by Andy Kerr 1983
There are many ways to train the deadlift. One of the attractions of powerlifting is the diversity of physiques and temperaments of the lifters. Because of this diversity and, of course, the other variables such as age, experience, injuries, etc. no one technique or program will suit everyone. At this point I offer my first advice. If the techniques and programs being followed are working well for the lifter, he should stick with them. However, if he is at a plateau or incurring repeated injury it is time to think again. The best solution is to obtain expert advice and personal supervision. Unfortunately, for some lifters that is not always obtainable; they have to ‘paddle their own canoes.’ To help these lifters some of the world’s best lifters and coaches have produced books, courses and magazine articles. This is a modest contribution from me and represents some of my current ideas after 21 years of battling the iron. I do not claim to have the definitive answers or any training secrets. I am still always trying to learn and in this article may pose a question or two because I want to know.
My approach to the deadlift is somewhat different to most because of my background. I came to powerlifting after 24 years of Olympic weightlifting. In the first half of this period, I had a clean & press, snatch, jerk-oriented program for shot/discus, and the second half I spent as a competitive weightlifter until a knee injury ended my career in 1975. Essentially, this means I had lifted many thousands of tons off the floor with a flat back and great concentration on position and line.
A General View of the Lift
First of all, I am well aware of the advantage of the round back style in the initial phases of the lift. Rounding the back shortens the distance between the hip and shoulder joint. For lifters with proportionately short limbs as round back is start is often the only effective starting position they can use. For lifters of normal proportions or proportionately long limbs, I don’t recommend it on the grounds that
a) it leads to a much harder finish, and
b) it causes greatly increased wear and tear on the back.
For most lifters I therefore recommend a flat back style of deadlifting.
Perhaps I should explain exactly what I mean by flat back style. I mean maintaining the normal curves of the spine as near as possible throughout the lift. I do not mean an exaggerated hyperextension. The rationale is simple. When standing erect with the normal spinal curves the vertebrae are positioned for the best absorption of compression over their upper and lower surfaces. The more the spine departs from this alignment the more the compression will be concentrated on small areas of the vertebrae and intervertebral discs with attendant increased wear and tear and risk of injury. This is easier said than done. The weight is trying to bend the lifter in half and I have yet to see the lifter who does not bend a little under maximum load. The best way is to learn good style from the start. If the lifter has established a bad pattern of movement, it is hard to change. The only answer is “form” deadlifts. Initially he will only be able to maintain his back position with light weights. After two or three months, moderate weights will be handled comfortably, but he will revert to his old habits under heavy loads, but perhaps not rounding the back so much. Eventually the goal should be good form throughout, and just rounding a little on the third attempt.
Speaking generally, a round back deadlift is easy to start, but hard to finish. A flat back lift is harder to start, but much easier to finish. A round back style uses the spinal extensors as prime movers. A flat back style uses them as fixators, that is, isometrically. A bonus of the flat back style is that because the back has an easier time in training the lifter can deadlift more often.
The deadlift is a very simple movement. What could be more natural than to bend down and pick something up from a nice comfortable nine inches off the floor! I can get nine out of 10 of my new trainees deadlifting a light weight correctly within the first couple of sets of their initial workout. There is only one thing that makes a deadlift difficult and that is when there’s a lot of weight on the bar. That is when the lifter must fight to maintain his form as he lifts the bar, which is trying to bend him back down to the platform. Obtaining and maintaining good position is hard on the deadlift. In the squat and bench the lifter can set himself in a good position and is able to get ‘pre-tensed’ before starting the lift. In contrast, in the deadlift, the platform rather than the lifter takes the load before the lift starts. Therefore, before applying the ‘lifting muscles’ the lifter must assure that he is in his optimum starting position and that the muscles that are concerned with holding the bar and holding the position of the back are braced. The starting position is vital; if the lifter is not in his best position as he starts to lift the bar off the floor, he is hardly likely to be able to improve it once the barbell is aloft and trying to drag his chest down with its full weight. At this point I should like to say something on the biceps brachialis tears that have occurred on the deadlift. The most common advice I have read is to do curls as a preventative measure. This despite the observation that most of the sufferers have arms worthy of Mr. Olympia. No, the answer to this problem is quite simple – keep the arms straight! In this way the tension is shared between the elbow joint, its ligaments and the muscles which cross the joint. A lot of practical work was done in this area in the days of hanging, drawing and quartering! Remember, don’t try to curl a deadlift up – think “long arms” and the biceps, its tendons and attachments will last as long as the body lives.
