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Deadlifting Masterclass

by Steve Theunissen

The deadlift is one of the best compound movements you can perform in the gym. It is also one of the quickest ways to pack on mass all over your body while, at the same time, building tremendous strength and power. Unfortunately, the deadlift can also claim to be one of the most dangerously performed exercises in the gym. (1)

 In this article, we provide you with a detailed breakdown of what to do – and what not to do – when you step up to the deadlift bar.

How to Deadlift Properly

No two people’s deadlifts are going to be identical. Because we are all different shapes and sizes and different inherent movement patterns. There are, however, a number of cues that we should all follow when learning how to do a deadlift. (2) Let’s break them down.

 Foot Positioning

 For the standard deadlift, your feet should be positioned directly under your hips. Your toes should be directed outwards. This will ensure that your knees don’t cave in during the lift. Having your feet directly under your hips will also lead to greater activation of the glute muscles.

 Your stance should have your feet sitting half under your bar with it passing over top of your laces.

 Hand Positioning

 You can identify the ideal hand spacing on the deadlift bar by extending your hands in front of your body and then letting them fall by your sides. That natural spacing is ideal for this exercise. This will see your hands being positioned slightly outside of where your legs are.

There is debate over which grip is most effective. We suggest you experiment between the double overhand and the mixed grip where your dominant is facing forward and the other is facing backward.

 Use a hook grip to grab the bar, with your thumb tucked underneath your index and middle fingers. Squeeze tight and tense your deltoids.

Hip Placement

The ideal torso position for the start of the deadlift depends on your hip placement. You want your collarbone to be just in front of the bar and your scapula to sit over the bar in the starting position. 

A lot of lifters start the lift with their hips sitting too low. In this position, the scapula is too far back and the knees are too far forward. So, when you lift, the bar has to move horizontally to clear your knees as well as vertically. That is way too inefficient when you’re trying to haul the max weight possible.

Keep your core tight throughout the lift.

Head Positioning

You should keep your head in a neutral position through the move. If anything, you should be looking to the ground slightly. Don’t tuck in your chin or your hips will automatically react, taking away from the power of your legs during the drive up. If you look up, your hips will be forced down, which is not ideal either.

 Starting the Lift 

 As you lower your body to the deadlift bar, maintain a tight lower back, lock your hamstrings and flare out your latissimus dorsi. As you grasp hold of the bar, dig your heels into the ground.

Coming Up 

 As you begin the upward drive, think about pushing your heels through the floor. Open up the angles at both your hips and your knees as you power the bar up. You do not want the knees to open up before the hips do. And when you reach the top of the lift, both the knees and hips should lock out at the same time.

 Practice with light weights to perfect this simultaneous opening of the knee and hip joints. You can also get a training buddy to look out for this when you are training.

 The key to a successful lift, once you have mastered the technique cues, is what you’re thinking about as you execute it. Tell yourself that the bar is chained to the ground. It is immovable. But the ground that it sits on can be moved. Your job is to drive your heels through the gym floor in an attempt to push the floor away. By looking at your job this way you will be able to maximize your leg drive as you pull the bar from the floor.

When the bar gets to knee level, clench your biutt muscles while also driving the hips forward as you bring the weight up to a full stand. 

Deadlift No No’s 

1.   Improper arms, shoulder and hip movement – When they are bringing the bar up to the top position, you’ll see some people roll their shoulders back and over extend their hips forward. You don’t want to be doing this. Rolling your shoulders will put unnecessary stress on the spine. Extending the hips forward is going to put pressure on the lumbar, which can also lead to injury.

2.   Using the arms to activate the lift – Some people will bend the arms to try to get the bar up. Don’t do this. Rather, keep the arms straight throughout the lift. Push the hips through and squeeze the glutes, but do not over extend the hips.

3.   Not performing the deadlift part of the exercise properly -The starting position is having the weight sitting on the floor. Grab the weight, lift it up and then set it down between each rep. Some people will start from the top and then go down and up without engaging a full range of motion. It is critical, then, that the bar rests on the ground for about a second between every single rep.

