5 Minutes to a Better Deadlift

Deadlifts get an unfair shake. Whether it's unfortunate anecdotes - er, horror stories - or numerous YouTube videos of ill-advised attempts, I understand why.

Yet when analyze it, the deadlift is one of the best ways to make people stronger, leaner, and more athletic.  It also does a great job at preparing people for life, which for 99% of us is the actual goal of our training.

The only campaign slogan I can get behind..

The only campaign slogan I can get behind..

So in my attempt to "Make America Lift Again," I'd like to do my part to change the perception of deadlifts.  After all, the empowering and primal feeling of lifting something heavy off the floor is unlike many other feelings you can get in life.  But hitting a baseball around 400 feet is a close second ;)

Below is a 5 minute guide to improve your deadlift and set up.  Let me know what you think!

1. Change Your Set Up.

Most problems on the deadlift arise from A) not being able to feel your hamstrings and/or B) not putting our spines in the correct starting position.  These issues stem from most of us having an excessive amount of tone in our quads, hips, lower back and calves (and no, not the good kind of tone).

What results is an inability to stay back on a deadlift as the bar - and our toned-up pattern - pulls us forward and reduces our mechanical advantage.  That's when our lower back will kick on and we're no longer using the muscles we want to use.

As an alternative, I've been using the following approach for the past few months which I've stolen from Mike Robertson.  Rather than starting at the bottom, you begin your set up from the top and "wedge" into the correct position.  Horrible audio aside, it makes for a more methodical and safer way to set up:

2. Sumo, Don't Conventional.

The sumo deadlift doesn't get a whole lot of love.  It's lesser known and seen as "less advanced," but I don't think the latter is necessarily accurate.  There's a reason why conventional deadlifts are the last progression I use with someone - because they're very hard to do correctly!

Good luck telling Dan Green he's "less advanced."

Good luck telling Dan Green he's "less advanced."

If you'd like a longer explanation as to why I favor sumo over conventional, you can check out what I've written here.  But in a nutshell, most of us don't have the adequate mobility or motor control to maximize our conventional deadlifts.  The easiest way for us to learn and train the deadlift is by reducing the distance we need to travel and decreasing the reliance on our hamstrings.  With sumo we get to emphasize our stronger quads and worry less about our mobility.

But if you're still unsure about the switch, using a sumo stance can help you improve your conventional pull.  For example, if you smoke weights off the floor but struggle at lockout - like yours truly - switching to sumo for a few months will be exactly what the Deadlift Doctor ordered.  

Both sumo and conventional deadlifts are accepted in competition for a specific reason - because everyone is different.  By trying to maximize both, you'll learn which one is better suited towards your body.  And you may be surprised by the result.

3. Push. Don't Lift.

Just to be clear, I've felt my lower back on deadlifts.  I'm not immune to the occasional bad rep, or the aches and pains of doing too much. But I'm guaranteed to feel my back during a deadlift if I'm trying to "lift" the bar off the ground.

You might be thinking, "Isn't that what you want to do? The word 'lift' is in the exercise!"

In a word: no.  

When we think about lifting the bar, our brain is going to use our back as a prime mover.  But when we think about pushing into the floor, we use much more leg drive while keeping our abs and spine locked.

Even though I tell people to push the floor away, it doesn't always click.  I'm always game for using whatever cue will help people understand what I'm trying to convey.  Here are a few I've used in the past week:

  • Break the floor with your feet
  • Leave your footprint in the ground when you walk away
  • Pretend LeBron James/Donald Trump/Justin Bieber are underneath your feet.

When you tinker with your mindset and think about pushing the floor away, it'll feel like a different lift.  And that's a good thing.  Because straight spines are happy spines.

4. Be Patient with Progress.

If you really want to build a solid deadlift, you're in for the long haul.  Progress never stays linear for long and that often derails and discourages people from sticking with it. Below is a laughably bad graph that probably tells more about my lack of Microsoft Excel skills than my deadlift progress. Nonetheless, it illustrates that there have been several large plateaus over the last three years and how success can be fleeting.

Whether it's a new deadlift max, a new 3 rep high, or if they just feel easier than they used to, embrace it. And if you're not seeing progress, refuse to get frustrated.  Embrace that too.  It's an opportunity to learn about yourself.