The Deadlift Broken Down
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 that can be used to introduce variances to this golden exercise, but at the core is the straight barbell deadlift.
Along with the 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
- Rectus femoris
- Vastus lateralis
- 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 (without momentum / off of the ground). There are two positions you can approach when doing the deadlift, which include the conventional deadlift 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, if the lifter is not flexible beyond the range of motion.
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, putting more emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes. It is performed by standing with barbell held in front of the body with knees unlocked and bending at the hip while keeping the back straight, then extending the hip to lockout.
Sumo deadlift is a variation of the deadlift whereby the legs are spread far apart to the sides (arms reaching 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 as those with relatively long torsos and shorter arms, and 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 and is typically worked in as a leg exercise. Performs these deadlifts 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), which is very suitable for delineating exercises. 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 with one hand or two hands and 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). Your imagination is the only limitation when it comes to deadlift variations. Each variation can address specific weaknesses in a lifter’s overall deadlift and will tap into different muslces in different ways.
As far as deadlift grips go, there are typically two grips used: overhand, or 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.” The mixed grip also allows more weight to be used for this reason.
In order to prevent the bar from rolling out of the hands, some lifters have been known to use 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. While it theoretically takes much of the stress off of the joints which might be created by the twisting of a mixed grip it has the disadvantage of being extremely uncomfortable for the thumbs, something which those who advocate it says will pass once a lifter becomes accustomed to it. Another, but rarely used method is a combination of the mixed overhand-underhand grip and the hook grip, preferred by people who lift heavier weights than their grip can handle, but who don’t want to rely on lifting straps or other supportive gear.
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.