The Deadlift is not a Dead Lift

by Mark Philippi, from

The deadlift is an exercise that has unfairly received a bad reputation with the general population. Very seldom does someone ask you how much you can deadlift. It is rarely taught to clientele in the health club setting and most gyms seldom have a platform area designated for deadlifting. The deadlift has been performed mostly by powerlifters, hard core garage lifters, and bodybuilders looking to venture into the strength arena.

The average public perceives deadlifting with similar false stigmas to that of squatting. Squatting will hurt my knees; deadlifting will hurt my back. Both myths have taken hold due to bad technique and poor form when performing the lifts. There are few poor lifts, only poor lifting technique.

In reality, most everyone who is interested in weight training should perform the deadlift. A weak back makes us more susceptible to injury on a daily basis. How many times do you bend to lift objects during the average day? Most spinal specialists would agree that if you examined the backs of middle aged Americans, you would probably find an accumulation of spinal problems through the course of one's lifetime. I would also venture to say a large percentage of workman's compensation claims are filed because of back injuries. Prevention lies in strengthening the back. The deadlift is the best exercise for total back strengthening; its focus is the body's core - legs, hips, and back. It is also the best test of total body absolute strength, much more than the bench press or squat. The deadlift is also one of the best exercises to add total body mass. Individuals wanting to add mass should seriously consider about adding the deadlift to your workout program. The deadlift "thickens" the body.

There is more to performing the deadlift than walking up to a bar and picking it up. It is not as technically complex as a clean or snatch, and every bit as problematic as the squat. There are two standard styles of deadlifting: conventional - feet narrower than shoulders, and sumo - feet wider than shoulders. The style that fits most people comfortably is the conventional. It also has more carryover to daily activity.


Let's start with foot placement. Feet should be placed at armpit width with toes slightly out. Shins will be placed next to the bar. The majority of the bodyweight should begin on the balls of the feet with a transfer to the heels through lockout. The hands should grasp the bar with an over / under grip with the arms outside the knees. The legs should be bent to the "power position"; approximately 60 degrees from vertical with the hips lower than the shoulders. Your head should be looking forward in a neutral position. The chest should be forward, not down. Shoulders should be squeezed tightly back and positioned directly over the bar. Do not round the shoulders, as more force will then be applied to the back.

Beginning the Lift

The deadlift when executed correctly is a push from the floor followed by a pull to a locked out position. The force distribution on the feet places the force on the balls of the feet during the initial push off the ground followed by a transfer to the heel as the bar passes the knees and into lockout. As the bar breaks the ground, the hips must be in the power position although before starting the lift, they can be anywhere that is comfortable. This means there must be a focus on bending the knees and using the legs to drive. Do not let the legs lock out prematurely thereby placing more strain on the back. Always keep the chest above the hips. The bar should just brush the shins when leaving the ground. Try to accelerate the bar from the ground. The faster the bar moves past the knees, the easier the lockout. As the bar passes the knees, drive the head back helping your hip lockout as well. Do not hyperextend the back at lockout. Upon completion of the deadlift, return the bar to the platform slowly and under control. Do not slam the weights off the ground. Be in good position to start another rep, maintaining tightness throughout the body. Pause before starting the next rep, allow the reps to be momentum free. Do not bounce off of the ground.


The deadlift can be used to develop work capacity, build mass, or increase strength. I believe for most people, keeping routines basic is the best way. I believe heavy deadlifting once per week is sufficient for developing strength. If a second workout per week is desired, it should be kept lighter, concentrating on form, technique, and speed of movement.

Initially it is important to develop work capacity. This will facilitate quicker recovery in your workouts. This means utilizing 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 10 reps, weights approximately 50 to 65% of 1rm, and relatively short rest periods of no more than 90 to 120 seconds. If technique breaks down during a set, stop and add another set; ie. 4 sets of 10 reps = 40 total reps, go to 5 sets of 8 reps. The work output remains the same.

After work capacity is developed, strength and mass development can take place. I suggest using 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 6 reps, weights approximately 70 to 90% of 1rm. Rest periods can be longer, between 2 and 4 minutes, to facilitate further recovery. Again, if technique breaks down; shorten the set and add another to the workout.

If pure absolute strength is desired, you can add a peaking phase to your routine. Use 1 to 3 sets of singles and doubles between 90 to 100% of 1rm with full recovery between sets. For recovery and overtraining purposes, limit peaking phase to 3 to 4 weeks consecutively.

In the classical periodization model, as the intensity increases, the total work volume decreases. Therefore, volume or "down" sets can be added to keep work capacity high and maintain the training effect.


The following is a 10 week sample deadlift program that takes in effect all aspects of the previously mentioned categories: work capacity, strength / mass building, and absolute strength development. It also utilizes drop sets to increase the volume of the workout to keep the training effect. The routine does not include warm up sets.

Week Phase Sets/Reps Rest Interval
1 Work Capacity 10*3 Sets @ 55% 60 Seconds
2 Work Capacity 8*3 Sets @ 65% 60 Seconds
3 Strength Phase 5*3 Sets @ 75% 3 minutes
4 Strength Phase 5*3 Sets @ 80% 3 minutes
5 Strength Phase 3*3 Sets @ 83%, 8*1 Set @ 70% 3 minutes
6 Strenght Phase 3*3 Sets @ 86%, 8*1 Set @ 70% 3 minutes
7 Strength Phase 2*3 Sets @ 89%, 6*1 Set @ 75% 3 minutes
8 Peaking Phase 2*2 Sets @ 92%, 6*1 Set @ 75% 3-5 minutes
9 Peaking Phase 2*2 Sets @ 95%, 5*1 Set @ 80% 3-5 minutes
10 Peaking Phase 1*2 Sets @ 98%, 5*1 Set @ 80% 3-5 minutes
11 Peaking Phase Test or Competition

In closing, the deadlift should be an important part of everyone's workout regimen; it is not just for powerlifters. It strengthens the core of the body; that to which all other parts are connected. Therefore, it is useless to have a big chest and huge pipes if you have a weak back giving you trouble. If properly performed the deadlift is a very safe and effective way to build work capacity, strength and mass. I would recommend that anyone interested in increasing total body strength add the deadlift to his or her workout.

About the Author:
Mark Philippi, CSCS is currently the head strength coach at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. In addition to working as a strength coach, Mark is also a competing world-class athlete, ranking in the top ten in the World’s Strongest Man competition series and a former powerlifting World Champion.

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