Deadlifting: Variations On A Theme

Deadlift I've always thought of the deadlift as the most under-appreciated exercise ever. The deadlift is truly an exercise in need of a face-lift!

After all, what's not to like?

• The deadlift requires nothing more than a barbell and the willingness to lift it.

• The deadlift works more muscles simultaneously than any other (including the squat).

• Since the deadlift is one of the contested events in the sport of powerlifting, there are accurate norms and statistics available (this means you can compare your deadlift performance with the truly great pulls of all time)

• You'll never get pinned under a max single (unlike the squat or bench).

• The deadlift has no equal when it comes to "real life" functionality: after all, (How valuable is it to learn how to pick up heavy objects off the floor without hurting yourself?

• The deadlift has a simple, yet unique appeal: how big a weight can you grab and stand up with?

• The deadlift is particularly "authentic:" Squat performances are greatly aided by all the various powerlifting paraphernalia, but not the deadlift, therefore, it is a better measure of "true" strength than the squat.

Despite all it's high marks however, the deadlift, just like any other exercise, doesn't fit every situation with equality: Lifters with low back symptoms should approach this lift with caution (if at all). Additionally, proper execution of a heavy dead requires the use of the Valsalva maneuver (technically, "a forced expiration through a closed glottis," or, in lay terms, "bearing down" while holding or nearly holding your breath) which can elevate blood pressure significantly. Therefore, lifters with vascular and/or heart disease must obtain medical clearance first.

Deadlift Technique and Variations:
"Okay, okay" you're saying, "I'm convinced that I should be pulling! What next?" TECHNIQUE is what's next. And despite what you may have heard, there are many "correct" ways to deadlift, depending on your objectives and unique physical makeup:

• There are ways to deadlift that target your glutes & hams, and there are ways that this lift can really whale your quads as well.

• You can pull the barbell with the objective of developing your muscles, or in a way that allows you to lift as much weight as possible.

• People with long thighs will leans forward more than short-legged lifters and that's okay, as long as you stay within certain parameters (to be discussed shortly). But let's not get bogged down in the technical minutia of this exercise. Let's start with a pretty standard description and then modify it later, based on what you're trying to accomplish:

Deadlifting For Dummies:
Standard Deadlift Technique

The Stance:
Approach the loaded barbell and assume a stance about as wide as your own shoulders while gripping the bar such that the inner aspects of your arms are slightly outside of your thighs. Another way to determine your optimal deadlift foot placement is to jump down from a box which is half your own height and "stick" the landing. Now look at your feet...this will approximate your ideal stance width and degree of foot turn-out.

Feet and Shin Position:
Feet should point straight forward or turned out to a 25 degree angle at most. The best foot angle is one which provides the least amount of hip and knee restriction when you lower the hips in preparation to lift, so don't be afraid to experiment a bit. The shins should be two to three inches from the bar and then when you actually bend down and lower your hips in preparation to lift, the shins will touch the bar. Most of the weight will be on the heels of the feet. This facilitates maximal contribution of the glutes and hamstrings. During the ascent, the bar will travel as close to the leg and shins as possible. Ideally, wear cotton sweat pants or track pants with long socks to protect your shins.

Hand Position:
A "reverse grip" should be used when deadlifting. This means that one hand will be supinated (palm faces you) and the other pronated (palm facing away). This will help keep the bar in your hand. If grip strength is not one of your training targets, feel free to use wrist straps with a conventional grip. Hold the bar high up on the palm to compensate for any roll of the bar when pulling the weight up. Generally, the grip should start with the index finger and the little finger bordering the knurling in the middle of the bar.

Head Placement And Eye Contact:
The entire spine should remain neutral, which means you look neither up nor down, but instead, the head follows the body, almost like you're wearing a cervical cast on your neck. It's OK for the head to be SLIGHTLY up (this tends to improve muscular contraction of the low back muscles) but in all cases, the lift must start with the hips down, the entire spine neutral, and the feet flat on the floor.

The Ascent:
As you stand up with the weight, imagine pushing the earth away from you with your feet. When viewed from the side, your hips and shoulders should ascend together; if the hips rise before the shoulders, it means you're using your back rather than your legs. If this happens, reduce the weight until you can perform the lift correctly and add more specific quad-strengthening exercises to your program.

