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Deadlifting secrets

The deadlift has become very popular over the past few years. It's a relatively easy exercise to understand. However, it's not so easy to understand what style works best for each individual for a max effort competition pull. No, I'm not talking about sumo, semi-sumo, or conventional stances, although that's certainly part of it. Instead, I will focus on the advantages and disadvantages of leveraging yourself with the bar to lift the most weight for competition purposes. This includes issues such as head up or head down, straight legged or squat position, round upper back or no round in the upper back, toes straight ahead or toes pointed out, and bar against the shins or slightly out in front as well as how to get the most out of your belt.

Many of these issues are style issues, and they need to be experimented with based on the structure and build of your body. However, what I hear and see on a regular basis about what someone is supposedly doing wrong in a deadlift is simply not correct if that puller is a competitive powerlifter. I'll also discuss what a lifter can safely get away with in a competition deadlift in order to lift maximal weight.

First, I'll give you some of my background knowledge on this subject. I am by no means the best deadlifter you will come across. I have been competing raw for about 18 months. Recently, I pulled 500 at 181 lbs, and I continue to improve at every meet. My style is not straight from a textbook. But I have studied hard to learn how to maximize my style to get the most leverage on the bar. I've spent the past 18 months learning from guys like Pavel Tsatsouline (author of Power to the People) and Jack Reape (soon to be Elite in the 242 weight class). I've exchanged e-mails with Ricky Dale Crain, read different powerlifting forums, articles, and books, and had conversations with fellow competitors at powerlifting events.

Having said that, the following is what I have learned. Hopefully this information will help you maximize your competition style, whatever that may be, and give you some security in your lifts when the personal trainers in your gym come over and tell you, You're doing that wrong. There's nothing worse than being insecure with your own style. Learn it, find the weak points, and then maximize it by adjusting technique. Competitors should practice the way they pull in a meet!

Style Issue #1: Squat behind the bar or straight legged? Okay, here's the deal with this. If you squat behind the bar, you can use your quads to help you break the bar off the floor. This is advantageous for most lifters. However, if you pull more straight legged (as I do), it's easier to break heavier weight off the floor. The weight tends to move faster. However, the lower back usually fatigues before everything else, and you're left hitchy at the top. Therefore, you must have an iron stomach along with a rock solid lower back and glutes in order to pull this style. You must also wear a belt any time you lift over 85 percent. With this style, the speed advantage is critical because you are essentially trying to out run you lower back fatigue to lockout. Be aggressive, and use this leverage to your advantage if you choose to use it at all. Just make sure that when the bar clears your knees, you lean back hard with the shoulders and push your hips through!

Style Issue #2: Round the upper back or don???t round the upper back? The lower back is the biggest concern first and foremost. There must be an arch, and you must know how to use your abs to brace your low back to maintain that arch. Some people have more of an arch than others. That???s not the point though. The point is that the arch must be tight (for that person), and the abs must brace the lower back by pushing the diaphragm down. Rounding the upper back is an advantage for lifters who know how to use it because it shortens the stroke of the lift (it feels almost natural for those with a thoracic spine curve). To maximize this technique, just sink your ribs and round the shoulders forward when you grab the bar on the floor (being sure to keep a tight arch in the lower back). If you compete in powerlifting and pull with an upper back curve and feel comfortable with it, don???t change it. You will tend to pull in a meet the way that you practice. If you have ever seen Konstantin pull any of his 900 plus lbs deadlifts, you'll see how exaggerated an upper back curve can be. He is also a master of the rib sink/shoulder rolled forward technique that I just described. Take a look!

Style Issue #3: Head up or head down? If you pull with a rounded upper back and sink your ribs low into your hips, you may find it helpful to look down first and then gradually lift your head as the bar comes off the floor. Otherwise, keep your head looking straight ahead or even up a little, especially as the bar gets to the top.

Style Issue #4: Toes straight ahead or toes pointed out? Most conventional deadlifters pull with their toes straight ahead. This is how it should be done unless you have trouble locking out at the top. In this case, you may want to try pointing your toes out slightly. This allows you to push your glutes through more easily at the top, which will assist you with lockout.

Style Issue #5: Bar against the shins or bar slightly ahead of the shins? I know you've heard it a thousand times scrape the bar up your shins. However, if you pull more straight legged, you will need the bar a couple inches in front of your shins when the bar is on the floor for leverage purposes. If you sit in a nice deep squat while the bar is on the ground, go ahead and scrape it up your shins. This works for most people. However, I know many top pullers who, despite being in a deep squat, start with the bar a few inches from the shin while the bar is still on the ground. Experiment and see what is right for you in terms of leverage.

Style Issue #6: How do you get the most out of your belt? When you deadlift, don't make the belt too tight. I like to go one notch looser than my squat. If the belt is too tight, you'll find it hard to pressurize your abs when you go down to get the bar. Also, you're likely to feel very uncomfortable in that bottom position. Instead, go one notch looser. Take a nice deep breath at the top while you are standing over the bar. Then squat, pressurizing the abs at the bottom, and PULL!

Here's some more valuable advice that I've received from top powerlifter, Jack Reape.

1. The deadlift is an energized lift, so let it fly. But in order to pull big, you need that relaxed upper body above the sternum. Getting too tight up top makes you bend your elbows, which can lead to bicep tears, hitching, and a longer deadlift stroke. Even RDC says don't squeeze the fingers hard. He squeezes the thumb hard but not the fingers. A bit of a mind blower.

2. Do every set the way you do your meet lift. If you are a dive bomber type, do your sets that way. If you are a slow set-up guy, try to keep it at less than 15 seconds. The longer you are over the bar, the more you might fail. Jack uses the slow set-up, then extends his legs and drops his hips to the bar to get some stretch reflex.

3. Once the bar is on your legs and you are grinding it, BE PATIENT. Just keep pulling your sternum backwards and pushing your hips forward. Getting nervous or rushing it leads to hitches. Do not try to shrug the weight.

Some of these style issues are for competitive powerlifters only. The variations described are for more advanced pullers who are looking to maximize technique for the sake of pulling more weight. In many ways, some of these techniques are more dangerous than the textbook deadlift. However, if applied properly according to your body type and where you gain the most leverage, it can help you win a meet. If you have any comments or questions, please contact me. Otherwise, keep pullin! 

Thomas Phillips is the co-owner of Fit-for-life. He placed first in the deadlift at the National AAU, received first place at the AAU PL Nationals 181 raw division, and is a national qualifier for the sport of kettlebell lifting. Thomas also won back to back first place finishes in the National TSC elite class and the U.S. Army certificate of Achievement in Physical Fitness. He is an assistant kettlebell instructor for Pavel Tsatsouline. Visit his website at

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