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How to deadlift safely

Of all the CrossFit exercises, the deadlift is the truest tester and developer of pure strength – strength being your ability to develop maximal force. The weights that can be lifted in the deadlift are staggering; at the time of writing strongman Benedict Magnusson has just broken the world record by lifting a massive 461kg – 1014.2lbs!

Of course, you probably won’t be lifting quite that much weight but even an average CrossFitter should be able to lift his or her own bodyweight using good technique.

Because of the large loads typically involved in deadlifting, there is an above average risk of injury if you lift with bad form.  Any rounding of your lumbar (lower) spine, allowing your hips to shoot up faster than your shoulders or locking your knees before you have extended your hips can result in injury and while lower back strength is a must for successful deadlifting, technical mastery is even more important.

Learning to deadlift properly and safely takes time and requires competent coaching but there are several things that you, the lifter, can do to avoid technique problems before they start and fix any existing problems.

Writer Patrick Dale attempting a 215kg deadlift - Part I:
Writer Patrick Dale on a 215kg deadlift – Get Set… | Photo Credit: Viki Dale

Stance – start your deadlift with your feet hip-width apart, your toes parallel or turned slightly outward and your feet under the bar so it is close to your shins. Your weight should be spread between the balls of your feet and your heels with more weight more toward the rear of your foot than the front. Your shoes should be flat, no spongy running shoes or Olympic lifting shoes, because they tend to push you forward onto your toes. If your stance is wrong, your whole lift will be wrong so make sure you get this right from the start.

Grip – bend your knees slightly, hinge forward from the hips and grab the bar using a shoulder-width overhand or mixed grip. Your arms should be and remain straight. Bending your arms while deadlifting is a great way to pull a biceps. Your arms should be perfectly vertical so that you minimize the distance you have to lift the bar. A wider grip simply increases range of movement and will make the exercise harder than it needs to be.

Head position – your neck should be neutrally positioned relative to the rest of your spine. Keep it long and tuck your chin without dropping your head forward. In the start position you should be looking slightly downward as you are leaning forward but when you stand up, you should be looking straight ahead.

Get set – before you actually start the lift, you need to do the following…

  1. Lift your chest and inhale
  2. Pull the tension out of the bar
  3. Drop your hips slightly
  4. Slightly but tightly arch your lower back, brace your abs and pull your shoulders down and back
  5. Grip the bar as tightly as you can

Having done these five things, you should feel like a coiled spring and as if the weight is ready to almost pop off the floor; every muscle in your body should feel tense.

Writer Patrick Dale attempt
Writer Patrick Dale on a 215kg deadlift – Lift Off | Photo Credit: Viki Dale

Lift off – drive your feet into the floor to get the weight moving. Keep your shins vertical and using your powerful quadriceps to break the bar away from the floor – do not let your hips rise faster than your shoulders or lose your lower back curve. As the bar moves up your shins, start to drive your hips forward and your shoulders back. Ideally, your knees and hips should lock out simultaneously. Keep pulling until you are stood fully upright – no need to lean back at the top though.

Writer Patrick Dale on a 215kg deadlift
Writer Patrick Dale on a 215kg deadlift – Fully upright | Photo Credit: Viki Dale

Descent – push your hips back, bend your knees and lower the bar to the floor. Keep it close to your legs to keep stress off your back. Don’t lower the bar super slowly but don’t drop it either – just keep the bar under control. If you are doing multiple reps, reset your start position and repeat. A brief pause between reps may cost you a second or two but will help eliminate many form faults.

Deadlifts can help you develop an impressive level of strength but a bad deadlift could cut your lifting career short. Perfect your technique before adding weight and never sacrifice good form for more weight on the bar.

Article by Patrick Dale