Is the deadlift the world’s best exercise? How should you do it to maximize growth and strength gains while minimizing your chances of injury? And what are the best exercises to add to an ideal deadlifting regimen?
For answers to these pressing — er, pulling — questions, we assembled a panel of exercise experts who between them have decades of experience teaching the proper performance of deadlifts: Marty Gallagher, author of strength tome The Purposeful Primitive who coached Team USA to the 1991 world powerlifting championship and was himself an International Powerlifting Federation world master’s division champion; Dustin Kirchofner, a certified strength and conditioning coach working under Gilbert Jamal Smith at Victory MMA and Charlie “Hustle” Ibarra at Hustle Hard Boxing in Colorado Springs, Colo., owner of Modern Warfare Fitness, and active-duty U.S. Army Special Forces soldier; and Heather Farmer, a Tier 3 personal trainer at Equinox Fitness in Manhattan who has competed at the national level in Olympic lifting for the past four years.
Here, each of them weighs in on everything you need to know about this core powerlifting move.
M&P: What are the most notable benefits of the deadlift?
Gallagher: Done properly, the deadlift is the undisputed king of back exercises. No other single back movement can stimulate the sheer number of back muscles, nor to the depth and degree that heavy-limit deadlifts can.
Kirchofner: Deadlifts build overall functional strength, bolster your core and improve your posture. They also prompt the body to release greater amounts of testosterone and growth hormone.
M&P: So is the deadlift more than a back-centric exercise?
Kirchofner: It’s responsible for targeting, developing and strengthening the major muscles in the posterior chain, including the calves, glutes, hamstrings, adductor magnus, lumbar erectors, middle and upper back, and delts. All of these muscles are important for athletes and everyday functionality: When you pick up a bag of groceries or another item off the floor, you’re performing a deadlift. Deadlifts are also a great way to burn a ton of calories, helping shed high amounts of body fat.
M&P: Does the deadlift have any downsides?
Gallagher: The deadlifts I see taught at commercial training facilities are often technical abominations, nothing less than fitness malpractice. While no exercise done right is more beneficial, no exercise done wrong is more injurious.
Farmer: Populations that have mobility restrictions either in the thoracic spine or hamstrings, making them unable to hold a flat back when starting the deadlift, should do a modified version from a higher starting point than the floor until they’re able to hold a flat, tight back off the ground.
M&P: What are your most important “form cues” to maximize your strength in the deadlift and do it correctly?
Gallagher: Vertical shins at launch engenders the straight pull. Good deadlifters pull upward in a straight line and contort their bodies to accommodate the straight-line pull; bad deadlifters make the bar conform to their out-of-position bodies. You’ll also want a low hip start. World-record deadlifters break the bar from the floor with their powerhouse legs, keeping the hip-hinge in reserve until the barbell reaches the knees. Most deadlifters break the bar from the floor using the hip-hinge because they have weak-ass legs. Rather than address leg weakness, they continually play to their strengths. That’s shortsighted and dangerous: A high-hip start necessitates pulling with the shoulders in front of the barbell, stressing the spinal discs.
Farmer: Squeeze the glutes and legs, keep your back flat and your shoulders over the bar. The bar should touch your shins. Stand up strongly. Mentally focus on squeezing or “activating” the legs; feel the primary muscles used rather than just going through the motions.
M&P: Where is the best place to put deadlifts in a typical bodybuilding program?
Gallagher: Always place heavy back work and heavy leg work at opposite ends of the training week. Deadlifts are always done first, when energy is the highest and the body’s freshest.
Kirchofner: I’d recommend doing deadlifts at the beginning of your workout and then ancillary work after. Deadlifts work the entire body, which means you’ll probably be very fatigued afterward. I prefer to go into deadlifts feeling 100 percent.
M&P: What are the most important “form cues” of the deadlift?
Kirchofner: Don’t overcompensate for improper form or attempting to lift too heavy of weight by wearing a weight belt. Master the proper form first, and you will eventually be able to lift heavier weight without a high risk of injury.
As for cues: 1. Use your legs, not your back. 2. Keep your shoulder blades over the bar. 3. Flare your latissimus dorsi. 4. Keep your chest up. 5. Make sure your elbows are straight and locked out. 6. Drive your heels through the floor during the liftoff. 7. Keep the bar close to your body throughout the lift, and keep your core nice and tight.
Gallagher: If you lack the leg power to break a barbell off the floor, the weight is too heavy for you to deadlift and you need to bring up your leg strength. My old training partner, deadlift world record holder Mark Chaillet, who had an 880 deadlift at a bodyweight of 265, used to say, “Drive up the squat and the deadlift automatically increases.” This is so true if you use the low-hip start.
M&P: Where is the most likely area for your deadlift form to break down?
Kirchofner: To deadlift with proper form, you need to maintain a neutral lower back. Rounding your lower back while performing deadlifts squeezes the lower spine, potentially leading to back pain and herniated discs. The entire movement should be smooth from the top to the bottom, so avoid jerking the bar up your thighs in order to lock out at the top.
Lateral movement of the knees can be very dangerous, so avoid allowing your knees to bow in or out during the lift. This can be avoided by going light at first and focusing on good form and technique. The heavy weights will come after you have mastered proper form.
Farmer: Directly off the floor, people are most likely to bend the lower back, and when lowering the bar, people tend to bend their back at the very bottom of the lift in order to reach the ground, rather than using their legs to get the plates all the way to the floor.
Gallagher: Avoid high-rep sets of deadlifts. We never do more than six reps per set.
The following exercises can be used to help strengthen the back, legs and ancillary muscles involved in the deadlift. While, as Gallagher contends, “To become better at deadlifting, you need to deadlift,” it’s also true that a well-rounded bodybuilding physique is not built on one exercise alone.
- Bent-Over Barbell Row
- Dumbbell Row
- Seated Cable Row
- Back Extension
- Barbell Good Mornings
- Romanian deadlift
- Back Squat
Do It Right: The Deadlift
While the deadlift is more complex than people tend to give it credit for, trainer Dustin Kirchofner describes how to do a technically sound deadlift in six steps.
- Step up to a barbell on the floor, and position yourself so your mid-foot is under the bar.
- Place your feet about hip width apart, with your toes straight ahead or slightly pointed out, no more than 15 to 20 degrees. If you place your feet more than shoulder-width apart, your legs will block your arms when you grip the bar.
- To reach the bar, push your hips back. Grasp the bar just outside your shins with an overhand grip.
- Lift your chest, making sure it is always above your hips. Your shoulder blades should be over the bar. Use your latissimus dorsi to pull the bar into your shins.
- Drive your heels through the floor and pull back, keeping the bar against your legs on the way up. Don’t try to shrug the bar or lean back excessively at the top.
- Finish the lift by actively squeezing your glutes.
A Final Thought
“Get freaking serious about deadlifting,” Gallagher says. “If you choose to treat this technically complex exercise with no more respect than a triceps kickback or a preacher curl, than you can expect nothing — except possible injury — from your deadlift efforts. Proper deadlifting is art and science: it took me 10 years to finalize my deadlift technique.”