The Big Three – Part 1: Deadlift


This is Part 1 of a 3-part series dedicated to the Big Three Lifts. Many elite coaches advocate working on the deadlift as an essential part of any training program. Due to its full body recruitment, it’s a great exercise to add overall muscle mass and more importantly, it restructures the body into better posture if done properly. A hip hinge to pick things up is a natural primal movement and it just happens to be how we best handle moving heavy things from one place to another. For athletes, the deadlift trains the legs and the body to work in conjunction to push hard into the ground. With the right program, deadlifts can improve running speed and the vertical jump. If the squat is the king of exercises than the deadlift is the queen. And we all know from chess that while the king is crucial, the queen is the real game-changer.

When I first started working out, I was completely obsessed with getting stronger with my squat and benchpress. Although I included deadlifts in my program, they didn’t get nearly as much attention in technique or volume as the other two. As a result, I ended up neglecting my posterior chain (muscles along the back of the body) and it’s taken quite some time to balance this out again. And even still, I find my shoulders rounding forwards and my body defaulting back to the rounded kyphotic caveman look. The deadlift works the entire posterior chain, using the hamstrings, glutes and low back as a team to generate power. The muscles in the mid-back are also recruited along with the lats to secure the weighted barbell in your grip and a tremendous amount of core strength is required to keep it all together. If I could do it over, I would’ve definitely spent more time learning to properly deadlift early on and building on my strength from the beginning.

Hopefully, I’ve caught some of you at an early stage and you’re now struck by the urgency of the need to deadlift. But for the rest of you, there’s still hope. If you’ve tried the deadlift and it feels strange or awkward or it even hurts, what you need to realize is that your body has already been affected by imbalances that will take time to correct. Rather than avoid the deadlift out of fear, the proper steps need to be taken to correct these imbalances. Find your weak spot and fix it. Then we can revisit and more confidently tackle the heavier lift. For those who are already confidently doing heavy deadlifts, use the following points as reminders and possible tools to push past sticking points and find new strength in your lift.

Here’s what you need to know about how to perform the Queen of Exercises:

  • Draw your shoulders back and down, squeezing your shoulder blades together hard – This will engage your lats and allow you to hold on to heavier weight as your mid-back muscles get stronger
  • Master the hip hinge – The deadlift isn’t a squat, so think of pushing your hips back and away from an imaginary plane that is formed by your shoulders and feet
  • Activate your core and build tension with your grip – Once your setup is complete, think of building some tension, beginning the lift but just not enough to lift the weight off the ground yet
  • Drive into the ground with your heels – Think of a push from your feet, this will help you avoid rounding the back and keep a neutral spine, the power is initiated from your legs
  • Lock out with hips extended and glutes squeezed – Don’t arch the low back, continue to keep the core strong and tight and squeeze the glutes to lock the hips

Jenny LaBaw Crossfit

If you’re having trouble with any of these steps, rather than keep attacking heavy deadlifts and hoping something will change, isolate the problem and spend a few weeks working on it while working with a lighter weight on your deadlift to evaluate the effect. For example, if you have trouble retracting the shoulder blades, isolate the rhomboids and lower trapezius muscles, building strength there. See if this changes the way you perform a lighter deadlift. After a few weeks, re-evaluate with a heavy lift again and hopefully your shoulders will be set better in their sockets. This sounds quite simple, but in fact takes time and dedication as well as possibly some help in terms of coaching. If you have multiple weaknesses, take care to address all of them.

Most of all, it takes patience. Don’t let ego get the best of you and ruin your form for the sake of reaching a higher number. Instead, learn and effectively apply that knowledge to your training. This will inevitably allow you to achieve higher numbers along with a lot of other things in life.

For beginners or for a refresher, Elliott Hulse explains the deadlift thoroughly here:

I know it’s Part 4, but this is where he walks through the movement. It’s a good summary and how we like to do the deadlift. Part 1 differentiates the deadlift from the squat, outlining the muscles involved. Part 2 and 3 tie-in the hip and shoulder mechanics, discussing the lower and upper-crossed syndromes. I’ve also found an article with some pictures of what not to do. Plenty of good knowledge here so give them a go! Stay tuned for the rest of our series including similar articles on the Squat and the Benchpress.

And remember – even Superman Deadlifts.


4 thoughts on “The Big Three – Part 1: Deadlift

  1. […] Our articles aim to help solve the issues you might be having. If you’re having none, hopefully a few key reminders from us will allow you to reach a new Personal Record. And if you’re not doing these movements at all, it’s about time to get started. Stay tuned for Part 1, the Deadlift. […]

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