The Beginner’s Checklist for Deadlift Badassery

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It’s the start of a new year and with it a proverbial reboot or rejuvenation towards one’s health and fitness. Well that, and a metric boat load1 of Facebook statuses of people complaining about all the “newbies” crowding the gym.

 

I am not one to complain because 1) I don’t typically work out in a commercial gym 2) Nah nah nana naaaaah and 3) I think it’s a good thing when people decide to be more proactive, take an active role towards their health and well-being, and join a gym. I mean, really? Are you that inconvenienced? I can appreciate it’s slightly annoying when there’s a traffic jam at the power rack (made worse when people are using it to perform bicep curls) or that it’s more or less an obstacle course to walk around all the meandering patrons doing this thingamajiggy or that whateverthef***.

Relax. Deep breaths. It’ll all be over by the second week of February…;o)

Nevertheless, as pumped as I am that people take the initiative to begin an exercise regime, I’d be remiss not to cringe – just a little bit – at the overzealousness of some as they begin their fitness journey.

Last week was one of the rare weeks where I trained every day in a commercial gym (my wife was on vacation and I joined her at her gym) and while it was great to observe people getting after it, the coach in me couldn’t help but start to hyperventilate into a paper bag want to be a coach.

For example I saw a lot of people deadlifting. It was cool. I wanted to go over and high-five every single person. However, that would have been weird and possible justification for a restraining order I kept to myself, but past all of that was an insatiable desire to want to fix a lot of deadlifts.

I admired their intent, but I’d be lying if I said a small piece of my soul didn’t die watching a few people doing their thing.

You see, for a lot of beginners what I “think” ends up happening is that they watch a re-run of the CrossFit games on ESPN or watch videos like this:

 

…and are all like “that’s badass, I want to do that,” not recognizing that 1) a deadlift is much more than just bending over and lifting a barbell off the ground (regardless of whether it’s 1000+ lbs or 50 lbs) and 2) a straight bar deadlift (from the floor) is the most advanced variation of a deadlift there is. Not many people are ready or prepared enough on Day #1 to perform this safely and with proper technique.

So I figured I’d offer a sort of “check-list” for beginners to consider, and what I feel would be the appropriate progressions to follow to work up to a straight bar deadlift.

Note to Internet Hero Trainer Guy/Girl Who Will Inevitably Call Me Out On Why I Didn’t Address This Thing Or That: This is not a dissertation, it’s a blog post highlighting a few candid thoughts and processes. This is no where near an exhaustive breakdown of deadlift technique or programming.2

Checks and Balances

Everyone is different and there’s no ONE right way or variation or cue that applies across the board. People have different leverages, injury histories, and experience levels and it’s important to take all those things into heavy consideration when coaching anyone up on the deadlift.

I will say: I know what I DON’T want to see. This:

That’s pretty much THE golden rule.

Because it makes me do this:

There are any number of reasons someone’s deadlift may look like the above picture:

  • Lack of hip mobility to “access” the hip flexion required to get that low to floor.
  • Lack of t-spine mobility (specifically extension).
  • Lack of ankle dorsiflexion.
  • Lack of kinesthetic awareness.
  • The novelty of the exercise.
  • They were born on a Wednesday. I don’t know.

Obviously step #1 would be to address and musculoskeletal/mobility restrictions that may be present.

Lack of Hip Mobility

Wall Hip Flexor Mobilization

 

Dynamic Pigeon to Half Kneeling

 

Shin Box

 

Lack of T-Spine Mobility

Side Lying Windmill

 

T-Spine Extension (Done Right)

 

Lack of Ankle (and Big Toe) Dorsiflexion

This is a component that’s often overlooked. If someone can’t access dorsiflexion it’s going to compromise their ability to get into deep(er) hip flexion to get down to grab the barbell.

Active Ankle Dorsiflexion

 

Metatarsal Active Squat Drill

 

Lack of Kinesthetic Awareness

Oftentimes it’s lack of awareness of what the body/joints are doing in space that’s the limiting factor. I like to use the Cat-Camel drill to build context and to demonstrate what I don’t want to see (rounded back) and what I do want to see (neutral spine)

 

Addressing Novelty (<— This is HUGE)

Here we have the nuts and bolts. Much of time, even though the stuff discussed above is very important, it comes down to the novelty or “newness” of the exercise as to why some people fail. To be blunt, and as alluded to earlier, much of the reason why many fail at deadlifting from the get go (and end up hurt and using the lame excuse that deadlifts are dangerous for everyone) is because they’re too aggressive and end up gravitating towards variations (and loads) they’re not ready for.

They either don’t understand what it actually means to hinge through the hips (which is all a deadlift really is: it doesn’t always have to mean pulling a heavy barbell off the ground) and/or they fail to progress accordingly based off their experience and leverages.

Learning what it means to dissociate hip movement from lumbar movement step #1 in grooving a bonafide hip hinge. One of the most popular drills to do so is the Wall Hip Hinge. Unfortunately, as harmless and innocuous as it looks it’s easily butchered. Here’s how I like to coach it up:

 

Another drill I like is the Tall Kneeling Handcuff Hip Hinge. Here we can take some joints of the equation and place a KB behind the back, which, for some reason, works. I think Gandalf made it up.

 

If you’re’ interested in learning some more hip hinge drills you can check out in THIS article I wrote a few months ago.

