It seems that there are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to deadlifts. On the one hand, there are those who believe that the lift is a necessary part of the process of getting stronger, while another group of coaches and athletes shun them altogether, stating that the slow movement does not carry over to high-skill movements like the clean and snatch. That latter group believes that instead of laboring over a heavy deadlift, athletes should be doing dynamic exercises like power snatches and cleans and snatch- and clean-grip high pulls.
In many college and scholastic strength programs, the athletes are not allowed to deadlift because the coaches consider it too dangerous for younger athletes - too risky to the lower back. This is still the opinion of many authorities in strength training: better to do an exercise that is safer than one that puts the body in peril. The truth of the matter is that any exercise can cause harm when it's done improperly, and almost any exercise can be beneficial if it's done correctly.
I say "almost any exercise" because there are a few that I never recommend doing, such as presses behind the neck or chinning behind the neck. These force the shoulder to be placed in jeopardy because the shoulder joints are not designed to handle those positions, especially when there is added resistance.
I use deadlifts in all my strength-fitness programs. In fact, it's one of the very first exercises I teach anyone, young or old, male or female, aspiring bodybuilder or fledgling Olympic lifter. I believe that it's imperative to know how to lift a heavy object off the floor the right way because, throughout our lifetimes, all of us are required to do this thousands of times. And this isn't restricted to those who lift weights regularly. Everyone, without exception, is going to lift a box of books, overloaded bag of groceries, case of motor oil or heavy bag of junk off the floor just going about daily life, and knowing how to do so correctly can mean the difference between lifting the weight smoothly or incurring a dinged back.
As for the deadlift being a higher risk movement than the more dynamic lifts, that's not really true either. The deadlift is a static movement where the joints stay locked in place, while the explosive lifts like full snatches, power cleans and high pulls involve many joints that are placed under a great deal of stress. Of course, when faulty technique is used on the deadlift, even with light poundages, an injury can occur, and because a great deal of weight, relatively speaking, is often used, any injury that is sustained is going to be more severe. This is why it's important to learn how to do deadlifts using perfect form.
Dead to Rights
This article is aimed at Olympic lifters and those following a program that involves high-skill exercises. Powerlifters are already believers in the deadlift, and they must do them regularly if they want to excel in the sport.
When I first became interested in weight training, I had the barest of equipment to work with. For the first three years that I trained, all I had was a standard bar, lots of plates and two adjustable dumbbell handles. From that I built my program, staying with very basic movements out of necessity. My two primary hip and leg exercises were the back squat and deadlift. I set up all my programs, using as my guide a booklet I bought mail order from George Jowett while I was in high school. When I started lifting after I joined the Air Force, I didn't have the booklet, but I remembered what I had read. He recommended 3 sets of 10 on the various exercises, so that's what I did.
I only weighed 135 lb. at the time and certainly wasn't gifted in the strength department, so all I could handle on the squats and deadlifts were rather light weights. This, as it turns out, was the best way for a puny individual to get started in strength training. I was also power cleaning the bar to do overhead presses and jerks, so the two exercises fit together nicely. The power cleans helped me to learn the line of a long pull so that when I deadlifted, all I had to do was concentrate on that first and second move. And because I could do deadlifts in a very deliberate fashion and was using fairly high reps, I never had any problems.
However, what happens in many cases currently is that youngsters try to see how much they can lift off the floor. This is usually a result of some dare from peers, and if there isn't an adult around to monitor the workouts, injuries can happen. So these are my basic rules about deadlifts in regards to younger athletes: they can never do them unless an adult is present, and they should not be allowed to try a max single. There's plenty of time later to do that. The priority should always be safety, and supervision is a necessary part of that.
After I got my hands on a couple of issues of Strength & Health, I became intrigued with the three Olympic lists and changed my program around to give them priority. Still, the back squat and deadlift remained cornerstones in my routines. But when I got out of the service and enrolled at Southern Methodist University and started training with Sid Henry at the Dallas YMCA, I followed the routines he laid out for me . . .
Note: "An Ideal Beginning Strength Program" by Bill Starr
This one came from Sid Henry of Dallas. It also holds special interest for anyone who includes high-skill exercises in his or her program.
Woven into the program article are some cool things about Sid Henry.
Aaaaaaand . . . if you're enjoying this article chances are you'll dig:
. . . and they never included deadlifts. So for three years they were not a part of my strength programs, except for when I would go to some odd lift meet in Texas that included deadlifts. I discovered that all the heavy pulling movements I had been doing to improve my cleans and snatches carried over nicely to the deadlift,and I always placed highest in the deadlift at those meets.
