In competitive fitness, deadlifts are most commonly executed with a barbell (or occasionally dumbbells or kettlebells).
This guide will focus on developing the positions, patterns, strength and technique that allows you to lift maximal loads safety, as well as cycle multiple reps Touch-N-Go (TnG) with high levels of efficiency for Met-Cons.
Mobility – Strength – Skill
To maximize your potential, capacity and efficiency for the Deadlift you must master the movements specific mobility, strength and skill demands: the three-headed monster that every athlete must conquer. Let’s take on the monster one “head” at a time.
1) Hip Hinge: Deadlifts are a fundamental movement pattern: a hip hinge. The ability to hinge over and pick something up is one of the most basic human movement needs. In nature, the number of occurrences of a weighted squat are quite low compared to the frequency that you hinge to pick something up. It doesn’t really matter if it is a barbell, backpack or baby: the demands are the same.
To ensure you can hinge safety, I recommend the following guidelines…
- With a rounded back and soft bend in your knees, you should be able to put your palms flat on the floor.
- With an empty barbell, you should be able to replicate deadlift technique (soft bend in knees, neutral spine) while descending to your lower shin / ankle.
If you are unable to do #1, then you have a Range of Motion restriction in the low back, hamstrings, calves or feet.
I recommend implementing some of these stretches on a regular basis post-training…
If you are able to do #1, but unable to do #2, then you likely have an issue with motor control.
I highly recommend focusing on quality reps with controlled speed with a lightly loaded barbell. For example, incorporate a tempo of 3011: 3s Lower, 0s Pause, 1s Raise and 1s Reset at the top.
Build only to loads and rep ranges that you can maintain position and prevent rounding. Avoid deadlifting in scenarios where you are fatigued or breathing heavily, as this is a recipe for injury for those who lack motor control.
This section explains the muscle groups you need to develop to improve your deadlift capacity.
Remember, the weakest link in a chain is the one that breaks. For deadlifts, this is your posterior chain: the musculature on the back of your body. In each segment, I will explain common faults or ways people fail reps heavy attempts if that link in the chain is weak.
The same concepts apply to cycling deadlifts in workouts, but the demands on the hamstring increases, especially as involvement of the knee lessens.
Segment 1, Glutes: If the weak link of your posterior chain is your glutes, you will often miss heavy attempts with the bar out in front of your Center of Mass when the bar is past your knees. The glute does most of the work in the lockout of the deadlift, provided the erectors, core and upper back can maintain a solid position.
Segment 2, Hamstrings: If the weak link is your hamstring, you likely won’t get enough power to get the bar off the ground in a max attempt or you will never gain momentum and miss below the knee. Weak hamstrings will also seriously diminish your ability to cycle Touch-N-Go reps quickly and you will end up compensating with sliding the bar up the legs and pushing the knee back under the bar, which is a way to take pressure off the hamstrings and shift it to the erectors and quads.
Accessory Exercises to Improve Hamstring Strength:
• Deadlifts; from a deficit
• Pausing Good Mornings
• Glute-Ham Raises
• Exercise Ball Hamstring Curls
• Seated Banded Hamstring Curls
• Rear Plank Holds
Segment 3, Erectors & Core: If the weakest link in that chain is your erectors (or if you default to using them in a concentric manner), your back will round in the bottom half of the movement and then you will be forced to extend your spine at lockout. The erectors should not be a prime mover in the deadlift, but they need to have great isometric strength to prevent deviation in the spine. The core (as a whole) plays an important part in ensuring the spine is supported and protected. A strong, rigid core promotes a strong, rigid back position when pulling.
Segment 4, Lats: The lats must be strong to keep the bar close throughout the lift. I teach beginners to lightly graze the body the entire way through the movement, ensuring the bar stays as close to his or her Center of Mass (CoM) as possible. The further the weight moves in front of the body’s CoM the more difficult it will be to lift. The lats are responsible for closing down your shoulder joint and keeping the bar close while keeping the arms long. And just because your lats are strong for movements like Strict Pull-Ups and Barbell Rows (overhead with bent arm) doesn’t mean they are strong with a straight arm down by your legs.
