My Deadlift Mantra
All humans should possess the ability to lift things off the ground. If squats are the king of exercises, deadlifts are the queen. One thing to love about the deadlift is the fact that there is no way to cheat in this movement. Don’t get me wrong, and there is loads of room to seriously hurt yourself if you’re a Lego man with a plastic brain. I’m no deadlifting champion, but the tips I’m sharing here are simply some of the things I think about when lifting heavy shit off the ground.
My mantra has been put together by reading up on different deadlift methodologies, talking to lifters and coaches, and experimenting with different training concepts when “getting massive.” I usually don’t share this much detail when coaching the deadlift, as most athletes struggle to get the basics right. Each step contains additional layers that require lifter to think about the position and the activation of certain muscles, like your tongue.
My current mantra:
1. I stand over the bar with my feet hip width apart and my shins touching the bar
It’s important to start with the bar as close to your center of mass as possible. The closer I can keep the bar to my body the lighter it will be. Stance width will vary from athlete to athlete based on individual body types, limb proportions and strengths/weaknesses but a good starting point is where the athlete would typically do a vertical jump from.
2. I bend down and take a firm grip on the bar with my hands evenly placed outside my legs
I ring the bar’s blood neck. I don’t hold the bar like a cup of English tea, I give the bar an “Indian burn” and show the bar I mean business. At this point, it is important to make sure your hands are evenly placed outside your legs on the bar. A narrow grip will not allow you to lift correctly as your arms will interfere with your legs during the lift and prevent you from pushing your chest up like a gorilla.
3. I lower my hips to be below my shoulders and keep my shoulder over the bar, lift my chest up and start to focus on my breathing
Let’s get one small thing straight, it’s not a squat and it’s not a stiff leg deadlift (RDL). I often see athletes setup for the deadlift with their hips and shoulders at the same height, or even worst their hips lower than their knees? It’s a deadlift, people! You need to use your biomechanical leverage correctly if you are going to lift heavy shit successfully without breaking your back. Limb length and torso length make the setup an individual thing, but everyone should still aim to get the basics right.
4. I breathe in through my nose and deep into my belly to tighten my midline. I push my tongue into the roof of my mouth.
Often athletes breathe into their chest and this does nothing to help stabilise their midline. This is by far the most important step in the whole process. I sometimes sit in the bottom position and take 3-5 deep breaths in and out until I feel my diaphragm is pushing down into my abdominals and my midline is set with “washboard abs”. Only then will I move onto the next step.
Singers have long known the role of tongue position in singing, not merely in altering sound production, but also in altering the strength and control of the diaphragm for power production. In strength, letting the tongue simply flop around in the mouth reduces the tone of the neck muscles, which decreases cervical spine stability. As the shoulder blades are essentially hanging off the spine, it’s necessary to have some significant levels of stability at play. Pushing your tongue into the roof of your mouth helps to increase intra-abdominal pressure and stabilize the spine.
Here is an awesome video on breathing 101 for deadlifting:
5. I try to bend the bar around my legs by engaging my lats and tighten my upper back. I then screw my feet into the floor.
Creating tension in the start position is critical to a big pull.Taking tension on the bat is often called “taking the slack out of the bar.” More stiffness is going to be your friend in the deadlift, try to get maximal tension through your entire body, pulling the bar up into the plates to generate additional tension before you begin the movement phase.
I flex my triceps, pull slack out of the bar and engage my lats, making sure my arms are locked and my back is super tight. I keep my lats flexed and concentrate on lifting the bar up and back into my body, the bar doesn’t drag up the body, as this will increase friction, but it needs to stay as close to the body as possible.
A flat foot typically results in the legs rotating inward (tibia and femur rotating internally), which pulls the hip into an anterior pelvic tilt, and alters how well we can stabilise our midline. Conversely, a high arch pushes more weight to the outside of the foot, which can externally rotate the legs and result in a posterior tilt of the pelvis. This small change can make a big impact in how you deadlift and screwing the feet into the floor is the queue to set this up.
Deadlift foot position:
6. I keep my chin down and my head in a neutral position
We talk about neutral spine and neutral head position all the time. When lifting heavy weights it’s important to align your spine correctly. One of my pet hates is seeing people deadlift and squat while looking up at the ceiling. What the hell is up there?
Where our eyes look, our bodies follow. If you look up you will put your cervical spine into extension, your thoracic and lumbar spine will follow suit. Do you really want to be in an overextended position when deadlifting and squatting? HELL NO!
Please, please, please keep you chin tucked and your head in a neutral position. I usually keep my eyes focused on the floor about 2m in front of me.
7. I continue to building the tension on the bar as I push the ground away with my legs
“Grip it and rip it” is a load of crap, if your coach is telling you to do this you need to find a new coach! Tension equals strength! Strength is will keep the body aligned correctly and produces the force required to lift big weights. If you rip the bar off the floor without building tension you will never maintain a flat back. Slowly building tension in the bar by aggressively driving the feet into the floor, as if you’re trying to jump up and backwards, will generate power from the floor.
8. As the bar passes above my knees I drive harder into the ground and squeeze my butt muscles while slowly exhaling the air out of my belly.
Breathing is important, especially if you are planning on doing multiple repetitions. When the ankles, knees and hips are locked out we can relax slightly and take the opportunity to breathe. By breathing out slowly in the top portion of the deadlift I’m ready to take my next breath in at the top, and before I commence the eccentric portion of the lift.
9. At the top of the deadlift my butt muscles are tight and I keep my bottom rib down. At this point I breath in through my nose, deep into my belly
When approaching lockout, many people want to throw their head back, but again this will put the spine into extension. Not a great idea when you’re holding onto a heavy object. The distance between the bottom rib and the top of the pelvis should NOT change. This comes back to the neutral spine and maintaining tension.
At the lockout position the load is now resting on the skeletal system and hence this is the best opportunity to reset, brace your midline and take in some air.
10. With my midline tight, and my knees just off lock, I send my hips back and keep the bar close
It’s not a stiff leg deadlift! By slightly bending the knees first I put tension in the hamstrings as a knee flexor, and then I send the hips back to add tension to the glutes and hamstrings as the hips move into flexion. If your knees are locked out you will put more pressure on your lower back and increase the chance of injury.
Don’t drop the bar, if your aiming to build strength you need to complete the repetition. If your goal is 5reps, don’t do 4.5 reps.
11. Once the bar passes just below my knees I bend my knees and lower the bar back to the floor. I hold my breath throughout the eccentric movement.
Bend your knees and maintain your neutral spine and head position. We are simply reversing the concentric movement as we take the bar back to the floor. Now is not the time to breathe out as you need to maintain tension while the load is on the muscular system.
The deadlift is one of the best movements to build strength and to prevent back injury if done correctly. The 11 steps above are the things I currently focus on when I’m deadlifting. Some of these points may help you improve your lifting technique, and you may also have some of your own to add to the list. I’m not saying this is the bible of deadlifting success; you need to have your mantra to deadlift, squat, bench and to be awesome in the gym.
Don’t just step up to the bar and try to throw it around, the weights on the bar are indestructible and they will have the last laugh if you don’t learn to control your movements.