A few notes before we begin.
1. Like with The Squat, this is not your typical how-to article. “Super-Simple” does not mean “Oversimplified to the point of being useless.”
2. The cues and descriptions below may not make complete sense to everyone since we all learn differently; however, rather than fill each section with numerous cues in an attempt to describe everything multiple ways, I’d prefer to use one or two descriptions and then answer questions or make clarifications in the comments section.
3. I realize we are all different. You’re a beautiful snowflake and I love you for it. But please do not use that as an excuse to write off the steps below because you cannot (or assume you cannot) perform the movement as described right now. There will be variation in some aspects on a per-person basis, but I’m going to mostly stick to things that should apply to us all.
The deadlift is another exercise powerhouse, and one of the most transferable and useful movement skills we can develop. It’s one of the few exercises out there that rivals the squat in terms of number of muscles activated and overall hormonal environment created. But what is it exactly?
At its core, the deadlift is simply leaning over, grabbing a weight, and standing up with it (and then, in my opinion, putting it back down). Ever picked something up off the ground? Boom! You deadlifted. But, as I’m sure you can guess, it gets much more complicated than that, especially if you ever intend to add significant weight.
The deadlift is a hip-hinge movement: it is NOT a back exercise. Will it work your back? For sure. But to be fair, it works nearly every muscle in your body. It is not enough to simply deadlift: if you want to avoid injury, build strength, and remain capable and strong, you must deadlift well.
Step 1: Setup, The Weight
The deadlift (and to be clear, we’re talking here about the conventional deadlift: not sumo or any other variation) begins with the barbell on the floor.
Typically, the bar will be raised off the ground by several inches due to having weight plates loaded on either side. This is where what we call “bumper plates” come in handy. While traditional weight plates are made of iron (and sometimes coated in rubber) and vary in diameter based on their weight, bumper plates are made of a hard rubber and all have the same diameter as a standard 45-pound weight plate. This way, whether you load the bar with 5-pound plates or 45-pound plates, it will be the same distance from the ground.
If you don’t have bumper plates and can’t yet warm up with a 45-pound plate on each side, most gyms will also have some variation of a rack or stand that will lift the bar to the requisite height.
Step 2: Setup, Your Body
[For more detailed steps on proper positioning and bracing, check out steps 1 and 2 from The Squat: A Super-Simple Guide. But basically...]
With the bar in front of you, step up to it until it is directly over the middle of your feet (measured tip-of-foot to back-of-heel, not just the part of your foot you can see). Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, facing pretty much straight ahead, and brace yourself. It’s very important, especially early on, to make sure your upper body is in proper alignment before starting rather than to begin the movement and just hope you get there.
Once properly braced in the standing position, it’s time to reach down and grab the bar.
To begin, hinge at the hip joint by pushing your hamstrings back behind you. Continue to bend at the hips and knees until you are able to grab the bar with your hands. With your arms straight, you should grab the bar just outside of your knees in a double-overhand* grip (palms facing behind you).
*Using an alternating grip—one hand over, one hand under—usually allows you to pull more weight, but some people incorrectly assume this means that’s the better way to grip the bar. Until you get to the point where you’re maxing out, though, there isn’t really any benefit to gripping the bar unevenly. I prefer to train symmetrically until grip strength becomes the limiting factor...
Before you start lifting, check your position:
- Feet: hip-width apart, planted solidly and flatly on the ground, your weight and the bar centered over midfoot
- Hips: as high as possible while allowing you to reach the bar and maintaining a neutral spine
- Shins: as vertical as possible and just behind the bar (not touching it - there’s no need to scrape your shins with the bar, despite the awesome battle wounds you might be sacrificing)
- Shoulders: just in front of the bar
- Hands: just outside your knees/feet
- Knees: bent and tracking straight over the feet
Now before you start actually raising the bar, there is one last bit of set-up to attend to: removing the slack from the bar.
“Removing the slack” means to lift up on the bar so that all moving parts—of both you and the weight—have tension on them. By pulling the bar up slightly and getting some of the weight on it, you create tension throughout the whole system with the weight plates pulling down on the bar, your hands pulling up on the bar, your arms by pulling up on your hands, and all the way through the chain until you reach your feet pushing down on the floor. This is incredibly important for injury prevention as it prepares all of the muscles involved for the lift and eliminates risk of sudden jerking movements that could tweak or wrench a muscle.
Once you’ve removed the slack, it’s time to begin...
Step 3: The Ascent
Press firmly into the ground through your feet and use your hamstrings and glutes to pull your torso up and back while moving your hips and thighs forward. Or, to put it another way, stand up.
During the ascent, the bar should move up in a completely straight, vertical line. If you were to watch a deadlift from the side, you should see no back-and-forth movement of the bar at all.
You’ll know you’ve reached the top position (what some people refer to as the “lockout position”) when your body is in the same position as when you were setting up and bracing. Essentially, you are standing straight up. Some people take this a step further by arching their lower back and pulling their shoulders back after their pelvis has reached neutral, but in my opinion the only function this serves is to look cool (and risk injury).
Unless you’re in a competition and need to pull back farther to “complete the rep,” trust me - standing up straight is perfectly sufficient.
Step 4: The Descent
Some people call it quits here and either bend over and “dump” the weight back on the floor or simply drop the bar altogether. As cool, tough, and totally non-douchey as that makes them, in my opinion it’s completely leaving out the other half of the skill: putting heavy things on the ground.
As I’m fond of saying, movement is a skill. How functional and transferable a skill is it to learn how to pick things up without learning how to put them back down?
“Sure, I’ll help you move.” ::lifts fragile box, carries it to truck, drops it::
“Come here, son - let mommy pick you up.” ::picks up small child, makes some noises, drops him::
But I digress…
To lower the weight in a controlled manner, we again start by hingeing at the hips and pushing the hamstrings back. From there, continue to hinge at the hips and bend at the knees, being sure the bar this time travels down in a straight, vertical line, until it touches the ground. When you reach the bottom, you should be in the same position as when you grabbed the bar in the first place.
The deadlift is a very complicated move to both teach and to learn, but there is definite benefit to getting the movement pattern perfected before ramping up the weight. For those of you just starting, I suggest not only reading this guide but also reaching out with questions if you have any.
For those who are already at least vaguely familiar with the deadlift, I encourage you to further analyze the fine details and compare the notes above with how you’re actually moving. The best way to do this is to either video yourself or have someone watch you and discuss. It’s very difficult to maintain proper positioning and movement while watching yourself in a mirror.