Segment 5, Upper Back: The upper back very well might deviate some during a max effort pull. This isn’t inherently a bad thing.
However, it’s rare that deadlifts are tested as a true max in CrossFit.
Typically, weights are submaximal and are done for multiple reps. In this environment, activating the upper back (think scapulae back and down) is an efficient place to cycle many reps. As you can no longer maintain “perfect” upper back posture, there may still be margins for safe and effective movement (per the above video).
Segment 6, Grip: Grip can be a limiting factor in either max attempts or cycling many reps. It is the difference between max strength and strength endurance.
However, there are also different techniques for how to grasp the bar that will impact your grip and the orientation of your shoulder. In max attempts, most people take advantage of a mixed grip (one palm facing in, one palm facing out), but you can also use a hook grip. Both can be strong and sustainable ways to save your grip.
I personally prefer to hook grip when cycling many reps because 1) the shoulders are symmetrical, and 2) the bar sit an inch or so lower on the hand and lessens the Range of Motion over the course of many reps when trying to cycle quickly at sub-maximal loads.
Accessory Exercises to Improve Grip Strength:
• Double Overhand Deadlifts (no hook grip, no mixed grip)
• Fat Gripz (or) Axel Bars
• High Volume Gymnastics Work
• TnG Weightlifting Work
• Dead Hangs
• Farmer’s Carries
• Rope Pull-Ups
• Plate Pinches
To best learn the sub-skills of deadlift I separate this guide into two sections.
Section 1: Strength Work & Maximal Efforts
Section 2: Cycling Deadlifts in Workouts
Strength Work & Maximal Efforts
Setup & Sequencing
In strength work, the goal is to create lots of pressure through the core and to produce maximal tension. You want to create tension before trying to lift the bar. This is known as “taking slack out of the bar” and is a helpful way to prime your tissues to produce force in the right positions. After all, the goal is power not efficiency. As you lift the bar off the ground, your back angle will stay the same. In other words, the hips and shoulder will raise at the same rate. Once the bar passes your knees, you will squeeze your glutes and push your hips forward to meet the bar. This brings your hips under your shoulders and your body into a straight line.
Breathing & Bracing
During heavy attempts, you want to produce a maximal brace. This can only happen if you occlude your breathing (aka. Hold your breath). From the time you take the slack out of the bar until you drop the bar or lower it back down, you will hold your breath. Creating pressure in this way promotes a stable base to move from and limits deviation in the spine.
Because you are forced to breathe in this way, this technique is unsustainable and be reserved for low-rep strength work and heavy attempts.
If I have an athlete missing heavy deadlift attempts, the first thing I would do is take a look at how long and how consistently they have been deadlifting for strength work. If they haven’t been deadlifting (and doing other heavy hip hinge variations: RDLs, Good Mornings, etc.) for at least a few years consistently, I probably won’t give them a bunch of speciality exercises to target one specific limiter from a missed attempt. Rather, I will continue to have them deadlift while limiting the loads to where they can maintain good technique, then slowly build those weights over a period of several months. The accessory work will be more general work to improve overall posterior chain functioning and strength.
In more experienced athletes and more extreme cases (obvious limiters) then I will look at where exactly there are missing and address the weak links. Go back to the “Strength Requirements” section and go through each body segment to be reminded of how common misses reveal relative weaknesses and how to address these.
Cycling Deadlifts in Workouts
Setup & Sequencing
The setup and technique for deadlifts changes when doing them in a mixed modal setting with lighter loads. When a workout has rounds for time with a light barbell paired with other movements, the result is going to be a different ideal technique than for a single heavy rep.
One of the ways things will change is with the setup. Rather than setting a hard brace and taking the slack out of the bar before lifting you are going to immediately go into the first rep when you grab the bar.
Second, when you are cycling reps quickly the knees tend to get in the way if you try to use the strength technique. Instead of bending the knees and sinking the hips down when the bar goes below the knee, you will continue to hinge at the hip and keep the knees back, out of the way.
