Secrets To Mastering The Deadlift: Part 2

By Molly Galbraith

If you've read the first article in our "Mastering The Deadlift" series, you already know how important it is to include deadlifts in your training program. They are a staple exercise regardless of whether your goal is to get stronger, leaner, more muscular, more athletic, or simply improve your overall health.

That said, learning how to deadlift properly is key to not only keeping you safe, but helping you get the most benefit out of the exercise. For this reason, it's generally not advised for someone brand-new to learning the deadlift (which is a hip hinge movement) to do so with a barbell right off the bat.

Generally a good progression of exercises is as follows:

Broomstick Romanian Deadlift → Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift → Kettlebell Deadlift → Trap Bar Deadlift → Barbell Deadlift

It should also be noted that not everyone is capable of deadlifting safely from the floor, and that's OK!

As strength coach Elsbeth Vaino pointed out in her presentation at the Women's Fitness Summit, "The deadlift is the only exercise whose range of motion is determined by a manufacturing decision."

That is, the size of the weight plates determines how far off the ground the bar sits, which determines the range of motion for the exercise. This fixed range of motion might not be appropriate for every body, so if you find that you're struggling to maintain good form when deadlifting, try reducing the range of motion by elevating the plates.

secret-deadlifting-blocks-350x375You can use other plates, blocks, aerobic steps, etc. to elevate the weight. The deadlift blocks pictured on the right are designed specifically to elevate the bar off the ground to reduce the range of motion of the exercise.

All this said, deadlifting from the floor is perfectly appropriate for many people. Just make sure you master simpler hip hinge movements first, such as the Broomstick RDL and Kettlebell Deadlift, both of which you can find in Mastering The Deadlift: Part 1.

Once you've mastered those, you're ready to up the ante and try a Trap Bar Deadlift. (The trap bar is also referred to as a hex bar.)

I love to use Trap Bar Deadlifts as a "bridge" of sorts between a Kettlebell Deadlift and a Barbell Deadlift. Because it's hard to use a heavy load with Kettlebell Deadlifts, and people often need more practice and confidence with hip hinging before moving to a Barbell Deadlift, a Trap Bar Deadlift is great for bridging that gap.Trap Bar Deadlift

Trap Bar Deadlifts tend to be a bit of a cross between a squat and a deadlift (i.e. your knees are usually slightly more bent during a Trap Bar Deadlift than a Conventional Barbell Deadlift), and it seems to be a really easy position for most people to learn, and it's an exercise where they can get strong, fast. The Trap Bar Deadlift also challenges core stability as the weight can shift a bit, so it teaches you to stay maintain good tension and stiffness throughout your body during the movement.

So now for the million dollar question — how do you perform a Trap Bar Deadlift? We're glad you asked! Check out our video here:

1. Assume a slightly narrow stance inside the "cage" of the trap bar.

You want your feet about hipbone width apart when performing a Trap Bar Deadlift, which is a slightly narrower stance than you'd take if you were deadlifting with kettlebells. If your feet are too wide, your arms or the bar will hit your legs, and/or it will encourage your knees to cave in slightly, which you don't want.

2. "Set" your core.

You'll notice in the video that I put my hands on my waist and rib cage when I am setting my core. This is because it gives me feedback as to whether or not I am in the right position. You don't have to do this, but you'll likely find it helpful.

To "set" my core, I take a big, deep breath in through my nose, blow my air out hard through my mouth and get my rib cage down. This helps align my diaphragm and pelvic floor so that I can properly utilize my core.

I then take a big deep breath in, taking care not to just fill my belly in the front with air, but rather to expand 360 degrees to fill my entire core with air. This prevents me from hyperextending my lumbar spine and putting excessive stress on my lower back during the lift.

3. Hinge at the hips.

There are numerous ways to get your body in a good starting position for a Trap Bar Deadlift, but my preferred method is to push back into my hips with my knees slightly bent, and stop when I feel my hamstrings "catch" — or when it feels like my hamstrings "run out of room" to keep pushing back. At that point, I start to actively bend my knees while continuing to push back. By the time my hands reach the handles, my butt and hips should be about halfway between my shoulders and my knees.

If you have really flexible hamstrings, you might find that your hamstrings don't "catch." That's fine. You can use this tip from my friend and strength coach Justin Ford of Underground Athletic Development.

