Everyone has their favorite exercise.
For most casual weightlifters, it’s probably the bench press.
The bench press is a gold standard that even the most exercise illiterate can understand and are familiar with. And besides, who doesn’t love chest day?
A more serious weightlifter might list their favorite movement as the king of all exercises, the back squat.
The squat is great for a number of reasons. One of which is its simplicity - you put a heavy weight on your back, squat down and then stand back up.
For my favorite exercise I’m going to go with something even more basic than the squat - the deadlift.
The Importance of the Deadlift
You cannot think of a simpler and easily identifiable display of strength than picking up something heavy off of the floor.
I also feel that the deadlift translates to real world functional strength better than any other exercise, both for athletes and every day Joes.
The reason for this is the way the deadlift strengthens the entire posterior chain - basically the muscles that run along the back of your body from head to toe, most notably the lower back erectors, glutes, and hamstrings.
The posterior chain plays a crucial role in speed and just about every type of strength position or movement.
Don’t believe me? Try not using your lower back while moving furniture around the house.
Let’s start with the three main deadlift variations.
1. Conventional Deadlift
Squat down with a narrow stance and grab the bar with an over/under grip. Your arms should be completely vertical and positioned right outside of your knees. Flatten your lower back and pull any “slack” out of the bar to engage your glutes.
Begin to pull the bar off of the ground by driving with your legs. Once the bar reaches your knees, drive your hips forward towards the bar. Lower the weight under control back to the starting position.
This style of deadlift places more strain on the lower back than the other variations.
2. Sumo Deadlift
Get tight to the bar with a wide stance and squat down and grab the bar (arms inside of legs) with an over/under grip. Keep your back flat and abs engaged as you pull the weight off the ground, pushing your hips to the bar as you stand up.
Lower the weight under control to the starting position, or on max effort single reps, drop the weight after locking out at the top. A sumo deadlift places more emphasis on the glutes and to some degree the quads than a conventional stance.
This is probably the best variation for increasing sport specific speed (running, jumping, etc).
3. Snatch Grip Dead Lift
Squat down with a narrow stance and grab the bar with a wide, double-over hand grip. Keep your lower back flat and “pull the bar apart” to keep your upper back tight as you pull the weight off the floor.
The snatch grip is the most difficult variation and places more strain on the upper back and lats.
Despite its simplistic nature and basic form, the deadlift is also one of the easiest ways to injure yourself if done incorrectly. Here are the two biggest mistakes I see:
1. Losing position in the low back but finishing the rep.
The lower back erectors must stay engaged throughout the movement, keeping the back relatively flat.
If you feel your lower back relax and begin to “bend” at any point, immediately let go of the bar rather than fighting through the remainder of the motion.
2. Not warming up properly or activating the glutes and hamstrings.
Due to the sedentary nature of today’s society, it’s (unfortunately) normal for a person to walk around all day with their glutes and hammies off line or not firing properly.
If your hamstrings and glutes are asleep at the wheel, your body will compensate by stressing the low back, QL, and other core muscles to try and complete the pull. This is a recipe for injury. Always before a deadlift:
Stretch the psoas: Since the psoas (the main hip flexor) is an antagonist to the glutes, it is important to get it to relax so it does not inhibit the glutes from firing. If you do a lot of running, climbing, or leg raises, chances are your psoas is over active. Kneel down on one knee, stretching and twisting towards your front leg.
Glute activation: Make sure the glutes, one of the strongest muscles in the body, are online and ready to work. Lay on your back with your knees bent. Push through your heals and arch up slightly until you can squeeze the glutes. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat for 5 reps.
Death by Deadlift Challenge
Now that you understand all of the ins and outs of my favorite exercise, how about a challenge? Benching your bodyweight for reps is a fun challenge, but I’m not an advocate of doing high volume rep sets on the deadlift, because I believe that leads to compensation and injury.
I wanted to come up with a deadlift challenge that uses heavy weight and incorporates some volume without doing high reps. Enter the “Death by Deadlift” challenge.
Set up: Single reps, trading off with a partner for 10 minutes.
|80-85% of 1RM
Start by doing a few warm up sets and gradually work up to roughly 80-85% of your max. Just to give you an idea, if your conventional deadlift max is 385, then you will use 315 for the workout. Set a timer for 10 minutes and trade off with a partner for single reps.
I would recommend setting a good pace, but not too fast. You will need a little bit of recovery between reps, so three singles per minute is a good goal to shoot for. If you can get more than 30 reps in 10 minutes, then I would suggest using a slightly heavier weight the next time.
It’s important to make sure to set up properly for each pull, engage the posterior chain, and keep your lower back flat and in good position.
A fun twist you can put on the challenge is to alternate between sumo and conventional stance with every rep. If your training partner has a significantly different 1RM than you, set up 2 separate bars so there is no plate changing required.
Overall this is a fun challenge to work into your deadlift programming that will test your focus and recovery.