How and Why to Deadlift?

by Miles Nicholas, PT, DPT, CSCS, FDN-C

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While the squat is often referred to as the “king” of the lower body lifting patterns, I’m here to make a compelling case for why the deadlift is just as royal.

The deadlift is one of the primary compound (multi-joint) lower body strength exercises, in which a weight is lifted from the floor until “lockout” in a standing position. 

The fundamental difference between a squat and deadlift lies in the fact that the hips are higher in the deadlift, prioritizing hip flexion (bending) or “hip hinging”. The hips and knees flex similar amounts during a squat, while the ratio of hip flexion to knee flexion is much higher in a deadlift. The higher hip position allows the lifter to put their hamstrings in a more productive/lengthened position to produce force for lifting the barbell from the floor. The hip extensors (hamstrings/glutes/adductors) and thoracolumbar extensors (upper and lower back musculature) are the predominant muscles involved, with additional contribution from the quads, calves, and shoulder extensors.

The most common method of performing a deadlift involves the use of a barbell, via a conventional or sumo deadlift. For either of these barbell deadlift styles, there are two main methods of set-up: the bottom-up approach and the top-down approach.

If you are interested in training the lower rep schemes for the deadlift (1-5 repetitions per set), I recommend resetting after each rep and pulling from a “dead-stop”. The first rep of each set will always be pulled from a dead-stop, and most people training 1-5 reps per set care about their 1 rep maximum, so using this technique for each rep may improve the skill of pulling from a dead-stop. The lowering phase for reset + dead-stop can be thought of as a controlled fall.

If you are interested in training the higher rep schemes for the deadlift (6-15 reps per set), I recommend cycling through each rep using the “touch and go” approach. Touch and go will allow you to perform each set slightly quicker, which may be advantageous if performed in the context of circuit training. The lowering phase for touch and go should be controlled so that you neither lose tension in your legs/back nor let the bar creep forward of the middle of your foot.

With a conventional deadlift, the arms will be outside of the legs in a roughly vertical fashion, and the feet will be roughly 6-12” apart. With a sumo deadlift, the arms will be inside of the legs in a roughly vertical fashion, and the feet will be anywhere from moderate-width (4-6” inches outside of shoulder width) to competition-width (toes within 2-6” of each plate).

The sumo deadlift will require more quad workload than conventional during the initial part of the deadlift, while the conventional deadlift will require more lower back musculature workload than sumo during the initial part of the deadlift. I recommend picking a conventional or sumo deadlift set-up based upon which is more comfortable for you and/or which makes you feel stronger. A good rule of thumb is to train with each for a 4-8 week period to determine which one feels better for you.

The deadlift can also be performed with a trap/hex bar. This style reduces range of motion due to the typically used high handles. Importantly, a trap bar can be used effectively to deadlift OR squat, unlike a barbell. If you try to squat a barbell from the ground, your shins will push the barbell away from the middle of your foot and place it in a much less efficient position. In other words, the trap bar allows more freedom of movement without compromising efficiency. My recommendation is to know what type of movement you’re trying to execute (i.e. more squatty or more hingey). If aiming for rate of force development or “power” emphasis, the trap bar is also excellent for performing high pulls or jumps, when a more squatty pattern is used.

It’s common to think that a deadlift has a challenging entry point, but this is not the case. A deadlift can be performed just as easily with a dumbbell or kettlebell of any weight. The principles and coaching points are the same.

If I had a knock on deadlifts, I would say that another variation called the Romanian deadlift (RDL) may be more effective for muscle building or “hypertrophy”. With an RDL, you typically start from the top position by unracking the barbell/dumbbells/kettlebells from the rack. Once unracked, you slightly bend your knees prior to focusing entirely on the hinge pattern. I often cue “shins vertical, torso horizontal” as the goal position for the bottom position. Due to the increased emphasis on the lowering or “eccentric” phase into the stretched position, this may increase the stimulus for muscle growth.

It’s not uncommon to hear people say dogmatic things like “deadlifts are bad for your back” or “deadlifts are stressful for your back.”

Counterpoints to this include:

  1. The injury rates in competitive powerlifting (where people regularly perform heavy, low-rep sets) are significantly lower than the injury rates in activities like running, basketball, and soccer.
  2. Physical stress is neither good nor bad, it depends. In the presence of pain, a decrease in stress may help with symptom management. If trying to build one’s tolerance back up after injury or build strength/hypertrophy/bone density; stress is the catalyst of adaptation. Appropriate dosage and gradually building up physical stress over time is the key. Our skilled physical therapists and coaches can help you with this progression.
  3. Resistance training of moderate or greater intensity for all major muscle groups, on two or more days per week, is one-half of the recommendations for national physical activity guidelines. Resistance training is exceedingly safe and offers significant health benefits. 
  4. Beliefs play a big role in the way individuals interact with the world around them. Performing deadlifts in a progressive fashion may help to increase the psychological and emotional resiliency of an individual who is struggling with perceptions that they have a weak/fragile back; or are fearful of bending forward.

We hope this blog helps to improve the understanding of how and why to include the deadlift pattern in a well-rounded resistance training program. If you have any questions about the implementation of the deadlift pattern into your training, we’d recommend following up with one of our physical therapists or coaches.

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