Assuming I’m comfortable with someone’s hip hinge now it’s time to start adding some load.

Remember: You DO NOT have to use a straight bar, and I’d caution against it for more beginners. The only people who have to use a straight bar are competitive powerlifters and Olympic lifters. Generally the people who say otherwise are those who don’t coach people. So if some Joe Schmo internet warrior tells you otherwise tell him to f off.

While there are always exceptions to the rules my progression series is as follows:

1. Master Hip Hinge Drills.

2. Cable or Band Pull-Through.

 

3. Kettlebell Deadlift: Elevated if need be. And from there we can progress to pulling from the floor as well as ramping things up to 1-Arm KB Deadlift (which adds an additional rotary component), 2-KB Deadlift, and even Hover Deadlifts:

 

4. Trap Bar Deadlift: The trap bar (or hex bar) deadlift is an excellent choice for beginners or those with limited experience because of its user friendliness. This is often my “go to” variation for everyone I begin working with.

 

  • For starters one’s center of gravity is inside the bar, which makes it easier to maintain an upright torso angle and a better neutral spinal position. All of which translates to less shear loading on the spine.
  • The elevated handles make it easier for those with mobility issues/restrictions – such as limited hip flexion and/or ankle dorsiflexion – to perform in a safe and successful manner.

5. Rack Pulls or Block Pulls: Here we can start adding anterior load. With the barbell now in front of the body the axis of rotation is further away which can result in more stress on the lower back. This is fine so long as neutral spine is maintained.

I’d note here that I much prefer Block Pulls. I find they have more carryover to the actual deadlift as you’re still able to get slack out of the bar (which you’re unable to do with a rack pull). Both are great options, though, when introducing straight bar variations.

Is your spine still attached? Can you still feel your legs? Good. Lets move on.

6. Sumo Deadlift/Conventional Deadlift: Look at you, son! Pulling from the floor now. Whatever variation allows for the most success, feels better, and guarantees proper spinal position is the one I’ll run with.

Sometimes people picked the wrong parents and their anatomy dictates what will be the best fit long-term. Generally speaking those with mobility restrictions, longer torsos, and short(er) arms will prefer sumo style over conventional. I prefer a middle-ground approach for many and often use a Modified Sumo Stance with my clients/athletes:

 

None of this speaks to the other particulars I like to go over with trainees with regards to foot placement, hand placement, leg drive, common mistakes with lockout and the descent, not to mention appreciating, getting, and maintaining body tension. You can do a search on the site and find an abyss of other deadlift articles that go over all those things.

The goal today was to showcase my (general) approach to deadlifting with beginners. I hope it helped.

Addendum (Other Stuff I Wanted to Say)

1. Consider hiring a competent coach to show you the ropes. A good litmus test to figure out whether or not they know what they’re talking about:

  • Ask them if they know who Andy Bolton is.
  • Have him or her point to their posterior chain. If they point to their abs. Walk away.
  • They can differentiate between a deadlift and a squat.
  • They actually look like they lift weights.

2. Stop BOUNCING your repetitions. It’s a DEADlift, not a BOUNCElift. On each rep, when you return to the floor, you should come to a complete stop. “Reset” your air and spinal position, and repeat.

3. I HATE high-rep deadlifts, especially for beginners. Fatigue is going to compromise form. Try to stick to no more than 5-reps per set.

4. Home base – in terms of loading – should be in the 65-80% range of 1-rep max. Not that this means you should test your 1RM right away. The thing to consider is that you don’t NEED to train heavy to start. Beginners or un-trained individuals can train with as low as 40% of 1RM (Hint: that’s super light) and still reap all the benefits and gain a training effect. Honing technique should be the main goal at this point.

5. Anyone see La-La Land yet?

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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  1. Which is shade less than a metric shit ton, but still a lot.

  2. Also, I think your Mom is calling you for dinner.

  • james Bix

    Hi Tony you mentioned your hate high-rep deadlifts, especially for beginners because of fatigue. For strength purposes would you lift to failure then reduce weight each set. I suppose the only advantage to training higher reps if fatigue wasn’t an issue would be that you could lift to failure whilst using a lighter weight therefore reducing chance of injury.

    • Tony

      With beginners, for me at least, it’s ALL about honing technique and getting them into proper positions to be able to express their strength. There’s a time and place to implement AMAP sets, but it shouldn’t be a daily (or even weekly) basis.

  • The Fissure King

    I didn’t know who Andy Bolton was *hangs head in shame.*

    RE: La La Land – well, depending on how you felt about Rogue One my opinion might not carry weight with you, but LLL is my favorite movie of 2016.

    • Tony

      I suspect great things for La La Land. The director of that one was also the director of my favorite movie two years ago: Whiplash.

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  • Obitim

    Hey Tony,

    A great article as ever! After watching your cable pull through video I’m impressed you could still have kids!

    Quick one, you say that high rep deadlifts are not idea, is there another exercise that I could so (about the 10 rep range) that would give the same training effect/benefits?

    • Tony

      I don’t mean to imply to NEVER perform deadlifts for more than 5-reps, you absolutely can (and should). I just feel that’s not a great approach for beginners learning exercise as fatigue will compromise technique to a higher degree with these individuals. An alternative, if high(er) reps are the goal, would be to perform rest/pause sets. Aim for 2-3 reps, rest 15-20s, and repeat for 2-3 “rounds.” That’s ONE set. I like that approach better.

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