It wasn't until I left Texas and entered graduate school in Chicago that I discovered the deadlift was a valuable exercise to help me become a more proficient Olympic lifter. It wasn't something that I thought out; it came about clearly by chance.
From January till may there were meets held at one of the YMCAs in Chicago nearly every week. This was a welcome change for me because it required a very long drive to get to a contest in Texas, and they were held few and far between. The sites in the Windy City, on the other hand, were just a few minutes away. After each Olympic meet there was always a physique competition, and in most cases some sort of strength test - curls, bench press and deadlifts were the favorites. And as most know, those odd lifts evolved into the sport of powerlifting. I usually entered these because they gave me the opportunity to pick up another award, which was my primary motive for lifting in the first place.
Near the end of the season, in May, it was announced that the deadlift would be tested after the Olympic meet was finished. I decided to give it a try, mostly because I was curious to find out just how much I could move in that exercise. I hadn't done a deadlift in about two years, but my pull was strong that day. I had done well in the snatch and clean & jerk. Because I had absolutely no idea what I was capable of, I ended up doing 525 lb. As soon as I did it I knew I had a lot more left in me, but it was too late to think about that. I ended up taking second behind Ernie Franz. I was pleased because he was already regarded as one of the strongest lifters in the city.
The meets were always held on Sunday, and when I woke up on Monday, my entire back was sore to the touch. It was the kind of deep soreness that makes you grunt when you walk up stairs or sit down hard in a chair. This wouldn't have been so disconcerting had I not already entered another Olympic meet for the following Saturday in Moline, Ill. The deep soreness hung around through Wednesday, and my training was terrible. I considered bailing out, but I had promised Bob Gajda I would go with him and help pay for the gas. In addition, I had recruited two brothers, Tom and Rick Holbrook, to make the trip as well. I had taught them the Olympic lifts at the Park Ridge Y, where I was the youth director. They had lifted in a closed meet, which I held at Park Ridge, but this would be their first appearance in an open contest. I couldn't back out.
The four of us crammed into Gajda's VW and headed west. I was just hoping I wouldn't fall flat on my face. To my utter delight and surprise, I broke my snatch and clean & jerk record and posted my first 800-lb. total, a benchmark for the 181-lb. class at that time.
The only thing I had done differently going into that contest was deadlifts. Everything else was the same, so it didn't take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that it was the heavy deadlifts I had done that made my pull stronger. Soon after that contest in Moline, I moved to Marion, Ind., to become youth director at the YMCA there, and I started adding deadlifts into my program. I'd do them once a month and only did 5's, never going after a max single.
There were lots of powerlifting meets in the state as well, and I would enter those mostly for fun. My deadlift was always strong, and I set a state record with 575-lb. in the deadlift without any serious training on the lift. And whenever I moved my deadlift higher, my clean went up. And vice versa.
My next stop was York, and I quickly found that none of the lifters living and training there did any deadlifts at all. Except for Homer Brannum and Ernie Pickett, and neither of them did any in training. Rather, they would go to powerlifting meets and be able to move big numbers on the deadlift due to all the heavy pulling movements in their routine. Homer was the first athlete to win both the Senior Nationals in Olympic lifting and powerlifting in the same year. Ernie won the Junior Nationals and came in second in the Seniors two weeks after he earned a spot on the '68 Olympic team.
Bill March, Tony Garcy, Tommy Suggs and Bob Bednarski never did any deadlifts. They opted for the more dynamic movements, as did I in training. But when Ernie started going to power meets in the off-season of Olympic lifting, the summer, I would go with him. We never got too serious about these contests. We would only enter meets that were close to the Jersey Shore so we could party there after the contests. We always went heavy in the York Gym on Saturdays anyway, and the power meets were much easier than the Olympic contests, and we got in an excellent workout in the charged atmosphere.
There were quite a few Olympic lifters in the mid-'60s who also competed in powerlifting, and when powerlifting became a full-fledged sport in the AAU, a great many of them, usually those who were not really good Olympic lifters, switched over to the new, much less complicated power lifts.
When strength training for football became extremely popular across the country in the early '70s, none of the programs included deadlifts. This was primarily because those who had been chosen to train professional teams were all Olympic lifters: Louis Riecke at Pittsburgh, Dr. John Gourgott at New Orleans, Tommy Suggs at Houston, and myself at Baltimore. So the high schools and colleges followed what we were doing for the most part, and our programs didn't utilize the deadlift.
