Ask the majority of athletes how they would categorize “deadlifts,” and more than likely they would classify that movement as a “pulling exercise” and/or “back work.” Well, they’re wrong. And that’s not the only commonly held misconception about the deadlift. Analyzing the movement and breaking it into its component parts can yield true understanding — and bigger lifts.
The deadlift involves hip extension, knee extension and, to some degree, plantar flexion. While other joints move during this exercise, they move passively (i.e., as a result of other joint movements, not actively). The primary movers are the gluteal group, erector spinae, hamstrings and calves. Synergists, such as the trapezius, biceps and lats, contract isometrically and do not cause movement.
With that understanding, you might observe that those joint actions and primary muscles make it sound like the athlete is doing a squat or leg press. Yes, exactly.
The deadlift is not a pulling exercise; it is a pushing exercise. The difference is not only a function of muscle/joint function but also the athlete’s mental approach. You’ll see why below.
Keep these in mind as you approach a deadlift.
• With your feet in the power position (roughly shoulder width), step all the way up to the bar. The setup isn’t the same as in the clean or snatch, in which the bar stays over the toes. The bar in the deadlift should be right next to your shin in the start position.
• Sit back so your feet are flat on the floor and your hips are slightly above parallel. Your shoulders should not be in front of the bar like in other lifts but over the bar.
• Mental Orientation No. 1: In your mind’s eye, think of your arms as steel rods, starting at your shoulders and ending in steel hooks at the bar. Ergo, you cannot bend your elbows — all the force on the bar is coming from your shoulders through these attached steel rods.
• Mental Orientation No. 2: Now think of yourself in a leg-press machine in which your torso doesn’t move and your feet are on a platform. At this point, maintain tight levers and drive your feet through the floor. You’re not pulling anything; you are simply pushing down against the floor.
• As the bar breaks away from the floor, keep it in tight. It should essentially drag up your shin, knee and thigh. (Powerlifters often chalk their hands and baby-powder their thighs, so when the bar reaches their thighs, it doesn’t grab the skin.)
• Just as the bar attains knee height, it’s time for Mental Orientation No. 3: The “floor pushing” ends and the “hip pushing” begins. Think “hips forward.” If your hips move forward, you’ll have no choice but to extend at the knees and finish the movement.
• At the top, make sure your shoulders come back to normal position above your hips.
Tips for Max Attempts
When a workout calls for a one-rep-max deadlift, remember two things. First, the lower your feet are in the starting position, the higher the bar will be at liftoff, which is a good thing. So even though weightlifting shoes are stable, they have a heel and aren’t the best choice. Use flat shoes with little height.
Second, remember that the deadlift is a slow-speed movement. To complete the lift, your acceleration needs to be slightly above zero. Don’t be surprised if the bar feels like it’s nailed to the floor during a very heavy deadlift. In max attempts, it could take as long as three full seconds for the bar to bend sufficiently so that the weights break free of the floor. Don’t give up on it too soon!