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Deadlift for Strength, Muscle & A Better Physique

Develop raw strength and build muscle with the deadlift

Like the bench press and the squat, the Deadlift is a core exercise for strength and muscle gains. You’ve probably heard about the deadlift plenty of times. Maybe you’ve even seen the occasional heavy lifter in the gym, slam the bar to the ground after they finished a set. 

The deadlift may be the heaviest exercise you could do. Since it’s a compound lift, many muscles are working together to get that weight up, including the quads, hamstrings, lats, and more that we’ll go over later.

In this guide, we’ll cover, the how, the why, and the when of deadlifting.

You may have heard the words sumo & Conventional thrown around. Whether you have or not, We’ll be covering what they are and why they’re important to you.

Medical Disclaimer: Always make sure to consult a fitness professional to understand how to add new exercises to your training regimen safely. This information is not to be taken as medical advice

How to Deadlift (A Quick but Effective Guide)

The deadlift is made of 3 phases

  1. The setup
  2. Initial Pull
  3. Lockout

The Setup

The setup is about getting into the right position to safely and effectively make the initial pull. The setup deals with:

  • How you grip the bar
  • How far apart your feet are
  • The position of your hips, knees, and back

The Double Overhand Grip

Grip the bar with your palms facing down and towards you. This is the safest type of grip to use but your maximum potential strength is reduced because of the involvement of the forearms. TLDR, your grip may eventually fail you before the primary muscles involved in your deadlift do.

The Hook grip

The hook grip can be done with both hands overhand or underhand. To do this grip, wrap your thumb around the bar, rather than keeping it aligned with your fingers. The grip will be the least likely to fail you however it’s the most uncomfortable, or possibly even harmful.

This is because the weight is resting on your thumbs which can be quite painful due to how heavy this lift is.

So both options seem unappealing. Luckily there’s a third option

The Alternate grip

This is when one hand is overhand and the other underhand. Give this one a try and you’ll notice that you can handle the deadlift better and maybe even for longer. The main thing you’ll need to bear in mind is to swap hands for the grip over time to prevent muscle imbalances.

Side note: Whatever grip you use, make sure to drive your pinky into the bar to help prevent grip fatigue.

The Setup (continued)

For your stance, you want to have your feet hip-width apart and arms lined up with your shoulders or slightly outside the shoulders when you grip the bar. You’ll start in a hinged position with your hips back, knees bent, and back straight. Also, remember that your back will be straight from the start of the setup till the end of the movement. This is to avoid putting excessive stress on the spinal erectors (lower back).

The Initial Pull

The initial pull is the movement that gets you from the floor to the upright position. It’s about driving through the legs and pushing the hips forward. In other words, thrusting your hips forward to the upright position.

Lockout

In the lockout position, you’re standing upright. Your hips are fully extended, and your shoulders are pulled back. 

During this movement, there are muscles involved that shine at different phases of the movement.

Muscles worked by Deadlifting

The initial pull is the extension portion of the deadlift and the lockout is the isometric portion of the deadlift. Let me explain.

Hip extension

Since we started in a hinged position, the hips need to become fully extended to reach lockout. The glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors (lower back) are responsible for hip extension and that’s where you’ll feel the most tension when you lift the bar off the ground.

Knee extension

The quads are responsible for knee extension and while they may not be involved as much as the glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors, they certainly help get the barbell off the ground.

Isometric hold (Lockout)

An Isometric hold involves contracting the muscles without changing their length. Think of a time when you held a heavy bag for a couple of minutes. That’s an isometric hold. If you suddenly started doing bicep curls or hammer curls, it would no longer be an isometric hold. 

Once we hit lockout on the deadlift, we’re essentially holding very heavy bags. We also don’t want to hyperextend, meaning tilt beyond upright, because it is past the normal anatomical position for the lower back. Too much lumbar hyperextension too often can lead to injury so it is important to keep an upright position.

