by Andy Bolton and Elliot Newman
First Published at T-nation.com on October 19th 2009
If you wanted to build huge biceps, you’d probably check out what Lee Priest or Arnold had to say, right? If you were after the old “barn-door lats,” you’d want to listen to Yates or Big Ron.
When it comes to building a seriously impressive deadlift — one of the most basic measures of total body strength and an indicator of sure-to-be-there size — only one person’s word literally carries more weight than practically anyone else’s: Andy Bolton.
Bolton has pulled over 900 pounds in more than 30 competitions. Pulling over 900 is something only 13 other men have ever been able to do, and only one of them exceeded 950.
Most impressively, however, is Bolton’s title as the first man to break the 1,000-pound deadlift barrier. He initially broke it with a lift of 1,003 and eventually broke his own record with a beastly 1,008-pound pull.
To be clear, this is no one-trick pony. Bolton’s also built his squat to over 1,200 pounds and he benches nearly 700. Calling him a “strong lifter” is like calling Jay Cutler “sorta big.” Bolton keeps an Usain Bolt-like gap between himself and the nearest competitor, and at this point, it looks like his name will stay next to the deadlift records for a long time.
When this human forklift talks about how to improve your deadlift, it’s best to sit back, pay attention, and prepare to pull big.
First, The Accessories: Shoes, Belts, and Chalk
Before you even approach the bar, the issue of what to wear must be addressed. Deadlift slippers or flat-soled shoes, such as Converse, should be worn. If you don’t have either of those two, you should train barefoot (if your gym owner allows it, and if he doesn’t, you should change gyms).
I always wear a weightlifting belt when I train around 400 pounds or heavier. Bear in mind, this is only about 40% of my max lift. Every powerlifter needs to learn to use a belt, as it should add pounds to the bar and help prevent a back injury. I suggest that bodybuilders and non-powerlifters wear a belt if going over 80% of their one-rep max (1RM).
I also believe in using chalk on my heaviest weights, over 80% 1RM. The exception to this is on really hot days—when my hands are extra sweaty or slippery, I may use chalk on every set.
The reason for generally not using chalk until my top weights is simply because it builds better grip strength. This is important for powerlifters and many other athletes. Believe it or not, in my early days when I trained with strongman Jamie Reeves, I’d often deadlift a bar that had no knurling at all, and I still didn’t use chalk. This made my grip very strong!
Next, The Set-up
When it’s time for the actual deadlift, the set-up is the most important part of the exercise. If you get this wrong, no amount of correction during the lift can compensate, so pay attention.
Your feet should be no wider than shoulder-width apart, with the bar nearly touching your shins. Your feet can point straight ahead or up to 45-degrees outwards. To pull the biggest weights, you’ll need to use a mixed grip with one hand pronated (palm down) and the other supinated (palm up).
Your hands should be just outside your legs. Don’t turn this into a snatch-grip deadlift by having your hands miles away from your shins because you’ll greatly reduce the amount of weight you can use. Your arms should hang straight down from your shoulders, with no bend at the elbow. Your arms will act as hooks, connecting the bar to your torso.
In the start position, your lower back should be arched and your upper back should be relaxed. This provides a safe position for the lumbar spine, while minimizing the total distance of your pull.
To understand the importance of this, think about how many average gym rats you’ve seen injure their lower back while deadlifting as little as 225 pounds. I bet you can think of quite a few, maybe even that guy you see in the mirror a few times a day.
I’ve never had a lower back injury, despite handling weights more than four-times that heavy. The difference is that I understand how to keep my lumber spine arched, while too many people let their lumbar spine round. This is a dangerous and biomechanically-weak position.
While we’re discussing posture, your head position should be neutral, neither looking up or down. For me, this means I’m looking about six feet in front of me at the start of my deadlift.
Finally, Moving the Bar
When you’re ready to get the bar up with maximum efficiency and minimum risk of injury, the flex must first be pulled out of the bar before the plates leave the ground. To do this, think of trying to make the bar bend while it’s still static.
You’re applying some force to the bar, and then applying a whole lot more to actually get the bar moving. There should be no sudden movement or jerking. Focus on keeping your arms locked out, flexing the triceps, and generating total body tension. The bar leaves the floor with huge leg drive. Think of driving your heels into the floor.
Once the bar’s moving, keep it close to your body. All good deadlifters have marks of pride on their shins. If the bar drifts out in front of you, it will put a lot of stress on the lower back. When you’re using maximal weights, that can cause you to stall or miss. Even if you’re using sub-maximal weights, the speed of the lift will be greatly reduced.
As the bar gets up to knee-height, the hips should push through to finish the lift. Again, the bar must stay close to the body. If you’re doing it right, you’ll be touching the thighs all the way up to lockout.
To transition from knee-height to lockout, really focus on driving the glutes forward and trying to get your shoulders behind the bar. The lockout position requires the legs to be straight and the shoulders back, but this doesn’t mean hyperextending the lower back, like many people do.
