Matt Kroczaleski

How To Deadlift – Part 1

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Today’s blog post is a guest post by champion powerlifter Janae Marie Kroc, formerly known as Matt Kroczaleski. It is excerpted from his excellent ebook Insane Training, where you can find instructions and training templates to gain strength and muscle mass. The full title “Insane Training: Garage Training, Powerlifting, Bodybuilding, and All-Out Bad-Ass Workout” is indeed well-deserved

Deadlifting is the base upon which all real back strength is built.

There is not a more raw or true to life exercise.

You bend over and pick up something heavy, that’s it.  However the deadlift’s simplicity is also the reason it is so effective.  It stresses every major muscle group in your posterior chain but none more so than your back.  It works your back from the base of your erectors to the top of your traps and everything in between.  You can always spot a guy with a big deadlift.  He possesses powerful yoked traps and a back thickness that you can’t obtain any other way.  Ronnie Coleman and Johnnie Jackson possess two of the thickest and most powerful looking backs to ever step foot on a bodybuilding stage.  It’s no coincidence that they are both capable of deadlifting in excess of 800 pounds.

Training the deadlift is also surprisingly simple.  Hit it hard and heavy and then let your body rest and grow.  Generally speaking the rep schemes are going to be lower than most other compound movements. Sets of 5-10 repetitions generally work best for bodybuilding purposes and for pure strength it is very common to work up to heavy triples, doubles and even singles on a regular basis.  There’s also no need for fancy techniques like drop sets, super sets or rest pause sets for deadlifts.  While it isn’t a highly complex movement deadlifting is an incredibly taxing one and you have to be cautious not to over train your back.  This is especially true if you’re also squatting heavy and working your back hard with lots of heavy rowing movements.

Kroc Row

The deadlift can often be increased most effectively by working in short three week waves followed by a down or unloading week.  Essentially the weights are increased each week for a three week period, often with a decrease in the rep range, then trained lightly or not at all the fourth week before entering the next wave with progressively heavier weights.  I have had a lot of success with this style of programming for myself, training partners and clients that I work with.  Another key facet of programming deadlift training is recognizing and preventing over training.  As you get significantly stronger your volume and training frequency will often need to be decreased.  This is especially true with very strong powerlifters or strongmen.

For those that are able to deadlift in excess of 700 pounds and prefer to train with heavy weights I have often found that deadlifting every other week works quite well.  The lower back is still trained hard on the in between weeks but with different exercises like good mornings, weighted back raises, reverse hypers, and pull thrus.  This allows the lifter to train consistently heavy, facilitating significant strength gains but also effectively mitigates the likeliness of overtraining.  These are of course only a couple methodologies of programming the deadlift and there are many other effective styles but these are the methods that I have found the most success with.

Deadlifting is comprised of two main styles or techniques one being the sumo style aptly named due to the fact it resembles a sumo wrestler’s stance where the feet are out wide and hands are placed inside the legs. The other technique is the conventional style where the stance is narrower, generally shoulder width or closer and the hands are placed outside legs when gripping the bar. While there are exceptions to every rule but if we are going to generalize we would say that typically smaller thinner lifters tend to perform better with the sumo style and larger thicker lifters tend to perform better with the conventional style as those respective body types typically allow the most weight to be lifted using those respective styles due to the individual leverages involved.  However, as I mentioned earlier there are certainly exceptions to the rule.

For example many times world champion Lamar Gant was able to deadlift over 600 pounds at only 132lbs pound body weight using the conventional style. Vince Anello weighing less than 200 pounds was another lifter who set world records in the deadlift using the conventional style pulling in excess of 800lbs at a body weight of 198. At the other end of the spectrum O. D. Wilson was a mammoth super heavyweight that dead lifted close to 900 pounds using the Sumo style. There are also other world class lifters still that were able to deadlift equally well with either style. Among these is Chuck Vogelpohl who deadlifted well over 800 pounds using both styles and he was even known to switch between the two styles on consecutive attempts in the same meet. So as you can see while we are able to make generalizations it is really up to the individual lifter to figure out what style suits them best based on their individual strengths, weaknesses, and leverages.

Sumo style is also generally considered to be a more technique and leverage driven style in contrast to conventional that is generally considered to be more about overall brute strength. When using the sumo style the athlete’s stance, setup, and technique must all be perfect or the attempt will often fail. Whereas with the conventional style there is a larger margin for error, but this isn’t to say that technique is unimportant for the conventional style just that it doesn’t as significant a role as it does with the sumo style.  As with any lift technique is always an important factor in moving the most amount of weight possible.

