Master the King of All Exercises

Deadlifting Secrets 101

Everything you need to know about this complex exercise.

Free Video Training

Name:
Email:* 
The High Performance Handbook

The High Performance Handbook Is Like Nothing You've Ever Seen Before...


How to Deadlift: Which Variation is Right for You? – Part 1 (Conventional Deadlift)

Written on May 3, 2011 at 7:57 am, by Eric Cressey

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the deadlift.

It’s a great strength exercise for the posterior chain with excellent carryover to real life – whether we’re talking about athletics or picking up bags of groceries.

It’s among the best muscle mass builders of all time because it involves a ton of muscle in the posterior chain, upper back, and forearms.

It’s a tremendous corrective exercise; I’m not sure that I have an exercise I like more for correcting bad posture, as this one movement can provide the stiffness needed to minimize anterior pelvic tilt and thoracic kyphosis.

These benefits, of course, are contingent on the fact that one can perform the deadlift correctly to make it safe.  And, sadly, the frequency of what I’d consider “safe” deadlifts has diminished greatly as our generation has spent more and more time a) at computers, b) in high-top sneakers with big heel lifts, and c) watering down beginner fitness programs so much that people aren’t taught to deadlift (or do any valuable, compound exercises) when starting a strength training program.

To me, there are two ways to make things “safe.”  The first is to teach correct deadlift technique, which I already did with a 9-minute video that is free to anyone who subscribes to my newsletter (if you missed it, you can just opt-in to view it HERE).  This video troubleshoots three common variations of the deadlift: conventional, sumo, and trap bar.

The second is to educate lifters on which deadlift versions are the safest versions for different individuals with different injury histories and movement inefficiencies.  That’s the focus of today’s piece.  We’ll start with the conventional deadlift.

While this version of the deadlift is undoubtedly the “one that started it all,” it’s also the most technically advanced and potentially dangerous of the bunch.  Shear stress on the spine is going to be higher on the conventional deadlift than any other variation because the bar is further away from the center of gravity than in any other variation.  Additionally, in order to get down to the bar and maintain one’s center of gravity in the right position while maintaining a neutral spine, you’ve got to have excellent ankle, hip, and thoracic spine mobility.  Have a look at the video below, and take note of the position of the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine:

You’ll notice that the ankles are slightly dorsiflexed (knees out over toes).  If you are crazy restricted in your ankles and can’t sufficiently dorsiflex, two problems arise:

1. You can’t create a “space” to which the bar can be pulled back toward (a lot of the best deadlifters pull the bar back to the shin before breaking the bar from the floor).  You can observe this space by drawing a line straight down from the front of the knee to the floor at the 2-second mark of the above video:

2. Those who can’t dorsiflex almost always have hypertonic plantarflexors (calves). These individuals always struggle with proper hip-hinging technique, as they substitute lumbar flexion for hip flexion in order to “counterbalance” things so that they don’t tip over.

You’ll also notice that the hips are flexed to about 90 degrees in my example.  I have long arms and legs and a short torso, so I have a bit less hip flexion than someone with shorter arms would need.  They would utilize more hip flexion (and potentially dorsiflexion) to be able to get down and grab the bar.

Regardless of one’s body type, you need to be able to sufficiently flex the hips.  You’d be amazed at how many people really can’t even flex the hips to 90 degrees without some significant compensation patterns.  Instead, they just go to the path of least resistance: lumbar flexion (lower back rounding).

Moving on to the thoracic spine, think about what your body wants to do when the ankles and hips are both flexed: go into the fetal position.  The only problem is that the fetal position isn’t exactly optimal for lifting heavy stuff, where we want to maintain a neutral spine.  Optimal thoracic spine mobility – particularly into extension – brings our center of gravity back within our base of support and helps ensure that we don’t lose the neutral lumbar spine as soon as external loading (the lift) is introduced.

As you can see, having mobility in these three key areas is essential in order to ensure that the conventional deadlift is both a safe and effective strength exercise in your program.  The problem is that in today’s society, not many people have it.  So, what do we do with those who simply can’t deadlift effectively from the floor?

