October 23, 2016

The Conventional Dead Lift

Dave Mansfield MA, MSPT, HFI, CSCS

The Dead Lift in its many variations is an excellent training movement. Since this exercise can be manipulated to target most of the muscle groups in the body it is an excellent exercise to base a training program around.  Conventional style is the most common variation on the Dead Lift as seen at the gym so my first article in this series will address conventional Dead Lifting.

To perform the Conventional Dead Lift the lifter should stand close to the bar so that the shins almost touch the bar with feet about shoulder width apart.  Bend over and grasp the bar with either an overhand or reverse grip (one hand over and the other under).  Keeping the low back in a “neutral spine” position lift the bar.  A neutral spine is the low back position that maintains the “normal” lordosis, or curve.  This is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a “flat back” position.  When lifting the bar it is important to keep it close to the body avoiding any tendency to let it drift out.  If the bar moves away from the body during the lift it will significantly increase the stress on the lower back and make it much more difficult to complete the lift while increasing the chance for injury.  The reason that the start should not place the bar tight against the shins is to avoid having to let the bar move out to clear the knees.  Once the bar passes the knee the second pull begins.  At this time the hips should be thrust forward as the bar continues its upward path.  Once the knees and hips are straight square the shoulders to complete the lift. It is not necessary, or advisable, to lean back at the top of the lift.

Breath control is important in weight lifting and the Dead Lift is no exception. Be sure to get plenty of air prior to starting the pull, hold your breath briefly at the initiation of the pull and then exhale slowly as you stand up with the weight.  If you are doing repetitions be sure to regain control of your breathing before starting the next repetition. It is also important to be sure that you are in the correct starting position prior to each rep.  Bouncing the bar at the bottom may get you an additional rep or two but it is also likely to pull you out of position thereby limiting the effectiveness of the training effect and increasing the chance of injury.

The Conventional style Dead Lift will primarily target the entire back of the body from the upper traps to the gastrocs since the ankles, knees, hips and shoulders must all move into extension during the lift.  The hamstrings, glutes and back extensors are worked particularly hard with the Conventional dead Lift. The abdominals are also worked during this movement, as they must contract to provide core stability in order to accomplish the movement.  Other areas worked are the quadriceps, posterior delts and the muscles of the forearm, wrist and hand.  I recommend that you do not use lifting straps for dead lifting so that you will build grip strength.  If you find that your lifts are limited by your grip then use lifting straps for your dead lifts if you must but train your grip hard so that you will not be limited by it in the long run. Most trainees benefit from using low rep combinations when training the Dead Lift hard that way you will maximize the effectiveness of each pull.  Cheating on the Dead Lift is not beneficial.  Conventional Dead Lifts are safe when properly performed (assuming you have no underlying pathology) and will strengthen your back better than almost any other exercise.  Many trainees find that high intensity DL training requires significantly more recovery than other exercises before the next session. If this is the case try training the dead Lift every 10 days or every two weeks.  This will allow for complete recovery so that you can maintain a healthy back and continue to train with high intensity.

If you add some pushing type exercises to your workout (such as bench and overhead press) along with 20 to 30 minutes of cardio you will have a complete full body workout in a minimal amount of time.  You can gain strength and mass on such a program done twice per week as well as improve your overall conditioning. This type of abbreviated approach is ideal for those times when “life” gets in the way of your ideal workouts.  It is important, to make gains, whether you are doing a high volume or low volume program, that you maintain high intensity.  If the lifts do not leave you feeling more than a little drained then you will probably need to increase your intensity. You can accomplish this by adding weight to the bar, increasing the number of sets or decreasing the rest period between sets.  Increasing the number of reps per sets will also increase the intensity but if you choose this route be sure that you can maintain perfect form throughout each set.  This is not an exercise that should be trained to failure!

There are a few precautions to keep in mind before you launch into a high intensity Dead Lift based program.  If you are new to the Dead Lift or are new to high intensity training programs you should start slowly acclimating yourself to the movement and perfect your technique before you start piling on the weight.  You should also start off with a general conditioning program to build up your baseline fitness level. Those with a history of back problems or other health issues should see the appropriate medical practitioner, MD, Chiropractor or Physical Therapist, prior to initiating any new training program.

A final note: if you experience pain beyond the expected muscle soreness or if you experience any radiating symptoms … stop the exercise immediately! Get it checked out by a medical professional. Symptoms could be the result of using incorrect technique for the exercise.  So be sure your technique is perfect.  If you continue to experience symptoms seek medical help and stop doing any exercises that “hurt”.

There are many other variations on the Dead Lift.  These will be covered in future articles.  Stay tuned! Train hard and stay healthy.

Copyright 2016 by David Mansfield and the American Drug Free Powerlifting Federation