Deconstructing the Deadlift

I like deadlifting…. Mainly because I am good at it. This is a common thing for a lot of people who lift weights or perform any form of structured exercise. We tend to master the things we are better at, be it squatting, bench pressing, sprinting or marathon running. We develop excellence by specialization. First we decide that we want to achieve something (such as picking up and deadlifting your own body weight) achieving a target before repeating this task to replicate the successful behavior  Twinned with that we may not prioritize that exercise and forgo other more challenging exercises. People usually say that they do yoga or run, rather than stating that their exercise programme is a multi-layered fusion of a number of training styles that will unlock their physical potential.

I am interested in strength training. It helps you maintain lean muscle tissue and mobility if performed in the right way,  it enhances your metabolism and ultimately makes you look good. From a physical potential point of view it is also a facet of fitness that can translate to the development of other- flexibility training doesn’t make you stronger and cardiovascular training doesn’t enhance lean muscle mass whereas strength training can help the performance of both of these. This means for time poor people it is a great way of training and developing a well rounded physique in line with a bit of interval and aerobic work depending upon time restraints (another post).

Deadlifts are perhaps the king the free weight domain along with squats and the bench press. Indeed these classic exercises have survived for decades as many a gym can testify. While other forms of training have come and gone there is an old school approach that highlights picking up heavy stuff is generally good for you (if done properly) and if done constructively in the right way may turn you in to an elite strength athlete (possibly).

Deadlifts are what I am going to focus on today. After teaching the basics of any exercise you may consider adding some weight. This can often be the first issue as adding additional resistance changes the whole movement pattern of the exercise. With the deadlift you teach the movement by hinging at the hip, keeping the back straight and driving through the hips. See below….

Often though people don’t have the mobility to get in to that position, what you typically see is back flexion and forward bending. You may see lower back flexion- this is an inability to maintain a neutral lower back position and may be related to poor hip mobility and poor torso strength. You may also see upper back flexion in the thoracic area. This will be seen if people are weak in their thoracic/ back extensors. It is important to distinguish between the two as for individuals who move a large amount of weight may see a degree of thoracic flexion. Lumbar flexion needs to be avoided at all costs as it is potentially injurious. Individuals who deadlift in this manner should in the words of a great American rapper “check themselves before they wreck themself.”

But what to do if you lack hip mobility in this situation? Should you continue to deadlift? Well there are a number of options. Step one is to hammer hip mobility pre- session in your warm ups as well at every opportunity you can during the day- if that means telling your work colleagues you are now an athlete it is fine, though they may never understand. Step two is to ingrain the movement with lower threshold alternatives so that you can maintain a strong torso position while hinging at the hips. Kettlebell swings are a good alternative as are Rack Pulls.

Both of these should be undertaken while adding in to the mix a lot of hip dominant single leg exercises. Hip dominant single leg exercises are those where we can emphasise a strong torso while developing strength and mobility in the glutes and hamstrings. The humble step up is a good start point. Rear foot elevated split squats are perhaps a progression but are a great prelude to building up to deadlifting.

The next step is to deadlift from somewhere between rack pull height and full deadlift height. Typically this may be of boxes or a couple of plates. A lot of the time if someone has long legs, lifting from the floor provides too much stress on the lower back and form cannot be maintained. Indeed for a lot of our trainees at Results FAST it is smarter way to deadlift.

Full deadlifting as you see is a progression not a start point. While it is earmarked as a primary exercise it should only be done well in perfect form. If it isn’t then there are two things wrong. You are not mobile enough to achieve the correct form or the weight is too heavy causing you form to degrade. Mobility tends to shut down when you are not strong enough to maintain correct joint position- it usually means drop the weights a little as your back will thank you the next day.

Published by ianmellis

Ian Mellis MSc. CSCS is the co-founder of Results FAST ( in Ware, Hertfordshire. Specialising in athletic development, physique improvement and injury rehabilitation he provides personal training, strength and conditioning and nutrition coaching for motivated exercisers and those looking to make a long term change to their health, fitness and performance.

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