Do It Right: How to Deadlift Properly

Welcome to Do It Right, a new series where we cover essential skills that everyone should know. From staying fit to caring for your gear and beyond, each Do It Right post calls on expert advice to help you learn something new across a wide range of topics.

The Skill: How to Deadlift

Deadlifting is the simple act of standing up while holding a lot of weight. It’s a relatively simple exercise, but doing it correctly requires proper technique, and many people mess it up. The step-by-step guide below will ensure you’re on the right track. For clarity’s sake, we’re going to handle the conventional barbell deadlift—the most commonly used version of the lift—and not any of its counterpart movements.

The Expert

Lee Boyce, Toronto-based strength coach, speaker, owner of Lee Boyce Training Systems, college professor, and internationally published fitness writer. Despite having undergone reconstructive surgery to both knees just a few years ago, I can deadlift over 500 pounds, so I know a thing or two about how to get strong and avoid injuries—especially with this movement.

What You Need

A barbell, weight plates to load onto it, some empty floor space, and good old fashioned gusto.

How to Do It

  1. Load the barbell to your desired weight. It’s best to start light, and make sure to take note of the size of the weight plates you’re using. You want the bar to rest about nine inches off the ground (by using standard plates about 18 inches in diameter). Olympic bumper plates are all this size, regardless of the weight of the plate. Iron plates, on the other hand, often get smaller as they get lighter. If you’re using smaller plates, the height of the bar will be closer to the ground, meaning you’ll have to bend over further to pick the weight up. That could be risky. Instead, mount the bar on a slightly elevated surface so the height matches the standard Olympic plate height.
  2. Step right up. First, find your foot placement relative to the bar. Place your feet hip-width apart, and close enough that your shins almost touch the bar—an inch of space between shin and bar is ideal. When you look directly down at the bar, it should divide your foot roughly in half, right over your shoelaces.
  3. Get a grip. The next step is to make fists on the bar. (Don’t worry about your back or the rest of your body just yet.) Keep your feet planted, reach down, and place your hands on the bar just outside your shins using a double overhand grip. Let your back round. You should feel a nice stretch in your hamstrings.
  4. Get uncomfortable. This sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out. Squeeze your body into a flat-back position by sticking your butt out and pushing your chest up high, all while holding the bar while it rests on the floor. To help get into this position, pinch your armpits back and drive your knees out against your forearms as you try to raise your chest. If done correctly, you’ll have your upper chest positioned over the bar, and the top of your head, your back, and your butt will form a straight line. Remember to tuck your chin in; your eyes should stay focused on a spot just in front of the bar. All this tension you’ve created shouldn’t feel relaxed—and that’s a good thing.
  5. Dig in and bend the bar. When deadlifting, you shouldn’t rely on your arms or lower back exclusively to move the weight. That’s why it’s important to squeeze every last ounce of flex out of the bar before lifting it. That’ll ensure you keep your elbows straight and lift with your body, not your hands. It also avoids any jerky, spastic motions that can throw off your technique. Before lifting, keep the bar close to your shins and try to pull it up with both hands, as if you wanted to bend the bar ends upward to the ceiling.
  6. Stand up. Now’s the time to trust your technique. Stay tight, keep your core engaged, and lift. Make sure the bar stays no more than an inch away from your body. Drive with your legs, squeezing your glutes, until you’re standing up tall. You don’t have to lean back. As long as you squeeze the glutes the whole way up, you’ll know when you can’t get any taller. Once you’re up, hold still with a proud chest and tight butt for one full second.
  7. The dismount. Now it’s time to reverse the steps to return the starting position. First, drop the hips back. Pretend you’re aiming for your butt to touch a wall behind you, and keep your back flat as you go down. While doing this, let the bar drag down your thighs in a smooth, controlled motion. Once the bar crosses knee level, it’s okay to emphasize a “sit down” pattern, and let the weight return to the floor. Once the bar passes your knees, it’s also okay to lower it a bit faster.
  8. Repeat. Now that the weight is back on the floor, take a second before you grip and rip another repetition. Reset yourself, and repeat everything from step four onward. Don’t skip this step—it’s important to give yourself a chance to get tight before each rep. It may feel unimportant if you’re lifting an empty bar, but once you tack on more weight, every last bit of tightness becomes invaluable.

If you’re more of a learn-by-seeing kind of person, then check out the video tutorial below, which breaks down all the steps visually.

With practice, you’ll master deadlifting and get the most out of this incredibly important movement. The deadlift targets the entire posterior chain, or the muscles on the back side of the body (primarily the gutes, hamstrings, and lower back). It offers serious strength and muscle-building benefits, and when done correctly, it’s one of the most joint-friendly exercises you can do. Take the time to learn the proper form now, and you’ll reap the rewards for a lifetime.

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