The deadlift has the simplest one-step process to perform the lift. Grab hold of the bar, and stand up with it.
It’s amazing that despite this simplicity, it’s one of the most difficult movements to coach, cue and improve upon past a certain point.
The reason is because moving hundreds of pounds off the ground is one part technique, one part physics, and one part genetics. Let’s go through those one by one.
1. Technique: There’s a basic form to lifting, so that you can protect your back, involve your legs, and get the most proper muscle activation out of the lift.
Generally speaking, in a conventional deadlift, your head and shoulders should be slightly higher than your hips, your feet should be hip width apart, the back should be kept flat throughout the lift, and you should be looking to engage the glutes to help you through the movement.
For a visual, take a look here.
2. Physics: Your geometry and setup have to be in complete accord with the physics of the movement to make your deadlift both strong and safe. Viewing the lift from the side should see the bar travelling in a straight line, and not in an arced or irregular path.
This means the shoulder blades stay over the bar for most of the lift, and the shins remain vertical or near to it, while the hips extend using the posterior muscles. This setup and execution will ensure that the force is travelling up the hamstrings, into the glutes, and evenly through the lower and upper back, giving ample support to move the load.
3. Genetics: This is included in the list of prerequisites, simply because pulling from the floor can be done, but you need the right anthropometry and skeleton frame if you want to be really good at it.
If you’re not built for the lift, you’ll have to bite the bullet and acknowledge that though you still may be able to reap all the benefits from it, you won’t necessarily reach elite numbers – at least not as easily as the guy who is.
Being under 6 feet, having longer arms, shorter legs, wider spread hip sockets and a longer torso all help in having the proper build for the lift (and it’s a reason why most of the world’s best powerlifters share these attributes).
With all of that out of the way, that leaves us looking for the most surefire ways to see improvements in our deadlifts. I’m glad to be of assistance.
To bulletproof your entire posterior chain, nothing beats blackburns. They can be done with low weight, and they involve the isometric contraction of many of the muscles involved in a deadlift, using gravity as the primary opposing force.
Whereas deadlifts done conventionally hit the back through a range of motion, this encourages the maintenance of a rigid spine while in full extension. It’s a good way to make the trunk work hard to protect the spine while keeping the glutes engaged too.
Adding movement with the extremities to involve the scapular muscles is a bonus of this movement, and encourages great posture. It doesn’t take much weight to torch the target muscles, as you can see in the video, I’m using 5 pound plates, and wouldn’t go higher.
2. Chin Ups
Many people don’t acknowledge that the deadlift relies just as much on grip and actual pulling strength as it does the strength of the posterior chain muscles. The chin up is the king of upper body exercises for these exact reasons.
Having a strong upper back matters a whole lot when performing deadlifts, since, as mentioned earlier, the scapulae and its attached muscles need to play a vital role in bearing the load of the deadlift right from the beginning.
Weak upper back muscles will result in an early “slouch” once the bar leaves the ground, and will prevent a great lockout from happening. Of course, chin ups can help with upper back strength and grip strength, and should be practiced as part of a program, given your shoulders are in good health.
To take things to the next level, focusing on the eccentric strength of the chin up is even more important, not only for the target muscles, but to emphasize the lowering phase of your deadlift. For many, this is the true weak link and a place where many can lose form.
Doing eccentric–only chins can maximize time under tension and make your posterior chain bionic. The best part about all of this is that since the movement is performed hanging, it means there are no added compressive forces on the spine, contrary to movements like squats, deadlifts, and presses.
3. Functional Isometrics
Similar to the blackburns above, functional isometrics allow for no movement at a segment of the lift, but in this case, one that’s even more directly pertinent to the deadlift pattern. The great thing about isometric training is the fact that 100% of your max is always a battle against yourself – no matter how strong you get.
There’s no tangible number to use, and there’s no movement at the muscle to actually “lift” the object. For that reason, it can actually prove safer than typical isotonic training methods.
Try this: If your 1 rep max deadlift is 400 pounds, set up a bar with 500 pounds on it – or 600. Just make sure it’s a weight that you’re positive you cannot budge – not even an inch. Set up with good form, grab hold, and apply as much tension as you can – pull hard! Do so for 10 seconds (once again, the bar shouldn’t move, and neither should you. Hold your form).
Relax, and perform 5 more sets of 10 second pulls. You’ve just created 100 percent effort against an immovable object for a cumulative total of 60 seconds. That surely beats the amount of time you’d spend in max effort lifting your actual max – let alone at that instant with the bar being on the ground (that phase usually lasts about a second).
Think about this from a bigger picture. A standard deadlift’s hardest part of the lift is always going to be the place where there’s zero momentum, namely when the bar is resting on the floor. As the bar moves up the body and picks up speed, kinetic energy enters the picture to reduce the amount of instantaneous force you need to apply to keep it moving.
In other words, the truth is your max effort is really only a true “max effort” when the bar isn’t moving. As it moves, the amount of force you create lowers since the bar is only passing through each subsequent segment.
But we can leverage that too. Simply set that 600 pound bar on 6 inch risers or platforms. Then set it up at knee level. Then low-thigh level. Then mid-thigh level. Perform the same isometric e exercise drills I mentioned above at each segment, and you’ll be creating maximal contractions at each segment of your deadlift.
Doing this in conjunction with your standard deadlift weight training will only strengthen it, and probably fine tune your technique and muscular endurance to hold form.
This article had a back extension movement, an upper body movement, and an isometric movement – all designed to help a deadlift? Something about that doesn’t sound right.
The truth is, sometimes it takes a more holistic approach to training to figure out how to help a lift. Practicing the lift itself goes without saying, but seeing where other weak links can be in your chain is one ticket to gains that nothing will ever be able to top. It’ll also make you a much healthier lifter too.