The deadlift is a potent muscle and strength building exercise second only to squats. There are two primary deadlift variations:
- Conventional deadlift. A conventional deadlift is performed with your feet approximately shoulder width apart.
- Sumo stance deadlift. A sumo stance deadlift is performed with a very wide foot stance.
In muscle building workouts, deadlifts are generally placed in back workouts (on back days). Deadlifts heavily tax the traps, upper back, lower back, abs, as well as the hamstrings, hips, glutes, quads and forearms. In fact, there are very few muscle groups not impacted by the deadlift.
Inexperienced lifters often view the deadlift as a standing leg press while holding a barbell. Attempting to perform the deadlift in this manner as a leg exercise is an incorrect approach and will lead to poor deadlift form and the possibility of lower back injuries.
How To Deadlift: Proper Deadlift Form And Set Up
It is rare to see beginning lifters practicing proper deadlift form. Far too many trainees perform the lift at a mechanical disadvantage, trying to lift the bar with their hips up. This resembles a Romanian deadlift or stiff-leg deadlift and is hard on the lower back.
To deadlift properly, follow these guidelines:
- Feet. Position your feet about halfway under the bar. From a side view it should look like the bar is running directly through the middle of your feet. Looking down, it can be difficult to gauge if your foot position is correct, so ask another lifter for guidance or video tape your deadlift set up.
- Stance. Your feet should be at a comfortable and natural width, but not too wide. Toes can be pointed just a hair outward, but you should not deadlift pigeon-toed.
- Grab the bar. With your feet properly in place, reach down and grab the bar using either a double overhand grip or an alternating grip. An alternating grip will allow you to hold more weight.
- Sink your hips. Sink your hips until your shins touch the barbell. You want to feel like your hips are in a natural and powerful/maximal position of leverage, so you may need to raise or lower them just slightly. If you start the deadlift with your hips too high you will be at a mechanical disadvantage and will tax your lower back. Starting with your hips too low will also cause you to lose your leverage and power.
- Head. Next, you want to make sure your eyes are at least looking directly ahead. During the deadlift your body will follow your head. If you start the deadlift while looking down, there is a good chance your hips will lift up causing you to lose form and lift with your lower back. This is a very common deadlift mistake.
- Back. Make sure your lower back is not rounded. You do not want to start the deadlift with a rounded lower back.
Deadlift: Performing The Lift
Now that you are in a proper set up position, it's time to perform the deadlift. Do not try pulling the bar off the floor. Though the deadlift is often called the pull, lifters who mentally focus on pulling the bar off the ground often raise their hips too high at the start of the lift. They also tend to move their heads down when pulling, which also contributes to an elevation of the hips. This causes the deadlift to be performed like a Romanian deadlift. It is a bad leverage position, and can strain the lower back.
Instead of pulling on the bar, concentrate on standing up with the bar in your hands. Standing up is a natural movement, and by keeping the deadlift as natural as possible, you will tend to keep better leverage and form throughout the lift.
Start this standing up movement with the head. Lead with the head. Think about exploding your head upward while trying to stand erect. The body will follow the head.
As the bar rises above the knees, try to thrust your hips forward. Many deadlifts fail at lockout because lifters are still “pulling” on the bar. At lockout, focus only on:
- Standing up. Again, a natural movement.
- Driving your hips. Thrust your hips forward.
Remember, the deadlift is not really a pull. Pulling objects off the ground in a bent over position is not a natural movement, but standing up is.
Are Deadlifts Dangerous?
Are deadlifts a dangerous movement? They are no more dangerous than any other compound exercise performed with poor form. Day in and day out, gyms rats across the world bounce barbells off their chest while bench pressing, or continue to use the knee-destroying half-squat.
The biggest mistake you can make is trying to perform deadlifts from an unnatural body position. Read and re-read the form tips presented in this guide and practice them with a moderate weight. Start the deadlift with the hips in a position of strength and maximal leverage, and stand up (leading with the head) instead of pulling.
If something feels wrong, it probably is. Video tape your deadlift session and have experienced lifters on the Muscle & Strength forum critique your form. To post your videos, visit the Form Critique Thread.
Comparing Sumo And Conventional Deadlifts
The following is a comparison between sumo deadlifts and conventional deadlifts. Also included at the end of this guide is a chart that will help you determine which deadlifting style is right for you.
