The Deadlift

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The first part of this was posted last week here. If you read and study this page and still want more instruction you can spend $5 and buy the learning deadlift video.

Let’s Lift!

The iron aspect of the Physical Subculture starts with some basics: the simple (but not ‘easy’) art of picking stuff up.  Whether just getting something off the ground, or bringing it higher up to then do more things with the object, we need to know how to pick stuff up.  Some of this might be raw review for some lifters, but if there’s one thing we’ve noticed, despite all the information available about these foundational lifts, they are still completely misunderstood.

We’ve all seen the banner being waved for what folks are calling functional training.  It used to involve balancing on wobbly objects while lifting kittens (or the weight equivalent), or squirming around on the floor doing ‘mat’ exercises. Then it became a series of movements either balancing on one leg or hanging suspended from some circus strap contraption. But for the real world, the most basic form of ‘functional training’ ought to be picking something off the ground without straining the back. ‘Core’ training is utterly useless without this simple ability, and any trainer not teaching this skill as one of the very first movements a client learns is being negligent.

Now a lot of information exists on picking something up, which, a century ago, was called a deadweight lift.  But in our haste to say things quicker, it is now known as simply a deadlift.  If you text message it, it would be dedlft, or simply dl.

If you haven’t learned a deadlift, often the first reaction is fear, since a deadlift is the stuff of back-snapping legends. It even has the word DEAD in it! Oh, King of Ironies. Look, if you don’t learn to properly lift something, ANYTHING, using darn fine deadlift technique, the chances of screwing up a back are exponentially greater. Whether a 6 pound box of excuses or a 600 pound barbell, good technique will remain the same.

Remember, learning deadlift form doesn’t suddenly mean you’ve got to go lift a car or bare fangs and growl when you enter a gym. The deadlift isn’t an instant portal into a scary world where necks turn into tree trunks and a powerlifting platform is your sanctuary. It simply means you know how to lift something, anything, off the ground, putting the back in the safest position.  Whether it be a box of feathers, a small child, or a stack of National Geographics that have been collecting dust since the early seventies, the ONLY acceptable way of picking them up is proper deadlift form (unless, of course, you pay someone else to do it).

It usually isn’t a heavy object that hurts a back, it is usually incorrect form.  The bonus of a deadlift is that it also uses many large muscles groups at once; being a very effective workout tool for performance, and yes, it will make you sexier.

The Deadlift

For folks who haven’t much weight training, let’s start from the top and work down with teaching a deadlift.

This requires the lifter to lower the body and the weight before rising, since it is often the lowering of the weight that can screw up the positioning of the body, possibly putting unwanted force into the spine.

So whatever the tool, be it barbell, dumbbell or passed out prom date, we’ll start by picking it off a rack or bench first, then lowering it to the ground before returning back up.  This differs from a ‘real’ deadlift, where the lift begins with the weight on the ground (ya know… dead).  We teach from the high position first to see if the body has the spinal awareness and flexibility to end up that low safely.

Troll killing and the ass

Before even grabbing the bar, we’re going to lock the spine into place. Remember that the hips and the shoulders have a synchronicity that places our awareness of them at the forefront. If we lock the shoulders down, we can also lock the hips into the safest position for the spine (in case ya didn’t know, the hip bone connected to the back bone).

Here’s a cool muscle name… the lattisumus dorsi. If you were to measure all your muscles, chances are the lats would take up the most space for a single muscle. Pretty big. Turn them on and other obedient muscles will follow. In this case the lats are simply going to keep the shoulders in place, like a long, strong wire rising up all the way from the lower back pulling your shoulder blades down into your ribs.

My favorite cue for this is to picture a troll that lives in your armpit. You hate that troll, and want it dead. So by packing that shoulder down, you crush the troll in each armpit, successfully ending the troll menace while creating an amazing support system through your upper spine. Try it… squeeze your shoulders down, your chest will come right up, nice and proud. Your thoracic spine (the upper back) is ready for action.

Trolls! Kill ’em!

As mentioned last week, by controlling the shoulders, it is easier to control the hips (or vice versa), so by locking the shoulders in place we eliminate a chance for the hips to tuck due to the shoulders rounding forward (which, if packed, they won’t) But lets add to that hip control. Time to use a funny word. Sphincter! Sounds funny, looks funny and makes children of all ages laugh. As a cue word, it might not be the greatest, which is the reason my powerlifting and weightlifting teams simply yell out ASS when they’re asked what the word of the day is. But let’s chat about it for a second…

Now it’s up to you if you want to think of squishing trolls between your butt checks, our goal though is to put focus in the hips by way of the glutes, those big butt muscles that are second only to the lats when measured for the most anatomical geography on your body. But we have a problem. At certain positions, as in the bottom of a squat or deadlift, it is hard for most folks to be very aware of those tushy muscles. It is tough to squeeze them when hips are flexed to create that hinged squat position.  But almost anyone can squeeze their sphincter from that position, which will give a very reliable message to the body to find those glute muscles (and other key stabilizer players) as soon as they can, and secure the hips from dancing inappropriately while trying to maintain the spine.

