Deadlift: The Gym King

The deadlift is a multi-joint closed chain (feet in contact with the ground) resistance exercise. The lifter starts in somewhat of a modified squat position (keep in mind, though, that the exercise is very different to the squat), arms straight down gripping the bar (alternative grip will be selected when wanting to achieve maximal strength) and then extending the knee and hip until they are standing upright. The squat and deadlift may appear similar from an outsider’s point of view, however, the lifts are very different in set-up, lift mechanics and the load placed on the body.

Any person wanting to strengthen their knee, hip or back muscles will most likely deadlift. If being stronger is a goal of yours you should be deadlifting. The deadlift is a very hard lift since you start with dead weight on the ground. From the dead weight start position, force is generated by extension of the knees and hip to power the bar from the floor to lock out.

The deadlift is one of the top exercises to test the maximum amount of weight you can move. It is a very common exercise performed in many training settings by bodybuilders, athletes, strongman competitors, CrossFitters, general gymgoers and for rehabilitation purposes. Deadlifts can receive a bad name as many people have injured themselves while performing this type of lift. In addition, how many physios do you hear prescribing deadlifts? Not many. However, as a physio I am telling you it is one of the best exercises you can do… if done correctly!

Back injuries are one of the most common injuries in the gym, which is predominantly due to overload or incorrect exercise execution. It is for this reason it is vital to have a good general knowledge of how to deadlift. Those who have never performed a deadlift may assume it is a basic movement only requiring you to bend down, grab the bar and stand up. As you will read, the deadlift is a much more technical lift.

By the end of this article you will have a better understanding of the deadlift movement, how to set up for your next lift, the differences between the two main deadlifts, and the muscles used during the lift.

Types of Deadlifts

There are two main types of deadlifts performed: the conventional and the sumo. Why you would use one style of deadlift over the other and why some people prefer one over the other are frequently asked questions, however answering them is beyond the scope of this article. The best way to determine which deadlift to use is to practise both and see which one you are stronger and more comfortable with.

The easiest way to differentiate is via the set-up. Set-up is so important, which is why we will look at it in detail. If you don’t set up correctly the chance that you will do the lift with best mechanics is severely reduced. Let’s recap a little on a biomechanical term: moments. This is an important factor in understanding how the two deadlifts differ and how to perfect your deadlift.


Explanation of the deadlift movement by Mark Rippetoe from Starting Strength 3rd edition

The human hip is known as a class 1 lever. What does this mean? First, the rigid segment of the body is your back, hip and pelvis. The fulcrum during the deadlift is the hip joint. This means it is the point from which we pivot during the lift. There is force developed by your posterior chain muscles (muscles on the back of your legs and trunk) pulling down behind your hips, being your hamstrings, glutes and adductors. There is also a force pulling down in front of the hips, being the load in your hands. Getting the bar load up off the ground can only occur if the force produced by those posterior chain muscles is strong enough. Mark Rippetoe, strength coach and author of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, has said that if we could create the perfect human for performing the deadlift, the hips would be closer to the bar. As we can’t do that, what you can do instead is to keep the bar as close to the hips as possible when performing the lift. Keeping the bar in close to the body is actually the role of your lats.

I will explain why you want to keep the bar as close to you as possible with regards to the term ‘moments’. Moments, also known as torque, are the term given to explain the forces acting on a fixed point. In human biomechanics, that fixed point is your joints. The moment about a joint is calculated by force (weight lifted) multiplied by moment arm length. The ‘moment arm’ is the distance between the joint and the bar/weight acting upon the body. The picture below demonstrates the pivot point, being the joint, and the moment arm.

As already stated, during the deadlift you want to minimise that moment as it will make joint movement easier. To do this according to the calculation (force multiplied by moment arm length) you can either decrease the weight you are lifting or decrease the moment arm length. Obviously when training you don’t want to decrease the weight you are lifting, so in order to make the deadlift easier you need to decrease the moment arm length. To do so you must minimise the distance the bar is away from any joint and that is why it is important to keep the bar as close to you as possible.

