I love deadlifts. My clients love deadlifts—all of them. Once, when I overheard a woman in my gym say that she didn’t like deadlifts, it made me so sad! Learning that she had small hands that made lifting the bar extraordinarily difficult for her, I immediately bought a smaller bar just for her. Now she loves deadlifts, too.
I like to believe deadlifts are for (almost) everyone. They are just too great to not be.
What Makes Deadlifts So Great?
The most basic answer is that the movement you do when deadlifting—the hip hinge—is the fundamental movement that underlies all physical performance. Want to run faster, jump higher, be able to pick up your kids or grandkids with ease? Improve your hip hinge.
In case that’s not enough to convince you, though, the hip hinge also strengthens your entire backside, referred to as the “posterior chain.” In a world of sitters, this is a good thing. All that sitting can stretch and weaken the muscles of the posterior chain, from your shoulders all the way to your legs. Deadlifting can give them a new lease on life.
Lastly, once you learn how to properly do a deadlift, it just feels awesome. When you stand up after lifting a heavy* weight, you can’t help but feel strong and powerful. It’s a pretty great feeling!
* “Heavy” is relative to the strength of the person lifting the weight. Any weight that challenges you is heavy.
Are You Ready for Deadlifts? That Depends on Your Hip Hinge.
Now that you know why you should be deadlifting, let’s talk about whether or not you’re ready to deadlift. I use the hip-hinge test to find out with my clients. I mentioned briefly above that the hip hinge is an important movement at the foundation of all physical performance, and that it’s a big part of deadlifts. Literally, it means bending over at the hips. The key is that you bend with the hips, not with the back. While this sounds easy, many people have a remarkably hard time doing it
Interestingly, I’ve found that men are more likely than women to have a hard time with the hip hinge. That’s not to say that all women rock the hip hinge right away, but I do find that most of the people who really struggle with the deadlift are men.
Wondering how you would do with the hip hinge? Watch the video below and try it.
Now, here are some things you should be shooting for in a nice hip hinge:
- Bending from the hips, which means that your hips will shift backwards.
- The shift backward, however, is not so great that it pulls the knees behind the ankles. That becomes a combination hip and ankle hinge, which is not ideal. Make sure that the knees stay in front of the ankles.
- The back holds the same position throughout the movement. This means the low back does not round at all. In fact, for most people there will be a small arch. This also means that any arch that is there does not get bigger.
- The shoulders do not reach toward the floor as the torso moves toward parallel. Keep your shoulders in place by keeping your lats engaged.
- The knees move, but much less than the hips do, and usually after the hips.
- The feet are firmly planted throughout the movement.
- The movement does not elicit pain.
While running through this checklist, also make sure that you can bend over to the point where your back is almost parallel to the floor without the dowel losing contact with your head, upper back or butt. Sometimes it can be hard to feel if the bar is touching all three points. If you find that to be the case, then have someone watch and give you feedback, or record yourself doing the hip hinge so that you can see for yourself.
If you lose one of the points of contact during the hip hinge test, does this mean you shouldn’t deadlift? Not necessarily. It just means that you have to work on it until you are able to. Then you should deadlift.
Also, if the movement hurts to perform, don’t ignore it! If your back hurts when you do a hip hinge, see if correcting these things above makes it not hurt. If it doesn’t, then before proceeding with deadlifts, please go see your doctor or a physical therapist (or a chiropractor, athletic therapist, or osteopath) and get things checked out.
Try This If You Need to Fix Your Hip Hinge.
Practicing the hip hinge test is one way to work on it. Only go as low as you can while maintaining the three points of contact, and over time, you will likely find that you are able to get a greater range of motion while doing so. You should also find that it feels easier and more natural.
For some, however, if you don’t get the movement the first few times you try it, the above hip-hinge test might not be the best teaching tool for you. In the video below, you can see another option I use to teach the hip hinge at my gym:
It’s Deadlift Time!
Once you have mastered the hinge, it’s time to move to the deadlift. Starting with kettlebell deadlifts will allow you to learn the movement with a lighter weight and from a slight elevation. On some kettlebells, the handle sits slightly higher off of the floor than a regular bar with regular plates do. If you’re starting with a kettlebell on which the handle is still too low, place the kettlebell on a riser or low box to achieve a comfortable starting position. Depending how this goes, you can determine what the best deadlift option is for you. Here’s a video explanation of performing a kettlebell deadlift:
If everything looks and feels good, then regular deadlifts are in the cards for you. Start increasing the weight of the kettlebell, and once you run out of kettlebells, it’s time to move to the bar. Watch this video to find out how.
The standard radius (distance from the hole in the middle to the edge) of a 45-pound weight plate is 8.75 inches (225 mm). So, when you lift with those plates on, the bar sits 8.75 inches off of the floor. Deadlifting with this setup is called “pulling from the floor” or “deadlifting from the floor” and is considered the full range of motion for this exercise. Most lighter weight plates are also smaller in size, this means that for a proper deadlift setup at most gyms, you have to start at 135 pounds (a standard bar is 45 pounds).
If you train at a gym that has bumper plates and a women’s barbell for you to use as a starting point, lucky you! A bumper plate is a weight that has the standard 45-pound plate radius but is lighter, ranging anywhere from 10 to 45 pounds. The women’s barbell is even better, not because it is lighter (35 pounds instead of 45), but because it has a smaller circumference, meaning it is easier to grip for people with smaller hands. If available to you, this equipment will allow you to start doing deadlifts with only 55 pounds and progress from there.