So that’s how our lats and ass together to make a strong supported spine, book-ending the area we’re most concerned with. What about the head? As mentioned before, there are a small handful of folks that are adamant that head position (a packed neck) is the safest position for the very upper spine. In fact some folks say this packed neck will ‘trickle down’ to the rest of the spine, so a packed neck will create a supported spine.  Well, unless you are exaggerating your neck arch, looking up instead of straight forward, your neck is in no danger. None. Which is why you’d be hard-pressed to find a competitive strength athlete who practices that. Worry not.

And packing the neck doesn’t instantly transfer to the rest of the spine. Try it. Right now. Pull you chin in and lengthen your upper spine. Feel your lats turn on or your glutes activate? Nope. So just avoid tilting your head upwards and your neck will be groovy. Look forward, conversational, we call it.


Top-Down deadlifting

We use the top-down deadlift, which is simply starting by lowering the bar instead of picking it up off the ground first, to teach technique.  Sometimes that bar, way down at the ground so many feet below, is far enough away that certain bodies can’t get down there to grab it without having to sacrifice safe and effective technique. From the top down, we can not only teach stability and control, but also check to see if getting that far down is currently possible (if not, don’t worry, it will be) by starting the lift at the top and lowering the bar down first.

      • Get intimate with bar so it’s against your thighs. Take it off of a rack or bench from waist height. Grab the bar wide enough so your arms don’t get in the way of the legs.
      • Place feet at a comfortable width.  This will differ per folk.  Most deadheads like a stance a little wider than their shoulders, but some will plant their dogs a little closer, others much, much wider. Is there a rule for foot placement? Yes! make sure the distance between the bottom of the foot and the ground is as minimal as possible! Only a show-off does levitating deadlifts.
      • Tush on, lats on – or squish the trolls and squeeze the sphincter. Now here’s the tricky part: keep it this way! The big goal is to lock the trunk – from the hips to the head- into a permanent stabilized shape, a solid piece of steal that will not change shape. Sure it will pivot at the hips (and neck if you keep looking forward… that’s okay), but it doesn’t change shape. The shoulders don’t let go and the midsection is ready to take a punch in the stomach anytime. For the record, this shape will have a small bit of arch to the lower back (which will differ from other solid shapes we deal with in other movements later).
      • Sit back (not down) so your weight is on your heels and your solid shape will pivot at the hips, so the proud chest comes forward. You’re hinging at the hips while pushing them back. If your trolls are squished, even as the hips go back, the bar will stay against the legs and begin to slide down them.
      • Once the hips are back far enough for the bar to clear the knees (bar stays close to body all the way down, by the way), the knees bend to lower the weight the remaining distance.
      • If this all goes swimmingly, then stand back up, still maintaining shape. Since you hinged at the hips and knees to lower the bar, straighten them out to come back up, keeping the feet firmly planted, weight distributed directly into them (some say stay on the heels, which is a viable cue, but definitely no tip toesies).

It is towards the bottom, as the bar gets closer to the ground, that things usually fall apart. The shoulders might relax and round, the lower back might lose control and tuck under or you very simply might catch fire and melt or transform into a turnip (still paying attention?). It is often the last few inches of lowering a weight where breakdown in technique occurs. Since our goal is to lower the weight eventually to the ground with complete control so we can come right back up without having to make any adjustments, the big goal now is only go as far down as you can without any disastrous cattywumpus. Go down as far as you can while maintaining that solid shape we created at the top. Then we want a simple reversal of direction at some point, not a complete change in shape. Can you get all the way to the ground with a stable spine?  Then we can begin the lift at the bottom next time, not from the top down.

 From the Ground Up

The set up…

There is a moment before any intense movement journey where we have a true opportunity to experience intimacy with emotion. Fear, dread, excitement, joy or even judgment and doubt are all cognitive responses to our sympathetic nervous system prepping for what’s about to happen. Although this is another blog post entirely, let’s just say approaching the bar should be a ritual in embodiment, preparing for the lessons the barbell, gravity’s minion, is about to teach us. Take this moment to review tape. Play a perfect deadlift in your head, and then let the body do its thing. Emotions be damned, it’s time to lift.