He taught me to get in a "shortstop" position (pictured) where your hands are your knees and you're hinged back into your hips. From there, keep pushing your butt back and bending your knees until you're able to grab the handles. Again, your butt and hips should be about halfway between my shoulders and my knees.

4. Grab the center of the handles.

It's imperative to make sure that your grip is balanced when you're performing a Trap Bar Deadlift. Grabbing the handles off-center can throw your deadlift completely off, and the heavier it gets, the more consequences that has. You also want to make sure that you grip the handles hard. This allows you to create more tension throughout your entire body, including your lats, which leads us to...

5. Tighten your lats.

A good cue for this is to "protect your armpits" as if someone were going to try and tickle you. What would you do, you'd pull your arms down by your side by tightening your lats. You could also think of this as "pulling your shoulder blades into your back pockets." This helps set the lats, which in turn, helps stabilize your spine and your shoulder girdle, and it also helps keep your whole body stiff and rigid before you pull.

6. Get tension on the bar.

Before you deadlift, it's really important to get some tension going on the bar before you pull. You don't want to go from completely relaxed and slack to ripping the bar off the ground.

I liken it to going inner-tubing behind a boat. You'd never just take off full speed the second the person hops on the inner tube. They'd get jerked all over the place. Instead, you'll move the boat slowly until the slack was pulled out of the rope, then get a little tension on the rope, and then you'd take off. Think of deadlifting the same way. Get some tension on the bar by tugging on it gently, and then let 'er rip!

7. Pull back.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when deadlifting is thinking about picking the weight up. This is bad as it encourages the bar to drift out in front of you. When picking something heavy up off the ground, you want to keep it as close to your body as possible. So think about pulling the weight back and bringing your hips forward or "through."

8. Finish with your glutes.

At the top of the deadlift, it's crucial to make sure that you finish the lift by pulling your hips "through" and squeezing your glutes at the top.  You do NOT want to finish the lift by hyperextending your lumbar spine.  Think about pulling your pelvis towards your rib cage at the top of the movement.

9. Maintain a neutral spine.

If you've gotten into a good position from the beginning and your core is nice and tight, maintaining a neutral spine throughout your deadlift shouldn't be too difficult. Just think about all the motion coming from your hips and none of it coming from your spine, so if there were a broomstick along your back (as I demo in Part 1) that broomstick would be in contact with your tailbone, your upper back, and the back of your head through the entire deadlift.

10. Reverse the motion to put the weight down.

For some reason, it's extremely common for newer lifters to deadlift the weight up, and then squat back down to the floor. Don't do this as it puts you in a poor position for your next repetition. To put the weight down, simply reverse the motion and set the weight on the floor for a moment, and then perform your next rep.

Common Questions

Q: How do I breathe during a deadlift?

A: In the video above, I show you how to fill up with air to help stabilize your spine during your deadlift. I generally do this breath, maintain it for 3–4 reps, and then take in another deep breath and perform several more reps. If you can do this, that's great.

If you find that you need to re-set your breath every rep, then do that. I'd rather you re-set between reps and have a neutral spine than bang out several reps with a non-neutral spine.

Q: What footwear should I wear to deadlift?

A: As you'll notice in the video, I am wearing some clunkers. These are shoes prescribed by my physical therapist, so I wear them, but generally you want a more flat-soled shoe like Chuck Taylors for deadlifting (and often times, people even deadlift barefoot).

Q: How much does the trap bar weigh?

A: 55 pounds. Unless you're using a "training bar," which are generally 10 pounds.


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About the author:  Molly Galbraith

Molly Galbraith, CSCS is co-founder and woman-in-charge at Girls Gone Strong, a global movement of 800,000+ folks passionate about women’s health, fitness, and empowerment. She’s also the creator of the The Girls Gone Strong Academy, home of the world’s top certifications for health and fitness pros who want to become a Certified Pre-& Postnatal Coach or a Certified Women’s Coaching Specialist.   The GGS Academy is revolutionizing women’s health and fitness by tackling critical (and often overlooked) topics like body image struggles, disordered eating, menopause, amenorrhea and menstrual cycle struggles, PCOS, endometriosis, osteoporosis, pre- and postnatal exercise, incontinence, diastasis recti, pelvic organ prolapse, postpartum recovery, and much more.   Learn more about Molly on her website and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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