So where do moment arms occur during the deadlift? During your set-up a small moment arm may occur where the bar is in front of your knees, obviously depending on technique. Beginners have a tendency to have the bar way out in front of their shins, thus creating a larger moment arm, and a larger moment will mean more effort is required. The second main moment arm, no matter the technique, will occur between your hips and the bar as demonstrated in the picture below by the red line.

Further explanation on how to do deadlifts from Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe

Some people may now be wondering: can you shorten this moment arm? The answer is yes. When examining your technique you want to find ways to minimise all relevant moment arms and, in addition, minimise range of motion whenever possible. Why? As the goal of the deadlift is to lift as much weight as possible, minimising the range of motion to travel will make the lift easier. Also, you are normally stronger in shorter ranges. For example, your quarter squat is going to be much stronger than an ass-to-grass squat. Shortening the moment arm makes it easier to extend the hips.

The Deadlift Set Up

With that biomechanical knowledge, let’s now look at the set-up of the deadlift. The idea is to keep the bar in a straight vertical line when lifting. For that reason the starting position of the deadlift must optimise the body in a position to create a vertical line of pull. When reviewing your own or a friend’s deadlift, use the points discussed below to perfect the lift.

Bar starting position

It is important to start with the bar over the middle of your foot. The mid-foot is your balance point and the direction gravity will act upon. Your hip height and shoulder position will all impact the bar being over the mid-foot and are discussed in more detail below.

Hip height

Hip height will dictate the inclination of the shins. If your hip height is too low the shins will travel forward, creating unwanted space between the middle of your foot and the bar. The further you lower your hips into more of a squat position the longer the moment arm becomes. If you watch someone deadlift with this set-up, most lifts, if closer to the heavier range of their 1RM (one rep maximum), will not come off the floor as the moment arm between the bar and mid food is too large. Many coaches will say that your hips should not lift first in the deadlift. If they do it is highly likely the bar is not over your mid-foot during the set-up. When this occurs, the hips raise without the bar moving until the bar is moved over the mid-foot; at that point the bar then comes off the ground.

The take-home message is that the hips must remain high during your deadlift set-up to keep the bar over your mid-foot, decreasing the moment arm. If you are starting in a squat position you are not in an efficient or correct position for a deadlift.

Arm/Shoulder Position

You want to minimise effort. Therefore, you want your shoulder blades to be positioned over the bar. In order to do so your arms must be on a backward slant. That slant in relation to your lat muscle attachment should be 90 degrees. This angle will aid a vertical bar path. If the bar is too far out in front of you it is more effort for your shoulders. Think of a front raise, holding the weight straight in front of you when standing is the hardest and heaviest position.

A 90-degree angle between the lats and the humerus is one of the primary determinants of proper hip height in the deadlift. When hips are low, more like in a squat position, the angle will be lower than 90 degrees. When the hips are up too high, the angle will be greater than 90 degrees. When the hip height step-up causes correct arm inclination creating that magic 90 degree angle between the arm and lat, you are in the best position to lift. This position, as long as the lats stay engaged throughout, will help create a vertical bar path.

Bar Path

As highlighted in the set-up points, you want the bar to travel in a straight, vertical direction. For example line (A) and (B) cover the same vertical distance, however, line (A) is longer. If this occurs during the deadlift it means you had to use more energy and the lift was not as efficient as it could have been.

The bar path is very important as it is the most efficient movement of the barbell with regards to gravity. Any starting position that does not place the bar over the mid-foot or create a backward slant of the arms will cause two things. One, the bar will not travel vertically, or two, alter the back angle. The end result of these will be wasted energy, not resulting in your strongest possible lift.

Set-up key checks

– Is the bar over your mid-foot?
– Are your shins vertical?
– Is the bar directly underneath your shoulder blades?
– Are the shoulders slightly in front of the bar?

If you answered yes to all four questions, now it is time to take tension through your body. Pull the slack out of the bar by pulling the bar into the plates. After taking tension and pulling the slack out of the bar you’re ready to lift. Taking tension up first will stop the jerk off the ground and maintain stability.