Deadlift – Muscle Emphasis
- Conventional deadlift. Conventional deadlifts place more emphasis on the back and spinal erectors (posterior chain). If you have a very strong lower back there is a good chance that you will be able to deadlift more using a conventional stance. (Body structure will also come into play)
- Sumo deadlift. Sumo deadlifts shift some of the emphasis to glutes, hamstrings, quads, hips and upper traps. If you are experiencing lower back issues, or have a history of lower back problems, sumo deadlifts may be a better option.
Deadlift – Bone Structure
- Conventional deadlift. Lifters with a short torso and long arms will generally perform better using conventional deadlifts.
- Sumo deadlift. Lifters with a long torso and short arms will generally perform better using sumo deadlifts.
For more information see the chart at the end of this guide.
Deadlift – Bar Travel
- Conventional deadlift. The bar must travel a longer distance.
- Sumo deadlift. Bar travel is shorter. Theoretically, a very wide stance makes for a better one rep max. But very wide stance sumo deadlifts can be hard on the hips and might take some time to get used to.
Deadlift – Foot Position
- Conventional deadlift. Feet are generally straight forward or angled slightly outward.
- Sumo deadlift. Feet should be angled along the line that runs from the middle of your upper thigh to the middle of your ankle. Unusual foot angles not along this plane can stress the knee and reduce leverage.
Making the switch. Switching from one deadlift style to the other won’t always translate into improvements, even if the new style is better suited for your body type. Because both styles rely on different muscle groups (to varying degrees), you may need to bring up some weaknesses before seeing any improvements in strength.
Experienced deadlifters. Some experienced deadlifters who have spent years with one style may see a large drop in their one rep max when making the switch. Years have been dedicated to building up muscle strength for that particular style, and they may have some weaknesses to overcome.
Training both. If you decide to try and make a switch, continue to practice your existing style of deadlifting until you feel very comfortable with the new style. Train both equally in one way, shape or form.
Beginners. If you are a beginner, don’t assume – based on the information presented in this guide – that you will be better at one form of deadlifting over the other. Try both. One style may feel more natural, or better suited for your current strengths and weaknesses.
Romanian deadlift. It is quite common for beginning lifters to have sub-par conventional deadlift form. Sub-par form will often turn a deadlift into a Romanian deadlift. If you are having this issue, and have tried everything possible to correct your form but failed, it might be worth your time to practice sumo deadlifts for a while.
Assistance work. If you are training for powerlifting and performing assistance work, it is beneficial to use synergistic stance widths. For example, if you use sumo deadlifts, assistance exercises could include wide stance variations of good mornings, box squats and Romanian deadlifts.
More On Bone Structure
Recently Dr. Michael Hales published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal defined the differences between a short and long torso, and short and long arms. By using a tape measure and the assistance of a lifting buddy, you can measure which deadlift style might be best for you.
- Step 1 – Measure the length of your torso starting at the greater trochanter to the top of your head. The greater trochanter is the bony protrusion at the top of your thigh. This measurement should be taken vertically, and not at an angle.
- Step 2 – Measure your arm length starting at the bony part located at the top of the shoulder, to the end of the tip of your middle finger. Make sure your arm is straight when taking this measurement.
- Step 3 – Measure your height. (Don’t guess)
Torso length. Divide your torso length (in inches) by your height in inches.
- Short torso – If this calculated ratio is less than 47%, you have a short torso.
- Long torso – If this calculated ratio is greater than 47%, you have a long torso.
Arm length. Divide your arm length (in inches) by your height in inches.
- Short arms – If this calculated ratio is less than 38%, you have short arms.
- Long arms – If this calculated ratio is greater than 38%, you have long arms.
Comparing Torso And Arm Size To Determine Which Deadlift Style Is Best For You
Now that you have calculated your torso and arm size, use the following chart to determine if you are better suited for conventional or sumo deadlifts:
- Short Arms and Short Torso – Either Conventional or Sumo
- Short Arms and Average Torso – Sumo Deadlift
- Short Arms and Long Torso – Sumo Deadlift
- Average Arms and Short Torso – Conventional Deadlift
- Average Arms and Average Torso – Either Conventional or Sumo
- Average Arms and Long Torso – Sumo Deadlift
- Long Arms and Short Torso – Conventional Deadlift
- Long Arms and Average Torso – Conventional Deadlift
- Long Arms and Long Torso – Either Conventional or Sumo