How To Deadlift WITHOUT Breaking Your Back
You want to deadlift?
But you don't want to break your back?
I admit. Deadlifts look pretty awkward to a newcomer.
It's generally the position in which you may get back twinges in everyday life i.e. picking heavy things up off the ground.
The key is here: to learn how to pick up objects and move them in a safe way.
That's one of the main reasons you SHOULD deadlift.
Being able to brace your body, set yourself into a good position to lift, and transfer force from the ground - through your core - and into whatever is in your hands. The simple deadlift is high on the 'functional training' scale. Doing curls on a BOSU ball is not...
Another reason is that, with enough training, you will be able to pick up very heavy barbells and cause a big stress on your body. A stress that you will adapt to. Doing just deadlifts will give you the biggest increase in full body strength compared to any other exercise. Talk about bang for your buck.
Here are 3 things that you need to do to deadlift.
1. Don't start from the floor. Yet.
If you don't want to jump straight into deadlifts off the floor, you don't have to, nor do I recommend it for some people.
I get it.
As I said above, it's a fairly awkward looking position; from the start all the way to standing.
There are a few steps and exercises we can do first which will ensure perfect form, and that your body has strength and stability in all the right places to eventually deadlift.
Step 1: Learn to brace.
If you were to push against something extremely heavy in an effort to push through it, how would you breathe?
Trick question. You wouldn't.
Naturally, you would take a breath inwards, close your throat (or glottis) and try and breathe against it but not actually exhale. Millions of years of ancestors pushing on heavy things have taught you how to do this.
This is called the valsava manoeuvre and the action creates pressure in the cavity of your torso. It depresses your diaphragm so you also have increased intra-abdominal pressure which, along with the increased pressure in your lungs, create a posterior push on your spine, supporting it in movements where it is under significant load.
Learning to create this pressure and then contract your abdominal muscles and back extensors together to stiffen is key in creating a stable torso.
Step 2: Learn the hip hinge
The hip hinge is a basic movement pattern most people have forgotten.
For some reason doing it without weights can look quite sexual!
An easy way to learn the hip hinge is to stand with your back to a wall. Then step a foot from the wall, place your feet hip width apart, your hands on your thighs and slightly bend your knees (ever so slightly!). Now all you are going to do is try and touch the wall with your butt without letting your knees bend forwards or your back round.
If you do this right you will feel your weight shift back towards your heel and tension build up through your hamstrings. Come back up by squeezing your butt, and stand tall.
You just did a hip hinge!
Practice this movement a bit until it feels more natural. Remember you must keep your back straight, so how far down will be limited by your hamstring flexibility.
Now add some weight to your hands and you will be on the way to an exercise called a Romanian Deadlift. It's like a deadlift but from the top down.
The Romanian deadlift teaches you the top half of the lift and most importantly how to use your hamstrings and glutes to move the bar and stabilise through your trunk (using the above bracing technique for each rep).
Just keep the bar (or kettlebell in the video above) as close to your body as possible and think about moving your hips back and forwards rather than bending your torso forwards and back.
Step 3: The dead stop rack pull
The next step is to learn to start from a dead stop.
Use the rack or some blocks to lift the bar up to just below knee height.
Now get into the exact same position you would be in at the bottom of the Romanian Deadlift. So that's tension through your hamstrings and weight on your heels.
Grab the bar and apply some pull to it. Not enough to move the bar, but enough for you to pull your back into a straight and contacted position.
You have oranges under your armpits, I don't know why but the kids are thirsty. Squeeze your armpits, and squeeze those oranges. This will activate your lats to hold the bar close to your body.
Once you have a good position and everything is tense, breathe in and initiate your valsava manoeuvre, then PUUULLLL. This will maximise your body tension and allow you to stabilise your spine while you lift.
Again keep the bar as close to your body as possible and think about driving your hips forwards.
Lower the bar as you would in a Romanian Deadlift. Let go of the bar. Reset. Go for another rep.
Step 4: Trap/Hex bar deadlift
So far we have learnt how to:
Brace the spine to handle weight.
Keep braced while you are bent over.
Lower the bar safely (Romanian deadlift).
Use your glutes and hamstrings to move the weight.
Set your tight body position from a dead stop.
Make orange juice.
And, finally, let's take it to the floor.
This type of bar lets you get used to the lower position before jumping straight to the more technical barbell.
The steps for the position are the same as the rack pull.
