The deadlift is one of the most important exercises that exists. It’s an all-encompassing, dynamic and functional exercise that when performed correctly, strengthens your entire body. The deep core and entire posterior chain muscles are fully active during this multi-joint movement. It creates a strong center of gravity, and solid foundation to many functional movements.
So, what exactly is a deadlift? Simply put, the dead lift consists of picking up a “dead” or stationery weight from the floor, and standing up straight with it. It’s how you pick up the weight that makes the exercise so important. Biomechanically speaking, deadlifting is the most effective and efficient way to pick up a weight.
When it comes to biomechanics and functional movement, there are few people more knowledgeable than physical therapist/orthopedic specialist Gray Cook. He revolutionized the way fitness professionals look at human movement. When sifting through the abundant commentary on the deadlift, I found Cook’s to be the most precise and educational. He explains movement prerequisites, learning progression of the exercise, and the fundamentals of executing a perfect deadlift. His lecture is quite long, so I’ve outlined it here.
Preparing For The Exercise
Form is everything for the deadlift. Not everyone will be ready to jump right into it. There are 2 simple range of motion tests that are prerequisites for the exercise.
Active Straight Leg Raise: In supine position, actively raise 1 leg off the floor towards your head. If your leg goes beyond the opposite knee (still on floor), you pass. This indicates that your hamstrings are flexible enough to permit the hips to move back without restriction during the deadlift.
Toe Touch: From a standing position, bend forward to touch your toes. This is less a test of flexibility and more an assessment of movement. If the movement is not smooth, and there are points of restriction in the hips and spine, the pathways of your motor learning and mobility are not properly fired up. This doesn’t mean you can never do a deadlift, it just means a little more prep work is required. You will gain necessary body awareness and the ability to properly hinge at the hips by performing this toe touch progression.
Learning the Exercise
When doing a proper deadlift, 3 fundamental things need to happen
Your hips must drive backwards
Your tibia must remain vertical, as your arms fall in the same vertical plane
Your spine remains neutral (flat)
Think of your spine as a spring that coils. When deadlifting properly, optimal coiling occurs, allowing the spine to remain straight and neutral throughout the entire range of motion. A great way to learn the movement is by learning it in reverse. Perform a standing sit up by pulling a weight from behind (as seen in photo). As you hinge forward with the weight, your balance will be challenged, forcing a neuromuscular reaction to reinforce proper movement. After balance is established, drop one arm to the floor as you would in a deadlift, and then switch until you feel comfortable with this motion. By this point you should be ready to perform a deadlift. Use just your body weight at first before lifting weight.
Executing The Lift
Step 1: Drive your hips back
Step 2: Engaging your core, keep your spine straight as you hip hinge
Step 3: Keeping your knees directly over your ankles, let your arms fall in the same vertical plane as your tibia
Step 4: Grab your weight (see variations below)
Step 5: Maintaining form, pick the weight up as you extend the back and
stand up straight.
Step 6: Lower the weight back down in the same fashion
Step 7: Repeat for your programmed amount of reps/sets.
While mechanics should be strict to form, there are a few variations to range of motion, stance, grip, and forms of resistance.
Range of Motion
Especially when starting out, you may want to pick up the weight from a higher point than the floor, such as a bench or chair. Gradually progress to a lower position, so long as you maintain proper form.
Stance and Grip
When using a barbell or dumbbells, you may feel more comfortable in a wider stance and with a narrower grip (sumo deadlift). If you have great mobility, you can do the opposite – stand with your heels directly under your shoulders, and grab the weight outside of your legs.
A barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebell(s) are all great forms of resistance for dead lifts. You may find one to be more comfortable than the others. Try to vary the type you use.