We’ve got two options:

1. We can simply elevate the bar slightly (or do rack pulls) to teach proper hip hinging technique in the conventional stance – and train the movement within the limitations of their ankle, hip, and thoracic spine mobility.

2. We can simply opt to go with a different deadlift variation.  This is something that, for some reason, most previously injured lifters can’t seem to grasp.  They have near-debilitating low back injuries that finally become asymptomatic, and they decide to go right back to conventional deadlifts with “light weights.”  They still have the same movement impairments and flawed technique, so they build their strength back up, ingraining more and more dysfunction along the way.  They’d be better off doing other things – including trap bar and sumo deadlifts – for quite some time before returning to the conventional deadlift.

And, on that note, we’ll examine those two other deadlift variations in parts 2 and 3 of this series.  Stay tuned!

To see how all the deadlift variations fit into a comprehensive strength and conditioning program, check out Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look, Feel, and Move Better.

  • ralph

    What do you think about using a trap bar as an alternative?goals-60 yrs old just want to stay healthy

  • Tom

    Hi Eric.
    loving all of the newsletters and your articles on Tnation.

    at the start you said this is an excellent excercise for correcting anterior tilt.

    i had anterior tilt, but i think i went overboard with all the hip flexor stretching and glute/ham strengthening.

    ive done so many KB swings and supine bridges to strenghten my glutes i now have a bit of a posterior tilt i think. and have flattened my low back.
    if i stretch my glutes and strenghten my hip flexors ( but this time take it a bit easier) would this bring me a more neutral pelvis?

    sorry for the essay and thanks or your time if you decide to answer

  • Zander

    I hope the third variation will be the the hybrid sumo stance.

  • http://facebook.com/tucker.allen Allen

    Big thing for me was learning about internal hip rotation. Pulling sumo or squating wide allowed me to to cut my ROM significantly. This was awesome, except that it hurt pretty much everything, and I had no idea what was causing it.

    So realizing I had about 5 degrees of internal rotation on a good day, I switch to narrow everything, valgus goes away, pain goes away, and eventually the strength gains outweigh any mechanical advantage.

  • http://functionaltrainingcoach.com Kevin Yates

    You’re right on the money about the movement impairments that seem to ‘disappear’ until the offending movement is re-introduced with sufficient loads.

    No amount of rest will beat teaching proper technique and lifting mechanics.

    Nice post Eric :)

  • Heath Thiel

    One thing I’ve always thought was odd was the teaching of putting the head down when pulling conventional or trap bar. I’ve never really understood the concept of potentially relaxing your erectors during a deadlift. On top of the fact that you aren’t able to fully engage the serratus posterior or the rhomboids or for that fact the traps on the bottom portion of the pull makes little if any sense to me either. The video examples already show the individual with the beginning of kyphosis and he’s only pulling 135.

    I couldn’t agree more with the usefulness of the movement, however, like the squat I think there are a lot of people out there that don’t have as sound of a understanding of their biomechanics as they think they do, particularly as they apply to strength training.

  • Greg Y.

    Sorry if this is a repost, but I prefer the deadlift utilizing the trap bar. It is more comfortable for me with the weight closer to the hip, and I am 44 yrs old and not a competitive lifter.

    As of the moment, there is no best form for me, as I am recovering from a distal biceps brachii tendon tear, and am only six weeks post surgery as of tomorrow.

  • Tsvetan Vassilev

    @Heath Thiel
    Is Eric flexing his arms? yes, somewhat. Is that the way he does 650? no. Is he kyphotic? no.

    One thing that I have a hard time getting trough people at the gym is that having your head in neutral is not “flexing your neck.” Actually the cervical extensors are tight from the so-called neck packing or chin tucking. Charlie Weingroff writes a more detailed article here – http://charlieweingroff.com/2010/11/packing-in-the-neck/
    If you face forward or up does that create more tension on the neck extensors? Not that much. Does it create a faulty movement/habit? Yes.
    A very important distinction is to be made with movement occurring at the cervical spine(neck) and the sub-occipital “joint”(neck to base of scull junction). Facing forward creates tension on the suboccipital muscles which later translates in forward head posture.

    And engaging the serratus posterior? Except trough breathing there should be no conscious way of engaging that muscle.