Causes of Failure/Remedial Actions
The easiest one to remedy, of course, is not knowing the rules, but that is not the subject of this article. Let us take a man who deadlifts 600 and give him 700 and the answer is simple; it was far too heavy, and he must get stronger all round. Now give him 610; he still fails, but at only one point, either because of a specific technical fault or a physical weak point. Thought for the day: ‘The champion trains his weaknesses, the loser his strengths.’
“It was nailed to the floor!”
Sometimes a lifter will fail to move the bar because he has too much knee bend. The remedy is to raise the hips a little and get a more favorable distribution of the load between knee and hip extensors. This is not very common. It is more usual to see the hips go sailing up, while the bar stays put. To develop power in the drive off the floor the three most effective remedies are:
1) Emphasizing explosion off the floor while maintaining good position.
2) Quadriceps work – upright or front squats, applicable to weak legged or ‘out of training’ lifters.
3) Deadlifts whole standing on a block. This is the first of my two principal deadlift assistance exercises. I advocate a different approach from most on this exercise. First, only a low block is used; height – 1½ to 3 inches. Secondly, the lift is performed as near as possible to the same way the regular deadlifts are done, with the back still kept flat and chest high. The lifter reaches the lower bar by a greater degree of flexion at the hip, knee and ankle joints. After he has lifted the bar the first 1½ to 3 inches, he should be in a similar position to the start of his deadlift and he should complete the lift like a regular deadlift.
If a higher block is used the movement becomes completely different. Round back and straight legged deadlifts are not my way, although I am the first to acknowledge that many find them invaluable.
“It got stuck at the knees!”
Two causes of this problem come to mind, the first being position. It is important that as the bar reaches the upper part of the shins that they be vertical. If they are angled forward the lifter is effectively trying to pull the bar through his knees. Get them vertical and the knees will be out of the way.
The second cause of stalling around knee height is anatomical. The knee has to stop extending and hip extension becomes the dominant movement. At any such changeover there is a potential sticking point. The remedies are two fold. First, develop as much speed as possible in the first phase of the movement. The momentum generated will help the lifter get through the sticking point. The second remedy is the second of my two principle assistance exercises – partial deadlifts from just below knee height, either in a power rack or off blocks. The height of the bar should be 1 inch to 2 inches below the lifter’s usual sticking point. Then, when force is applied, the bending of the bar and the compression of lifter and floor will bring the effective start level with the lifter’s dead point. A heavy weight dropped in a power rack a couple of times tends to permanently bend the bar, so it is best to reserve an old wreck of a bar for the power rack. Blocks are better because the discs land on the blocks. I have a set of blocks that raise the bar to about level with the top of my tibia. I then have up to six ¾ inch planks to stand on if I want the bar any lower. Partial deadlifts from above the knee are not realistic. The lifter can push his knees forward under the bar, assume an almost erect, extended trunk position and lift the bar with his quadriceps. It bears no resemblance to the movement pattern in a deadlift and is of value only in developing the grip.
“I was almost there!”
There are three things that will stop a lifter from locking out his deadlifts. First, absentmindedly putting resin rather than talc onto his thighs. Secondly, beginning to lose his grip. The lifter reaches a situation when he knows that if he straightens up and puts his shoulders back he will drop the bar (more on that later). Thirdly and most commonly, loss of position. I believe that if the deadlift rule stated the bar just had to clear the top of the knee that the round back style would be the most efficient. It doesn’t, it says the lifter must stand erect. When the lifter lifts with a round back he usually reaches a position just a few inches short of lockout where his knees and hips are extended. This means his strongest muscles (quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus) are out of the game and he has to finish the lift with the much weaker muscles that extend the middle and upper back. He either stops or lays back, resulting in red lights. There are two approaches to this problem. One is to accept it and strengthen the lockout by performing a lot of round back and straight legged deadlifts. The other is to maintain position throughout the lift, namely, do your lift in flat back style.
“It slipped out of my hands!”