Essentially, the moment turns into a fast Touch-N-Go RDL. Annie Thorisdottir displays a great example of this technique in Open Workout 20.3. (Start at 0:35 Mark). Having the dynamic eccentric (lowering) strength to be able to handle fast TnG reps of deadlifts is an important skill in the Sport of Fitness.
I recommend starting with controlled doses in unfatigued environments and slowly moving to more volume while exposed to different types of fatigue. This is something I talk about more in the “Assessing Limitations” section below.
[Singles vs. Small Sets vs. Big Sets]
The fun part of CrossFit, which also makes it a very complicated sport, is that there are endless combinations of movements, rep schemes and loadings.
You will not attack a short, light, low-volume workout with deadlifts with the same technique you will for a longer, heavier piece. You will break up the sets differently, take longer transitions and rest breaks, etc.
As I go through some of the possibilities here, think about workouts you’ve done in the past where each of these techniques apply. This prior experience is an important piece in knowing how to attack workouts appropriate in the future that you’ve never done before.
Singles: In other words, you don’t do any Touch-N-Go (TnG) reps. Since you are forced to regrab and reset each rep, singles are slower than cycling reps. However, since you drop the rep from the top of the movement, you are skipping the eccentric phase and saving some energy and time under tension. Singles are best suited for heavy weights in longer workouts where the other movements don’t provide a rest.
Here would be a good example of a workout where many athletes would choose to do singles…
-3 Deadlifts @90%
-6 Bar Muscle-Ups
-9 Bar-Facing Burpees
Small Sets: Small sets means chunking the work into manageable number of TnG reps. For example, in Open Workout 20.3 (see below) almost everyone is going to chunk both parts of the workout into smaller sets. For the set of 21, you could do…
8-7-6 (or) 7-7-7 (or) 6-5-5-5 (or) 3-3-3-3-3-3-3
-50ft Handstand Walk after each set
Remember, density (the number of reps per minute) is more important than the number of reps you do in a given set. In other words, if you can finish those 21 reps faster by doing 7 sets of 3 with low rest, it is better than doing 3 sets of 7 and being forced to take a long rest.
Think about the sweet spot between keeping your heart rate and blood pressure low and not wasting too much time in setup.
This will be individualized for different types of athletes. Let me explain…
Bill: Bill has a fairly strong deadlift, but isn’t very efficient. He has a longer torso relative to his legs and therefore finds it easy to get speed off the floor in his deadlift reps. Holding onto the bar for several reps blows up his grip, low back and breathing. Bob starts off doing TnG reps when the bar is lighter and he is less fatigued (e.g. 7-7-7 for Part I of 20.3), but when the deadlift weight climbs in a workout (like the second half of 20.3), Bob will resort to doing singles to give his back, grip and breathing a break. In the example workout “Triple Stack” Bob will do singles from round 1. This is a good strategy for Bob.
Ben: That’s me. I have a fairly strong deadlift and I’m pretty efficient doing TnG reps. I have a short torso relative to my leg length and strong glutes. The result means my pull is weakest off the floor. Therefore, I find it easier to do several TnG reps at a time, even when the load becomes very heavy. I would attack the workout “Triple Stack” by doing the deadlifts at 90% Touch-N-Go. Yes, it will jack up my heart rate, blood pressure and breathing a bit, but probably less than if I pulled each as a single. I would then take a slightly longer break (relative to Bob) during the transition to the next element, to save myself and make my pace appropriate. I would attack a workout like 20.3 by doing something similar to Bob’s 7-7-7 in the first part, but in the second half I would do at least triples at the heavy bar, not singles. This is a good strategy too.
Like I said, the key is finding the sweet spot between hanging on for more reps and dropping the bar to allow yourself to recover.
Big Sets: The only times I recommend doing big sets of deadlifts in workouts is if you have to in order to stay competitive. Say an online qualifier workout is…
-20 Bar Muscle-Up
-30 Devil’s Press 50/35 per Hand
-40 Deadlift 135/95lbs
Yes, you will be tired by the time you get to the bar, but most high level athletes could do those 40 deadlifts unbroken (safely) even under some serious fatigue and metabolic pain.
