without bending the arms, a great many
differences in biomechanics occur as a result of the differing styles.
The conventional stance consists
of the athlete standing with the feet approximately shoulder width
apart, or slightly narrower. To position the feet properly, slide them
forward as far as possible without moving the shoulders in front of
the bar. The hips should be as close to the bar as possible as well,
but the lower back must remain arched. The head should be elevated so
that the athlete is looking forward and slightly upwards. The
shoulders should be back, but slightly rounded. Retracting the
shoulders causes the shoulder girdle to elevate, increasing the
distance the lifter must pull the bar. The athlete must grip the bar
tightly, and to ensure that the bar does not roll, a mixed grip (one
hand supinated, one hand pronated) is often employed.
The true beginning of the
deadlift is the set up, or the first phase (as it is known in Olympic
lifting), which has already been described. The next step, before
pulling the bar free from the deck is to fill the abdominal cavity
with air. While drawing in as much air as possible, the goal is to
push it down as far as possible, not fill the chest cavity. Filling
the chest cavity with air elevates the shoulders, which will increase
the distance the lifter must pull the bar.
The deadlift is initiated by
simultaneously extending the knee and hip joints. The knee will extend
due to the contraction of the quadriceps muscles (vastus lateralis,
vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and rectus femoris), and, during
the extension, may move slightly to the rear. The hip joint will
extend secondary to the contraction of the gluteus and the hamstrings
(biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus). While the
entire hamstring is active to a certain degree during the deadlift,
the semitendinosus and semimembranosus are recruited to a much greater
degree to extend the hip joint.
The bar should be pulled into
the body, as well as up. This keeps the athlete from falling forward
during the lift, as it helps maintain a far more stable combined
center of gravity (CCOG). This is where the placement of the feet is a
significant factor. If they are too far forward, causing the shins to
be closer to the bar than necessary, the bar must be pulled around the
knees, instead of past them. This shortens the lever arm distance and
reduces the resistive torque.
During this period, and indeed,
throughout the entire lift, the musculature of the upper back and
shoulders (trapezius, latissimus dorsai, teres minor, subscapularis,
infraspinatus, supraspinatus, as well as the anterior, medial and
posterior deltoids) will be undergoing an isometric contraction to
hold the bar in a stable position. In the arm, the biceps brachii,
brachialis, and brachioradialis will also contract isometrically to
stabilize the elbow joint. The forearm flexors are extremely active
during the gripping of the bar.
The erector spinae (iliocostalis
thoracis, iliocostalis lumborum, longissimus dorsai, and spinalis
dorsai) will contract during the lift, along with the
intertransversarii, interspinalis, rotores, and multifidus muscles to
bring the spine into an erect position. These muscles become more
active once the back is extended past a point that would be 60 degrees
away from vertical. The inter-transversarii, interspinalis, rotors,
and multifidus will also serve to stabilize the vertebrae and discs.
In the conventional deadlift, the torso is inclined far more than in
the sumo style, in direct contrast to recommendations for a more erect
torso to reduce shear force on the lumbar vertebrae.4,9,12
As the bar travels past the
knees, and up the thighs, several key points must be noted. It is
imperative that the knees not re-bend once they have begun to
straighten. In addition to the extra strain this will put on the
ligaments and tendons, secondary flexion of the knees (hitching) is
cause for disqualification during a competition. Another mistake that
is often made as the lift nears completion is the lifter will try to
pull the torso back, when it is far easier to simply push the hips
forward. This technique will allow the athlete to shift some of the
strain from the erectors to the larger muscles of the hips, including
the gluteus. At the top of the lift, the shoulders should be pulled
back to indicate the completion of the lift. This is not necessary for
routine training of the deadlift, but a powerlifter should practice
this to avoid unnecessary red lights.
The major difference that occurs
in the sumo deadlift is the placement of the feet. They are placed
much wider, sometimes even twice shoulder width, although this is an
extreme. The toes are turned outward, sometimes to the point where the
angle of the feet approaches 160 degrees. There are several
biomechanical advantages to this stance. The distance the bar must
travel is greatly lessened as the hip angle is on average 12 degrees
greater than the hip angles of conventional deadlifters, while the
knee angle is approximately 13 degrees greater.7,12
The trunk angle is significantly closer to vertical, which, from a
pure safety standpoint, the sumo stance decreases both L4/L5 moments
as well as shear forces.4
Furthermore, the sumo stance allows the lifter to keep the bar closer
to the body, which shortens the movement arm to the lumbar spine.12
This stance can reduce the total distance the bar travels by as much
as 25 40%.7
The functional technique in the
deadlift is different as well. The athlete pulling a conventional
deadlift will push straight down with the feet, whereas in the sumo
deadlift, the knees must be pushed out over the toes. This is
important, to avoid lateral shear force on the knee, as well as the
fact that it allows the lifter to engage the larger muscles of the
hips earlier than in the conventional stance. As a function of the bar
being closer to the lifter, it will contact the legs earlier. As the
bar slides up the thighs, it is important to ensure that the fingers
of the pronated hand are not torn open by the friction thus generated.