While both styles utilize many of the same muscle groups the conventional style works the entire posterior chain including your hamstrings, glutes, erectors, upper back musculature, and traps whereas the Sumo style tends to involve more of the hips and taking advantage of optimal leverages. If you’re not a competitive powerlifter and are merely using it as a tool to increase the strength and size of your posterior chain musculature then it would definitely be preferential to train using the conventional style.  Conventional deadlifting will have a greater carryover to everyday movements outside the gym and be more applicable to increasing performance in other athletic endeavors.

Matt Kroczaleski

Hand placement and grip

The type of grip you use and your hand placement will essentially be the same whether you’re pulling using a conventional or sumo style. With a few minor exceptions the width of your hand placement on the bar is determined by your shoulder width.  You will want to grip the bar with your arms hanging straight down from your shoulders. This allows you to use the maximum length of your arms which shortens the range of motion and leverage wise puts you in a more advantageous starting position. If your grip is too narrow or too wide this causes you to bend down further thus increasing the range of motion and negatively affecting your leverage in the starting position. One notable exception to this rule would be for thickly built lifters with a large midsection. Many lifters with this build find it to be advantageous to grip the bar slightly outside shoulder width and open up their stance wide enough to allow their stomach to descend in between their legs when they move into the starting position. This setup allows lifters with this build to keep the bar closer to their center of gravity throughout the lift thus increasing their leverage and the amount of weight they’re able to move.

Deadlifting is typically performed with an over under grip or what is sometimes referred to as a mixed grip. This simply means that one hand is an overhand grip position and the opposite hand is holding the bar in an underhand grip position. This provides a stronger grip as it allows a lifter to hold on to larger weights than they would be able to otherwise since the bar is not able to roll in one direction out of the lifters hands. Most people will find it beneficial to put their dominant hand in the under hand position. This is due to the fact that the under hand position is the more difficult of the two grips to maintain and typically the dominant hand of a person is the stronger one.

There is an alternative grip that may be employed called the hook grip. This grip has been widely utilized by Olympic weightlifters and recently powerlifters have taken notice. This has helped a number of lifters that lack the grip strength to hold onto heavy deadlifts when using the over-under grip.  The other major benefit is that the hook grip takes some of the pressure off of the distal biceps tendon since this eliminates the need for an underhand grip. This can be helpful for a lifter coming back from surgery to repair a torn biceps tendon or for anyone wishing to reduce the risk of the injury beforehand.

The hook grip is performed by taking a double overhand grip on the bar while trapping one’s thumbs within the grip. This is done by gripping the bar with the thumbs of both hands wrapped around the bar as far as possible and then placing the fingers over top the thumb effectively trapping it against the bar. With this grip the greater the amount of weight on the bar the more pressure there is trapping the thumb within the grip. While this can be a very effective technique when utilized correctly it also requires a higher degree of pain tolerance as the pressure upon the thumb can become quite severe especially when deadlifting very heavy weights. This technique is also a bit easier for people with larger hands to employ as it is easier for them to wrap their thumb further around the bar which gives them more surface area to trap the thumb within their hand providing a more stable grip.  If you plan to utilize the hook grip be sure to have patience with it.  Many lifters will find it very painful at first but will often build tolerance to the discomfort over time.  This grip is also not meant to be used for high rep sets (i.e. 8 reps or more) and is best suited for singles, doubles and possibly triples.

Starting position

While the most optimal starting position will be dictated by the individual lifter’s leverages and body type there are definitely some general rules that will apply to the majority of lifters.

Distance from the bar

While you will hear many coaches and trainers say that the closer you are to the bar the better this is not necessarily true in all cases. For some lifters if they stand too close to the bar at the start the bar will actually have to go forward as it passes the knees thus making the lift longer and more difficult to complete.

The best way to determine a lifter’s optimal starting position is to observe the lift from the side. If you do not have a trusted training partner you can use a video camera for this. You want to watch the bar path as the bar leave the floor and starts to ascend. When the bar leaves the floor it should travel upward in a straight line. If it moves in towards the lifter as it leaves the floor then they are setting up too far away from the bar and conversely if the bar moves out away from the lifter then they’re setting up too close to the bar. You also want to watch the position of the bar when a lifter sets it down after the completion of each rep during a multiple rep set as this is often the optimal place to begin the lift.

However, since the starting position and technique is so different between the conventional and sumo styles we will talk about the proper technique for each style separately.

In part 2, Matt will describe the different types of deadlift and give an sample progression. Want to read about it sooner? You can get it NOW by buy Matt Kroczaleski’s ebook Insane Training on Amazon or Barnes & Nobles, click on the image below. Now Matt transitioned to Janae Marie Kroc. Visit her website here

Insane Training