Exercise Feature: The Deadlift
This week on the Gymbox blog I’m sharing with you all a spotlight on one particular exercise. This feature gives me a chance to share my knowledge and helps offer you some insight into why myself, or any other trainer, might choose a certain exercise to include in your program or in a class here at Gymbox. This week’s focus will be the deadlift, but check back down the road to see other features exercises.
The deadlift is one of the cornerstone exercises in the realm of weightlifting. It comes in many variations and can be executed using a variety of different types of equipment. As a trainer, it’s one of my personal favourites not only because it’s a fun way for me to measure my strength, but also because it’s excellent at working the oft underutilized back chain muscles of the hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, abs, traps, and lats.
Variations of the deadlift include:[/vc_column_text]
Conventional: feet are parallel and roughly hip-width apart.
Sumo: a narrow grip and wide, turned out foot stance.
Romanian/Stiff leg: in a true variation of each of these deadlifts, there are slightly different angles of bend involved at the knee. The difference is minor (but important), however, these names are often used interchangeably to mean the stiff leg deadlift. Hence, for our purposes here I will explain the stiff leg deadlift, which is much as it’s name suggests: a deadlift in which the legs are kept straight (but not locked out through the knee).
The basic mechanics of a deadlift are simply explained yet difficult to execute. The most basic explanation for how to deadlift would be to just lift a barbell from the floor to hip height while holding the arms straight. But any trainer giving this little instruction for such a major lift would be highly remiss.
Firstly, you should begin with the bar about 1″ away from your shins. Once in this position, aim to get your shins vertically aligned, and position yourself in a squat-like stance with shoulders above the hips and your spine in a straight line. From there, gripping the bar as firmly as possible, pull upwards in a straight line, keeping the bar over the middle of your foot and your shoulders slightly forward of the bar. You will maintain this alignment until the very top of the pull, when your shoulders right themselves over your hips and you contract your glutes. You may have seen people drop the bar at this point, though common gym etiquette is to lower the bar to the floor with control.
Beyond mastering correct deadlift form, one of the challenges to continued strength improvements with this exercise is grip strength. Time and again when I teach clients how to deadlift, it is their grip strength that fatigues before their hamstrings or glutes. There are secondary exercises that can be done to improve grip strength, such as farmer carries, and there are also alternative grips one can use to improve their hold (primarily the switch grip, where one hand is positioned overhand grip and the other in an underhand grip. This solution can lead to muscle imbalances down the road though, so be mindful if you choose to utilize this option). Yet another solution is the use of straps, but there is much debate over whether the added weight they allow you to pull is worth sacrificing the functionality of truly being strong enough to lift the bar at any given weight without assistance. Switching the equipment you use to deadlift may be of some assistance, though that will be largely based on comfort.
Speaking of different equipment, just what tools can you utilize for a deadlift and why might you bother? The classic deadlift is usually associated as being a barbell lift, but you can also use kettlebells, dumbbells, sandbags, a cable machine, or a smith machine. Kettlebells or dumbbells allow your arms the freedom to move unilaterally, so further stability is required when using these tools. Similarly, sandbags are unstable and prone to shifting, again requiring you to engage stabilizer muscles. Using cables has the benefit of keeping the muscles being used under constant tension, which is relevant for muscle building. The smith machine can be a good choice for Romanian deadlifts, allowing users to get a better isolation through the hamstring.
Whichever option you choose for style of deadlift and piece of equipment, the most important thing with the deadlift is to remember your form. Never round your back through the lift, as your back becomes susceptible to injury when loaded in this position. Be mindful not to let your knees bow inwards or outwards during your deadlift, as this puts unnecessary strain on the joint. Also ensure that you keep your abs engaged throughout the motion, and utilize your breath to aid the lift: take a big inhale when you set up before the pull, and exhale once the pull is complete and the body is upright.
Hopefully this feature has helped demystify the deadlift in its multiple forms and helped to break down the specifics of the movement. Remember, when you’re just learning the deadlift, start with light weights and only progress to heavier ones once you’re comfortable with the motion and confident in your form. As the saying goes, ‘practise makes perfect’, so get into the gym today and start learning your way around the deadlift to reap the benefits of this multi-joint, multi-muscle movement.