How To Deadlift
The deadlift is a great exercise but is very risky when done incorrectly. It strengthens the posterior chain which is comprised of the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. There are many variations of the deadlift but we will only focus on two, the trap bar deadlift and the Romanian deadlift.
The deadlift is a compound exercise, meaning multiple joints are used to accomplish the movement, which results in building more strength, burning more calories, and shedding more fat. This is one exercise you need to be doing!
The deadlift is simply picking up a dead weight off the floor. The common injuries associated with the deadlift center towards the lower back. When performed incorrectly it will place a tremendous amount of stress on the lower back and can cause major issues.
So what is the difference between the Trap Bar Deadlift and Romanian Deadlift also known as the RDL?
The trap bar deadlift is from the ground or bottom up and the RDL is from the top down.
The trap bar deadlift focuses on the concentric, which is the raising of the weight. The RDL focuses on both the concentric and eccentric, the raising and the lowering of the weigh. The RDL places more stress on the hamstrings due to the form differences.
Similar to learning your first pull up which you can read about here, we will break down the deadlift into steps to make it simple and safe!
Phase 1: The Hip Hinge
The hip hinge is the most important part of the deadlift. With a strong hinge, you prevent injury and the exercise becomes easy. This is usually the most challenging for most when first learning the exercise.
Whether you have great body awareness or not and are new to the movement starting with practicing the hinge will greatly help you master the deadlift.
The glute bridge on the floor is a hinge pattern while activating the glutes. This carries over to how you finish the deadlift.
Start laying on your back knees up and heels on the floor. Keep the feet shoulder width and the heels under the knees.
From this position think of elbowing the floor for a stable position and then drive through the heels to lift the hips up. Once the hips are fully extended and in the air keep squeezing the glutes as you lower back down.
Repeat these for a slow and controlled set of 15, do 3-5 sets until you feel stable with this exercise.
PVC Assisted Hinge
Using a PVC pipe or a wooden dowel which most gyms have you can use it to guide you through the hinge pattern. The most common mistake is rounding the back when bending over. The PVC pipe provides feedback to let you know if you are doing it correctly or not.
Start standing tall holding the PVC pipe along your back vertically, holding on with one hand behind your neck and the other behind your lower back. You want to feel 3 points of contact with the pipe, the back of the head, in between the shoulder blades, and the butt.
During the hinge movement, you must keep all 3 points of contact. Bend the knees slightly and then fold forward at the hips until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings while maintaining full contact with the PVC pipe.
Repeat 10 repetitions and do 3-5 sets. If it’s a little difficult in the beginning continue to practice to lock down this movement. It becomes easier the more you do it.
Bodyweight Hinge In Mirror
Now it’s time to combine the previous two exercises and remove the PVC. Stand tall and set your palms on your thighs. Slightly bend the knees and then drive the hips back as you hinge at the hips. Slide your hands down your thighs until you reach mid shine. While keeping the back neutral reverse the movement and return to the top.
Use a mirror to see if you are keeping your back straight. If it is rounding then repeat with the PVC pipe to get more familiar with the hinge pattern. If no mirror is available then use your phone to record your set and view it back to check.
Phase 2: Shoulder Placement
The shoulder placement is important to minimizing stress on the lower back as well as transferring the weight through the body effectively. When you hear stories of people throwing their back out picking up a box or suitcase typically is stems from the object being too far in front of them as well as a lack of a neutral spine.
The shortest distance to any place is in a straight line and the same goes for lifting. The most efficient is lifting straight against gravity. We want to ensure our shoulder and arm angle is in the correct place prior to pulling a weight off the floor.
Think of keeping the armpit tight when reaching down.
Actively try to close this angle off slightly which will engage the lats. This draws the shoulders down into depression which is optimal. We do not want to deadlift with elevated or retracted shoulder blades.
Phase 3: The RDL
Now that we have practiced the hip hinge and mastered it and know the correct shoulder angle we are ready for the Romanian Deadlift.