A modest amount of baby powder or talcum may be applied to the legs to
reduce the chance of this occurring.
One factor that has not been discussed that makes the deadlift unique
among the three powerlifts is that unlike the squat and bench, there
is no eccentric (lengthening, or lowering) portion prior to the
concentric (shortening, or raising) of the bar. This has the function
of negating the stretch reflex, a fact that is often overlooked by
many athletes and coaches alike. There is a way of generating a small
stretch reflex, which may help when initiating the lift, but nothing
like the reflex that can be generated during the other two powerlifts.
In the conventional stance, a slight rocking of the hips, which will
cause the knees to flex as well, can be employed. The lift should be
initiated when the hips are at the lowest point, and this movement
must occur rapidly. Care must be taken when doing this, as if the hips
descend too far, the lifter will be at a biomechanical disadvantage.
Unsurprisingly, there is a difference when using this technique when
pulling sumo. This technique (often called 'diving') can allow the
sumo lifter to generate a greater stretch reflex without moving out of
position, unlike the conventional deadlift. Because the feet are
father apart, instead of just raising and lowering the hips, the hips
should be lowered rapidly then thrust forward at the bottom of the
descent. This allows not only for a greater stretch reflex, but for an
even more erect torso than lifters who pull from a static position.
Variations on the Deadlift There are several varieties of the deadlift, and can be used not only
to assist in deadlift training, but can also significantly strengthen
muscles that can be impeding progress in another lift. Some of these
lifts can be used in place of the deadlift during training as well.
One of the most common variations of the deadlift is the partial
deadlift, or rack lockout. These are usually performed in a power
rack, with the pins set at a variety of heights. Pulls can be done
from one inch above the deck to a couple of inches below lockout. As a
general rule, the shorter the ROM, the more weight that can be
handled. The primary function of the partial deadlift is to not only
overload the muscles of the back, as well as increase motor
recruitment.5,18 At times, the amount of weight that can be
handled during the execution of a short range of motion rack pull can
be so great that it surpasses the amount of weight the athlete can
hold. In this case, it may be necessary to employ straps to secure the
Another common variation is the stiff-legged deadlift (SLDL) which
will work the hamstrings to a much greater degree than the
conventional deadlift.2,10 This lift should begin just like a conventional deadlift, and
should be pulled to the top in the same manner. The knees will be
stiff, but not locked, as the bar is lowered as far as possible
without allowing the back to round. The lower back should remain
arched throughout the entire lift, and if the back begins to round
despite the best attempts of the athlete, it is necessary at this
point to begin the concentric portion of the lift and raise the bar.
The bar will travel away from the lifter as the hips are flexed
progressively. There is greater torque on the hips and lumbar areas
because of the greater horizontal distance from the bar to the base of
the support than in the conventional deadlift.3,4,17
Despite the fact that numerous "muscle mags" often illustrate a lifter
performing this exercise while elevated, this should be avoided by all
at first and most athletes for the duration of their career. The
greater the range of motion, the greater the chance of lifting with a kyphotic (round
back) posture.10 Artificially increasing the ROM will serve only to
increase the chances of this occurring. It must also be noted that a
comprehensive stretching program is essential to not only athletes,
but everyone wishing to improve the ROM of this exercise.
The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) is used primarily to strengthen the
hamstrings, gluteus, and lower back, although this technique causes
less stress to the lumbar area. Unlike the SLDL, the RDL is initiated
from the floor, although the set up is roughly in-between that of the
conventional deadlift and the SLDL.23 During the ascension, the
knees should begin to straighten in advance of the hips, with the goal
of keep the torso at the same angle as in the beginning of the lift
for as long as possible. This should occur while maintaining normal
spinal curvature. Pulling in such a manner allows the athlete to keep
the bar closer to the base of support, decreasing the strain on the
lumbar area when compared to the SLDL. As the knees fully straighten,
the hips shall travel toward the rear slightly, then the hips are then
powerfully flexed, fully utilizing the hamstrings and erectors to
complete the lift. This lift is often performed by Olympic style
weightlifters to increase the strength of the clean pull.
Another variation that is not often performed is the Snatch Grip
Deadlift (SGL). This version of the deadlift is similar to a
conventional deadlift, with the only difference occurring in the
placement of the hands upon the bar. The grip is at least one and a
half times shoulder width, while larger lifters will often grip collar
to collar. A good general guide to novices is to extended the arms out
to the sides, then bend only at the elbow. The bar should be held at
approximately the width of the elbows. The difficulty of maintaining
the grip in such a position, as the mixed grip cannot be used, will
require the used of straps for those not very experienced in utilizing
the hook grip. This lift will further stress the musculature of the
upper back, particularly the trapezius.19 This lift is often
performed by Olympic style weightlifters to increase power of the
first pull, making it easier for the athlete to raise weights from the
A simple method of increasing the ROM of a deadlift is for the athlete
to stand on a block. Once again, care must be taken to avoid kyphotic
lifting posture. The increase in ROM will necessitate a decrease in
There are far too many methods of
training to improve the deadlift to list here. A few will be briefly
Periodization. This is a simple yet effective method of decreasing the
volume while increasing the weight. This process occurs over a period
of weeks or months. It is by far the most common method of training,
although lifters are branching out in new directions daily. This
method has been discussed in great detail in numerous other works, and
will not be discussed further here.
