The deadlift is one of the simplest strength moves, picking a weight up off the ground. And yet this move works the entire body, from your legs and lower back, to your traps and arms. "It's one of the best exercises that meets three big standards," Irv Rubenstein, PhD, exercise physiologist and founder of S.T.E.P.S., a science-based fitness facility in Nashville, Tennessee. The deadlift helps prevent injuries by strengthening weak areas like the lower back and hamstrings, gives you functional strength, and builds your entire posterior muscle chain — which often goes neglected when we focus on beach muscles like the abs and arms. But done less-than-perfectly, the dead lift can be a fast track to hurting your back and knees.
One key lies in keeping your spine neutral, says Rubenstein. To find your neutral spine, lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. The natural curves of your neck and lower back should keep them off the mat — your back should be neither flat against the mat or up and away from the floor. This is the same position you want to be in during the lift.
"Beginners should learn how to get into, and maintain, a neutral spine while doing a back squat in order to ensure basic strength and technique during the hip motion of the deadlift," says Rubenstein. He recommends starting with a non-weighted bar to master the technique for a deadlift, then use dumbbells and work up to a 45-pound barbell.
"One of the biggest mistakes is people will start from the floor even if they don't have the flexibility to do so," says Mark Nutting, CSCS, fitness director of SACO Sport & Fitness in Saco, Maine. If you lack the flexibility, stack extra weights under the barbell for a higher starting position. Then practice our four stretches for lifting to increase your flexibility and build up to a full range of motion.
Warm up with 10 minutes of cardio (enough to break a sweat) and start with a set of eight reps on an empty barbell before adding weight and building up to your final load. When you're adding the deadlift to a strength routine, perform it early on when your core is warmed up but not fatigued, says Rubenstein. "If you're also doing squats do deadlifts afterward. If it's a deadlift day do them first and follow with light squats." You can also swap in the deadlift for back bridges or other low back extensions, since deadlifts constitute a great core workout on their own.
For a traditional barbell deadlift, follow these steps:
1. Position the bar approximately 1-inch in front of the shins and over the balls of the feet.
2. Stand with feet flat between hip and shoulder width apart, toes pointed slightly outward.
3. Bend the knees slightly and place hands on the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, just outside of the knees, arms straight. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip. On heavy, low-rep sets, you can use an alternated grip (one palm facing out, the other towards you) to create a stronger hold.
4. Engage the lats and pull the bar up as you straighten the knees and drive hips forward. Keep the bar as close to the shins as possible as you raise it, and do not let hips rise before the shoulders. Eyes should be focused straight ahead or slightly upward.
5. As the bar rises just above the knees, move the hips forward to stand full upright, hips locked in place, shoulders back.
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