For the first half of my lifting career, I avoided deadlifts. (I was guilty of doing the same with squats.) Why? They were hard, and I just really didn't want to do them. Sound familiar?
Then I decided that my back needed to be brought up to the same level as the rest of my body. I consistently started incorporating deadlifts, and that made all the difference. When I did my first series of natural pro shows in 2010, the judges couldn't believe the changes I'd made to my back size and density. Now five years later, my back's gotten even bigger, and my deadlift has gotten even better.
When I began deadlifting consistently, I did more than just pick up heavy bars, though; I researched proper form and how to execute the lift. I also learned from some of the best people I know, including Ben Esgro, Dr. Mike Zourdos, and USAPL World Team head coach Matt Gary. Compiling all of that information led me to where I am today, and I'll use those same lessons to teach you how to deadlift safely and efficiently using both the conventional and sumo stance.
Don't fear the deadlift. Master it with my complete guide!
Layne Norton's How to Deadlift
Watch the video - 12:23
How to Deadlift Everything You Need to Consider
Just as I noted in my squat and bench press tutorials, equipment can make a big difference in your deadlift performance. However, unlike those other two lifts, it's important that you put one of the most popular gym accessories in the bag in order to deadlift safely. I'm talking about your cushy shoes!
Footwear is very important for deadlifts. You're looking for three things:
- A lot of grip
- A flat sole
- A build that's low to the ground
The lower to the ground you are, the shorter the distance you have to pull the bar, and the better your form will be. If you use a shoe with a raised heel, you'll have to raise the bar further. For that reason, I definitely don't recommend squat shoes for deadlifting.
I also don't recommend sneakers, running shoes, or other popular cushioned footwear. They're probably the worst things you can wear. You want something with a hard sole. A sneaker sole is very soft, and you'll be losing energy transfer when you deadlift. The heavier the weight you're pulling, the more important it is to be rooted into the ground. This is why I recommend things like deadlift slippers, wrestling shoes, or Chuck Taylors.
As with the squat, a sturdy weight belt can be helpful for your deadlift, because it gives you something to brace your abdominal wall against and keeps you more upright as you complete the movement.
As I discussed in my guide to the squat, most people wear their belt too low. I recommend wearing your belt just under your ribs, right where your abdominal wall pushes out when you brace for a lift.
Belt tightness is up to you. But I don't recommend setting it so tight that you can't brace effectively. But you also don't want it so loose that it doesn't provide support. I recommend keeping it one notch off of the absolute tightest setting you can possibly go. I recommend a good 10- to 13-millimeter powerlifting belt.
Maintaining a straight bar path is very important during deadlifts. It is also important to keep the bar as close as possible to your body. This means that if you're not wearing long socks or tights, you're going to scrape your shins; in fact, it may leave you bruised and bloodied. I recommend wearing either knee-high socks, tights, or long pants—provided they don't restrict your mobility—during your deadlifts.
Straps or chalk
Another piece of equipment that can be useful is straps. Now, if grip is a problem for you and you're a competitive powerlifter, by all means train without straps. But if grip isn't a problem, or you're just a bodybuilder who is looking to maximize muscle mass and doesn't want to worry about your grip, there's nothing wrong with strapping up.
If you're not going to use straps on a deadlift, I recommend using chalk. It will enable you to get a better grip on the bar, making it easier to complete the lift.
Now that we've covered equipment, let's talk about the components that make up a good deadlift, both for the conventional style and sumo. How do you know which one is for you? That's a complicated question that's beyond the scope of what we're discussing here. The easy answer?
Try both, stick with the one that feels stronger and safer, and have someone who knows their stuff look at your form.
How wide you plant your feet in a conventional deadlift is going to vary based on your unique body. But in general, it's best to stand in the position where you can generate the most power. That is typically the width where you would be able to jump the highest in a standing vertical leap.
Your hand position should be just outside of your shins. If you grip too wide, you'll have to pull the bar a longer distance than necessary, and you can place excessive stress in places you don't want it. So keep your arms as close to your shins as you can.
Optimal starting position will be with your shins at 90 degrees to the ground and your scapula over the bar. This will ensure that you pull the bar in a straight line and generate maximum force.
Before you begin the movement, you want to take in a deep breath and brace your abdominal wall. This is going to protect your spine and enable you to generate more force.
Before you start the movement, you also want to pull the slack out of the bar by engaging your lats. Many people jerk the bar off the ground violently, but this is incorrect and unsafe. Jerking the bar off of the ground is likely to put whip into the bar, cause your lower back to round, and prevent you from keeping a straight bar path.
Foot positioning on a sumo deadlift is more variable than on conventional, but you should set up so that your shins end up at 90 degrees when you begin to pull. An easy way to find your foot position is to look into a mirror, get into your starting position, and then play around with different foot widths. Find the one where your shins are at 90 degrees to start the movement.
