A Beginner’s Guide to the Deadlift

First Deadlift by Oplotnik

Ok, when I said beginner's guide....

If you want to be as strong as possible, you need to include the deadlift in your training.

The deadlift is absolutely the second most important exercise for developing full body strength (the squat still being #1 in my book) because it engages every one of your muscles and works them with the heaviest loads possible. Deadlifts will not only make your entire body stronger, fix lower back pain, enhance your rate of force development (power) and dramatically increase your grip/wrist strength – they’ll also condition you to pick up heavy things with a straight back. That means next time you need to toss some bags of dirt around for landscaping or lift a flipped car off of someone, you won’t destroy your back.

So, how do we do it then?

How to Deadlift

  • Start from the floor – If you’re pulling the weight from the safety pins of the rack then it isn’t a deadlift. If you’re starting at the top then that’s a Romanian deadlift which, while an excellent exercise in its own right, is not the deadlift you’re looking for (had to resist the urge to wave my hand there). Th point is, the bar starts on the floor.
  • Center the bar above you feet – You want to stand with your feet a bit under the bar at a little narrower than shoulder-width. You’re going to want to give your arms enough room and if you stand too wide your legs will get in the way.
  • Grip the bar – Your arms should go straight down and grip the bar overhand (that’s palms facing you) with your shoulders directly over the bar. It helps to grip the bar hard and make sure that you don’t bend your arms – this is a deadlift not a curl.
  • Bend your knees – Not too much, but just enough that your shins touch the bar. You may have naturally assumed this position when grabbing the bar to keep your shoulders directly above it. Make sure not to lower your hips as much as you would for a squat, or you’re going to end up scraping your shins or hitting your knees on the way up.
  • Head up, chest out – Look straight ahead and keep your chest out so that your head stays inline with the rest of your spine. Your shoulders should be back and down, not squeezed together like for a squat. Keep your back straight.
  • Lift – Roll the weight a bit over your shins and knees keeping it close to your body until you get to the top position and your knees and hips are locked. Again, keep your back straight and once you get to the stop don’t lean back unless you hate your shoulders.
  • Rinse & repeat – To put the bar back down where it came from, start by pushing your hips back first. Start bending your knees after the bar passes them otherwise you’re going to hit them with the bar and that gets old quick. The bar should be resting on the ground before you start your next lift, don’t cheat yourself.

That’s all there is to it.

Common Questions & Problems

There are a handful of problems that people tend to have when first starting the deadlift. Additionally, because this is an exercise for serious people who actually want to get strong not just pretend they’re getting their money’s worth from that gym membership fee, people usually have a lot of misconceptions. I’ll try to address the most common ones.

  • Won’t deadlifts destroy my back? – The short answer, no. The long answer, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO. In fact deadlifts are an excellent exercise for reducing lower back pain because they strengthen the muscles of your back and the entire posterior chain. As long as you maintain proper form deadlifts will alleviate back pain, not cause it.
  • My shoulders hurt after doing deadlifts. – You are probably leaning back at the top of your deadlift, or are pinching your shoulders on the way up like you would for squats. Keep your shoulders back and down and at the top of the lift don’t lean back.
  • I keep smacking my knees/shins with the bar! – If you’re knees are getting bruised chances are you’re bending them too early as you’re putting the weight back down. Start lowering by pushing your hips backward and don’t bend your knees till the bar passes them. If your shins are the part getting mangled, it’s likely you have your hips too low at the start of the lift. Raise them up a bit, but keep your shoulders over the bar and your back straight.
  • Some guy I met at the gym says deadlifts are a terrible exercise and/or are dangerous. – I don’t want to get into one of those ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ arguments… but they’re wrong. Deadlifts are completely safe provided you maintain proper form.

That’s all you need! Go get started! If you have any questions about proper technique or have hit any problems that weren’t covered share them in the comments and we’ll do our best to help out!

Photo Credit: Oplotnik

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com