And in a qualifier setting, you are fighting for one of the few spots in a big event. You have to charge your way through the end of the workout to give yourself the best chance of qualifying. In that regard, you don’t have a choice to set down that deadlift bar.
The same would go for a workout like…
“Heavy Strict Diane”
-Strict Handstand Push-Ups
This is a sprint-style workout for top athletes because they will finish sub 3:00. In this environment, there isn’t an option to set the weight down because your competition will buzz by you and there is nowhere to make up the time. You have to hang on and go fast and unbroken.
Breathing & Bracing
The way you breathe and the degree to which you brace will change as well, based upon loading and rep scheme you choose to take.
There are 4 Ways to Breath, based on degree of brace: Full, Hard, Moderate, Minimal. I explain here…
>85% = Full Brace, No Breathing During Rep (Breath at Lockout)
This load is so heavy, you can’t only steal a breath while locked or as you begin to descend into the next rep. You will typically only do 2-3 reps at this weight before being forced to drop the bar and rest.
55-85% = Hard Brace, No Breathing when Bar is below the Knee
While the brace is still strong, here you can get a fuller exchange of air because it’s possible to get a deeper breath. As you pass the knees in the rep, you will exhale until lockout. As soon as you hit lockout, you will begin to inhale as the weight lowers, until you reach the knee. Below the knee, you will hold your breath.
30-55% = Moderate Brace, Short breath hold as bar changes directions at the floor
Here the weights are less so the brace is less significant. As a result, the bar moves faster and the breathing occurs through the entire Range of Motion. Inhale as the bar descends, hold the breath briefly as the bar changes directions at the bottom of the rep, and then exhale again during the raise.
<30% = Minimal Brace, Breathe Freely
When the weight is light, the demand for the brace (and intra-abdominal pressure) is also lower. This means there is no need to hold the breath as you move through reps and you should be able to breathe fully through the whole movement.
What causes a person to “blow up”?
That’s what I’ll be unpacking in this section. I will do my best to keep this simple, but like most training-related topics, the interactions of these limiters are quite complex. For example, venous occlusion (a muscle pump) is often accompanied by a big spike in blood pressure. So as you read, it’s important you understand that a person might have an interaction of several factors that generates a ‘ceiling’ of capacity in a workout, and that limitation will not always be the same in different types of workouts, depending on loading, rep scheme, movement pairing and workout duration.
Breathing, Heart Rate and Metabolism Limiters: Firstly, this could be a fairly straight-forward “engine” limiter, where an athlete’s total metabolism (energy production) is what prevents her from going faster. A workout such as… 3 Rounds for Time: 21 Calorie Assault Bike, 15 Deadlifts 155/105lbs, 9 Bar-Facing Burpees would likely elicit this limiter for intermediate or advanced athletes. Here, the total work (output) is what prevents an athlete from going faster.
However if the above workout had a loading of 275/175lbs, then the limitation for an intermediate athlete could still be metabolism, heart rate or breathing, but it would occur for a different reason: having to brace hard and temporarily hold the breath during the bottom half of each rep. This will accelerate fatigue accumulation due to less gas exchange (external respiration) and further increase the demands on the athlete to deal with metabolic fatigue at high heart rate.
Blood Pressure: At heavy loads (relative to an athlete’s 1 Rep Max) blood pressure will rise with each completed rep, especially in environments where the athlete isn’t given a chance to recover between sets (aka. The Sport of Fitness).
This spike in blood pressure is caused because 1) the athlete generates a full brace on each rep, increasing intra-abdominal pressure, and 2) the prime movers (hamstrings, glutes, erectors) will fully occlude (no blood in or out).
Athletes often mistake a blood pressure limiter as an ‘engine’ limiter because they are forced to rest while breathing hard. But just because you are breathing hard doesn’t mean that’s what is preventing you from feeling ready or capable of doing your next set. Likely your body’s autonomic control is taking over because of a dramatic spike in blood pressure.
Venous Occlusion / Oxygen Desaturation: Venous occlusion is when blood is blocked from leaving the muscle because the muscle itself has created so much pressure from contracting. This is what is referred to as a “having a pump.” The muscle will literally get bigger because it is engorged with blood. This often happens as the weight or rep scheme climbs to the point where the joint velocities slow and the athlete begins to grind through reps.
