Let’s Improve Your Deadlifts!
Performed well, deadlifts will pack on mean slabs of muscle in all the right places, pick up your sorry posture which is likely utterly ruined from the pitfalls of modern living, and give you something even cooler than your bench press weight to brag about. Performed poorly, deadlifts will strain your hammies, herniate your intervertebral discs, and at best just make you look like a total noob.
I love deadlifting and I love training women and men of all ages to perfect this lift. It transfers extremely well to both athletic pursuits as well as to safely lifting just about anything you’ll encounter in day to day life. Though we could certainly devote ten times this much space to discussing the deadlift, let’s go over a few of my favorite tips for getting better at deadlifts.
5 Simple Tips to Improve Your Deadlift
Tip #1: Understand Deadlift Form
Pointing out that you need to understand deadlift form to get better at the deadlift may sound like a total no-brainer. But as a trainer, I see so many wack deadlifts in the gym that the point bears belaboring.
Though I could pick the issue apart from quite a few different angles, the main point I’m going to choose to harp on is this: lift with your legs, NOT with your back. If your back is rounding, it doesn’t matter how much weight is on the bar. You are not being badass and strong. You are at a high risk of injury and you need to stop and correct your form! Your spine should be flat (well, mostly flat with your natural lumbar curve intact) and your core should be tight throughout the movement. The only bending is in the hips, and to a lesser degree, the knees. Remind yourself a million times until it happens naturally: hinge at the hips!
Tip #2: Don’t Squat Your Deadlift
You need to not only understand it in your mind, you need to truly teach your body the difference between deadlifting and squatting. These are two fundamentally different movements with different purposes that utilize different muscles in different ways, and are just, well…different! Listen…both movements are essential, and to get the most muscle stimulus out of them and lift the most weight in the most efficient way, you need to make sure you’re doing them correctly and not confusing the dynamics of one with the other.
A squat is a pushing movement, while a deadlift is a pulling movement. During a typical squat, the resistance is already in place at around shoulder level or chest level. You use your legs, glutes, and core to lower your body plus the resistance in a controlled fashion, then you PUSH the ground away, fighting against gravity to stand back up. During a deadlift, on the other hand, your goal is to grip and pull a weight that is just laying there dead on the ground up to hip level in a full standing position.
The main muscles used in a deadlift are your glutes, hammies, and back. Really, the entire posterior chain (the muscles all along the entire back of your body) are involved in a deadlift. I see a lot of people in the gym squat down with their chest up, their knees coming forward, and their butt down low to attempt to deadlift. Not only is it awkward and inefficient, you stand a higher chance of hurting yourself if you are squatting a deadlift.
Instead, you need to lift your hips, flatten your back, and keep your knees DIRECTLY over your ankles so the bar can travel a perfectly straight line upward as you deadlift.
If you’re squatting down with knees creeping forward toward your toes, you will be forced to sway the bar forward to get it past your shins and knees. So get ready to lose pounds and pounds off your deadlift weight and skin the bejesus out of your shins if you squat your deadlifts.
Tip #3: Get Your Grip Dialed In
Grip strength is often the limiting factor in your deadlift. That is, your lower body and back muscles may be perfectly capable of pulling more weight, but either your grip technique is bad or your grip strength itself is lagging behind, so your forearms and fingers get torched during your set and you have to set the weight down, frustrated again.
There are a few key strategies for improving your grip. The first is to simply choose a grip that works well for you. The three types of grips you can use are standard overhand grip, mixed grip, and hook grip. Each grip presents its own set of challenges and rewards.
Standard overhand grip is the most simple, but it’s the least stable when you are pulling heavy weight. If you can’t get a good strong grip on the bar, it can roll right out of your hands or you may not be able to get it off the ground at all.
A workaround for the overhand grip issue is to use a mixed grip: one palm up and one palm down. This sandwiches the bar from both angles and minimizes slippage. However, most lifters get into a groove where they always have the same hand up and the same hand down, and this can create muscle imbalances as well as traumatize the palm-up side’s shoulder joint and biceps tendon. If you do a mixed grip, make sure to train evenly by switching back and forth on which palm is up or down on each set.
A third option, favored by Olympic lifters for pulling truly staggering weight, is the hook grip. The hook grip is more secure than the overhand grip and does not create muscle imbalances or trouble the shoulders like the mixed grip, so many consider hook grip to offer the best of both worlds. To do a hook grip, just place your thumb underneath your fingers as you grip down on the bar and hold on for dear life. Some may complain that this is rather uncomfortable for the thumb at first…but as with many things, you can toughen up to it and reap greater rewards down the road.
Another quick tip for the grip is to use chalk to cut down on slippage from sweaty hands. However, since chalk improves the grip so much, you won’t ever develop a great grip if you ALWAYS use chalk. So I recommend doing your initial sets without chalk to help work your grip muscles harder and only chalking up when you have broken a good sweat.
Tip #4: Do Complementary Exercises
You’ll need to shore up weak links in your kinetic chain in order to truly own the deadlift. Deadlifting requires strong lats, back extensors, glutes, hamstrings, quads, shoulders, forearms, and hands! Exercises that address these individual areas, especially those in which you know yourself to be weak, can work wonders.
Though this list is not exhaustive, here are a few of my favorite complementary exercises that will help you nail all the ins and outs of the deadlift.
- Barbell Hip Thrusts for glutes and hamstrings
- Back and Front Squats for quads, hams, and glutes
- Supine Row and Pull Ups for lats, grip, and core
- Farmer’s Carry for grip and core
On a similar note, you need to make sure you have proper flexibility in your muscles and connective tissues to deadlift correctly. Common areas of tightness that become stumbling blocks are the hamstrings and hips. You’ll know your hammies are glued down if you try to hip hinge to grab the bar and you can’t get down there without rounding your back or “tucking your tail”. Wail on your hamstrings with the foam roller and stretch them for at least 60 seconds day after day and you will see improvements in this notoriously stubborn muscle group.
Tip #5: Check Your Ego at The Door
It’s true that in order to improve, your muscles and nervous system require progressive overload, or increased challenge over time. However, there is a line in the sand between pushing yourself enough and pushing yourself too hard.
Here are a list of common no-no’s among folks who are overdoing it with their deadlift strategy. Falling victim to any of these pitfalls will cause you to leave real progress on the table as well as put you at risk for injuries to your back, shoulders, and hips. Overtraining heavy deadlifts introduces these risks even if your technique for the movement itself is flawless.
Do not deadlift too much. Deadlift a maximum of three days per week, and only one really heavy low rep day per week is best. Do not try to add weight every single session. It may seem counterintuitive, but when you are just getting started, you may notice that you are making quick and steady progress with each and every session, but the more experienced you get, your gains slow down markedly. This is because in the initial phases of training, your nervous system is becoming more efficient at recruiting muscle fibers that are already there. As you progress, your nervous system has undergone a ton of adaptation while your raw muscle mass takes over the forward progress. Muscle growth tends to occur much more slowly than nervous system adaptation. Finally, don’t deadlift when you are fatigued. This is a very demanding lift that requires freshness and focus to accomplish correctly. I generally recommend deadlifting at the very beginning of your workout so you are able to devote the energy and attention this lift really needs.
How to Get Better at Deadlifts: The Bottom Line
Few, if any, lifts give you as much back as the deadlift. In terms of improving the aesthetics of your body as well as the sheer strength of your muscles, and even for correcting the ubiquitous posture problems caused by modern living, deadlifts are a girl’s and a guy’s best friend. I can think of few, if any, better uses of your time and energy than mastering this essential lift.