Decoding the Deadlift

Hip hinge, rack pull, block pull, Romanian, stiff-legged, straight-legged, deficit, hack lift, hex bar, trap bar, snatch grip, isometric deadlift, hybrid, wide stance, sumo and conventional are just some, but not all of the variations of deadlifts available for exercise selection. In Powerlifting, rules require adherence to the form of the competition deadlift; either conventional or sumo and with or without minor variations to each.

The deadlift has had its share of limitations from its beginning. It wasn’t recognized as a major strength exercise as Olympic lifters would use snatch grip as a main driver for strength to compliment the sport. It wasn’t until the 1950’s and 1960’s where deadlifting gained traction and made popular being part of the odd lifts that over time converted into what we now call the “powerlifts”. Once the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) was established in 1972, the deadlift as we know it today became part of a standard discipline of the three lifts. Despite the conformity of the three-lift, the deadlift has generally been seen as different from the other lifts, a sort of ‘wild card’ of the trio. So what makes the deadlift different from the other two lifts squat and bench press? Most experts agree that the deadlift has certain training limitations that other lifts do not. Awareness of these is important to the successful training progress of this lift. The following is a discussion of those limitations.


Anthropometrics is a science relating to the physical characteristics of a human individual and involves measuring the properties of the human body. The focus is primarily on the orderly measurement of human size and shape. Variations affect in these measurements affect individual performance. Anthropometric should not determine which style a lifter chooses however it should be considered.

A standard powerlifting plate is 45cm in diameter making the bar height about 22.86 cm (9 inches) from the floor. The height of an individual, and more importantly segmental lengths; arm, torso, femur and tibia length all play an important role in deadlift potential. Long femurs and tibias, long torso and short humerus can make deadlifting difficult. On the other hand, a longer humerus, short tibia, and short torso make for a natural deadlifting experience which, for lifters, can be very much like Disney World…..The Happiest Place on Earth.

If someone doesn’t possess optimal anthropometrics for deadlifting, hip flexion must make up the deficiency. Further, if the individual lacks the necessary hip flexion range of motion to get to the bar while still maintaining a neutral spine, the composition must be made through spinal flexion. Unfortunately, such adjustments lead to a higher chance of injury over time. Abdominal girth can also make the exercise much more challenging, as simply achieving proximity to the bar can raise chances of injury. This is evident at any IPF world championship with the heavy and super heavy lifters. To compensate some lifters may choose a modified deadlift stance by widening the conventional stance and grip, or by utilizing more of a hybrid style sumo with a wider (but not exceptionally so) stance.

How can a lifter compensate for these limitations? The independent variable necessary for this compensation is genetic. Every structure in the body has a biological limit and when pushed beyond its capacity it breaks down. Of course genetic anomalies do exist, and those in powerlifting who can “lift the world” when it comes to deadlifts, most likely possess the advantages of anthropometrics and bone density. Thicker bones allow a higher tolerance to stress and adapt better to compressive and shear forces (Escamilla, Etienne et al., 2000; Johnson, Etienne et al.,1990; Katch, Etienne et al.,1984; Marchocka & Smuk, 1984). Powerlifters generally have thicker bi-iliac (hips), femurs and humerus bones (da Silvia, Etienne et al., 2003; Fry Etienne et al., 1991; Johnson, Etienne et al., 1990). To explain, there’s a reason why linebackers aren’t on the PGA tour. Their bodies in relation to bones, and especially the spine, are thick and dense. Thus high levels of rotation and speed are not easily managed as they are built to handle compressive forces. This allows for heavier and more frequent training.

In contrast, in more frequent and heavier training, a thinner-boned individual (and again, especially at the spine) will be more likely to delaminate the annulus which are the rings of collagen that form the disk’s periphery (Tamppier, Etienne et al. 2007). This leads to a herniated (prolapsed) disk whereby the nucleus pulposus of the disk protrudes, causing a cascade of painful side effects in the spinal canal. This can happen as a result of repetitive flexion with compressive loads (Callaghan & McGill, 2001) and is seen in deadlift where someone does not possess a thick-boned structure and/or the ideal body segmental lengths to reach the bar. Remember, the bar is about nine inches from the ground. This means that lifter A at 5’2” and lifter B at 6’2” both have to grab the bar from the same height. Therefore, simply hoisting heavy weights does not in itself indicate that the lifter “has discovered all the secrets of training success”, structure does matter and is a limitation to the deadlift.