Sumo Deadlifts vs. Conventional Deadlifts

An article published in 2000 by Escamilla et al, A Three Dimensional Biomechanical Analysis of Sumo and Conventional Style Deadlifts, looked at the differences between the sumo and conventional style deadlift of 24 powerlifters. They analysed 12 sumo and 12 conventional-style lifters during a national powerlifting championship. They focused on grip and foot width, foot angle, bar speed and distance, work, lift time and joint angles at various stages of the lift.

The article found some interesting results about exercise selection based on body size. Out of the 110 powerlifters observed during in the study, 70 per cent used the conventional style, whereas 30 per cent used the sumo style. Broken down into weight classes however, in the heavier division (90-125 kg), 85 per cent used the conventional style and only 15 per cent used sumo. But in the lighter weight classes (52-82 kg), only 55 per cent used the conventional style, whereas 45 per cent used sumo. On this small population assessment it appears conventional is more common, however, lighter lifters are more evenly split between the styles.

joint position sumo vs conventional deadlifts

The three stages of a deadlift are lift-off, knee passing and sticking point. At lift-off the sumo set-up, compared to conventional, is a more upright position with the thigh closer to horizontal and the shin bone more vertical. At knee passing, the hips and knees had greater flexion angles in the sumo set-up whereas at knee passing for the conventional set-up you are closer to lockout in a more upright position.

The sticking point of the two is also different. Bar speed is lowest at the sticking point – the most difficult point of the lift and where many lifters fail. At the sticking point the sumo set-up has your upper body more upright, your thigh closer to the horizontal and your shins less vertical compared to the conventional. It can be said that the sticking point of the conventional happens closer to lockout of the knee and hip compared to the sumo (relative to upright position).

Foot positioning

In relation to foot angles during the deadlift, the sumo foot turnout is 40-45 degrees compared to 10-15 degrees for the conventional deadlift.

The sumo has a two to three times wider foot stance compared to the conventional, while the conventional group has a 17 per cent wider hand grip.

Mechanical work

An interesting point to note is that the total mechanical work of the conventional lift is significantly greater. This may occur due to greater range of motion performed in the conventional lift. Overall, 25-30 per cent less mechanical work was performed in the sumo compared with the conventional deadlift.

Muscle activity

The deadlift is a main exercise for the posterior chain muscles as well as your quads. This includes all muscles on the back of your legs and trunk.

Starting at the lower limb, an interesting finding is that the gastrocnemius muscle was mainly activated during the conventional deadlift whereas the sumo deadlift had greater activity in the tibialis anterior (muscle on the front of your shin). Moving up the leg, the conventional deadlifts had greater hamstring activity compared to the sumo which had greater quadriceps activity. Both styles of deadlifts had very similar glute activity.

During the deadlift all of your back muscles will be used. This includes your spinal erectors, traps, rhomboids and lats. The lats are such an important muscle during the deadlift and underutilised in the beginner’s deadlift. The lats attach to the humerus bone, upper part of the arm and are the muscle group during the deadlift responsible for keeping that important 90-degree angle (discussed earlier) as you go to pull the bar off the floor.

Deadlifting for Rehab

The deadlift is a closed-chain exercise that requires the hamstrings and quadriceps to work, therefore it may be a good ACL rehabilitation exercise or a beneficial exercise for most knee issues that require greater strength.

When it comes to back injuries Cholewicki et al have shown that compared with the conventional deadlift, the sumo deadlift generated a 10 per cent reduction in the L4/L5 moment and an 8 per cent decrease in the L4/L5 shear force5. This may suggest that your lower back is under less stress and therefore at lower risk of injury during the sumo deadlift. The downside, however, is that the conventional lift maybe more beneficial for strengthening the back and hamstring muscles.

In Summary

The deadlift can be performed in a sumo or conventional style. It is a very common exercise performed in many training settings. The set-up of the deadlift is very important as it makes sure you have a straight vertical bar path which is the most efficient direction for the barbell to go. There are various differences between the two types of lifts including the set-up of hands, hips and feet. There are also slight variations of muscle activity in the lower limbs; however, overall it is a posterior chain dominant exercise.

If performed incorrectly the deadlift can lead to severe back injuries so it is vital to understand how to perform the technique. Learn how to deadlift correctly and watch how strong you become.

Happy, heavy and safe lifting!

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