4.   Keeping the hips too low – You’ll see people get into deadlift position as if they are about to perform a squat. Their hips are in line with their knees. That is wrong. You want your hips to be slightly higher than the knee. Remember that with a squat you need to imagine that you are sitting in a chair. With a deadlift, however, imagine that you are in a bowing position. This will keep your hamstrings tight and activated. They will be ready to assist you in the lift. If you are too low, however, you have to come up into the activated position before they can help you. Also, when you are lifting low, you have a much greater chance of banging your shins on the bar.

5.   Rounding the back – Rounding your back while deadlifting is the quickest route to life-long spinal troubles. There are two key reasons that it may happen. Firstly, you are letting the weight pull you as opposed to you pulling the weight. To prevent this, you need to contract your lats and shoulders back while keeping your back straight and your chest up. The second reason for rounded back deadlifting is incorrect bar to feet placement. If the bar is too far in front of you, you will have unnecessary strain just in order to pick up the bar. To correct this, you need to have the bar sitting right over the middle of your feet. This optimal placement allows you to go up and down in a parallel line.

6.   Lifting gear overload –  There is nothing wrong with lifting straps and a weight belt. In fact, if you are trying to break a record, these can really help you to focus on lifting the weight as opposed to not having enough grip strength. But you don’t want to get into the habit of relying on the belt and the straps. If you can pick up a 45-pound plate without lifting straps then don’t rely on straps. You also don’t want to over rely on the over under grip. Stick with an over hand grip without the straps and belt to aid with lower back support and grip strength.

7.   Wrong shoes – With deadlifts you want flat soled shoes. You don’t want anything with lifts or filled with gel or air. Your heels need to be as low to the ground as possible. (3)

Deadlift FAQs

What is a deadlift?

A deadlift is an exercise that simply involves lifting a weight from the floor and standing upright. It is called a deadlift because you are lifting it from a ‘dead’ stop. 

Are deadlifts bad for my back?

 No, deadlifts are not bad for your back if you do them correctly. When done properly, they are actually one of the best things you can do to strengthen the lumbar and erector spinae muscles of the lower back.

 How much should I deadlift?

 How much you should deadlift depends on your training goal. If you are lifting for strength and muscle gains, keep your reps between 6-12 per set. The last 2 reps should be difficult to complete.

 If you are a powerlifter work up to 1-2 rep maximums.

 What does deadlift work?

The deadlift is a compound exercise that works the entire body. It’s prime area of focus is the muscles of the back; the lats, traps, rhomboids and erector spinae.The deadlift benefits the cardiovascular system as well. 

What is a good deadlift workout?

An effective deadlift program follows:

  • Deadlift warm up – 1 x 15 reps (light weight)
  • Deadlift 4 x 12/10/8/6
  • Pull Ups – 3 x 8-10

Be sure to use proper deadlift technique.

Are deadlifts dangerous?

 Deadlifts are not dangerous when performed with proper form.

How often should I deadlift?

 The deadlift is a physical and mentally draining exercise. Doing 4-5 sets of deadlifts once per week is sufficient for the majority of trainers.

What are some deadlift variations?

There are a number of deadlift variations that work your muscles slightly differently. Here are five of them:

  • Sumo Deadlift
  • Romanian Deadlift
  • Dumbbell Deadlift
  • Straight Leg Deadlift
  • Hex Bar Deadlift

Deadlift Recap

Ø Feet hip width
Ø Hands straight down
Ø Shoulder blades over the bar
Ø Head neutral
Ø Pull yourself down to the bar
Ø Drive your feet through the floor
Ø Squeeze your glutes together
Ø Lower the bar in a straight line


  1. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/Pages/articleviewer.aspx?year=2013&issue=09000&article=00009&type=Fulltext
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32107499/
  3. https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/tsac-report/the-deadlift-and-its-application-to-overall-performance/

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