Breaking Down the Deadlift


Deadlifts aren’t always the easiest movement to learn. If you go to pick something up, most people bend over at the waist/back and pick it up. You don’t think about keeping your back straight, hinging your hips back and then picking the object up. It’s just a different movement pattern that sometimes we need to relearn. So the very first thing I want to address is that you need to have patience when learning this if you’re not getting it the first time you try. It takes time for your brain and your muscles to sync up and create the right movement pattern sometimes. Practicing it correctly will grease that groove and you’ll eventually get it.


There are so many benefits to deadlifting!

  1. They carry over into real life big time. Get a deadlift down and you can safely and efficiently lift 50lbs of dog food out of your car. Or kitty litter if you’re a cat person. Or a big case of water if  you don’t have any fur children.
  2. Strengthens the posterior chain, which is something most of us need to work on! This is a fancy way of saying the back of your body. Because most of us have a more sedentary lifestyle this can lead to weaker hips, hamstrings, and glutes. Basically, this means if you were to compare the front of your hips and thighs to the back of them, the front is stronger in comparison. This isn’t always the case, but is more likely to occur with inactivity. Weaker hips and glutes can lead to an increased risk of low back, hip and knee pain. Again, not always the case, but it can happen. And this isn’t to fear monger, just to drive home the importance of not neglecting your backside.
  3. It can also strengthen your core and your lats, a large sheet of muscles in your back. 
  4. It makes your butt look nice. That’s it. I don’t have an explanation for that one other than it’s an added bonus.


Progressions to Get You Deadlifting    

  • Perfect your hip hinge. Using a PVC pipe or broom stick on your back is one of the best drills I’ve found in teaching this movement. It should be in contact with the space between your shoulder blades and the top of your butt. Ideally, it should also touch the back of your head if your shoulders and posture allow you to do so while maintaining a neutral spine.
    • From here, soften your knees and push your butt back while keeping your back straight. Using the PVC pipe gives you instant tactile feedback. If you’re not maintaining a nice straight back, you’ll lose contact with one of those 2-3 spots on the PVC pipe. Practice this movement until you feel comfortable. Even if you have this down, this is great to throw in your warm up if you are going to be deadlifting or swinging.
    • After you master that movement, try it without the PVC pipe.  Get a friend, trainer, or shoot a quick video to check your form. It should look the same with and without the PVC. You could even do jazz hands on your torso to help keep yourself in the right position.
    • For a video demo of this click here ->
  • Add a kettlebell
    • After you get that down, grab a kettlebell because you’re ready to add weight now! Situate your bell between your feet. You’ll do that same exact hinge motion while keeping your shoulders back to pick up the kettlebell. Squeeze your butt on the way up and stand tall, locking out your hips and knees. Think of that top position like you’re holding a plank, where you’re creating tension throughout your body. Then put the weight back down just like if you had the PVC pipe still on your back. You should feel this in the backs of your thighs, your butt, hips and possibly abs too. This motion shouldn’t feel like you are lifting with your lower back. I usually recommend going a little light with these to start out because safety first. Master the movement, then add weight.
    • When you put the weight down, pause and lift again. Avoid habits like bouncing the weight off the ground, not touching the ground at all, or dropping the weight on the way down without controlling the movement.
    • I like teaching this with kettlebells first because they sit up higher off the ground than a dumbbell and you can find them lighter than a barbell. Not to say you couldn’t prop up dumbbells on steps in front of you. I’ve lifted the barbell itself up on steps or plate too for clients so they can get that feeling with the 45 lbs of the bar itself.
    • For demo with the kettlebell click here ->
  • Add weight
    • Progress to bigger kettlebells. If you’re getting to 12 reps with good form and without much struggle, it’s time to bump your weight up.
    • Once you’re in that 50lb range, try a barbell or trap (aka hex) bar! You can load more weight on this way as you progress.
    • If using a barbell, you’ll have it in front of you with the bar positioned over your feet where your shoelaces are. Feet are hip to shoulder width. Hinge back, back flat, shoulders back and grab the bar overhand. Then pull and lift straight up like you would with a kettlebell then hinge back and put it down.
    • If using a hex/trap bar, same idea with the hinge and stance while standing inside the bar. Set it up so the handles are lined up with your legs. Then it’s the same movement at a kettlebell or barbell deadlift.
    • For a deadlift demo with a hex bar, click here ->
    • For a deadlift demo with a barbell, click ->


Tips and Tricks

  • Still feeling it in your back when you add weight?
    • Lower the weight or ditch it all together. Go back to practicing the hip hinge. Set up your phone and record what it looks like when you hinge with and without weight. If you don’t have anyone to coach your movement and it’s too hard to look in a mirror, a video you can use for visual feedback can be a HUGE help.
  • Lower back is rounding a lot when at the bottom of the lift resulting in you feeling it in your back.
    • Everyone’s hips are set up a little different. Not everyone has the mobility for one reason or another to hinge and get that low. Unless you are planning on competing in a powerlifting competition, there’s no reason why you can’t bring the weight up a little higher so it’s easier to reach. Take a weight plate or two and put them stacked on top of one another on floor, then put the kettlebell or the barbell on top of the stacked plates. Then deadlift from the plates instead of the floor. Sometimes just that little bit of lift is really beneficial to correcting your form. You can see these variations in the deadlift demos mentioned above. 
  • Knees straightening out too fast and then pulling the weight up the rest of the way with your back.
    • Imagine there is a string tied to the top of your head pulling you straight up. Your hips and knees should straighten at about the same time when move from the hinge to the standing position. This might feel a little funny with a barbell. I’ve had clients say “I feel like I’m going to hit my knees with the bar.” Valid feeling. You do want to keep the weight close to your legs. That barbell should be situated over your shoe laces when you set up for the lift. The further away from you it is, the more likely you will feel the lift in your lower back. Even if you pick it straight up, your knees will clear the bar, it may not feel like it and feel like you need to straighten them first to get out of the way of the bar, but you don’t. You may graze your shins or knees, but for the most part it won’t be much of an issue. And if it is and you don’t want to end up with cut up shins, there’s always workout leggings or knee high socks you can wear on barbell deadlift day 🙂
  • Squatting instead of hinging. Videos are helpful for this like I mentioned before. Go back to basics and practice that hinge. I tend to see more of a mix up with this one when clients are doing a sumo variation. Sometimes it’s easy to mix up a sumo squat and a sumo deadlift.
    • Squats – your upper body is a little more upright for the most part and you shins will come forward slightly. However, there’s always an exception. Some people’s squats can look a little more hingey and that’s just how they move. That’s why it’s helpful to have an experienced coach by your side, but anyway. I digress! GENERALLY speaking, your upper body is more upright and you feel like you are sitting back into a chair. If you’re holding any sort of weight doesn’t have to touch the floor. 
    • Hinge – upper body comes forward more and hips flex more than knees in a squat. Think of how a barbie doll or GI Joe bends at their hips (minus the straight knees!). Weight touches the ground with each rep, unless you’re doing a stiff leg variation. 


Other variations to check out when you get down the basic deadlift:


Other Resources for Deadlift Tips & Training in General

All of these below have blogs and social media accounts CHOCK FULL of valuable info when it comes to training. I highly recommend all of them for strength training info, positive vibes, and promoting realistic expectations. 

  • The Girls Gone Strong
  • Jen Sinkler
  • Dean Somerset
  • Jen Hosler
  • Achieve Fitness Boston

Author: Kate Mackie

Hi, I'm Kate! I love food, working out, and learning new things related to health and wellness. I'm a personal trainer and holistic nurse who's goal is to share info and help others in the process. I want to see you live your best life!

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