
By Disa Hatfield, B.S
Baechle, T. Essentials of Strength and Conditioning. Human Kinetics, Illinois,
Escamilla, R., et al. A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and
conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise,
Hatfield, F. Fitness: The Complete Guide. ISSA,
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