Step up to the bar and, as we may say with less-than-cooth manner, make the bar your bitch.


      • Place your feet under the bar, not behind it. Do you HAVE to scrape the shins? No, but there might be some gentle touching between bar and leg for sure during its journey up.
      • Bring yourself down to the bar and grab it. And I mean grab it. Crush the crap out of that thing. There is the ritualistic domination of you against the bar, but there is also a very real physiological message from hands upwards to turn on the rest of the body. A solid grip simply lets the mind and body know things are about the get real.
      • Set up the body. So the feet are in place, the hands have a hold of the bar… it must be time to lock the rest of the body into our desired shape. Sit back, shoulders over bar, hips just a tad higher than knees, lats on, tush on (trolls squished and sphincter tight) and looking straight ahead.
      • Feel the bar. Not just with the hands, but with the body. Pull the slack out of it. Even before you lift the weight, pretend you’re trying to bend the bar by pulling up on it. This locks your shape in even more and will eliminate any yanking at the beginning of the lift (an awesome way to lose all control of your shape).

        Notice the grip? When the bar gets heavy, flip one hand. You’ll hold onto it much easier that way.

      • Inhale while re-re-checking the body position. If you’re locked in place (trolls squished, sphincter on, Bearing down on your midsection (DO NOT “SUCK IN”) to tighten all the trunk muscles to support that solid trunk shape, then there is one simple step left…
      • Push those feet into the ground hard and stand up!
      • Don’t loose that shape (did I mention that already) and keep the bar really close the body! Drive the hips up and forward and straighten the knees until you’re standing solid, tall and confident. Yes, trolls are still dead and the sphincter is still on.

How you look at the top has a lot to do with how the lift went. Are you leaning back? That is not only unnecessary, but is probably because you’re searching for the glutes and can’t really find them. No sphincter!

Did ya have to roll your shoulders back to finish the lift? Guess who didn’t squish their trolls.

Does your butt come up faster than your hips, turning the lift into a straight-legged (and probably rounded-back) deadlift? Good news! Your hamstrings are hamstrong! Bad news! Your upper back probably isn’t. Your quads are wanting to dominate the beginning of the lift, so your knees shoot straight before your hips have a chance. Then your hamstrings have to finish the lift. Good for them if they can, but the missing link to all that would be keeping your upper back in the game (traps, lats and troll squishing) and finding the tush earlier in the show. I know, I know, what about the lower back? Don’t I have to strengthen it? Possibly, but it is just a player, not the team captain. I’ve seen more missed or bad lifts from weak upper back than lower. Check last week’s post for reasons why.

Now lower the bar correctly. Yes, even for a one rep max, try to control the descent. But especially for reps, just like the top-down deadlift, own that sucker so ya don’t have to reload at the bottom. Fight gravity every chance you can, so keep the shape on the way down. Not only does it help at the turn around to come back up, but you’re making the postural muscles work and building greater embodiment and control. Remember: do things Better before doing more. Why not make every inch of a deadlift worthwhile, including the way down.

I know, ya just wanna crank out the 30 reps your WOD demands, to hell with longevity, embodiment or posture. Around these parts we say make better choices now for more choices later, and that wouldn’t be a better choice.

Flat martial arts shoes, like these Feiyues, are superb deadlift gear, especially for about $20.

By the way… what shoes ya got on? Are they high heeled running shoes with an inch or two of squishy stuff between your feet and the earth? Get ’em off. I’d recommend permanently, but at least for the deadlift portion of today’s movement program. Connect your soles with our planet. Feel the ground, whether with flat shoes or with nekkid feet.


T-nation has used about a dozen photos from my website without asking (including the one of Mieke in this blog in the several stages of deadlifting), so I stole this one from their site… which they probably stole anyway.

There’s another deadlift option called the Sumo Stance.  The techniques are the same as above but the stance is wider (often much wider), the feet are often turned out a bit more, and the grip in on the inside of the legs.  Some body types prefer this method, since, for some, it feels easier on the back and hips.  This technique also works well for lifters who have an aversion to barbells, especially heavy ones, since it can also be done with a dumbbell turned on end or a heavy kettlebell. Although the set up demands a taller position with lower hips, the stability cues remain the same.

Important stuff, this deadlift. As with everything in the movement world. Do better before doing more. Master the grace of the movement, embody the concept. Then get heavier.


One more option… fat bar deadlifts. A bit tougher on the grip.


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Showing 2 comments
  • Steve

    Great article, buddy.

    Thanks for sharing – gotta love the Deadlift.

    Train Hard, Live Easy

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