Deadlifting 101

(Note: in this week's edition of Weekend Linkage, there is a video of one particularly stupid assclown deadlifting with truly horrible form. That video annoyed me so much that I just had to write this. If you ever find yourself working out in the same gym as me, do NOT let me catch you deadlifting like that if you want to be spared a lot of embarrassment.)

IRON WITHOUT, IRON WITHIN!
Deadlifts. My absolute favourite exercise, bar none. There is NO exercise that builds strength, character, courage, and raw explosive power as fast as this one does. If you are lifting weights at ANY level, you are doing yourself a huge disservice if you aren't incorporating deadlifts into your workout at least once a week. Deadlifting is also by far the most primal exercise there is. You are literally hauling huge weights off the ground. It is a test of your mind, body, and will in a way that nothing can match.

That said, deadlifting is bloody dangerous if you aren't careful. I've written this over and over again in my posts concerning strength training and weightlifting- be careful. Form is everything. If you cannot achieve good form on heavy weights, just stop and dial the weight back down until you nail the form every time. I am not joking when I tell you that there is absolutely nothing more painful and debilitating than a lower back injury, short of limb amputation. If you f*** up your back while deadlifting, the pain and the fear that this pain causes will stay with you for months if not years.

So how does one go about deadlifting with good form? Well, the good news is that it is easier than ever to find out.

The basic deadlift movement can be broken down into three major parts: foot placement, starting position, and explosive power.

1. Foot Placement
Check out this video from the good offices of Mark Rippetoe regarding where your feet should be under the bar:

Mark has forgotten more about powerlifting than most men will ever learn in their entire lives. He is absolutely spot on here. The bar should start very, very close to your shins. The bar should bisect your feet right above where the arch of your foot becomes pronounced- right above your shoelaces, in other words. This is very important- the bar should be in contact with your shins during the entire movement upwards, so you might want to wear some long pants if you don't like the feel of that much weight scraping against your shins.

2. Starting Position
The deadlift is not a reverse squat. It is a completely unique exercise. Don't make the mistake of starting with your arse pointing at the sky and your hips high in the air. Your back should not be parallel to the ground, it should be pointing upwards at an angle of between 15 and 20 degrees (depending on your hip placement). Watch the way Mehdi from Stronglifts deadlifts here:



This is a guy who deadlifts 500lbs or more raw. And he's doing it without rounding his lower back. More than anything else, your starting position will determine whether or not you round your lower back. Keep your tailbone away from the bar, raise your hips, tighten your core, and maintain that tightness to prime yourself for the next stage- the actual lift.

3. Explosive Power
Andy Bolton is probably the world's greatest deadlifter, ever. His world record of 1,008lbs with chalk and belt has only been broken very recently. Like most elite powerlifters, Andy pulls with incredible speed off the ground once he's ready to lift. Take a look at how fast he pulled his record-breaking deadlift 5 years ago:

There is no fear, hesitation, or overthinking going on here. The speed of that lift is incredible, especially considering the sheer amount of weight on the bar. Note, however, that Andy is NOT jerking the bar upwards, which would be a huge mistake. He pulls swiftly, cleanly, and with perfect form (well... there is some debate as to whether he rounds his upper back, but let's just say that Andy has exceptional motor control in his back after so many years of powerlifting.)

This is what powerlifters should always aim for. The third stage of deadlifting should happen quickly and cleanly. If you have gotten steps 1 and 2 right, step 3 is a state of no-mind, where outside distractions become irrelevant. It's just you and the bar, and you are limited only by your own natural strength- a limit that you should constantly be seeking to break.

How to Perfect Your Form
There is no shortcut to good form. Reps, reps, and more reps- all at lower weights, where you know that you can handle things easily. Master the basic movement, or it will master you- and I am writing from very painful past personal experience when I say that screwing up this basic lift will destroy your back. Get it right, or pay the price. It is that simple.

My deadlifting workout on Sundays consists of:
  • One set of 5 reps @ 225lbs
  • One set of 5 reps @ 275lbs
  • One set of 5 reps @ 315lbs
  • One set of 3 reps @ 365lbs
  • One set of 1 rep, max weight
  • One set of 1 rep, 405lbs
  • One 30-second static hold at somewhere between 315lbs and 335lbs
That's a decent amount of reps considering I only deadlift once a week. And my lowest warmup weight is still heavier than most men can deadlift as their maximum weight. Two years ago, even to think about doing this would have been flatly impossible. Today, I treat it as routine. I'm regularly hitting 425lbs, and tomorrow I'm going to aim to hit 430lbs or more before I go off for a week's vacation. I tore up my back badly the last time I tried for 445lbs, so I'm taking things slowly, concentrating on form, and improving progressively.

Lift Like You Mean It
Deadlifts are a fundamental exercise. They are simple, powerful, and incredibly motivating- I actually look forward to my brutal Sunday workouts, if only because whenever I deadlift, I am setting a very personal test of character, courage, and strength. The fact that I can pass it means a great deal to me, as it does to any powerlifter. More importantly, once you master deadlifts, more complex and technical exercises like power cleans, clean-and-jerks, and various other Olympic lifts become far easier to break down, analyse, and master.

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