Conjugate Training. This is a system of training the musculature of
the lift without overtraining the CNS with respect to a single lift.
The deadlift is not trained heavy throughout the cycle, and in some
training cycles, may be trained only rarely. This method was first
used in Olympic weightlifting by the incredibly successful Soviet
Dynamo Club.24 It was later used by the original Westside Barbell
Club in the 1960's and 1970's, as well as some lifters on the East
coast, including Bill Starr, a former Olympic weightlifter turned
coach.21 It is currently the system employed by the new Westside
Barbell Club, of Columbus, Ohio, under the coaching of Louie Simmons,
the most successful coach in powerlifting history.20 This method
will involve heavy assistance work for the lift itself, such as
partial deadlifts, good mornings, etc. A list of assistance exercises
can be found
An interesting variation for training the deadlift was employed by the
great Don Rheinholdt, the first man to squat 900 lbs. in competition
as well as being one of the first to deadlift over 800 lbs. He would
set up with his opener in the power rack eight inches off of the deck,
and pull it. He would then drop the pins one inch every week until the
week before the meet, when the plates were just a single inch off of
the floor. This allowed him to preserve his lower back while
maintaining proper form.
A final word on a couple of myths. Numerous "experts" have cautioned
against utilizing the deadlift, incorrectly stating that it is
hazardous to perform. This is true, if the above cautions are not
employed. While there can be a place for round back lifting in the
program of the highly advanced lifter, this is a mistake for most and
will not be discussed further. Other self proclaimed authorities state
that you must wear a belt when deadlifting. A belt can help increase
intra-abdominal pressure, as well as increase the force generated when
deadlifting. However, the majority of the deadlifting done by any
athlete should be performed without a belt to further recruit the core
muscles (abdominals, obliques, etc.).
Bacchle, T.R. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning.
IL: Human Kinetics, 1994.
Baker, G. Exercise of the month. Strength Cond. J. 16:54-55.1994.
Brown, E.W., and Abani, K. Kinematics and kinetics of the deadlift
in adolescent powerlifters. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 17:554-563. 1985.
Cholewicki, J., McGill, S.M., and R.W. Norman. Lumbar spine loads
during the lifting of extremely heavy weights. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc.
Daniels, D. Partial lifts, partial results.
Powerlifting USA. 17:27 1993.
Daniels, D. Lifting straps.
Powerlifting USA. 19:17 1996.
Escamilla, R.F. et al. A
three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional
style deadlifts. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., 32(7): 1265-1275. 2000.
Enoka, R.M. Neuromechanical Basis of Kinesiology. Champaign, IL: Human
Farley, K. Analysis of the conventional deadlift.
Strength Cond. J. 17:55-57. 1995.
Gardner, P.J. and Cole, D. The
stiff-legged deadlift. Strength Cond. J. 21:7-14. 1999.
J. Weightlifting and training. In: Biomechanics of Sport. C.L.
Vaughan, ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1989. pp 169-211.
M.D. and Garhammer, J. Analysis and assessment of human movement
performance. In: Kinesiology and Applied Anatomy. P.J. Rasch, ed.
Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger, 1989. pp 247-258.
Horn, T.S. A biomechanical comparison of sumo and conventional
deadlifting techniques. Int. J. Sports Med. 9:150. 1988.
Jones, L. USWF Club Coach Accreditation Course: Club Coach Manual. Colorado
Springs, CO: U.S. Weightlifting Federation. 1991
Kraemer, W.J. and
Fleck, S.J. Strength Training for Young Athletes. Champaign, IL: Human
McLaughin, T.M., Dillman, C.J., and Lardner, T.J.
A Kinematic model of performance in the parallel squat by champion
powerlifters. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 9:128-133. 1977.
M.R.M., and B.D. Wilson. Biomechanical analysis of the deadlift. J.
Strength Cond. Res. 10:250-255. 1996.
Piper, T.J. and Waller, M.
Variations of the deadlift. Strength Cond. J.
23: (3) 66-73).
Rasch, P.J. Weight Training (2nd ed.). Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown
Company Publishers. 1975.
Simmons, L. So you want to deadlift.
Powerlifting USA. 17:34-35. 1994.
Starr, B. Deadlift without
deadlifting. Powerlifting USA. 18:10-11. 1995.
Tate, D. Top Ten
Whaley, O., and McClure, R. Another
perspective on teaching the pulling movements. Strength Cond. J.
Zatsiorsky, V.M. Science and Practice of Strength
Training. Champaign IL. Human Kinetics. 1995.
Zinc, A. J.,
Whiting, W.C., Vincent, W.J., and McLaine, A.J. The effects of a
weight belt on trunk and leg muscle activity and joint kinematics
during the squat exercise. J. Strength Cond. Res. 15(2):235-240. 1994.