Using a 20-pound medicine ball or similar to start ensures we are not under too much stress while first practicing. Stand shoulder width apart with the arms fully straight holding the medicine ball. Toes turned slightly out. Think of closing the armpit angle as you lock the shoulders down. Soften the knees. While maintaining soft knees initiate the movement by driving the butt behind you while hinging at the hips.
Keep the arms completely vertical to ensure the weight stays under your center of gravity while continuing to hinge until your torso is parallel to the floor or until your hamstrings are taught and you cannot comfortably hinge any further.
You should feel a stretch in the hamstrings at this point and picture those lengthened hamstrings shortening to bring your torso back up.
Once you have reached the top while knees remain soft repeat for the next rep. Driving the hips back while hinging. Repeat until desired reps are complete.
When comfortable with a medicine ball RDL it’s time to move onto a barbell RDL. This allows for greater weight to be lifted as well as better positioning and handling.
Start with a preset bar of 40-50 pounds or a barbell which weighs 45 pounds. With a barbell, you will hold just outside of hip width to ensure your hands do not get pinched between the bar and your legs.
Ensure you keep a neutral spine when lifting it off the rack and getting into position.
Just like the medicine ball deadlift, you will start standing shoulder width apart and knees soft.
Keep the bar close to the legs as you drive the hips back and begin to hinge at the hips. Do not let the bar travel away from the legs by pulling the shoulders down and keeping the shoulder angle tight.
Once you reach the end range of motion use the hamstrings to pull the torso back up. Keep the bar close to the legs and under your center of gravity. When returning to starting position ensure your knees are soft and then repeat until the desired number of reps are completed.
Things To Avoid
Bending the knees too much and dropping the hips, letting the back round, letting the bar drift away from the legs and keeping the knees straight while hinging should be avoided.
Phase 4: The Trap Bar Deadlift
You now have all the components needed for a strong deadlift, it’s time to pull from the floor. The trap bar itself is great for keeping the weight closer to your center of gravity while pulling as well as not going into internal shoulder rotation.
It is ideal to do the trap bar deadlift at a consistent bar height. Some trap bars have two handles, high and low. This decreases or increases the range of motion. Depending on your body structure and mobility and flexibility will dictate if you can pull from the lower handle while maintaining proper form.
When setting up use 10-pound bumper plates to keep the bar height consistent as well as start with a lighter weight. Have the high handles up to start.
Stand in the middle of the bar and aline the bar so it is in line with your body. Stand shoulder-width apart before getting into the starting position.
Drive the hips back while hinging at the hips to grab onto the handles. Make sure you are holding onto the middle of the handles.
While keeping the arms straight drop the hips down while keeping the chest up. The hips should be in between the shoulders and the knees. Unlike the RDL where the hips end in line with the shoulders, the hips will always stay below the shoulders in the trap bar deadlift.
Drive the knees out while driving the feet into the floor to create tension in the arms. Clear the slack in the bar which is the small space between the bar and the weight plates. This ensures that the instant you pull the weight it lifts off the ground and no tension is lost throughout the body.
Initiate by driving your feet into the floor and lifting the weight with your shoulders and hips rising at a similar rate.
Once the bar is past the knees you close the hip angle by standing tall while driving the hips forward.
At the top of the movement keep the glutes squeezed to stabilize the hips and lower back.
Reverse the movement by driving the hips back and hinging at the hips. Drop the hips and torso by bending at the knees and set the weight down. Since the deadlift focuses on the concentric (pulling the weight off the floor) setting the weight down should be done smooth and swiftly.
When the weight is back on the floor stand up before resetting. Repeat the steps above for your next rep and until your desired reps are complete.
Things To Avoid
Rounded back, hips rising faster than the shoulders, yanking the weight off the floor.
You now know how to deadlift which is very rewarding to the posterior chain! These should be strategically placed in your weekly programming to get the maximum benefit.
The number of reps, sets, and weight all depends on you and your goals. Each of my clients' programs is unique based on their goal, strength, mobility and other factors. This ensures they reach their goal with no injuries and in a timely manner.