Deadlift: The Forgotten Exercise
The deadlift is an integral, yet often missing component of a strength building program. That’s not to say that everyone should be performing this movement or one of its variations, but the benefits of the deadlift for a power- or strength-building program are innumerable.
The deadlift is a compound exercise targeting several muscle groups including the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, erector spinae, gluteals, hamstrings, quadriceps, and psoas (hip flexors). Your forearm muscles, which are involved in gripping the bar, are used to a lesser degree, as well as muscles involved in trunk stabilization such as your obliques.
As a compound exercise, the movement spans three joints with extension occurring at the hip, knee, and ankle joints, thus utilizing several large muscle groups.(2) When compared to isolation exercises, compound movements that involve larger muscle groups elicit a hormonal training response that results in greater strength gains.(1) The dynamics of the lift itself may also lead to greater gains in hypertrophy. (1)
The deadlift also has possible rehabilitation benefits. It has been hypothesized that the moderate to high hamstring activity elicited during the exercise may help to protect the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) during rehab.(2)
The movement translates well into real life as it mimics bending and lifting. Anyone who has a toddler is quite familiar with the motion of the lift already.
Biomechanics of the Sumo and Conventional Styles
There are two basic styles of a bent-leg deadlift; sumo and conventional. The key difference between the two styles is the placement of the feet and the width of the grip. In the sumo-style, the grip is medial to the feet; that is the grip is on the inside of the legs. The feet in the sumo-style are at about a 45-degree angle pointing outward. This style utilizes a slightly wider stance than the conventional method.
In the conventional lift, the grip is lateral to the feet (on the outside of the legs) and the feet are only slightly turned outward.
The sumo-style has gained a reputation as decreasing the stress placed on the lower lumbar by as much as 10% when compared to the conventional deadlift.(2) It also seems to be favored among those who are leaner and have longer than average torsos. Since the sumo-style requires less hip flexion and a more upright trunk position, this may benefit people of this phenotype by reducing the torque on the lower spine. We also know that the sumo-style deadlift requires much larger knee and ankle moments; more flexion of these joints is required when compared to the conventional style. (2) This implies that the quadriceps may be more active in the sumo-style lift.
The sumo-style lift requires less mechanical work than the conventional because of the wide stance.(2)
Performing the Lifts
- feet should be flat on the floor about shoulder width apart in the conventional style and slightly farther apart in the sumo-style
- grip bar with a closed, alternate grip
- legs should be flexed, as in a squat position
- bar should be as close to the shins as possible
- back posture should be straight
- begin pull by extending at the knees
- the hips and shoulders should move at the same rate, keeping back posture straight, with the shoulders above or slightly in front of the bar
- at the end of the concentric phase, thrust hips forward and abduct lats. The hip and knee joint should be fully extended.
- flex hip and knee joints to slowly lower the bar to the floor, ending in the squat position
Points to remember
- your torso should be straight throughout the movement
- at no portion of the lift should your back be rounded
- keep the bar as close to the shins as possible throughout
- feet should always be flat on the floor, pushing from the heel
- exhale through the sticking point of the concentric movement and inhale through the eccentric phase
- do not jerk the movement, it should be smooth throughout
- if your knees are moving laterally from side to side, reduce the amount of weight
- because of the many muscles involved in the lift, the deadlift may require more rest between sets than normal
As with all exercises, the deadlift is not for everyone. If you are working with a client with special needs such as lower lumbar injuries or any other joint injuries, it is important to get the doctor or chiropractor to release the client for such a movement before adding this lift to their regime.
The deadlift itself has many variations. You can use barbells for lighter weights or use a limited range of motion if the situation calls for it. There are also specialized bars that some people find more comfortable such as the combo bar or trap bar.
Because of the wide range of muscles the deadlift targets, some people use it as a warm-up lift before their workout. In whatever form you use, the deadlift should play an important role in your training program.
- Baechle, T. Essentials of Strength and Conditioning. Human Kinetics, Illinois, 1994
- Escamilla, R., et al. A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2000;32:1265-1275.
- Hatfield, F. Fitness: the Complete Guide. ISSA, Santa Barbara, 2000.
A recent study surveyed 412 physical education and personal training students? What they found out will shock you….Over half said they don’t know what proper squat form looks like!
Think about your last leg workout – how many quad dominant exercises did you do? How many hip extensor dominant exercises did you do? Was there a balance between the two? Do you even know the difference?