The Deadlift

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The Deadlift is a big deal here at CrossFit. Why do we like it so much? There are few exercises that provide such a total-body effect on the body than the Deadlift. Whether you want to build muscle, lose weight or just get strong, you should be Deadlifting. 

As valuable as Deadlifts can be, many trainees struggle finding the correct starting position. Since the Deadlift can be loaded heavier than all of the other lifts, we want to make sure that we’re doing everything correctly to avoid injury and to increase mechanical efficiency. Learning to do it correctly will allow you to reap the benefits of the Deadlift for a LONG time. 

Today we’re going to share the 5-Step Deadlift method. I first heard of this setup method from the folks at Starting Strength, although others advocate a similar approach. The beauty of this approach is two-fold: it works for ANY body type and it makes the setup repeatable and consistent. Once you learn it, you won’t wonder if you’re in the right position - you’ll KNOW. 

Onto the method. Here are the basic steps: 

Load a barbell with a moderate weight that you can use. It should be heavy enough that you have to think about it when lifting, but not so heavy that you get unnecessarily fatigued. 

Step 1 - Using a hip-width stance, walk up to the bar until your shins are 1 inch away.

Step 2 - Using minimal knee bend, reach over and grab the bar just outside your shins. DO NOT MOVE THE BAR. 

Step 3 - Simultaneously move your shins to the bar while dropping your butt. When your shins kiss the bar, that’s it - stop moving. DO NOT ROLL OR MOVE THE BAR. 

Step 4 - Squeeze your chest up and away from the bar while letting the ‘slack’ out of your arms. You should feel the weight heavy in your hands. 

Step 5 - Drag the bar up your legs while pressing the floor away. 

Easy, right? The method works because of a couple of key points. First, the bar starts at your midfoot, which is the EXACT spot required to lift heavy weights. If the bar is NOT at midfoot, you likely won’t be able to lift it or you’ll recruit muscles (lower back and quads) that shouldn’t be working to perform the lift. Second, this method ensures that your hips are in the correct position and that the bar sits directly underneath the scapula. This arrangement allows for maximum muscle to be applied to the bar, thus the most weight will be lifted (or, lower weight will be lifted more efficiently). 

My favorite definition of the word ‘virtuosity’ is ‘doing the common uncommonly well’. Just like any simple pursuit, Deadlifting has some nuances that need to be mentioned. Let’s talk about some of the common things that can go wrong at each step. 

Step 1 Faults - This is the ‘mother’ step, in that any problems here will be amplified down the line. Starting with your shins too far away makes your hips go too low in Step 3. This will push the bar forward of the midfoot and make your lower back do the work. This is commonly referred to as the ‘squatty’ deadlift. Avoid this by making sure the bar is exactly one inch away from the shins. You can double check by doing a ‘side peep’ rather than looking straight down at your shins (which tend to ‘go back’ when viewed from the front). 

The opposite sometimes happens as well, and a trainee ends up too close to the bar. This will make step 3 harder since the hips will be too high in the air and take the quads out of the movement (since the knees are already extended). No bueno. The Deadlift should be a concert of ALL musculature working to achieve the task. Seen from the side, the hips should be slightly lower than the shoulders, and the scapula should be directly over the bar. Get the bar over midfoot and this will happen. 

Step 2 Faults - When reaching over for the bar, make sure that you don’t allow your knees to bend. I use the cue ‘unlock your knees’ here to give athletes an idea of how far they should flex their knees. Also, the grip should be just outside the shins. Any wider and you’ll be setting up with your chest closer to the ground than is necessary. 

Step 3 Faults - When you bring the shins to the bar, you should also be dropping the hips down toward the ground. This step SETS the hips in place for the remainder of the pull. The most common error we see here is that the athlete drops too low and pushes the bar forward. Once your shins touch the bar, stop moving! 

During this step, it’s also helpful to slightly push your knees out towards your forearms. This explains why many experienced Deadlifts take a slightly ‘toes out’ stance during their setup.

Step 4 Faults - Now that the hips are in position, it’s time to flatten out your back. This step is where the ‘shirt wrinkles’ appear. It’s also where things start to get uncomfortable, since pulling your chest up requires a massive contraction in the muscles of your trunk and upper back. Don’t be shy here! You should try to pull 75% of the weight into your hands and bend the bar before it even leaves the ground. Also, keep your head and neck in a neutral position. You can place a plate or chalk bucket about 6-8 feet in front of you as a ‘target’ to look at while pulling.

Additionally, the lower back needs to be set and must remain rigid. Imagine that your butt is a cannon and that you want to poop on the wall behind you (not directly down at the floor). It’s a crass cue but it works to visualize the low back position and the ‘turned over’ hip. 

Step 5 Faults - Now is the time to ‘squeeze’ the bar off the ground. Don’t think about picking it up. Think about PUSHING the floor away, like a leg press. At this stage, the trunk is just there to transmit force from your legs to the bar. The LEGS do the work!

Other points: 

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  • When performing multiple reps, try to use the same process and aim for midfoot when placing the bar on the ground. You can repeat steps 3-5 for each rep. This will add consistency to your approach and make the last reps of a set easier. ‘CrossFit’ reps done in groups of more than five reps can be improved by aiming for midfoot on each and every return. Only add speed when you’re accurately touching down at midfoot and your hips are starting from the same consistent position. 

  • We advocate for the hook grip when Deadlifting, as it is a stronger grip than the regular overhand grip. The mixed grip is ok, although it has some drawbacks at heavier weight (rotating bar, biceps tendon pulls, pec cramps, etc). Start with the hook grip and get used to it. Your thumbs will stop hurting after a while, and athletic tape will help.

  • When training the Deadlift, intensity beats volume (if the goal is to get strong). I recommend that everyone train it at least once or twice a week. The Starting Strength linear progression advocates for progressively heavier sets of five, which has worked well for me. Additional sets can be added at lower intensities as a trainee develops. 

  • If you’re unable to keep your lower back in extension during the pull, there are likely one of two problems: 1) you lack the body awareness of how to set your low back in extension or 2) your low back isn’t strong enough for the weight you’re using. To remedy #1, try this cue: when setting up your pull, push your belly towards your feet. For #2: lower the weight until you can hold it and slowly build up the weight.