The Deadlift Broken Down: Techniques, Bars and Grips
The Mother of All Exercises
One of my favorite compound movements is the deadlift. It is such a beneficial lift for so many types of lifters. Down to its most granular level, a deadlift is a weight training exercise where a weight is lifted off of the ground from a stabilized, bent over position. There are various methods, grips, and bars. These can be used to introduce variances to this golden exercise. But, at the core is the straight barbell deadlift.
Along with the squat (read about the landmine squat) and bench press, it is one of the three canonical powerlifting exercises activating a large number of muscles groups and individual muscles. Muscle groups worked include:
Back + Grip: Grip strength (finger flexors) and the lower back (erector spinae) work isometrically to keep the bar held in the hands and to keep the spine from rounding.
Gluteus Maximus + Hamstrings: Gluteus maximus and hamstrings work to extend the hip joint.
Quads: Quadriceps work to extend the knee joint.
Adductor Magnus: The adductor magnus works to stabilize the legs.
Individual muscles worked include:
- Rectus abdominis (under aponeurosis)
- Abdominal external oblique muscle
- Abdominal internal oblique muscle
- Intertransversarii laterales lumborum
- Latissimus dorsi
- Levator scapulae
- Quadratus lumborum
- Rhomboideus major
- Serratus posterior superior
- Serratus posterior inferior
- Splenius cervicis
- Teres Major
- Trapezius muscle
- Vastus lateralis
- Rectus femoris
- Vastus intermedius
- Vastus medialis
- Biceps femoris muscle
- long head
- short head
- Biceps femoris muscle
- Gluteal muscles
- Gluteus maximus
- Gluteus minimus
- Superior gemellus
- Flexor digitorum profundus
The deadlift is one of the few standard weight training exercises in which all repetitions begin with dead weight. Dead means without momentum (I.E. off of the ground). There are two positions you can approach when doing the deadlift, which include the conventional and sumo-deadlift. In most other lifts there is an eccentric (lowering of the weight) phase followed by the concentric (lifting of the weight) phase. During these exercises, a small amount of energy is stored in the stretched muscles and tendons in the eccentric phase.
Unlike a standard deadlift, which begins from the floor with a concentric movement, this variation begins from the top. For this reason it is not technically a deadlift. Jim Schmitz claimed to name this exercise in 1990 after the nationality of Nicu Vlad who first performed it.
Starting with an eccentric phase and incorporating a stretch reflex, it eliminates most of the quadriceps contribution. In turn, this puts more emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes. Perform the deadlift by standing with barbell held in front of the body. Lock the knees and bend at the hip while keeping the back straight, then extending the hip to lockout.
The sumo deadlift is a variation whereby the legs are spread far apart to the sides. The arms reach down inside of legs, mimicking a sumo stance. This variation changes the emphasis of the lift to the legs instead of the back. The sumo deadlift is purported to be easier for those with large waists as well. Also, those with relatively long torsos and shorter arms. It is mainly used by powerlifters to increase the amount of weight lifted, rather than as a training tool.
Straight Leg Deadlift
Also known as stiff leg deadlifts, the straight leg deadlift will place the primary focus of stress on the back half of the body. This is typically worked in as a leg exercise. Performs these lifts after squats for some nice burns. But also puts a lot of pressure on your central nervous system.
Trap Bar Deadlift
The Trap Bar Deadlift incorporates the use of a trap bar (a U-shaped bar). It allows clearance for the knees to pass through the bar as the weight is lifted.
Deadlifts can also be performed using dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells. You can use one hand or two hands or with one leg or two legs. Other variations are the side deadlift or suitcase deadlift, rack pulls, deadlift lockouts, deficit deadlift or deadlift from a box (pulling from the floor while standing on a built or improvised low platform). But, your imagination is the only limitation when it comes to variations. Each variation can address specific weaknesses in a lifter’s overall deadlift and will tap into different muscles in different ways.
As far as grips go, there are typically two grips used: overhand (pronated),and a mixed overhand-underhand (supinated) (sometimes called “offset,” “staggered,” “alternating”, or “mixed”) grip. Depending on forearm strength, the overhand grip may result in the bar potentially rolling about. Some argue the mixed grip is capable of neutralizing this through the physics of reverse torsion. More weight can be used with the mixed grip.
In order to prevent the bar from rolling out of their hands, lifters have used an Olympic weightlifting technique known as the “hook” grip. This is similar to an overhand grip, but the thumbs are inside, allowing the lifter to “hook” onto them with the fingers. The hook grip can make it easier to hold heavier weights using less grip strength, and keeps both shoulders and elbows in a symmetrical position.
The hook grip can take stress off of the joints, but has the disadvantage of being extremely uncomfortable for the thumbs. Also, another method is a combination of the mixed overhand-underhand grip and the hook grip.
Many powerlifters adopt the overhand grip for their lower weight sets. And, move to the mixed grip to lift larger weights so they can achieve their one rep max.
Overall, do incorporate various deadlift exercises into your routine as this exercise is so beneficial for optimal muscular development.