If you want to have a back of steel (and who doesn’t?), the deadlift is your best friend.
Sure, squats are awesome for whole-body strength, but deadlifts also use a huge amount of muscle mass while allowing even heavier weights to be lifted.
Well, according to our age-adjusted strength standards, a typical 198-lb guy in his 40s should be able to deadlift around 290 lbs.
Now if you’ve never deadlifted before, that may sound completely impossible.
Two hundred and ninety pounds – are you nuts?
But the deadlift is easy to learn, gets strong very quickly, and it can keep getting stronger for many years.
Like we always say, it’s not where you start that matters, it’s that you get started in the first place and keep heading in the right direction.
That’s how a former weakling (yep, that’s me) managed to add nearly 300 lbs to his deadlift in only a couple of years.
And how 50-something Paul S. managed to add 135 lbs to his deadlift in just 12 weeks!
So let’s get to it.
Just like the squat, the deadlift:
1. Builds incredible whole-body strength
As we know, this is really important because stronger people live longer, perform better and have more fun.
2. Loads the whole skeleton
When we deadlift, we don’t only get stronger muscles, tendons and ligaments, we also get stronger bones.
That’s a really big deal, especially as we get older.
3. Uses a scalable and incrementally increasable load
This means everyone can deadlift, and build awesome strength by doing so.
During Simon’s rehab after a horrifying skiing accident, he was able to deadlift long before he was able to do a full squat.
4. In addition to all that, the deadlift is like medicine for bad backs
Now this is great news if you’re one of the many folks out there who suffer with back problems.
Like my friend Julian who broke his spine at T12/L1 (yellow arrow, below) over 20 years ago.
For most of his adult life he’d resigned himself to having a weak back, and even mundane stuff like putting on socks was an ordeal.
And shoveling snow? Forget it.
Until he started deadlifting.
He now deadlifts over 225 lbs for a solid set of 5 repetitions, and these days he sees his back as a strong point rather than weak one.
When he went on vacation, he even found a gym where he could deadlift while he was away.
How cool is that?
And he’s not unique – many folks who’ve suffered with back problems for years have found that deadlifts work like medicine.
So let’s learn how to do them.
How to Deadlift
The deadlift is simple to learn and can be summarized in just five steps.
Don’t worry, we’ll cover these again in the video.
1. Stand with your shins 1” from the bar, heels around 8” apart, toes pointed out around 10 degrees
2. Bend over from the hips, grab the bar (both palms facing towards you) just outside the width of your legs
3. Bend your knees until your shins touch the bar
4. Without moving the bar or dropping your hips, take a giant breath and arch your back HARD
THIS SHOULDN’T FEEL COMFORTABLE
5. While keeping your breath held and back arched, drag the bar up the legs and stand all the way up
Here’s what that looks like (the video also includes the above cues).
• When arching your back, imagine pointing your nipples at the wall in front of you
• Don’t jerk the bar off the floor – tell yourself “slow off the floor” or “squeeze the bar off the floor”
• Visualize pushing the floor away with your feet
• Push the bar back into the legs so it maintains contact at all times
• Keep the elbows straight/locked
• Wear sweats or long socks to protect your shins
How Much Weight is Enough?
Unlike the squat, it’s not really necessary to deadlift with the empty bar.
The average sedentary guy should be able to deadlift 95 lbs (or more) without too much difficulty.
Plus we’ll need to have some plates loaded onto the bar so it’s the correct height from the floor.
Standard 45-lb plates are approximately 17½” diameter, which will put the underside of the barbell about 8¼” from the floor.
So if your plates are smaller than 17½” diameter, place something under each side to bring the bar to the correct height.
Then you’re ready to go.
Pull a set of 8 repetitions with your chosen weight, rest, add another 15 lbs and pull a further set of 8.
Repeat this until you feel another weight increase would cause a breakdown in form.
Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint so it’s better to go easy the first time out.
The next time you deadlift (which could be part of your quick and awesome whole-body workout), increase the weight by 5-10 lbs.
How Heavy is “Heavy”?
This photo was taken three days before running my first half marathon at the ripe-old age of 45.
That’s a tad over 2x bodyweight on the bar – 375 lbs or thereabouts.
Not bad for a former weakling, but a very modest deadlift in the big scheme of things.
And get this.
I can still remember how heavy 225 lbs felt the first time I deadlifted it.
The same goes for 230 lbs. And 235.
The reality is your work-set weights will never feel light – you just get stronger.
The only way to make a 225-lb deadlift feel light is to build up to a 275- or 315-lb deadlift.
“Heavy” and “light” is all relative.
A pair of lifting shoes like the Nike Romaleos 2 (I’m wearing the Volt model in the photograph) will make the deadlift feel a lot more stable.
Otherwise, a pair of shoes with a flat, incompressible sole should work fine.
Now the deadlift is a grip exercise as well as a back exercise, so you don’t need to bother with wrist straps.
Once your deadlift is well over 225 lbs, you can start using the “alternate grip” or “hook grip”, but for now the regular double-overhand grip (both palms facing towards you) is the one to go for.
You also don’t need to wear gloves for the deadlift or any other exercise: wearing gloves effectively adds diameter to the bar, making it more difficult to hold.
That’s the exact opposite of what we want.
If your hands get sweaty or start slipping on the bar, use chalk or liquid chalk.
Deadlifting: There is No Substitute
If you have a weak back, the deadlift will make it strong.
And if you have a strong back, the deadlift will make it even stronger.
No other exercise comes close for building a back of steel that will last you a lifetime.
So if you’re looking to gain incredible whole-body strength fast, make sure that deadlifts and squats are the mainstays of your program.
Your body will love you for it.
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