Set up your feet hip width. Shoelaces lined up to the middle of the bar. Bend down and grab hold. Shoulders in front of your hands when viewed from the side. Pull the bar to get tension and get your back into a straight position. Valsava.
The extra step on this bar is that the initial push comes from your knees extending. You hold your torso position (and angle) as you push your feet into the ground until you reach a position similar to the rack pull, and then your glutes drive forwards to finish off the movement.
We use this bar before trying the barbell as you won't have to navigate around your knees, plus it is a tad bit elevated. Therefore you can practice lifting heavier weights off the floor where it is hard you to get it wrong.
Step 5: Deadlift. With the barbell. From the floor.
You have perfected all the steps to make up a safe and sound deadlift.
Go on. Try it.
2. Strengthen up those stabilisers!
A lot of the deadlift is holding your body in an isometric (or still) contraction and letting your legs do the work.
Being able to hold these contractions as the bar leaves the ground is key in holding the right position.
For example, if your lower back stabilisers lose their position and release their contraction you will end up in a fairly precarious place where your passive spinal structures are holding the load.
Let's list the stabilisers and how we can train them.
Best: Pullups using a variety of grips
Secondary: Lat pulldowns, straight arm pulldowns
Best: Farmer carries
Best: 3 point rows, bent over barbell rows
Secondary: prone bench rows, cable rows, face pulls
Best: Farmer carries, Pullups, Hangs
Secondary: Any lat, trap, upper back or exercise in which you hold the weight in your hands.
Best: Romanian deadlift, Swiss ball curls, hamstring curl machine
Secondary: 1 leg variations, hip lifts
Best: Barbell hip thrusts
Secondary: Glute bridges, lunges, step ups, kettlebell swings, hip thrust variations
Best: Back extensions
Secondary: Romanian deadlifts
Best: Plank variations, side plank variations, pallof presses, carries
You may be wondering where the situps are in the core training?
The core is designed to be a spine stiffener. Not mover/rotator. In a sporting sense, they allow force to be transferred between your upper and lower body.
There’s a time and place for isolated movement work but it’s not right now.
It’s all in the hips is correct. In a tennis swing the rotational movement is generated through the hips, the force needs to be transferred to your arms with as little loss of force as possible. Your spine must be rigid to be able to successfully ace your nemesis.
So that takes situps straight out of the equation as there is very little transfer to daily life.
Think of your core muscles as anti movers. The stiffer you can tense your trunk the safer your spine will be :)
Now back to stabiliser training!
This is different from training your 'weak points'. As a new deadlifter, you do not have weak points, in most cases, you are just weak. It's normal. Everyone in history started off weak, and then they got stronger.
Do not spend forever training the stabilisers, eventually, you will have to deadlift. These movements are perfect to implement when you are going through the above progressions from point 1. Eventually, when you do get to the floor you will be strong and ready to 'grip and rip'.
3. Learn the correct technique!
First, let's look at the starting position. If your starting position is off, the whole lift will be off.
Three things need to be in place.
The bar should be directly over your mid-foot.
Your shins should be touching the bar.
Your shoulders should be in front of the bar, so it lines up the back of your armpit.
The above key points are the same for everyone. No matter who you are you must follow these points for a correct starting position. I'm repeating myself here because it is so important.
A heavy bar won't actually move off the ground unless you are in this position.
Now for the actual deadlift technique.
My colleague Will, from Will Davis Training, is a great deadlifter and has gone into significant detail of deadlift technique, with some great pictures and videos. All of your questions will be answered.
This may seem lazy of me to just link out, but there is no point just repeated everything that he has said.
Just check him out!
And here is me :)
Now one quick point before we end. NOT EVERYONE HAS TO DEADLIFT FROM THE FLOOR. Shock horror! But you just said all of that above!?
I know, I know. Let me explain.
Most people can, but there are some special cases.
Like if you have a serious predisposed spinal injury.
Or if you are very tall with super long legs and a short torso it will make it very hard to get into the correct starting position (the 3 points above) without rounding your back.
In this case, I'd stick with the derivatives from point one or, alternatively, deadlift off a raised platform so you can get into the correct position. Form is more important than anything else here.
In closing, here is a quote from Mark Rippetoe, the author of Starting Strength.
“There is no easy way to do a deadlift—not involving actually picking up the bar—which explains their lack of popularity in gyms around the world.”
Deadlifts are not easy, nothing good is ever easy. Learn to deadlift and become confidently strong in the lift. The change you see in your body and mind will surprise you.