At this point, you’ve completed a deadlift. If you’re just pulling a single rep, take a gulp of air into your belly and drop with the bar to the floor. If you’re pulling for multiple reps, you’ll need to lower the bar more slowly so the start position for your next rep is the same as the one before.
Something else to remember: Your grip should be solid and you should squeeze the bar as tightly as possible throughout the entire lift. Some lifters think that once the bar gets to knee-height, the lift is done and they relax their grip. This is a huge mistake, and often leads to missed lifts.
Summary: The Conventional Deadlift in 8 steps:
1. Wear flat-soled shoes and a belt (for your heavy sets at least)
2. Shins an inch from the bar and take a mixed grip
3. Arch your lower back, relax your upper back and keep your arms straight
4. Take the flex out of the bar
5. Initiate the pull by driving your heels into the floor
6. As the bar comes past the knees, drive the glutes forwards
7. Try to pull your shoulders behind the bar all the way to lockout
8. Squeeze the bar hard throughout.
Another Option: The Sumo Deadlift
Compared to the conventional deadlift, the sumo deadlift is an interesting beast. The wider stance shortens the distance that the bar must travel from start to lockout. It’s also a more technical lift and will take longer to learn for many lifters.
In general, athletes with stronger backs tend to favor the conventional deadlift and athletes with stronger hips prefer the sumo. Whatever your body structure, it’s good to learn both styles.
If you’re very good at one and not the other, it shows that you have weaknesses. Just like with anything else in life or lifting, if you put some attention towards the style you’re not as good at, it will help to correct those weaknesses.
Finding your ideal set-up position for the sumo deadlift takes a bit of trial and error. Some powerlifters, like the incredible Ed Coan, use what’s sometimes called a “semi-sumo” stance.
The hands are still inside the thighs, but the foot position isn’t very wide. These lifters often lock out their legs long before the end of the lift, and rely on lower back strength to complete the movement. Their head position is usually neutral, looking about six to eight feet in front of the bar, or looking straight ahead.
In contrast, more flexible athletes and those with greater hip strength may set-up with a much wider stance. Some lifters, the Japanese in particular, will often have their feet almost touching the plates.
If you choose the aforementioned style, you’ve got to be seriously careful not to crush your toes when lowering the bar! Jarmo Virtanen, the great Finnish powerlifter, is a good example of someone who prefers this method of sumo deadlifting.
Whichever wider-than-conventional style you use, it’s extremely important to make sure that your knees track your toes throughout the lift. If your stance is too wide for your body structure or flexibility, your knees will buckle inwards during the lift, you’ll lose power and increase your risk of injury.
As far as toe position goes, you must have your feet pointed outwards, but exactly how far out depends on your body type and flexibility. Similar to the conventional deadlift, the set-up for the sumo requires that your arms are locked straight, your lower back is arched, and your upper back is relaxed.
It’s important to fill your belly with air before the bar leaves the ground. Some lifters take a big breath while standing, before bending to grip the bar. Other lifters feel better setting up first, and then taking the breath just before the bar leaves the ground. Try both ways and see which feels stronger to you.
Moving the Bar
Once you’re set-up and ready to lift, the first step is to take the flex out of the bar, exactly how you would with a conventional deadlift. One difference though: instead of feeling like you’re driving your heels into the floor, you should feel like you’re spreading the floor apart or pushing your feet out.
This will feel like the weight is on the outside of your shoes, and it’s done to keep the knees out and tracking your toes. If you’re in a sumo stance but feel like you’re pushing your heels into the floor, your knees will come in and you’ll lose some of that biomechanical advantage you took all the time to set-up for in the first place.
As the bar gets to knee-height, focus on driving the glutes forward and get the feeling of trying to get your shoulders behind the bar. The lockout position requires the legs to be straight and the shoulders back. And like before, the lower back is not hyperextended at lockout.
Summary: The Sumo Deadlift in 8 steps:
1 Wear flat soled shoes and a belt (for your heavy sets at least)
2 Stance-width and toe angle allow knees to track toes throughout the lift
3 Arch your lower back, relax your upper back and keep your arms straight
4 Take the flex out of the bar
5 Initiate the pull by forcing you feet out
6 As the bar comes past the knees, drive the glutes forwards
7 Try to pull your shoulders behind the bar all the way to lockout
8 Squeeze the bar hard throughout.
The deadlift is a primal lift that can build size and strength in the hamstrings, glutes, lats, and lower and upper back. Whether you’re deadlifting to improve your powerlifting total or just to add some meat on your bones, you should study the lifters who do it well and focus on improving your technique. With great technique, you’re laying the foundation for impressive strength, solid size, and injury prevention.
If there’s any interest, we’ll write a part two where we’ll discuss how powerlifters, bodybuilders, and other athletes can train the deadlift to maximize gains for their chosen sport.