Back to Basics II: Deadlifts

Deadlifts are a foundational movement for many other (and more advanced) exercise movements, and proper form is absolutely critical. As you start to use heavier weights, whether you are bodybuilding, strength building, or simply trying to shape the legs, the deadlift is a key component to Gluteal, Hamstring and lower back strength. Performing them correctly will allow you to strengthen your back and legs, and give your legs a nice shape: Round, lifted butt and balanced hamstrings and quads. Performing them correctly takes a great deal of concentration and practice with little to no weight – and slowly building the weight up. I see improper deadlifts being performed all the time at the gym, which is why it may be a good idea to ask a trainer to spot you to ensure correct form.

The deadlift will look similar to a Squat at first, and uses essentially the same muscle groups, however much more focus is placed on the Gluteals (butt) and Hamstrings (backs of the thighs). The Erector Spinae is also very active in this movement, which is why it can cause damage if done improperly.

Always start in front of a mirror (turned to the side so you can see your profile), with a light bar or dumbells. I usually have people perform the exercise with the barbell alone (no plates added), to get a feel for using the bar, while ensuring the weight is not too heavy. Follow these steps:

1. Feet should be planted on the floor, about hip-width apart. The barbell is on the floor, or on a raised surface about 1 foot tall (to mimic plate height if there were any).

2. Squatting down (Refer to this video on Squats if you aren’t sure how to perform this), grip the bar just wider than shoulder width. While you are in this position, ensure your:

  • knees are bent and behind or just overtop of your toes;
  • Abdominals are engaged and back is neutral;
  • chest is facing forwards (chest up!);
  • Chin up and eyes looking up at a 45 degree angle (helps keep the chest up);
  • Shoulders are retracted back and down.

3. Pressing through your heels, keep your back and chest in the same position as #2, and stand straight up by squeezing your Gluteals and pushing your hips forward to meet the bar (bar is always close to your body). Emphasis on squeezing the Glutes and Hamstrings becomes increasingly critical as you lift heavy weight, as those muscles are powerful.

The sequence of a deadlift

The sequence of a deadlift

4. At the top of the movement, squeeze your Glutes and Hamstrings to “lock out” the stance. You want to make sure your hips aren’t coming forward past your shoulders or knees – so stand up tall, without arching your back!

The muscles used in this movement are:

  • Gluteus Maximus: To ensure you are firing this muscle, actively squeeze your buttocks when standing (Hip Extension).
  • Hamstrings: Push your hips forward (called Hip Extension) to fire these muscles.
  • Quadriceps: As your knees straighten (Knee Extension), your Quadriceps are firing. To ensure the focus is not on the quads, squeeze your hamstrings and glutes for more power.
  • Erector Spinae: This is a series of muscles also known as your “lower back”. They are working in two ways – to stabilize your core (midsection), and to extend your torso (bringing your chest up).
  • Abdominals (Secondary): Your abs are stabilizing your core, as in any exercise (isometric contraction)
  • Rhomdoids, Middle Trapezius, Latissimus Dorsi (Secondary): Your back is stabilizing your torso as well to help keep it neutral, and your shoulder blades back and down.

The deadlift is also a great exercise for increasing core strength – which will ultimately lead to better posture, and prevention of back injuries.

Happy Lifting!


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