Worth the weight

By Sarah Tomlins

The deadlift is a compound exercise that makes huge demands on an athlete. Patience and best tactics will pay off - whether you are recovering from injury or need work on certain aspects of your performance.

The deadlift, or deadweight lift, refers to the lifting of a weight from the floor. This exercise dates back to ancient times and has evolved, from simply lifting stones to waist height, to the equipment we use today. It has always been considered a test of pure strength and the current world record for a raw deadlift (using a weightlifting belt, and no lifting suit) stands at the whopping 461.3kg achieved by Benedict Magnússon.

Performed as one of the three exercises in powerlifting, the deadlift also has a lot of overlap with sports performance, with the first pull in Clean and Snatch essentially mimicking the deadlift.

So what muscles are used when performing the deadlift? Better asked is probably what muscles are not being used in the deadlift! Much like the back squat, it is a compound exercise but places emphasis on the posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes) with the added bonus of needing grip and upper back strength.

The high level of flexibility and strength demanded by the deadlift will not only increase your strength levels but can also improve posture provided it is done correctly. Try using the guide below to assess and improve your technique.

1. Phases of a deadlift weight

1a: Start position

1b: Ascent

  • Drive through heels and stand up.
  • Chest should remain up and spine in neutral throughout the lift.
  • Finish lift by squeezing the glutes.

1c: Descent

  • Initiate descent with the hips.
  • Do not let the back round when putting the weight down.

2. Common mistakes

2a: Incorrect spine position

Rounding of the thoracic spine increases the load of compressive forces through the spine.

2b: Hyperextension

Hyperextending at the top of the lift puts greater strain through the lumbar spine and reduces the use of the glutes.

3. Alternative approaches

3a: Deadlift from blocks

This lift enables proper technique within the athlete's limitations. It should be used while the athlete works on their flexibility, with progression to the full lift when able.

3b: Trap bar deadlift

This lift can be useful for those having difficulty with thoracic mobility. As in 3a, a relatively even distribution of stress through the joints means a more suitable lift for those coming back from injuries.

Above: Conventional grip (overhand bilaterally) Below: alternated grip (overhand and underhand).

3c: Switching grips

For many, grip can fatigue quickly on the deadlift, so to minimise this an alternated grip can be used. For variation to the conventional grip, the athlete places one hand pronated (overhand) and the other supinated (underhand). Between sets the athlete should also switch the hold variations between their left and right hands.


Sarah Tomlins is a Strength & Conditioning Coach and Rehabilitation Specialist and a visiting lecturer at Middlesex University, UK.

Please contact Sarah with your comments and queries:
Email: s.tomlins@mdx.ac.uk
Twitter: @sarah400 (sarah tomlins)


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