On a sumo deadlift, you also have to point your toes out. How much will vary depending on your hip mobility and stance width, among other factors. If you point your toes forward, your knees will be in the way, and it'll be much harder to complete the movement. Your hand position should be a straight line down to the bar.
The rest of the setup points for sumo are very similar to conventional. You want your shins at 90 degrees to the ground and your scapula over the bar. Then you breathe and brace, engage your lats, and pull the slack out of the bar.
Many of the cues for execution of the two deadlift types are very similar. Interestingly, neither of them involves thinking about pulling the weight upward. After you've breathed in deep, braced, and pulled out the slack, initiate the movement by thinking about trying to bend the bar toward you. That will engage your lats automatically. You should feel really, really tight and tense from head to toe at this point.
After that, things are a little different.
Conventional deadlift execution
To get the weight moving in a conventional deadlift, think about pushing the floor away. It's actually quite similar to how you perform a leg press, if that helps you imagine it. You've got your thighs close to your abdominal wall, and you're pressing the weight away from you. But instead of the leg sled, think about that being the ground. You're pressing the ground away from you.
As soon as the weight leaves the ground, think about squeezing your glutes and driving your hips forward, not moving the weight up. This will enable you to keep a straight bar path and lock out more effectively.
Sumo deadlift execution
Unlike in the conventional deadlift, where you want to initiate the movement by pushing the floor away from you, in a sumo deadlift you want to initiate the movement by thinking about spreading the floor apart.
Once the bar has left the ground, think about squeezing your glutes and driving your hips forward, just as you would with a conventional deadlift.
Locking out and lowering
As you lock out, stand erect, but don't hyperextend your lower back. Just stand straight up and solidify your lower back.
Once you're locked out, don't just drop the weight, but don't lower it too slowly, either. Many people injure their lower backs by trying to lower the bar too slowly, which puts a lot of torque on the spine. The easiest way to lower the bar is to unlock your glutes and let your hips drive back. Then, while still holding on to the bar, let it lower to the ground in a controlled fall along the same bar path it came up.
It's worth noting that conventional and sumo deadlifts won't feel the same in terms of speed. A conventional deadlift is typically going to be very fast off the floor and slower to lock out. On the other hand, a proper sumo deadlift is slower off the floor but fast to lock out.
This means the "sticking points" of the lifts are usually different. Once you start to go heavy or think about competing you may need to change which accessory exercises you use to solve those sticking points.
The deadlift is one of the lifts most commonly performed incorrectly in the gym, and a lot of people have sore backs to show for their efforts. I don't want this to be the case for you.
The biggest and most dangerous mistake I see on deadlifts is rounding the lower back, also known as spinal flexion. This creates uneven pressure on the discs, and is likely to lead to a back injury.
Another common mistake is allowing the bar to drift away from the shins. The further away from your body the bar gets, the longer the lever or "moment" arm, and the greater the torque on your lower back. Keeping the bar as close to your shins as possible ensures that you can apply the maximum amount of force and move the bar more effectively and safely.
People often fail to engage their lats and take the slack out of the bar. This increases the whip that goes into the bar, which then increases the likelihood that the bar will separate from your shins, and can make it difficult to lock out.
Here's one we've all been guilty of at one point or another: locking your knees too early, sending your hips up high. While locking your knees earlier will help you get the bar off the ground faster, it will make locking out much more difficult because the bar will have separated from your shin, increasing the torque. This is very common during max attempts, or when someone is trying to lift a weight that's too heavy for them.
Another critical mistake I see is people overdipping their hips and basically trying to squat the bar off the ground. Let's be clear: The deadlift is not a squat! The power comes primarily from your posterior chain—hamstrings, hips, and back—on a deadlift, not the anterior chain like your quads. People who have longer legs won't be able to get a lot of quadriceps into the movement, especially on a conventional deadlift, and they'll find themselves hitting a ceiling pretty quickly.
But just as importantly, to exert the maximum amount of force, the shins have to be perpendicular and the shoulder blades have to be over the bar. If you overdip your hips and lean too far back, your shoulder blades will be behind the bar. This means you will have to come forward to get them back in proper position. If you come forward as you start the movement, you are much more likely to have the bar separate from your shin, lock your knees too early, and round your lower back.
Touch and go or reset?
While many people like to perform touch-and-go deadlifts, I do not. I see too many people bouncing the bar, and with each rep, they get less and less tight and get in a worse and worse position.
I recommend taking a split second to let the bar settle, make sure you're in a good position, and restart the movement.
Don't just do the deadlift—practice it!
Deadlifting is a skill. That means it takes practice. The more you do it, the better you'll get at it. That may sound daunting, but it doesn't have to be.
I recommend starting light, focusing on bar path and the cues we discussed, and getting comfortable with the movement before you really start getting heavy.
Remember: The deadlift is a high-reward movement, but it's also high risk if it's not done properly. I realize that's a lot of information to process at one time, so I recommend watching this video several times to pick up more tips. Then go set up, get tight, and move some weight!