The Safest Way to Teach the Deadlift

I am a firm believer that everyone should learn how to deadlift. Training your body to impart enough force into the ground to lift an object from a “dead” stop is foundational in athletics—and life in general. If your plan is to ask other people to pick things up for you for the rest of your life, feel free to skip learning how to deadlift. On the other hand, if you plan on being a strong, capable, and powerful athlete, the deadlift is an essential tool in your movement toolkit. Even for non-athletes, the deadlift is worth learning in order to develop the proper body mechanics to interact with objects (furniture, luggage, etc.) in your environment in a safe and efficient way. You deadlift every time you pick something up off the floor, and it’s important to get it right. Knowing how to deadlift properly is assurance that you can pick up and move someone who is unconscious or in danger. Or move a heavy object to help someone in need. Knowing how to deadlift could literally save a life.

While the deadlift is a great training tool to increase your performance potential, there are some caveats that accompany the initial stages of learning how to move a bar from the floor. Novice athletes with little weight training experience are particularly susceptible to deadlift error and injury, for the movement itself has some risk factors associated with it. In a deadlift, the barbell sits anterior to the athlete’s center of gravity, placing a huge demand on the posterior chain to move the resistance. Many athletes are unaccustomed to this bar position and can’t generate the necessary tension for creating a mechanical advantage. You can cue a novice athlete to use their hamstrings or brace their core to create a rigid spine, but that doesn't mean their brain knows how to relay that message to their muscles. Manually setting the athlete into good positions can be an easy short-term solution, but can quickly fall apart once fatigue sets in. Proper motor pattern development is key for young athletes to not only learn the cues for safe deadlifting, but to generate the prerequisite work capacity so that fatigue doesn’t cut their training short. Poor-quality reps can overstress athletes and delay the learning curve by engraining bad habits when it comes to maintaining proper tension in the right muscle groups. It is for this reason that, when we program our training for Volt athletes, we delay the appearance of deadlifts in favor of a more fundamental training progression that will help groove motor pattern development in a safe, specific way.

We have noted before how anterior-dominant young athletes are today, both from culture and lifestyle. This anterior/posterior imbalance makes the development of an athlete’s posterior muscle groups even more important—as well as the relationship between verbal cues and physical control of the athlete’s own body. Teaching and practicing movements that help strengthen the hamstrings and promote a better understanding of how to hinge at the hips can be a viable substitution to jumping straight into barbell deadlifts. Volt follows some very basic methods that help train the right neuromuscular motor patterns, so that once the deadlift becomes a needed training tool, athletes will be capable enough to learn the movement easily.

Captain America must be doing some deadlifts!

Captain America must be doing some deadlifts!

Below is a simple method for choosing the proper movements to ready an athlete for a complex movement demand like the deadlift. Following this progression can help reduce the development of poor habits and help athletes make a mental connection between specific coaching cues and a physical motor demand.

Unloaded Isolation →  Loaded Isolation →  Loaded Compound Variation →  Full Compound Movement

Applying this progression model to the deadlift, we choose specific movements that target control and activation of the hamstrings and gluteal muscle groups to help facilitate a better connection between mind and muscle.

BW Single-Leg RDL →  DB RDL →  DB Sumo Deadlift →  BB Deadlift

We like to use a top-down approach with the deadlifting progression, or starting the motor learning from the standing position. This allows the athlete to begin learning the neutral spine position and challenges them to maintain it, rather than trying to "create" it first from a compromised or bent-over position. By learning how to sit the hips backwards while controlling the angle of the spine, athletes can learn the basics of hip hinging using only their bodyweight as a training tool. The Bodyweight Single-Leg RDL even helps train the balance and coordination of the hips and knee to allow the hamstring to be the main workload contributor. Essentially, the primary goal is to allow the brain to speak to the hips effectively. Once this neuromuscular communication is established, the athlete will have learned a useable deadlift motor pattern that can be loaded later in the progression.

DB Single-Leg RDLs drive hypertrophy and force production of the posterior chain. 

DB Single-Leg RDLs drive hypertrophy and force production of the posterior chain. 

Dumbbell RDLs allow for the same motor demand as BW Single-Leg RDLs but add in some loading to help drive hypertrophy and force production of the posterior chain. Connecting the cues “hips back” and “core tight” will become easy for athletes with enough practice, and the dumbbells will provide an external resistance that can be manipulated to feel the proper angle of descent through the hips. Learning how to create tension through the hamstrings to move an external load can be further practiced with Dumbbell Sumo Deadlifts. The positioning of the dumbbells allows their center of gravity to be closer that of the body than in a standard barbell deadlift. A Trap Bar is a valuable deadlift teaching tool for the same reason, as it closely mimics the feel of a deadlift and allows for even greater loading (learn more about the Trap Bar here, about half way down the page). Many strength coaches use only Trap Bars for deadlifts in order to mitigate the risk of injury in standard barbell deadlifts.

But while barbell deadlifts should be properly progressed into, they should not be avoided altogether. The only dangerous movement is one performed without any preparation. In fact, after mastering the previous movements in our deadlift progression, transitioning to the Barbell Deadlift should be relatively easy for athletes at this point. The hamstrings should have had enough prerequisite training that verbally cueing “hips back” will effect the proper movement correlation in the mind of the athlete. Performing Barbell Sumo Deadlifts can make for an easier transition as well, for they allow for a more hip-dominant approach and can help athletes with awkward limb lengths to practice pulling an external load anterior to the body.

Once a level of movement competency is expressed, the timing of when to use deadlifts and how to manage recovery become big factors. Deadlifts challenge a lot of major muscle groups and when pushed to develop better strength levels, athletes can be left feeling fatigued from the overall volume. Recovery needs to be planned to allow athletes enough time off so they don't end up practicing or returning to the weight room in an overly fatigued state. The end of the week is a great time for deadlift sessions, since athletes typically have the weekend off and will be ready to go again by Monday. Pairing them with an explosive movement like box jumps is a great way to utilize a potentiation effect from the magnitude of force output being stressed over the posterior chain. This is a common method in more advanced Volt programming to help develop the rate of force production capabilities of athletes later in the off-season. For information about correct implementation of the deadlift, check out our blog on proper deadlift technique.

Because the deadlift allows for some of the highest absolute loading you can do with a barbell, an athlete can be left pretty beat up in some major muscle groups that are needed for participating in sports. Deadlifting FOR sport and deadlifting AS a sport are two differing approaches that require different needs. The progressions listed above are not ideal for someone who plans to compete in powerlifting or strongman, but are a great training template for a novice athlete looking to build enough motor control to allow deadlifts to help them be a better athlete. There is no limit to the awesomeness of deadlifts, but the level to which they can be a training tool must be weighed with all of your other obligations. Good preparation and proper progression can help you mitigate the risks while maximizing the rewards, so that you can be the best athlete you can be.

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Jace Derwin, CSCS, RSCC, is the Head of Performance Training at Volt Athletics and is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. Jace manages Volt program design, content development, and educational resources for schools, clubs, and organizations. Jace is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®) and holds a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from Seattle Pacific University. Follow Jace on Twitter @VoltCoachJace.