The isometric hold comes hand in hand with stability because the muscles you’ll contract will keep you in that upright position. For example, the contraction of the core or abs brings us back to upright if this is misaligned. The core, however, is not enough for the deadlift.

Here’s the list of muscles involved during this stability/isometric phase of the deadlift:

  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Spinal erectors
  • Lattisimus dorsi (the lats)
  • Trapezoids (the traps)
  • levator scapulae (upper back muscle)

Bro Tip: While it is important to know the theory about deadlifting, it is just as important to see it being executed well. As humans, we watch and learn. We didn’t learn to walk by reading a book. We observed others and learnt from them. 

Here’s a clip for deadlift execution. Compare this guide against what you see.

Hypertrophy Vs Strength

The deadlift is one of the most stressful and mentally fatiguing exercises in the gym. That’s the price to pay to lift as heavy as you possibly can. This also means that the number of repetitions you can do may be much less when compared to something like the bench press (remember how many muscles are engaged when doing a deadlift).

When it comes to hypertrophy or muscle building, a rough rep range for deadlifts is 5-10 reps while training for strength is roughly up to 5 reps.

As for the number of sets, 3 is a solid start. With that, you can decide whether it’s too much, too little, or, just right.

Mistakes to Avoid

There are 3 common mistakes when it comes to deadlift form. Don’t worry if you’ve already been doing them or don’t know how to correct them. The first step to correction is to first diagnose the problem.

Rounded lower back

This can happen either due to lifting too heavy or because the initial pull wasn’t done correctly. A rounded lower back means there’s excessive stress being put on the lumbar spine. This can increase the risk of disc herniation and other injuries. 

 Natural Back rounding, which is a little less than a straight back, is acceptable and some gym-goers even consider it to be a better alternative. It may be in your best interest however to start with strict form and once you’ve got the hang of it, decide which you find better.

Early hip extension

Shooting the hips up too early in the initial pull can essentially take it out of the equation, putting most of the load on the spinal erectors.

 Imagine trying to lift the bar in an almost straight-legged position rather than knees bent. There’s no extension of the hamstrings, and it becomes very difficult to activate the glutes in a meaningful way. This results in excessive stress being put on the spinal erectors.

Remember that the initial pull is one movement where you are extending the hips and knees. It is a part of the movement, not the setup.

Lowering the bar incorrectly

You want to avoid lowering the bar in an upright position. If you’ve done this before, you might have realised how uncomfortable that is. The correct way to lower the bar is to imagine the deadlift in reverse. You don’t need to control the barbell due to how heavy it is, however, you do want to lower the barbell the same way you started. That’s the safest way.

Sumo vs Conventional

In this guide, I have been describing the conventional deadlift. The classic form for the deadlift. There are however alternatives to this, the most common of which is the Sumo deadlift.

The sumo deadlift is similar to the conventional deadlift in terms of the muscles engaged, but there is one distinct difference. The stance

To do the sumo deadlift, you must have a wide-leg stance. This means that your legs will be outside your grip rather than inside like for the conventional deadlift. You also want your feet to be pointing outwards of 45 degrees. 

While the same muscles are engaged as the conventional deadlift, there is more involvement of the quadriceps during the initial pull. With that, you can decide whether you want to focus more on the spinal erectors (lower back) using the conventional deadlift or quadriceps using the sumo deadlift.

Overall it may come down to which you find more comfortable or which you can lift more weight with.

Advice from a gym bro

Deadlifting is hard. A lot of muscles are working together to get the barbell off the ground. In particular, you should pay attention to your lower back. The first time I ever deadlifted, I felt DOMS in my lower back for 3 whole days. 

The best way to tackle deadlifts is to leave your ego at the door and start off light. Get the form right. Practice with a broomstick at home (abstract concept, I know..), Use only the barbell or use minimum plates. The point is to focus on form for as long as it takes to get right. A lower back injury can prevent you from training until it recovers days or weeks later. 

It may be hard seeing people on Instagram & Tiktok lift crazy amounts of plates while deadlifting but you have to remember they also started somewhere.

Work your way up.

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