This next one is another one from James Kennedy as part of our beginner series.
While the deadlift is the final lift in a powerlifting competition, you do have the option of doing either conventional or sumo deadlifts. To lump them both together would be doing each one a disservice, so we've split them up.
So, for part 1 of the deadlift articles, we have the conventional deadlift.
Everyone can and should deadlift. The deadlift develops the muscles of the posterior chain (i.e the back of the body), from the traps to the hamstrings. Further, the deadlift is one of the best movements for developing total body strength and stability. Finally, for powerlifters and strongmen and women competitors, the deadlifts form a key part of competition.
There are two types of deadlift: the conventional deadlift and the sumo deadlift. For powerlifters, bodybuilders, weightlifters and general fitness enthusiasts either type of deadlift is suitable to achieve strength, physique and hypertrophy. For strongmen and strongwomen competitors however, only the conventional deadlift is allowed. This article will focus only on the conventional deadlift, with a guide on the sumo deadlift coming in the next few weeks.
The deadlift is pretty simple at heart. Walk up to the bar, grab hold of it, and stand up with it. Technically, it is by far the simplest of the big 3 power lifts, with the lift set up being the most technical component. Oftentimes, if the set up is correct, strength becomes the limiting factor as you just need to stand up with the bar.
When I am struggling with a lift it is usually because I have over complicated the lift in my head. Instead of just performing the lift I am worrying over a thousand little things that do not impact the lift. Getting back to basics is always the way to go - which for deadlifts means going back to the Starting Strength Deadlift technique. This technique is also brilliantly explained in this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYREQkVtvEc). What makes this technique so brilliant is it’s simplicity; it works for everyone regardless of body type.
The first part of the conventional deadlift is the stance. As a starting point, perform a vertical jump and note what position your feet are in. Generally speaking, your feet will be around hip width apart with your feet turned out around 10 degrees but this varies from person to person. Some very strong lifters have very narrow stances (e.g. Lamar Gant) or very wide stances, which is especially common amongst larger lifters (e.g. Eddie Hall). Once you have established your preferred stance width,step up to the bar and set the bar over the middle of the foot. This is usually 1-2 inches in front of your shins - remember the midpoint of your foot includes the heel which you cannot see!
The second step is to grip the bar. To take a grip on the bar, bend at the hips until your hands are on the bar whilst keeping your knees unlocked. Do not bend at the knees to reach the bar. The hands should be just outside the legs - you want your grip to be as narrow as possible without forcing your knees in. When gripping the bar, irrespective of style, the bar should be just above or below the calluses of the fingers - having the bar too deep in the palm or too close to the fingers reduces your ability to grip the bar hard. There are three ways to grip the bar - double overhand, mixed grip and hook grip.
The first style - double overhand - is the weakest grip style and is not really used by competitive strength athletes. Your grip strength will not increase as quickly as your deadlift strength and you will quickly be limited by your grip strength when deadlifting if you use a double overhand grip.
The second style - mixed grip - has one hand supinated (palm facing forward) and one hand pronated (palm facing backwards). This massively increases your grip strength as it prevents the bar rolling in your hand - if the bar rolls towards the fingers of one hand it rolls towards the palm of the other, increasing your grip strength. This technique is most commonly used in powerlifting competitions.
The final method is the hook grip. The hook grip is the standard grip used in weightlifting and is becoming increasingly common in powerlifting. Wrap your fingers around your thumb, pinning the thumb between your fingers and the bar. The hook grip is stronger than a mixed grip - if you learn how to do this properly you will never have a grip issue with deadlift again. However, the reason it isn’t more popular is it has a significant downside - it hurts. If you do this for long enough the nerves in the thumb deaden, but prepare for sore thumbs for a few weeks.
The next step is to push your shins to the bar until they are in contact with the bar by bending the knees. When you do this, your hips will be in the correct position irrespective on your body type. For lifters with long legs, your hips will be higher than those with shorter legs. This is ok - your body's proportions mean that each person's lift will look slightly different.
Once your shins are in contact with the bar, brace the core by taking a deep, diaphragmatic breath, into your stomach and oblique and hold this breath throughout the lift. This creates intra-abdominal pressure, increasing your core strength and protecting your spine. As you do this, squeeze the chest up and drive your knees out. Grip the bar as hard as you possibly can; it should feel heavy in your hands. Doing these steps - squeezing the chest up, driving the knees out, gripping the bar hard and bracing the core - flattens your back and pulls the slack out of the bar, whilst creating the full body tension essential for completing the lift safely.
At this point, you’re ready to lift! Initiate the deadlift by pushing the floor away. Once the bar is around mid-shin, drive your hips forward and your shoulders back to drive yourself into the locked out position.Keeping your chest up allows you to maintain spinal tension and helps you to lockout the lift. If your chest is down your shoulders will round, making the lockout difficult, as well as increasing the risk of injury. Each rep should be performed as explosively as you possibly can, as research has shown that lifting at maximum velocity can increase strength gains.
This technique is simple but effective. It will work for anyone, irrespective of your body proportions. If you have long legs you will have higher hips, horizontal back angle vs someone with shorter legs. You will not be able to change this so don’t try. If you are struggling with your technique or have just started, this is a great way of starting out in the conventional deadlift.
Troubleshooting the deadlift
When lifters fail deadlifts due to strength issues it is due to three reasons: weak grip, weak hips or weak backs. If you have weak grip it should be obvious as you will struggle to hold on to heavy deadlifts. Performing some specialised grip training - e.g. farmers carries - will help you improve your grip strength.
A simple test to test whether your hips or back strength is a limiting factor is to perform a controlled eccentric rep with around 85% of your one rep max. A controlled eccentric rep is a rep where you control the eccentric (lowering) phase of the rep - if this causes your spine to round it would suggest that your back strength is the limiting factor in your deadlifts. If your spine remains extended, then hip strength is probably your limiting factor.
For those with back strength as a limiting factor, there are several good exercises which will help develop back strength. Primarily, focusing on heavy barbell rows and back raises will help, as well as rack pulls and block pulls for more movement specific training. If the eccentric test indicates that your hips are weaker, Romanian Deadlifts (RDL’s), good mornings, hip thrusts and glute-ham raises are all good options to strengthen the hips.
The deadlift is a simple movement pattern that everyone has done anytime they pick something up from the floor. This article outlines a basic technique for the conventional deadlift which is perfect for beginners or anyone who wants to simplify their technique. Whilst there are numerous variations on the conventional deadlift setup and technique outlined in this article, they all fundamentally place you in the same position as the set-up outlined here. Keeping it simple minimises the amount of things that can go wrong allowing you to just focus on the goal - lifting a huge amount of weight.
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