The Deadlift: Intro and Mechanics
Deadlift is a love it or hate it kind of lift. You’re either really good at it and deadlift every chance you get, or it’s your weakest lift and you avoid it like it’s a research paper that isn’t due for another month. I stand on the latter part of the deadlifting community and I blame it mainly on the way I’m built. I think, in the world of powerlifting, you’re either a bencher or a deadlifter. Squat is fair game for both sides but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy who holds both the bench AND deadlift world record.
Let’s take a look at the mechanics of the deadlift in terms of biomechanics and just plain ol’ physics. We will begin this discussion by saying that the human body is a machine engineered specifically for lifting heavy things in an efficient manner. Each machine (body) has a limit on its internal capacity for power generation since our muscles can only produce so much force. When I say that we would like to conduct our efforts in an efficient manner I mean mechanical efficiency, which is basically the effectiveness of a machine in transforming input energy into output power. Put more simply, for the amount of energy we put in, we want to get the maximum result out of it, or lift the most possible weight. For example, Dave is a pretty strong guy. He’s trying to max on deadlift and we know (because we created him) that his body is capable of producing 600 lbs. of force. However, when he sets up to deadlift, he positions his body awkwardly and reduces the effectiveness of his leverages, thus setting himself up for inefficiency. He tries to lift 570 lbs. and fails. It’s kind of sad when you know the potential Dave had. But there’s hope for Dave! I’ll tell you the secret to increasing Dave’s deadlift by 20 or even 30 lbs. almost instantly. It’s called FORM. Form isn’t just some way of preventing or reducing back and knee pain. It helps, definitely, but if you want to lift some heavy metal off the floor, why not maximize your potential by being as efficient as possible? If you lift with good form, you become more mechanically efficient. When you’re more efficient, you can lift more weight without even having to get stronger. When you lift more weight, you elicit a greater stimulus and stronger biological response to your work, thus making yourself stronger. So you’re able to lift more weight without needing to get stronger, but then you also get stronger. Kinda a no brainer if you ask me.
Yet, far too often we continue to witness many deadlifters alike with severely rounded backs, locked out knees, and virgin shins (more on the shins later). So what’s the deal? It’s something so elementary that you would think it to be common sense, yet probably 85% of people in the gym look like if you approached them with a giant sign that says “CORRECT YOUR FORM” they would probably assume you meant “correct your tax form” or “correct your personal information form” or “correct your (some sort of document) form”. You get the idea. No clue what good form is. So is it safe to assume that at least 85% of human beings are completely hopeless and incredibly moronic people? Of course not. There’s hope for all… well, except a small percentage of people.
There are two reasons why people lift with horribly pathetic, and disgusting form: (1) they simply don’t know what proper form is, or (2) they are stubborn. Like I said, there’s hope for most people, but a small percentage (the stubborn) are Completely Hopeless and IncrediblyMoronic People, or CHIMPs for short. For those who are not CHIMPs, and just don’t know how to lift properly… well that’s where I come in. I’m writing this to help those brave souls with horrible deadlifting form to take the first step towards the light, and walk the path of Deadlifting Form Competence, as the Gods of the Deadlift once did! Before their days of deadlift immortality, legend has it that Andy Boloton and Benedikt Magnusson were too, once lost in the limbo of Deadlift ignorance and incompetence. But they were handed down the ancient scrolls of deadlifting, Deadliftimus Formerum Perfectum, and have been masters of the deadlift since. Now, these scrolls have never been found since, but I shall attempt to recreate them! Alright, sorry. Enough with the fantasy legend talk.
So let’s get started. First, I know some of you may be itching to find out what I meant by virgin shins, so let’s start with that first. When you deadlift CORRECTLY, you should drag the bar up your shins and quads. Since your shins are hard, the bar will scrape them and leave them nice and bloody for your next pull. Fantastic!
Now, how do we make sure that we scrape the hell out of our shins every time we pull (pull = deadlift for those who might have been wondering)? First, we have to align the bar properly above our feet. This actually holds more significance than just scraping our shins, but we will get to that later. So the first thing you should do EVERY TIME you set up to deadlift is align the bar directly over the middle of your foot. The middle of your foot is not what looks to be the middle of your foot. If you look at your foot from the side, the middle of your foot is only about, at most, an inch in front of your shins. So make an imaginary line on your foot where the actual middle is, walk to the bar, have your feet about shoulder width apart (for conventional stance) and align the bar where that line should be. The bar should always be aligned there, through the rest of your setup process, until the weight leaves contact with the floor. Do not roll the bar.
Next, bend over and grab onto the bar (without moving it) with your hands and arms just BARELY wider than your legs. Gripping the bar any wider will cause your chest to be slightly closer to the bar, which will result in a longer distance to travel to lockout. And what would this make us? Inefficient, that’s right! And of course gripping the bar any closer would cause your hands to run into your knees on the way up, causing you to drop the weight, make a loud noise, and draw much undesired attention as you successfully portray yourself as a common gym noob. Now, of course a common gym noob, CGN for short, is not nearly as bad as a CHIMP. However, it should be made clear that achieving the CGN status in your gym is bad news and certainly not in your favor.
So we have established our bar alignment and our grip. Once that is established, you should bend your knees to move your shins forward the inch they have to reach the bar. Once your shins are touching the bar, your back should then be made straight by raising your chest up and sticking it out like you’re trying to either make yourself look like you have bigger pecs (for guys), or trying to make yourself like you have bigger boobs (for girls). Once you’ve established the commonly advocated, yet rarely duplicated straight back position you should make a mental note (Every time you deadlift) to maintain that back posture throughout the entire lift.
These are the fundamental basics of the deadlift setup, but there are more details that go into the setup and certainly the actual execution of the lift. But for now just remember: bar over the middle of the foot, grip just outside your legs, shins to the bar, back straight. I will go into more detail on the mechanics of the deadlift in the second part of my Deadlift guide, which should be posted soon!