Simply put, the deadlift is one of the most beneficial lifts you can include in your training for building posterior chain strength, abs of steel and an iron grip. It is technically, physically and spiritually demanding and as such, it gets a bad rap sometimes. Even the most prudent lifters who avoid taking unnecessary risks often hit plateaus; unable to crack the code to make the lift stronger. When I talk about deadlifting (one of my favorite topics) with trainees, friends and colleagues, I hear all sorts of curious things. The closer my own deadlift gets to triple my bodyweight (almost there!) the more vehement the comments I hear. “Isn’t that hard on your back?” “I’m stuck at (fill in the blank weight). I must just not be built for that lift.” “Can’t you pull your own arms off?” (That last one’s an old SNL Weekend Update joke. Google it, if you have a strong stomach.)
Enough of the preamble. Deadlifting isn’t dangerous, it’s how you deadlift that might be dangerous. Also, there might be ways of making what you’re already doing safely even stronger. So let’s get to it; whether it’s a kettlebell or a barbell, here are three cues to help give you a stronger, safer deadlift!
1. Practice a Rock Solid Setup
The technique in setting up for a lift is as important as the technique of the lift itself. We often say; “your setup is your first rep.” A poor setup is not only weak, it can lead to injury! Whether you choose a conventional or sumo stance, the bar should cross directly over the center of your feet. For kettlebells, the handle of the bell should be between your ankles If you’re a Sumo puller, your feet should be slightly wider than your shoulders with the toes turned out a bit (no more than 45 degrees). Although a very wide stance might feel stronger for some, it carries some greater risk of injury and has much less carryover to other sports and activities. A coach or training partner can help you find this stance, such that your arms then grip the bar parallel to each other, just inside your knees but without touching them. Conventional lifters use a narrower-than-shoulder-width stance with a slight turnout of the toes, arms parallel to each other on the outside of the legs.
With the proper stance set, actively “pull” yourself down to the weight with your hip flexors, keeping your shins near vertical. If you casually bend over, shoot your knees forward and round your back to grip the implement, even in your setup, you might be making a rounded back part of your dead lift ritual and that’s just plain risky. Along with this idea of pulling yourself down to the weight, you also want to “Preload” your body with a power breath to brace your abs and set a lower back that is “locked” in a neutral position. A good coach can help you understand the technique of “packing” your stomach with air in the setup. All these details, with the exception of the barbell grip positions described, apply to deadlifting a kettlebell, or sandbag as well as a barbell.
2. Create “Long Arms”
Biceps tendons are vulnerable tissues, and tears are not terrific. I have friends who have described the experience like this; “I started to pull and suddenly it felt like the inside of my arm just snapped and rolled up into my biceps like a window shade!” Yikes! How does this happen? Well, the amount of weight one can deadlift is usually much higher than the amount of weight one can curl with the biceps. If the arms bend while under maximal deadlift load, then you are effectively trying to curl your deadlift weight with your biceps. Those small muscles and connective tissues are just not designed for that kind of work. Even taking the risk of injury out of the equation, a bent elbow on a deadlift means you just end up lifting it higher than necessary and leaking valuable energy out of your hard-working joints. So, when deadlifting, lock those elbows and tense those triceps; it’s safer and it’s stronger.
3. “Plank” the Lockout
One of the strangest things I see in powerlifting competitions, is athletes “over lifting” their deadlifts. What do I mean by this? The deadlift is going well, the bar is almost locked out, the lifter shoots their hips forward… but suddenly shrugs their shoulders and leans back. This effectively lifts the bar higher than it had to go to count for a successful lift, and risks a back injury in the process! As the bar gets past the knees, we do indeed want to use a strong hip drive, much like the technique of a kettlebell swing, to initiate the lockout. At the top of a deadlift or swing a lifter should stand as tall as they possibly can, with a big, proud chest, hips fully extended, but no leaning back! Extending the spine under load is just a recipe for a few doctor’s office visits. The ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles should be stacked up in a nice straight line. There are no bonus points for lifting the bar higher than the other lifters. Also, this standing plank should be tight! To quote world record holder, Andy Bolton, “Without tightness, you cannot have strength. All the best lifers get tighter than the average lifters. Simple as that.”
And there you have it. A few easy to remember cues to help make your deadlifts feel strong and stay safe. If you want to dive deeper into deadlift technique, we've got all sorts of cool details to share at our "Dominate the Deadlift" Seminar coming up next month - we'd love to see you there!