It wasn't until I signed on at the University of Hawaii and began coaching some Olympic lifters along with all the other sports teams that I began inserting the deadlifts back into some of my athletes' programs.
And at Johns Hopkins, I used that lift much more frequently for my advanced athletes, whom I had taught the snatch and clean & jerk. I recalled how the lift had helped me during my competitive years and was of the opinion that, when done correctly, it is, along with the back squat, one of the very best exercises for building greater strength in the hips, legs and back. I had all my Olympic lifters do them, as well as many of my advanced athletes. Because they had all started out with the "Big Three" - back squat, bench press and power clean - they picked up the form easily. That's one reason I like to have all beginners learn how to do the power clean correctly from the very beginning. Then he or she can move to high pulls, full snatches, full cleans, power snatches and shrugs without any difficulty.
But for these athletes, I only had them deadlift once a month at most - the exceptions being those who planned on entering deadlift or full power meets. Then I had them deadlift every other week.
The Why and How of Deadlifts
Whenever the subject of deadlifts as a strength movement comes up, it is assumed that they only have value when they are done with very heavy weights. This is not the case. They are very useful when done with light or moderate weights for higher reps.
This is particularly true for older athletes who are no longer interested in seeing how much they can move off the floor for a max single. Their goal is overall strength fitness and deadlifts are great for keeping the back, hips and legs strong even when the athletes have started drawing Social Security.
Two or three sets of 20 reps with a weight that forces the athlete to fully extend himself will carry blood and nutrients to all parts of his body and not be stressful to his joints. Some older athletes have written me and said they're doing very high reps - 50s and 75s - with very light weight, and it does wonders for their rheumatoid arthritis and any other maladies of the joints. There is really no reason to try a maximum effort on any lift when your joints are in peril. The ultra-high reps are most useful; low reps are foolish. Former national-champion Hugh Cassidy said it best when he told me, "If I want to move 500 lb., I'll get a forklift." I agree 100 percent.
Whenever an athlete thinks of the deadlift, he usually only imagines doing the lift in one way, what I call the "conventional style" - feet set close together, arms outside his legs, with the bar pulled upward close to his body. However, there is another way to do full deadlifts that is just as productive and in some cases fits the needs of the athlete even better than the conventional style. Sumo deadlifts work all the same muscle groups as the conventional ones yet in a slightly different manner, and they are also valuable in strengthening weaker groups that are not as involved in the conventional style. Primarily, I'm talking about the adductors. While these groups do play a role in conventional deads, they are of much greater importance when the sumo style is used. In my opinion, both need to be incorporated into a strength routine.
The styles for the two forms of the lift need to be perfect, so I will go over the form points for both. I'll address the conventional style first because I believe it's smarter to learn that lift before moving to the sumos.
Unless you re doing reps of 20 or higher, use straps. The straps will allow you to lock on firmly to the bar and not have to be concerned about your grip. All your concentration can be centered on proper technique. There are, of course, plenty of commercial straps you can purchase online or at sporting goods stores, but nothing can beat seat belts. They'll outlast the ones bought 10 times over. Cut them out of the back seat of some clunker No one I know uses them anyway, and cut them to a length of about 22 inches. Better to make them too long than too short. You can always trim them down if necessary. Throw them in a washer for five or six cycles to soften them. The pair I had was used by nearly every athlete at Johns Hopkins for over 10 years, and I still have them. To say they have been durable is a gross understatement.
Even if you feel that you don't need the straps for the warmups or with lighter poundages, use them anyway. It takes some practice to figure out how to wrap them so that they're snug but not so tight that they cut off circulation. And if they're too loose, they'll take some hide off your wrists when handling a heavy poundage.
Your grip will be the same as you use for power cleans, full cleans or high pulls. If you've never done any of these exercises, just extend your thumbs on an Olympic bar until they touch the smooth center. Your feet should be at shoulder width or a bit closer than that. The best way to find you ideal foot placement is to shut your eyes and pretend you're about to do a standing broad jump. Tuck the bar in tightly against your shins. This is very important because if the bar starts away from your legs, even so much as an inch, or moves out front during the execution of the lift, you're giving away leverage, and that will make it much harder to do the movement with any amount of weight.
The eyes should be set straight ahead, and your back should be flat. Make sure your frontal deltoids are a bit in front of the bar. This is another key form point. When your deltoids are behind the bar you do not have nearly as much thrust at the start and the tendency is to continue to pull the bar backward. You don't want that to happen so pay attention that your deltoids are always slightly in front of the bar from start to finish.