If you don’t have access to this equipment, there are other options to help you get started lifting with a setup that gets you the right distance from the bar. Start with lighter plates, but place the loaded barbell on a riser of some sort. What you use will depend on what you have available. You may be able to set the safety arms or pins low enough on the squat rack, or you may be able to place the barbell on some weight plates (if they are flat). Because most people tend to round their backs as they reach down lower, setting the bar to the proper starting height is important when using lighter weights.
If you have small hands and find that your grip fails before you get to do much work with your butt, legs, upper back, and core, consider using straps to help you hold the bar. Some suggest that using straps is “cheating.” I disagree, especially for people with small hands. Remember my client with small hands? Getting a smaller bar made all of the difference for her. Seriously—ask your gym to bring in some women’s bars. You undoubtedly aren’t the only woman in the gym who wants them. If a smaller bar isn’t available, using straps is perfectly acceptable as you build your grip strength.
The Five Most Common Deadlift Problems And How to Fix Them
There’s a pretty good chance that your deadlift won’t look perfect right away. That’s OK—it just means you have a bit of work to do before deadlifts become your new favourite exercise. I want to share with you the cues and corrections I use to help my clients achieve great deadlift form. In fact, I have found that most deadlift form issues fall into one of these five areas:
Hips Sinking Too Low
Rounding the Lower Back
Bending the Knee Too Much
Not Finishing the Lift
Flaring the Rib Cage
There’s actually a sixth form issue that I didn’t address in these videos, and that is not keeping the feet firmly planted. If any part of your foot comes off the floor while deadlifting, you are losing stability and limiting yourself. If you’re not sure if you do this, consider deadlifting without shoes to get a better feel. Some cues that can help include “crush the floor,” “screw your feet into the floor,” and “spread the floor with your feet.”
What If You Try All of That and You Still Struggle?
I want to share a little secret with you: You don’t have to deadlift from the floor. The truth is that the 8.75-inch full range of motion setup is based on a manufacturing decision that has nothing to do with deadlifts. It is actually related to the size of your head! The size of a 45-pound weight plate was designed for Olympic weightlifting, where people lift bars over head with speed. The standard height of 8.75 inches was determined as a precaution to prevent a crushed skull in the event of a lift gone wrong. That’s an excellent design feature for Olympic weightlifting, but it has no real relevance to deadlifts.
In fact, it is very possible that your body is not designed to deadlift from 8.75 inches off the floor. I know this for certain, as I’ve tested my clients, measuring their arm, torso, thigh, and shin lengths and used Adobe Photoshop to draw diagram representations of their structures. (Oops! My “engineer” is showing!) There are significant differences between the lengths of our limbs, and this can have a big impact on whether your body is structurally capable of deadlifting with good form from 8.75 inches off of the floor.
If you can’t get your back to stay straight in a deadlift…
- Add just enough of a riser to fix your form. Make this your deadlift setup for two weeks, while you focus on perfect form. Add weight as it becomes more comfortable.
- Add some exercises to work on hip, ankle, and thoracic spine range of motion.
- After one month, lower the deadlift weight back to where it was two weeks ago, remove the riser, and try to lift with perfect form. Can you? If so, great! Build from there. If not, that’s OK. Remember that “full range of motion” is an arbitrary standard, and it may not apply to you. Go back to the riser and continue to use it as you enjoy and excel at deadlifting.
If you can’t get your hips up…
- If a regular deadlift just doesn’t feel great for you, it may be that your structure is better suited to Sumo deadlifts. Give it a try. If it feels great, awesome! Make that your standard. (Thanks to Nia Shanks for this video.)
If deadlifts bother your low back…
- Your back may just be adapting to the exercise. Deadlifts are a great, full-body exercise, and even though the back is not actively moving (remember it should stay straight), it is involved in holding the weight. This may be more work than your back is used to, which can result in muscle soreness. My advice is to pay attention to the level of soreness over a few sessions. If it is just a matter of your back adapting to the work, then the soreness will decrease with each subsequent training session, and should eventually reduce to almost zero.
- Something may be “off” with your form. Review the form issues discussed above to see if there’s a correction that helps. If soreness stays the same or increases, you may need to do a little more work on perfecting your form. If none of the corrections from the videos help, then it’s a good idea to work with a qualified trainer to help you sort this out. If this is not an option for you, and you can’t work with someone who can monitor and coach you to a place in which you feel great doing deadlifts, then I hate to say it, but deadlifting may not be your best bet right now. It’s OK—there are other excellent exercises out there!
- Your back might just not feel great when you deadlift. It’s not soreness, and it’s not about your form. They just don’t feel right. If this is you, I suggest you book an appointment with a good manual therapist (physical therapist, chiropractor, athletic therapist, or massage therapist) for an evaluation, to see if they can see or feel anything that may be contributing to this. They may find something, work on it, and that may help you get to a place where deadlifts feel great. Or they might not be able to help at all. Again, it’s OK—you have a lot of other excellent exercises at your disposal.
How’s your deadlift now? My hope is that, after implementing these tips, all of the former deadlift skeptics out there become fans, and that all of the deadlift fans come to love—and get more out of—deadlifts than they did before. The deadlift is truly the foundation of strength and total-body performance. Happy deadlifting!