The Lockout:
Competitive powerlifters are required to demonstrate control over the weight by standing up and then extending the hips forward in an exaggerated manner. If you're NOT a competitive lifter, simply stand up with the weight without this exaggerated maneuver.

The Descent:
Simply return the bar to the floor, under control, by reversing the technique you used to lift the weight.

As mentioned earlier, you'll need to employ a Valsalva maneuver to lift any kind of appreciable weight safely. The most effective breathing pattern goes like this: Immediately before you pull, take a comfortably full breath and hold. As you begin to stand up, it's OK to allow air to escape from your lungs UNDER PRESSURE. Once you've passed the sticking point, you can exhale fully. Next, inhale and hold again as you lower the bar back to the floor. Note: Most people will instinctively breath this way, so don't get too tied up with the science of breathing here.

Five Great Deadlift Variations
There are many great ways to perform deadlifts. Here are my top five picks:

1. The Stiff-Legged Deadlift:
By definition, a deadlift starts with the bar on the floor and is initiated through concentric muscle action. Therefore, strictly speaking, the stiff-leg variant really isn't a deadlift at all, but I'll include it here anyway. Set up a barbell at slightly higher than knee level (use a power rack, or set the barbell on blocks). Using a pronated grip (palms facing oneself), grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip, and step back just enough to clear the rack. Inhale, slightly bend the knees, and begin the movement with one's bodyweight over the heels. Allow the bar to descend, while ensuring it maintains contact with the front of the body. While descending, maintain the normal curvature of the lower back and neck, and allow the glutes to move rearward. Do not look up or down, but instead, maintain a normal head and neck alignment. This exercise is made more effective by maintaining bodyweight over the heels. Always use a controlled movement speed with this exercise. Never perform it rapidly or explosively. People frequently perform this exercise standing on a block, lowering the bar until it contacts the shoes. However, when maintaining proper spinal curvatures and knee position, few people, even those with very good hip flexibility, can lower the bar much past their knees.

2. The Quad-Dominant Deadlift:
In this variation, you lift the weight in the normal fashion, and then lower the bar down to the floor using as much knee flexion, and as little hip flexion as possible. This places a much greater load on the quads and much less tension on the low back, hamstrings, and glutes.

Co32005_2_hex_bar_deadlift 3. Trap-bar Deadlift: This specially-designed bar is safer and more effective than a straight bar because it allows the combined center of gravity of the weight and your body to stay closer to the mid-line of your body. This reduces the amount of forward lean, and allows the quadriceps to take over a greater share of the work from the glutes, spinal erectors, and hamstrings. The trap bar may also be used for stiff-leg deadlifts and shrugs.

4. Tweaking ROM:
It's easy to perform the deadlift through an increased or decreased range of motion if you like. To increase ROM, simply stand on an elevated surface (such as a 4-inch thick wood plank) as you perform the lift. To decrease ROM, elevate the barbell, either by placing the barbell on an elevated surface (such as wood planks) or by placing the loaded bar on the safety pins inside a power rack.

5. Eccentric-Initiated Deads: You don't have to start the deadlift with the concentric phase of the lift. To start the lift eccentrically, simply remove the bar from a waist-level support (such as the front of a power rack), step back just far enough to clear the rack, and lower the bar in standard fashion. Once the bar contacts the floor, reverse the motion and stand up with the weight.

Deadlift Records and Stats
The following statistics were compiled from the 2002 edition of Strength & Speed, available from Education Plus, 18584 Carlwyn Dr., Castro Valley CA 94546

• Andy Bolton GBR, 328 lb., lifted 925.9 lb (420 kg)
• Gary Heisey, 6'6.5, 358, when he deadlifted 925 lb. (he had broken the record several times)
• Dawn Reshel pulled 609 while weighing 198 pounds (Women's World record)
• Dave Carter, age 40, deadlifted 821 pounds
• Bill Hartmann, age 60, lifted 733 pounds
• Roy Mason, age 70, pulled 529 pounds
• John Gorton, age 80, lifted 370 pounds
• At age 90, Gorton pulled 330 pounds
• Collister Wheeler, age 97, lifted 195 pounds