Exercises for the Ages – the Deadlift

The deadlift. In fitness circles it’s argued, usually against the squat, as the single greatest exercise that benefits health and strength. As a compound exercise that targets multiple muscle groups it should come as no surprise why it’s widely adored.

In simplier terms, it’s a full body exercise.

For those of us looking to get healthier, lose a bit of weight and be more fit, adding the deadlift to a sensible diet might be just the thing.

For women, concerns about getting big or muscular, especially with the deadlift, are unfounded. A high number of reps done at a light weight level actually tones and burns more fat. Also if you’re trying to shape up your legs, hips and butt, then there’s no need to look any further than the deadlift. However if you’re still unsure take a look at the following video of Neghar Fonooni deadlifting almost twice her bodyweight. She definitely doesn’t have the stereotypical “I lift heavy weights” body.

For men, if you want to get bigger and stronger then the deadlift helps with that as well. Low number of reps done at or near maximum capacity with the deadlift is a sure way of making gains in all of your lifts. Because it’s a full body exercise, once you’ve gotten to your desired level of strength, it would just be a matter of shifting the focus to an exercise that targets a specific area. A personal example would be my upright rows. I started off barely being able to do a complete set with 15 kilos, and I stopped because I got caught up with my deadlifts. Months pass, I give the upright row another shot and in three workout sessions I’m doing 32 kilos easy.

Finally, for all of you jiu-jitsu practitioners out there, of all the exercises to choose from the deadlift is hands down one of the better ones – if not the best – out there that carries over to jiu-jitsu in functional strength. It strengthens your legs (the hamstrings in particular), hips, core, posture and grips. Everything that gets worked in jiu-jitsu gets worked by the deadlift. What more could you ask for? Oh, and one more thing I should point out is that, in this case, getting bigger and stronger will not slow you down. Not with this exercise. According to Eric Cressey in his Defending the Deadlift interview:

Deadlifts are quite possibly the best exercise for enhancing the rate of force development (RFD), also known as explosive strength.

One of the key things to remember when performing the deadlift is that lifting the weight should be done with an explosive driving motion. Slow and easy is the wrong way of going at it.

Obviously, when it comes to the deadlift doing things properly is very important. Proper form is king and key to preventing injuries. If you’re unfamiliar with the exercise start out with a broomstick or a very light weight to insure proper form. Without the correct form you could actually aggravate a pre-existing condition or get hurt enough to set yourself back from any kind of physical activity.

Provided things are done with caution and correctly, there should be absolutely nothing to worry about and this could easily become habit forming. I know I find myself looking forward to each new workout just to get a chance at pulling a heavier weight each time I train my deadlift.

The three things I always keep in mind when deadlifting are; weight on my heels, butt as far out as possible, and keep my back straight. Keeping my weight on my heels prevents a rocking motion (shifting your weight back and forth over your feet) which is bad, dangerous form. Keeping my butt as far out as possible actually helps activate my glutes so that I can bear more weight AND lift the weight (it’s our glutes that make us stand upright). Keeping my back straight prevents me from rounding out my back, especially in the lumbar section, which can cause all sorts of problems. It’s bad flexion, best to stay away from it.

While it may look like I'm have bad form I assure you I'm not. I am keeping my back straight and pushing out my hips as far as possible. Any flexion in the lumbar region of the back is bad. Keep the back straight.

I'm smiling because this is picture perfect form for the lockout portion of the deadlift. See, back straight.

Here's me at lock out where I'm leaning way too far back. I can get away with this on lower weights, but not at heavier ones. Plus this puts me at a risk of hyper-extending my back, and in jiu-jitsu we know that hyper-extending any joint is BAD.

I've seen guys "lift" the bar so that it travels out as though it'll hit their knees, kinda like how I'm doing with the small barbell. Don't. That tends to shift your weight back and forth over your feet as you pull the weight up to lock out. Drive your weight down through your heels. And don't make a goofy face unless it's done on purpose like me and my bad form pictures.

Start off as close to the bar as possible, if the shins can touch/are barely touching the bar then that’s a good distance to be at. Grip should be comfortable, a little past shoulder width. Hips far back, not too high (lower back needs to get in on this) nor too low (not a squat). Chest out, elbows not bent, shoulders over the bar. Look straight ahead.

The bar should travel in a straight line from start to finish, no lifting it out to avoid hitting your knees. The explosive motion I wrote about earlier is the hips driving foreward as the weight is pulled upward. Don’t think of it as the lower back doing all the work, the explosive driving motion – or imagine quickly pinching your bum cheeks together upon lock out – is exactly what gets the glutes and hamstrings bear their share of the load.

There are variations to the deadlift that more focus on different muscles like the Romanian or Sumo or a Snatch grip deadlift, and I leave that up to you whether you choose to incorparate them or not. If you’re interested in trying something new and possibly fun, try the deadlift, and always remember to be safe and escalate things at your own speed. Keep at it and you might find yourself in better shape than before.

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