Great athletes are capable of avoiding a muscle pump at higher percentages of their 1 Rep Max (maybe upwards of 45-50%) by cycling time of contraction with relaxation. In other words, even if a Games athlete occludes the muscle for a short time on the concentric (raising) phase of the lift, then they will relax the muscle enough on the eccentric (lowering) phase of the lift that blood can flow freely.
Sometimes in workouts, an athlete can work through a muscle pump and it won’t be a limiter.
Other times, the muscle will get completely desaturated of oxygen and it will simply be unable to produce strong contractions unless given significant rest time.
This limitations often shows up in compensatory movement patterns or positional breakdown when a muscle ceases to produce power. For example, if the hamstrings “blow up” and “pump out” then athlete will rebend their knees early in the deadlift to shift pressure to the quads and low back to lockout the movement. An athlete should only move through these compensations in a competitive setting.
Deadlifts with Dumbbells or Kettlebells
Setup & Stance: You want your upper body to be as relaxed as possible when cycling reps. However, if you stand in your normal hip-width stance for a Dumbbell or Kettlebell Deadlift, you will be forced to hold the implements out away from your body, putting strain on your shoulders. The solution is standing in a narrow stance. The easiest way to figure out your stance is by setting the implements so the handles are shoulder width and then standing between them. And the heavier (i.e. bigger) the implements are, the narrower you will be forced to stand.
Check out how narrow the guys at the Games had to stand when deadlifting 204lb Kettlebells in each hand…
Line of Action & Center of Mass: In the Dumbbell or Kettlebell Deadlift, the line of action is straight up and down, and it is directly in line with the athlete’s Center of Mass (CoM). In a barbell deadlift, the line of action is still vertical, but that line is always slightly in front of an athlete’s CoM. Also, the knees can have limited forward travel because of the nature of the implement. But this isn’t the case for other implements, like with Kettlebells or Dumbbells. With these implements, an athlete could essentially squat and maintain an appropriate CoM and vertical line of action. I’m not saying I recommend ‘squatting’ in the dumbbell deadlift, but it is an option.
Holding Dumbbells: Usually the movement standard is only having to touch one head of each dumbbell to the ground. If this is the standard, hold at the back of the handle and tilt the dumbbells so you minimize the Range of Motion.
Holding Kettlebells: Once again, the goal is to be relaxed as possible while moving through reps. This applies to stance and line of action, but also grip. With kettlebells, just allow your arms to hang long and relaxed with only your grip working. This typically results in a neutral grip, like you would hold farmer’s handles or even slightly more internally rotated than that. Scroll back up and watch the Fibonacci Final event again from the 2017 Games, this time watching the athletes hand position.
TLDR | Here’s the Summary
1) Hip Hinge: Range of Motion and Motor Control in the Posterior Chain: Hamstrings, Glutes, Erectors
1) Glutes & Hamstrings: Are the prime movers so they must be strong
2) Core & Erectors: Must be strong to prevent movement
3) Lats & Upper Back: Relaxed for cycling light loads, rigid for heavy loads
4) Grip: Strong grip allow the biceps and shoulders to relax
Setup & Sequencing: It will vary based on load and whether in strength work versus a workout.
Breathing & Bracing: Athletes in the Sport of Fitness need to adjust the degree of brace and the breathing technique based on how heavy the load is relative to their 1 Rep Max..
- Full Brace breathing when unloaded or in lockout
- Hard Brace only breathing above knee
- Moderate Brace short breath hold as bar changes directions
- Minimal Brace with constant breathing.
Singles vs. Small Sets vs. Big Sets: Based on relative loading (+) whether you have a strong pull off the floor or not.
- Heart Rate: Often described as an “engine” limiter
- Blood Pressure: Hard brace rises intra-abdominal pressure
- Venous Occlusion & Oxygen Desaturation: the athlete’s prime movers “blow up” and movement quality fades
Dumbbell and Kettlebell Deadlifts: Narrower Stance, Relaxed Shoulders, Vertical Line of Action
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