The five-step setup to the perfect deadlift

The deadlift is difficult to master, but one aspect of the deadlift is clear: safe and effective technique starts at the set up. If the set up is wrong, the chance that the rest of the deadlift will have good form is lower. Fortunately, there is a five-step process to have a nearly perfect deadlift on your first deadlift workout. This is the same 5-step deadlift set up as in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, which I recommend you buy and read twice.

Step 1) Stand with your feet under the bar

The bar should be bisecting your feet - a position called “midfoot”, where the bar is half way between your toe and heel. If you look from the front down, the bar will appear too close to your shins because of the effect of your leaning forward to look at your feet. Instead, without moving your feet, look from the side. This will immediately tell you if the bar is bisecting your foot or not. Your heels should be directly under your hips with your toes pointing out slightly.

Looking from the front down give the bar the appearance of being too close to your shins

Looking from the front down give the bar the appearance of being too close to your shins

Look from the side down shows the reality of the bar’s position - the bar is midfoot

Look from the side down shows the reality of the bar’s position - the bar is midfoot

Step 1: Feet go under the bar

Step 1: Feet go under the bar

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Why it’s important:

The only work being done in the deadlift is from the force against gravity. Because gravity only works in one direction (down), the bar should move in a vertical line. This means that the bar should be positioned directly over the balance point of the lifter (the midfoot) in order to reduce any deviation from a non-vertical bar path. This is a common feature of all the lifts - except the bench press which has a non-vertical bar path for the sake of shoulder safety.

2) Without moving the bar, grab the bar

The feet are in position, so it’s time to grab the bar. The grip should start as a double over hand grip (the way you’d grab a bar if no one told you how to - with your palms facing your shins. The grip should be shoulder width. However, if your knees prevent you from having straight elbows during the lift, take a slightly wider grip.

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Why it’s important:

The positioning of the grip will determine how much work is done. If the grip is too wide, the arm muscles have to do unnecessary effort and the effective start position of the deadlift is artificially low (which sometimes can be used deliberately as “wide grip” deadlifts or “snatch grip” deadlifts).

Alternatively, if the grip is too narrow, the knees will push into the elbows causing them to bend. This is an effect we want to avoid, because the arms in the deadlift are effectively cables and simply attach the bar to the torso.

3) Without moving the bar, push your knees forward until your shins touch the bar

The shins should be in contact with the bar, but you should not push the bar forward of your midfoot in the process of touching the bar.


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Why it’s important:

To keep the muscles balanced as effectively as possible without cutting off your legs, the bar should be as close to the skin as possible. Not only should the bar stay in contact with the skin, but the bar should always remain over the midfoot. You’ll notice that this produces a shoulder position slightly forward of the bar, which is correct. The shoulders should not be directly over the bar at the start.

4) Without moving the bar OR your butt, pick up your chest

“Pick up your chest”, “show off your chest”, “point your boobs up”. There are a lot of ways to think of this, and you’ll find one that works, but the effect is that your back flattens in normal spinal curvature with an extended lumbar (low back). “Drop your belly between your thighs” is also a helpful cue.

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Why it’s important:

A extended back is a safer back. A deadlift with an extended back is a safer, stronger back. You deliberately want to train your low back muscles in the gym so that when you’re not in the gym, the likelihood that they’ll get hurt is lower.

Additionally, rigid components transfer force more effectively than do flexible components. Think about a rubber band versus a metal chain. With a flat back (chest up!), your back becomes the stiff metal chain.

5) Take a big breath (hold it) and stand up, showing off your chest at the top

Take a big breath, and drag the bar up your legs keep the bar in contact with your shins and thighs. At no point should the bar “float” away from your flesh/pants.

At the top, you should “show off your chest” which is simply realizing full extension of the hips and knees. If you go to commercial gyms, you’ll frequently see people push their hips forward to the point of leaning back at the top. This is not good.

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Why it’s important:

As mentioned earlier, a rigid back is a safer back, and taking a big breath (called “Valsalva") makes the spine more rigid. Similarly, pushing the hips forward and overextending at the top of the deadlift puts unnecessary strain on the intervertebral disks in the spine.

Having the correct set up to the deadlift makes it a lot more likely that the rest of the rep will be correct - safe and effective. This will allow you to get strong in a safe way.