This problem can have several causes. First, too much chalk, talc, sweat and general filth on the bar. Always ask for it to be cleaned. Secondly, an unscrupulous opponent may have put talc in the chalk box. Have a baggage man to keep an eye out for dirty tricks such as this or tipping drinks over the suits in the equipment bag. Thirdly, and most commonly, the reason is lack of grip strength. I always used to tell Steve Zetolofsky to think he was holding $50 bills round the bar. I think the best developer of grip strength is to hold on to heavy bars for a count of 5 or so. A bar can be set a couple of inches below lockout in the rack to minimize the work of legs and back. Hanging on to each regular deadlift an extra couple of seconds is also a valuable aid that builds up strength over the years almost without being noticed. Commercial grip machines are very useful. I personally haven’t a lot of time for wrist curls.
The hook grip is universal among weightlifters. As an ex-weightlifter, I still use it. I find I can hold more weight with it than with a normal grip. We have one 100 kg. lifter in Britain using a thumbless, knuckles to the front, fingertip grip. He is pulling 749 and says I told him to use that grip. I don’t recall the occasion myself, however, it seems to be working for him, but I don’t recommend it. The hook grip can be painful. If you are dropping a lot of lifts, it is worth a try. Start using only 150 lbs. or so and gradually increase the weight over succeeding sessions as your hands get used to the new grip. I find I get skin wear on my thumbs so I use the permitted taping. The only other disadvantage is that instead of the bar lying along all four fingers fairly evenly, with the hook it lies on the thumb and third and fourth fingers. This causes an increased incidence of callous tears on the pads below these fingers.
Straps – be careful. Limit their use to times when you are recovering from or wishing to avoid callous tears. Too much strap work equals a weaker grip, which results in dropped attempts.
Warmup is as important as any other activity. Back and hamstrings are the key areas to stretch, and I think squats are the best warmup exercise. John Kuc and Fred Hatfield squat and then deadlift on the same day according to their books. Obviously, if a very hard squat workout has taken place the deadlifts will have to be eased back. Conversely if the aim is to go all out on the deadlift, the squats should be kept moderate in volume and intensity. In my experience, I have found I can go as far as one big single or one maximum set of 2 to 6 reps on the squat and still have a deadlift session that is worthwhile. Further sets either at this sort of intensity or high rep backoff sets ruin my deadlift workout. Preparatory squats of something like 2x10x135, 2x6x235 pounds would be a minimum workout for me. I find I just cannot get my legs into the deadlift unless I have done this preparatory leg work. Bear in mind that my knees need a lot more warming up than most lifters due to previous injury.
By this I mean the lighter sets. Taking again our man who can deadlift 600 pounds, everything up to about 450 is a warmup and training for form. I often see lifters bouncing their deadlifts. The only possible advantage is the possible development of grip endurance. I regard it as ludicrous, dangerous and counterproductive for a number of reasons. Firstly, the first obstacle to overcome on the deadlift is the inertia of the bar. In a set of six bounced reps the lifter does it once the coefficients of restitution of bar, discs and platform do the other five. I have seen a lifter who specialized in this sort of training get to 8x485. In the next contest he got 507 and as you may have guessed, his other attempts would not leave the ground. Bouncing deadlifts off the floor while doing reps in training is dodging the work and has to be paid for in the contest. Secondly, as the bar bounces off the floor it becomes “weightless” for an instant and the tension in the lifter’s body dissipates, then the bar ‘runs out of steam’ and suddenly its full weight is imposed on the lifter. This is an unnecessary shock to his system, made worse if he is out of position, which is the usual case. Thirdly, the lifter sets himself for his first rep, but upon lowering the weight he almost always bends his back and therefore ‘on the bounce’ he lifts from a bad position. Position usually deteriorates throughout the set and the end result is 1 correct rep and 5 incorrect reps.
In my book, bounced deadlifts, bounced bench presses and shallow squats entered in the training log as valid lifts all add up to an ego trip in which the lifter is only cheating himself. Some exceptional and naturally powerful lifters do some impressive totals on this sort of training, but I say they would do even better if they trained right.