Why is it you cannot train the deadlift similar to the squat and bench press? It is very common in powerlifting programs to train the squat 1-2x a week, bench press 2-3x and deadlift 1x a week. Higher level athletes might average 3-4 squat sessions, 4-5 bench press sessions and only two deadlift sessions in contrast with Olympic weightlifters who have made it to the podium and would squat 7-11 plus sessions per week. The simple answer is load. The average lifter deadlifts more weight than they squat or bench. The exception is the heavy and super heavyweights who usually squat and deadlift a 1:1 ratio or squat more than they deadlift. When discussing the effect of load we have to look at two different aspects of load, 1) total tonnage of weight in lbs/kg, and 2) load distribution.

**Total Tonnage **

This type of total tonnage would be the accumulated amount of weight over the course of a training session.

To illustrate, let’s look at the following scenario:

Lifter A’s maximum squat is 405lbs and deadlift is 500lbs. The squat is roughly 80% of the deadlift which can be considered average depending on weight class and experience level. Lifter A performs a typical 5 sets of 5 at 80% for squats on Monday and same for deadlift on Friday. Total tonnage would be 325 x 5 x 5 = 8125 lbs versus 400 x 5 x 5 =10000 lbs. Now let’s say their is bench 200 x 5 x 5 = 5000 lbs. The total load of the deadlift exceeds the other two lifts in the same workout while doubling the upper body work.

The deadlift therefore exerts stresses on the body that are greater than the other two lifts, with only weight as a stimulus. The result is that the more the body is stressed the harder it is and longer it takes to recover. Consequently, if an athlete cannot recover in time of the next training session effectively, the chances of injury increase while performance decrease.


Load Distribution

Load distribution refers to the location of the weight in relation to the body, and how that relationship effects the lifter. For example, in a back squat the bar is placed in a position of axial loading throughout the spine. The spine becomes stiff and bears the load in compression. Spines will handle compression tolerance at a high rate over time with proper adaptation. Load distribution for the deadlift, conventional or sumo is different. The load is more anterior of the body placing the center of mass slightly forward. The reason for this is as a result of where the barbell is placed which is in front of the athlete.

Consequently, hip to knee ratios vary in squats versus deadlifts, including various types of deadlifts. A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts showed that knees and hips are extended approximately 12 degrees more for a conventional lifter versus that of a sumo lifter, while sumo pullers had a 51 degree greater vertical trunk and thigh position. The same study showed that the conventional deadlift had a greater “vertical bar distance, mechanical work and predicted energy expenditure were approximately 25-40% greater in the conventional deadlift versus the sumo” (Escamilla, Francisco, Fleisig, Barrentine, Welch, Kayes, Speer, Andrews, & James, 2000, p. 1272).

What this means is deadlifting with a conventional technique requires more work in relation to the sumo, so a limitation of the deadlift is how frequently you can train based on tonnage lifted and now technique of choice. The sumo deadlift when compared to the conventional deadlift has a 10% reduction in the L4/L5 moment, and an 8% decrease in L4/L5 shear force (Cholewicki, McGill, & Norman,1991). These forces do happen during the deadlift, however at higher rates in the conventional versus sumo lifts. The take away here is that conventional deadlifting stresses the body differently than sumo deadlifting and both forms of deadlifting stress the body differently than the squat. One could make the preliminarily argument that if one pulls sumo they could do it more frequently than conventional pulls, and recover faster however no studies on that comparison have taken place.

The placement of the bar also increases compressive, tensile and shear forces compared to the back squat.


Figure 1 illustrates: Biomechanical Analysis of the Deadlift

To piggyback onto the above regarding anthropometrics, body segments can amplify these effects on the body. The more an athlete has to flex at the lumbar spine, the more shear forces are created. This original idea was made popular by Dr. Stuart McGill, a world-renowned spinal biomechanist. McGill states there are two types of shear; reaction shear which is the result of gravity pulling the load plus upper body downward.

According to Leyland,

 "The closer your upper body moves to horizontal, the larger this force will be. However, the true shear on the L4-L5 joint (called the joint shear) is the resultant shear force produced by the sum of the reaction shear and the muscle/ligament shear. It is this value, which includes the effect of muscle/ligament forces, that represents the actual shear experienced at the L4- L5 joint. And it is clearly the true shear on the lumbar spine that will determine whether the spinal loading is manageable, or potentially injurious." (Leyland, p. 2)

So what does this all mean? Shear is a common side effect in movement however in context, joint shear, especially in the lumbar spine during the deadlift, is a contributing factor to injuries and wear and tear on the spine. This is why most powerlifting injuries occur in the low back between L4-L5-S1. This can also occur in the back squat, where in pitching forward the spine goes into lumbar flexion. However, on average, an athlete will deadlift more weight than they squat thus exerting greater levels of forces throughout the spine. Compressive forces could increase by around 20%, but shear forces can increase by 5x when lifting in flexion. It should be noted that this doesn’t happen in the bench press, nor frequently as much in the back squat thus illustrating another limitation of the deadlift (McGill, 2002; Escamilla, Francisco, et al., 2000).