Those who have been lifting for some time can set their hips fairly high, even as high as a position that puts the back parallel to the floor. This provides a longer lever and is most beneficial if - and this is a critical if - you can hold that position during the start. The basic rule on any pulling movement is that your hips and the bar must move upward at the exact same rate. For most who are learning to deadlift, it's better for them to lower their hips until they feel they're in a solid position.
In order to handle heavy weights in the deadlift, you must maintain a flat back throughout. The best way to achieve this is to pull your shoulder blades together and keep them locked during each set. While learning the technique on the deadlift, do not allow your back to bow at all. But once you have the form down and have built a solid foundation, it's okay to round your back some. Not in the beginning, though. Flat back elevating the bar, and flat back while lowering it to the floor.
When your set position is right, take a deep breath, make certain that every muscle in your body is tight, then do this: instead of just pulling the bar off the floor, think about trying to push your feet down into the floor. When you do that the bar will glide off the floor smoothly and in the proper line. Many beginners try to jerk the bar off the floor, hoping to jump-start the movement, but this doesn't work when the weights get demanding. Also, jerking the weight off the floor will invariably cause the bar to travel forward and cause your back to round. Both are form faults, so practice the lift correctly and you'll be well ahead when you go after the bigger numbers.
Another mistake beginners make is they try to bring their arms into the mix. Your arms are no more than connecting links, which I compare to powerful chains. If they bend, you lose upward thrust, so they need to stay straight from start to finish.
When the start is done correctly, the middle generally takes care of itself. It's the finish that causes the most trouble because lifters wait till the very last moment to involve their traps. There's no reason to wait to contract the traps. When the bar reaches mid-thigh, squeeze your traps dynamically. This will elevate the bar a few crucial inches. Then all you have to do is drive your hips forward and the lift is completed. Those who wait till the very end to utilize their traps usually end up trying to jerk the bar home to the finish. This is not a valid deadlift, and in a contest it would be disqualified.
After you have completed the lift, take a breath and lower the bar back down to the floor while keeping a very flat back with the bar still close to your legs all the way down. Don't get in the habit of letting the bar crash down to the floor. This can be traumatic to your wrists, elbows and shoulders, and it throws the bar way out of line for your next rep. Also, lowering the bar deliberately works like a negative and helps you gain even more strength.
When bumper plates are used, it's very tempting to rebound the bar off the floor after each rep because that makes the start much easier. However, even if you use good form on the lift itself, you're still cheating yourself. Because you're not doing much work for the start, those muscles and attachments that are responsible for that first move are being ignored. Hence, they will not be strong enough when you go after a max triple, double of single. Do every rep from a dead stop, and you'll be way ahead of the game.
Now for the sumo-style deadlift. Most find that sumos are easier to learn than the conventional style. It's basically a shorter stroke and puts less stress on the lower back, which makes the lift quite attractive to older athletes. The sumo style is done with a wide stance, and the grip is between the legs rather than outside them.
How wide should the stance be? That depends on your height, but my rule of thumb is about 3 feet apart. You will need to experiment with your foot stance and grip until you find the one that fits you.
Another big difference from the conventional style is that your feet must be pointed straight ahead, and during the lift all the pressure is placed against the outsides of your feet. In the conventional deadlift, the pressure shifts from the front of your feet to the back as the bar travels upward, but in the sumo style, the pressure starts on the outside and stays there throughout the movement.
The basic rules are the same as for the conventional deadlift: tuck the bar in snugly against your shins, get your frontal deltoids out in front of the bar, pull the bar smoothly off the floor, and keep it in tight to your body all the way up. Here's what I tell anyone doing the sumo style for the first time: once you're in the correct set position, push your feet down into the floor and lean back. Like magic, the bar climbs right up to lockout. Again, lower the bar back to the floor in a deliberate manner.
Sumo deadlifts are great for any athlete wanting to improve his adductor strength. That group is hard to hit if you don't have an adductor machine, but sumo deadlifts and wide-stance squats will get the job done.
Which style to use? Why not do both? They work the hips, legs and back somewhat differently, so you will achieve more complete development by including both in a strength routine.
One thing that should be noted concerning the sumos: they do not work the lumbars nearly as much as the conventional style, so when they're done exclusively, time must be spent doing a specific exercise for the lower back (good mornings, back hyperextensions. reverse back hypers or almost-straight-legged deadlifts).
There are some other variations of the deadlift that are most useful for strengthening a weak area, such as halting deads; low, low deads; and the before-mentioned almost-straight-legged deadlifts. I will go over these in a future piece but for now learn how to do the two styles perfectly and you will be able to include them in your strength programs for the rest of your life.