  • http://malepatternfitness.com Andrew Heffernan

    Okay the photo of the baby at the bar just about killed me.

  • http://adamrees.blogspot.com Rees

    Nothing like a good old case of using your head. Always count on you for a good reminder. Sending this to all my ‘fat/stronger than me/always quitting halfway due to injury’ workout buddies as we speak.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Ralph – you’ll like part 3 of this series!

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Tom,

    I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen anyone go from anterior tilt to posterior tilt; that’d be pretty remarkable. My guess would be that you’re interpreting things incorrectly, but if you’re not, you’re right that improving length of the hip extensors would be a good start.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Part 2 is all about sumo deadlifts.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Thanks, Kevin!

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Heath,

    Getting the chin tucked so that the entire spine is in neutral was one of the biggest positive changes I made in my lifting career. I’m stronger, and it feels safer – and most of the best deadlifters in the world are in this position when they pull. Great post from Charlie Weingroff on the topic:

    http://charlieweingroff.com/2010/11/packing-in-the-neck/

  • slapper

    Hi Eric.

    I have a strange problem(many according to my wife)in that i am much weaker in rack pulls than i am from the floor.I have long arms /body and short legs and pull conventional.is this structural,technical or just plain weird ?
    love your articles mate.thanks.

  • Rico Machado

    I’ve always been an extremely strong conventional DLer . For some reason I’ve been exploring sumo as of late. Trying to see if getting very profficient in sumo will create carryover in conventional.

  • http://fittrue.com/ Tim Peirce

    Thanks Eric, Good stuff as always.

  • Stephen Long

    Dave Tate said in his article Dead Zone that the shoulders should be behind the bar. Is that important?

  • Vincent

    personnaly, i lack a little bit of mobility in the ankle and hamstring so i got some difficulty learning the proper technique in the conventional deadlift…i use foam roller and dynamic strech and static stretch to developp my mobility…is it ok?
    what exactly should i do to developp a good to nearly perfect technique…
    thanks and good day to everyone out there!!!

  • http://gmail Andre Adair

    The answer to your question since I started deadlifting 2 years ago I’ve been a conventional deadlifter

  • http://www.fysiologik.com dylan

    Thanks for your info and insights. Most excellent, Im an avid follower, appreciate your passion and knowledge EC!

  • paddy

    very good video i do conventional deadlift

  • Jon Keyser

    I see that in this video your shins are angeled, while in other videos when you DL near max your shins are more vertical.
    Is this choice the best one for your back? Why do you change between those two?

    Best

    Jon

  • Ken Feibgold

    Thanks Jon

    I am an older lifter (57 yrs old) who went all the way to a 972 lb rack pull when I was 49. Today I have a bad hip and consequently and have migrated to the Sumo Style DL when lifting from the floor (easier for me to get into this stance for some reason).
    I can’t wait to see your vid on this technique.

    Regards, Ken

  • Anna

    Eric,
    I’m more of a squat person… When it comes to my dead lifts form looks good but I have a feeling that I’m overextending my back, because that’s the only place where I feel sore afterwards. I’m 5’3 112 lbs my flexibility is fine I pay attention to my posterior chain and glutea are squeezed at the end but at the beginning of the movement I feel like I’m using too much of my lower back. Dorsiflexion and ankle are fine. Any tips? Maybe I’m not paying attention to something important

  • sandra Fontes

    For me for sure the conventional deadlift because i can feel better the activation of the posterior chain.I love the video thanks

  • Sergei

    i am the person who like the conventional deadlift….Thanks for for your videos.

  • George Myers

    I am 72 years old and work full-time teaching skiing and snowboard at a mountain here in So Cal and workout 3-4 times per week. During the off seaon I coach and ref soccer and at 5’9″ 175 lbs look and feel in shape so what would be the best variation of a deadlift for me ?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    George,

    It’s hard to say because you didn’t really speak at all to how you move.  I always tell people to start with the most conservative progression and go from there.  We start our clients off with the trap bar and build from there.

  • AndyM

    Personally with my back issues the sumo is the only way to go!


New Balance

Featured Product
Assess and Correct

YouTube Twitter Facebook