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How to Master the Deadlift

Last Updated on July 28, 2016 by Jeff


The deadlift is often called the “king of exercises.”

It’s the movement that uses and builds strength, and there is something about lifting a heavy weight from the floor that is a rush.

However, a lot of people are apprehensive about deadlifting. You might have even heard that it is bad for your back. If you learn how to do it safely and effectively, you’ll be able to use this extremely effective move to build muscle without hurting your back.

Are deadlifts bad for your back?


Bad deadlifts are bad for your back. When done properly, strengthening the back with deadlifts is the best thing you could possibly do.

(Assuming you have no pre-existing injuries)

How often should I deadlift?

Deadlifts are hard on your body.

For a beginner, it’s not much of a problem, since you’re not strong enough to really fatigue yourself. Once you have a little bit of training under your belt, you probably don’t want to deadlift more than once per week.

Depending on the program and your fitness level, you can do more if you keep it fairly light and don’t push the intensity. If you are going heavy and doing low reps, once per week max.

How many sets/reps should I do?

There is really no reason to train using singles. That is training your ego, not your body.

Doing a max is for testing and you shouldn’t be doing it more than once every 12 weeks.

How many sets and reps you do depends entirely on what else you incorporate into your workout and what your training goals are.

Start with 3 sets of 5 reps and slowly add weight until you can’t lift with good form. You will continue to get stronger and add muscle following this simple program, until you’re ready to increase your reps, as well as weight.

Will deadlifts add muscle, or just strength?

Deadlifts are the best exercise for adding overall strength to the body, but they are great for adding muscle to the posture chain and upper back, too, especially if you do higher reps, or controlled eccentrics to increase time under tension.

How do I get the most out of my deadlifts?

  • Get set in a strong start position with your back flat and lungs full of air, feet hip distance apart or slightly wider. Create tension throughout the body. Shoulders pulled back, abs tight and hamstrings engaged.
  • Take the tension or slack out the bar before you lift it. Don’t yank at it, or the bar will flex before it leaves the ground. If you do not have some tension in the bar by pulling on it before you lift it from the floor, it will pull you out of position.
  • Use your legs to push the floor away. Don’t lift the bar with your upper body. The deadlift does not start from the hips or back; it starts from the knees extending as you push the feet down. This will be the strongest position to break the floor, and will keep your body in a strong, safe position.
  • The bar should be as close to you as possible at all points of the movement. Start with it touching your shins or at most an inch away. Wear long socks if you don’t want to cut your shins on the way up.
  • The movement should be smooth throughout. Don’t rush. If the bar is moving slowly, let it move slowly, rather than trying to hitch it and jerk around. Slow and smooth is better and safer than jerky movements.
  • Treat every set like a heavy set. This is true of every exercise, but deadlifts especially. When you are warming up, do not ‘just pick it up’ because it’s light. Go through the same set up, sequencing and effort that you would if it were heavy. This gets you accustomed to the positions, the motor pattern and warms the nervous system up to exert maximum force.
  • Finish with your hips, not your back. It’s very common to see people finish deadlifts by leaning back. Extending the lower back is not a safe or effective way to complete a deadlift. Your finish position should be straight up and down, with shoulders aligned over hips. If you’re leaning back, you are using your lower back.Forget about moving the shoulders backwards. Focus on moving the hips forward. Extend the hips by squeezing the glutes until your upper thighs meet the bar.
  • If you’re going to control the bar on the way down, make sure you don’t exhale at the top and lose all of the tension in your core. If you’re dropping the weight it won’t matter, but if you are lowering it down with control, make sure your muscles are engaged and that you have tension in the core to protect your spine.
  • When you lower the weight, maintain the same movement pattern as you do when you lift it. That means hips go back and the bar stays as close to the body as possible. Do not just bend over forwards, letting gravity and the weight of the bar pull you.

Everyone should master the deadlift. It’s the best exercise available for building strength, muscle and improving posture. However, make sure you are doing it safely and correctly. Hire a personal trainer or other professional for a session to show you how to do it if you don’t feel confident.

While it’s fun to lift as much as possible, it is not the most effective way to train. Sensible programming will ensure you stay safe, and continue to make progress for a long time to come.