Heaving a plate-laden barbell from the floor to execute a deadlift is one of the most impressive feats you can perform during a workout. Still, you’ll generally witness far too few such acts in the gym. This movement may intimidate some because it’s inherently tough and requires extreme mental fortitude to add it to an already-challenging back or leg workout — but avoiding it is a fatal mistake if growth is your goal.
Deadlifts involve many muscles to execute correctly, making it an efficient weapon that you’re looking to get bigger and stronger. Marty Gallagher — strength coach, author of The Purposeful Primitive and owner of a 744-pound deadlift as a competitor — knows this and has some key advice on taking yours to another level. “My best advice for building deadlift strength is to deadlift,” he says. Er, yes, it could be boiled down to such simplicity. But luckily for all of us, our expert didn’t stop there.
1. Set Your Feet
“So many people mess this up,” he says of foot positioning during the exercise. “In general, you want no more than one foot of distance between your heels during the lift. My personal stance is about six inches.” While there is a variation called sumo deadlifts, in which your feet are out beyond shoulder width, for traditional deads, keep your grip outside your knees.
2. Keep In Touch
The biggest deadlifters share a lot of traits — huge backs, an unmistakable swagger and scabbed-over shins. “Your shins need to be touching the bar at the start, then drag the bar up your body,” he says. Need further motivation to do it right? “For every inch away from your body the bar is, you have to exert an additional 40 pounds of force to complete the lift,” Gallagher asserts.
3. Tense Up
Baseball players are told to eliminate tension in their bodies because it can tighten up their swing or shorten their throwing motion. But with deadlifters, it’s the opposite: You want tension in your body before the lift. “If you go from zero force application to max force application, you’re going to injure yourself,” Gallagher warns. He suggests thinking about exerting a degree of upward pressure before trying to separate the bar from the floor; this will ensure that your back, legs and core muscles are kept tight and in proper alignment for the lift.
4. Keep It Down
Your butt, that is. Gallagher says that while raising your butt may make it easier to get the bar off the floor, you then need to correct your form by dropping your hips in order to complete the lift. “Save yourself the trouble and keep your butt down while pushing through the floor with your heels,” he says.
5. Use Straps
Many strength purists believe that using straps is counterproductive. But Gallagher encourages the use of straps for those who are interested in the muscle-building effects of the deadlift. “If you really want to grow, straps help provide you with progressive overload, turning one rep into three, three reps into five,” he points out. Interested in bolstering your grip? Then train your grip specifically with barbell and dumbbell wrist curls — don’t rely on your pulls alone to do the job.