Mastering The Fundamentals: The Deadlift

Whether beginning CrossFit, weightlifting, or any functional, athletic training program, there are certain of exercises that can be considered fundamental elements. Competence and experience with these exercises serve as a base for more advanced training, and should be the focus of the early stages of training.

The deadlift is one of these fundamental exercises. The lift teaches very basic elements of barbell lifting like positioning for pulling from the floor and trunk stability, which will be used in more advanced movements later.

The deadlift is also a movement that seems to carry with it some degree of intimidation for individuals new to barbell training. The name alone can be a bit off-putting, but keep in mind that “dead” refers to the bar’s starting in a static position on the floor, and that historically it was called the health lift because trainees believed it conferred so many benefits to health and vitality.

Proper Breathing

First, you need to understand and implement proper breathing and breath control when performing the deadlift. In short, you will need to draw in a full breath, hold it, and tighten down all of your trunk musculature around it to pressurize your trunk and secure the spine in a safe, rigid position. Read more about proper breath control in this article.

Starting Position

The starting position of the deadlift is critical for ensuring a safe and effective lift. A proper starting position will require a reasonable degree of flexibility in the hips and thoracic spine in particular—if you’re unable to achieve the proper starting position due to limited flexibility, make improving your flexibility a priority and be smart about loading the deadlift.

It doesn’t mean you can deadlift at all, but it does mean you should limit the loading to some extent.

Grip the bar slightly outside shoulder-width—that is, if you held the bar at your shoulders, your hands would be outside of them and not touching. Place your feet under the bar at about hip width with the toes turned out to the sides comfortably (about 5 to 15 degrees from the centerline), positioning them so the bar is between about the balls of the foot and the middle of the foot.

Take in a deep breath and pressurize your trunk with your back set properly—that is, the lower back held in its neutral arch and the upper back as close to flat as possible.

Your hips should be slightly higher than your knees and your shoulders directly above the bar—if you could see yourself from the side, your arms should be hanging vertically. Keep your head up and eyes forward.


Once you have set the starting position tightly, initiate the lift by pushing with your legs against the floor. Keep your chest up as you break the bar off the floor, and keep your shoulders approximately above the bar until you stand completely straight at the top. Maintain the tightness in your trunk even when standing—this is not the time to relax—and squeeze your glutes to ensure that you reach a completely extended position without hyperextending the lower back.

Return the bar to the floor under control—it doesn’t need to be particularly slowly, but do not simply drop the bar.

If performing multiple consecutive reps in a set, make sure the bar is resting completely on the floor and get a new breath before beginning each one.

Begin training the deadlift with light weights and with sets of 3-5 reps to practice the movement and the maintenance of a tight trunk. When you feel comfortable with the lift, and your flexibility is adequate to set a strong starting position with a proper back arch, you can begin increasing the weight gradually.

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