Training right on the deadlift involves a dead stop on the ground in between each rep. Our man who can deadlift 600 goes say 8x225, 6x315, 5x400. He knows he can do these reps, and he weight involved is not the challenge. The challenge is to do them as well as possible form-wise, better than the week before. If 400 is not lifted right, then it is an absolute certainty that heavier weights will get progressively worse. These light weights should be done fast, but be careful at the finish. A vigorous finish can be overdone; this results in a sudden transference of compression from the ventral to the dorsal margins of the vertebrae and can aggravate the back. Finishing erect is enough.
The Real Training Lifts
Our man comes through his schedule with 3x470, 3x530, 2x560. There are heavy weights, and there is no room for error now. In between each rep stand up, look down and check the feet. If the bar is off center or askew, move the feet to their correct place. It is easier to move the feet than the bar. Also, the bar will always tend to lie in certain positions on the platform. If you roll it to your feet, it will probably roll away again as you take the strain. This is a useful tip for competitions. I have seen lifts lost because the bar moved forward or twisted on the lifter. Give it a kick before you lift. If it does not move, you will be okay. If it does, give it another kick. You need a stable position. I have seen lifters waste their minute trying to line the bar up parallel to the planking; that does not help or matter in the slightest.
Getting back to our lifter; after repositioning his feet, he re-grips the bar, reassures his position and pulls. Training this way is harder. The lifter, not the equipment, has to do the work. It is also training specifically for the requirements of the competition. Those heavy lifts are done as fast and explosively as possible, consistent with maintaining good form. The above poundages and reps were purely used as examples, not as any recommended workout.
Foot and Hand Placement
A recent scientific double blind (where neither researchers nor subjects knew what they were doing) study has shown that best results in deadlifting were obtained with both feel flat on the floor and both hands securely on the bar. One researcher suggests that even better results might be obtained if both feet were on the same side of the bar. I hope he gets a grant soon because until he produces some scientific evidence us empirical types will have to keep on guessing. Seriously though, foot placement is a matter of comfort. The lifter who normally walks and stands with his toes turned out will be happiest if he maintains the same angles on his deadlift. The lifter who walks with feet pointing straight ahead will probably want to lift like that. A comfortable starting position frees the mind to concentrate on the pull. Be careful about standing too narrow. The adductors will bind against each other, making the start uncomfortable and the legs difficult to straighten at the finish. Hip width or a little wider is best for most lifters.
The hands should be placed entirely on the knurling, avoiding the chromed parts of the bar. The longest reach is obtained when the arms are both hanging vertically at shoulder width. If a lifter has trouble getting the shoulders back because the arms are binding on the side of the chest, the grip can be widened. An angle of 10 degrees away from the vertical only reduces the reach by 1.5%, typically less than ½ inch. With a grip any wider the losses become much more severe.
Frequency of Training
The deadlift seems to be trained once a week by nearly everyone. Certainly the frequency with which one can go heavy is low. I have almost always trained deadlifts twice a week. Either once heavier and once lighter, or once regular and once block and rack work. Certainly, I can well believe that round back, ‘question mark’ type lifters can only lift once a week. My back, although not as flat as it used to be in my youth, is still flattish and I can lift twice a week. If I have two bigger than usual sessions in one week, I might come in the next week 100 pounds lighter to recuperate.
Intensity of Training
Rather than tell a pack of lies, I think it is most informative to record my actual build up to some of my recent contests. The table contains the heaviest lifts of each workout. Each row is a week, numbered 1 to 6 in time away from the contest. * means personal bests. Failures are crossed through. D means standing on a rubber disc. G means lost grip. No doubt many lifters will be able to put up more impressive intensities and higher reps at similar intensities. All I can say is that I put 12.5 kilos on my deadlift in 1982 and was very pleased by it.
There are a lot of singles shown. In many of the apparently low singles, I would have liked to have made two or three reps but the first was such a gut-buster I either failed or did not attempt a second rep. Essentially, I was training to maximum and if my personal maximum during a given training session was say 2x300, I just had to accept it. It would not stop me from doing well the next session or the one after. This is one of the differences between a living organism and a machine. I know lifters who cannot accept this, after two or three bad sessions in a row. It is necessary to have faith in your own ability, your chosen training programs and the notion that it will come out right on the night.
Remember that all the winners did not give up, did not duck the contest, but turned up, weighed in and put up a total. There is more to the deadlift than grabbing hold and pulling like hell. I have discussed but a few points here.
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