Got Back Pain? Learn How To Deadlift Properly

Fix Your Back Pain By Learning How To Deadlift Properly

What makes the deadlift effective is that it is a difficult lift. It is done with no momentum, no stretch reflex, and nothing that can make the lift easier. You need to use as much muscles mass as you can to break the bar off the floor and drag it up to the lockout position. The most efficient bar path is straight up, meaning you need to get out of the way of the bar while lifting it. The most efficient deadlifts start with a mechanical setup.

Put your body in the right place: Don’t move the bar!

Muscles Worked in the Deadlift

The deadlift uses more muscle mass than any other of the core barbell lifts. Beginning with the bar on the floor, place your feet under the barbell so that the bar is over the middle of your feet. Take a firm grip on the bar, maintain straight arms throughout the movement and simply stand up. The deadlift is little more than picking up a barbell.

A technically correct deadlift, however, requires that the lifter maintain rigid extension of the vertebral column and that the barbell moves in a straight vertical line from the floor to the lockout position. The starting and ending positions require that the lifter begins with flexed hips, knees, and shoulders and finishes with full extension of each of those joints. Every joint from your fingertips to your feet are part of the kinetic chain of the lift. This means that every muscle crossing each joint between those points has a job. We can, therefore, consider the deadlift a full-body exercise. It can effectively train the back, the “core” muscles of your trunk, the legs, the hips, and your grip.

Building a Strong Back

The act of setting your back—squeezing your chest up and squeezing your lumbar spine into extension—allows the force generated by your legs and hips to reach the bar and move the weight safely and effectively. Much of the effort that goes into a heavy deadlift lies in the act of setting your back. Maintaining that squeeze through the full range of motion can be quite challenging at heavier weights.

The spinal erectors are three muscle groups that pull the spine into normal anatomical extension. They contract isometrically when you “set your back” at the bottom of the deadlift—the iliocostalislongissimus, and the spinalis. At the top of the deadlift, they continue to hold the spine rigid—supporting the compressive force of the barbell, keeping you upright.

As you start the lift, there is a fight between gravity acting on the bar to pull your arms straight and your latissimus dorsi muscles (lats) keeping the bar against your legs and pulling in a straight vertical path. The lats originate from the inferior aspect of the scapula (the shoulder blade), along the spine from T7 to L5, and down to the iliac crest of the pelvis. That massive muscle inserts on the anterior aspect of the humerus. When contracted, it pulls the upper arm to extend the shoulder and keep the bar back against your legs.

The spinal erectors pull the vertebral column into the force-transferring position. Of course your trunk also has muscles all around it to help keep the spine stable under load. The rectus abdominis (your abs), the transverse abdominis, and the interior and exterior obliques—the “core”—are all hard at work during the deadlift.

Legs and Hips

The primary movers of the deadlift are the muscles that extend your knees and hips. These powerful muscle groups contract concentrically, shortening to produce enough force to drag the barbell up your legs into a standing position.

The knee extensors are the muscles of the quadriceps group. “Quad-” indicates four muscles: the vastus medialisvastus lateralisvastus intermedius, and the rectus femoris. The rectus femoris starts on the hip at the anterior inferior iliac spine, running down toward your knee. It and the three vastus muscles—all of which begin on the femur—cross the knee and have primary functions as knee extensors. The big rectus femoris is the muscle that gives your thigh its “V” shape when you’ve been doing your squats and deadlifts with dedication.

At the same time, as your knees extend, your hips open, extending until you are in a standing position. Hip extension is primarily the domain of the gluteus maximus, which recruits your hamstring muscles (the biceps femorissemitendinosus, and the semimembranosus), and the adductor magnus of the inner thigh. The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the human body. It should come as no surprise that hip extension is an important and powerful movement. Nearly all big, powerful movements require some extension or rotation of the hip, and the deadlift trains those muscles to maximum effect.

Arms, Shoulders, and Grip

At the top of the deadlift, you must demonstrate impeccable posture against a heavy load. Your traps are postural muscles, and they resist scapular depression (the opposite of shrugging) to keep your arms in place, at home in the ball and socket joint of the shoulder. The deadlift trains your traps for exactly these functions, automatically and without you needing to do anything other than to keep your chest up and stand tall at the top of the movement.

Finally, the deadlift is a grip exercise. The flexor digitorum superficialis and flexor digitorum profundus flex, or “curl,” your fingers at the proximal/medial and distal phalanges, respectively (“digitorum” refers to your digits or fingers). The muscles that flex your thumb are the flexor pollicis brevis and the flexor pollicis longus (“pollicis” refers to the thumb). These muscles are located in your forearm. A few muscles in your hand also contribute to grip strength, but they are smaller and dedicated more to fine motor functions rather than the blunt grip force of the deadlift.

The Deadlift Form Checklist: Step-by-Step

You may have heard the deadlift described as “a measure of brute strength.” If you yank on the barbell hard enough, it will come off the ground, right? Not quite. Just like the back squat and the press, there is a proper way to execute the deadlift. We teach the deadlift in five steps that, if done correctly, will set you up for a perfect lift every time.

Step 1: Stance

1” from your shins, 4-6” between your heels, 15° toe angle

Place your feet under the bar with the bar directly over the middle of your whole foot or about one inch from your vertical shins. Take a narrow stance with your feet directly under your hips (about 4-6 inches between your heels), and point your toes out slightly (15-20 degrees).

Step 2: Grip

Narrow but outside your legs

Grip the bar on the knurling just wider than your legs. The narrow stance (inside shoulder width) facilitates a narrow grip, which is better for the deadlift. Be careful not to move or roll the bar from over your midfoot.

Step 3: Assume the Position

Bend your knees until your shins touch the bar. Don’t move the bar!

Bring your shins forward to touch the barbell—again, without moving or rolling it away from your midfoot. Freeze your hips in place—they are not allowed to move from here.

Step 4: Set your back

Squeeze your chest up

Squeeze your back flat by trying to point your chest at the wall in front of you and your butt at the wall behind you. Do not lower your hips and do not move the barbell. This will be uncomfortable.

Step 5: Execution

Squeeze the slack out
Drag the barbell up your legs while maintaining lumbar extension. If you did the above steps correctly, your body and the bar are now in the correct position relative to each other. Most deadlift errors are prevented with a good setup, but you still have to finish the lift.
Bar on your legs

Maintain contact between the bar and your legs all the way up. Imagine you are trying to grab the hem of your shorts with the barbell.

Stand up tall

Finish with your chest up and shoulders down, like you are standing at attention.

Set it down simply

Don’t overthink how you put the bar down. Stay tight, keep your breath held, and slide the bar back down your legs.

Deadlift Form Tips and Tricks

Following the points above should get you a long way toward proper deadlift form. Here are a few more ideas to fine-tune your execution:

Push to Start

Start each rep by pushing with your feet, as if you are trying to leg press the earth away from the bar. This is in contrast to lifting your chest (opening your hips) or pulling with your arms.

Squeeze the Bar off the Floor

As you set your back, make the weight heavy in your hands and your feet heavy on the floor. This will help you take on some of the weight of the lift before the bar breaks contact with the ground, helping you maintain your balance and hold your back flat. Remember, the deadlift does not need to be fast; it needs to be correct.

Find your balance

Stay heavy on your whole foot throughout the lift. A heavy barbell changes your center of mass; pay attention to how your weight is distributed on your foot so that the bar does not pull you forward and so that you start over the bar for an efficient lift.

Follow this 5 step set-up, be smart with your loading, patient with your progress, and watch your back pain go away!