The grip in the deadlift is the anchor point from where the bar meets the lifter. The athlete may choose one of three styles:

  1. Both hands wrapped firmly around the bar in a “double overhand” style.
  2. Utilizing friction as a contact point from thumb to index finger with “the hook grip” as seen more so in the sport of Olympic lifting.
  3. Going the tradition route with one hand over top the bar and the other hand under neath the bar in the standard “mixed grip” format.

How the athletes hold onto the bar can be a limiting factor in the deadlift. Picture this . . . . the lifter rips the bar off the floor and drags the bar up approaching the white light district then all of a sudden a sniper from 500m away takes out the pronated hand and boom goes the dynamite.


I’m certainly not the first to mention the grip being a limiting factor in deadlifting. We have all seen it before in competitions. When discussing the grip as a limiting factor for deadlifting we can refer to grip in two separate areas; strength and capacity.


Grip strength is related to how much can one hold onto the bar. In How to Deadlift: The Definitive Guide, Greg Nuckols argues two distinctive characteristics of grip; crushing grip and support grip as follows;

“Crushing grip is exactly what it sounds like: the amount of force you can produce while closing your hand. Support grip, on the other hand, is the amount of force your grip can withstand before your hand is pulled open. Essentially, crushing grip is concentric strength, and support grip is isometric strength. The two are roughly correlated, but they’re not synonymous, and an increase in one doesn’t guarantee an increase in the other.” (Stronger by Science. How to Deadlift: The Definitive Guide, 2015).

Canada’s own eight time Powerlifting National Champion Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale, the first Canadian powerlifter to total 10x his bodyweight in two different weight classes, used multiple training methodologies to increase his grip strength from holding onto a chin-up bar with maximal weights around his waist to timed deadlift holds. He utilized both forms of grip training crushing grip and support grip.


Grip capacity is related to how much work can you get done during a training session before your hands start to hurt and you can no longer grip the bar effectively. Here athletes may use straps to accommodate. However neurologically it’s difficult to create tension when in pain. An option to increase capacity is to modify the bar. A lifter could either do volume work on a softer bar that still allows one to hold onto it, or once grip becomes irritating, switch from the competition bar with a rough knurling to a softer bar.

Training location and equipment

An athlete’s training environment can help or hinder performance for many reasons. Lifting with a team of athletes who are stronger and have more experience (and likely a better coache’s eye), is an ideal situation to support a lifter’s progress. Equipment also plays a strong role here. Based on the concept of specificity, the closer training conditions are in relation to the actual performance of the sport, the better the creation of motor engrams. A motor engram is a blueprint in the brain of “how to perform” a specific skill. These are created and reinforced by exposure to, and the practice of the same skill again and again. In powerlifting this is practicing the lifts. The more specific the lifts are to competition, the better the engram. Using IPF approved equipment is a great way for this to develop.

The following is a list of things I’ve seen over the years in gyms that could limit the specificity of training the deadlift:

  • Hexagon plates: the design of the plate makes it almost impossible to complete clean repetitions without the plate awkwardly landing into an uneven position.
  • Bars: some gym bars have a thicker diameter, different knurling if any, different ring placement, different whip causing spin variability, flex of the bar, and barbell strength leading to deformity of the bar depending on how much you lift for example.
  • Un-even floors: no explanation needed (hopefully).
  • Plate diameter: Some gyms use plates of 40cm in diameter or even larger than competition specifics at 45cm. Obviously this can lead to consistently pulling at a deficit or heightened position leading to false set up and executions.
  • Gym collars: some collars cannot handle all your glory.
  • Gym rules: some locations have certain rules such as noise, chalk use and no deadlifting allowed. I was once told I wasn’t allowed to deadlift in a specific facility as deadlifting wasn’t part of the company’s vision. Fortunately for me, I was teaching a powerlifting fundamentals course in the very same location the next morning. Some gyms may have certain rules and some may have uninformed employees. Or both.

These are just some limitations to training your deadlift when trying to stay as specific as possible. Ultimately, if you don’t know the different PSI’s per bar, or have a preference of diagonal cut on the knurling, you will most likely be just fine. If you train in these scenarios the one piece of advise I can give is the environment can help mold/support the process but doing the work makes the lifter.


** References**

Cholewicki, J., McGill, S. M. & Norman, R. W. (1991). Lumbar spine loads during the lifting of extremely heavy weights. Med. Sci. Sports Exercise, 23, 1179-1186.

Escamilla, Rafael, F., Francisco, Anthony C., Fleisig, Glenn, S., Barrentine, Steven, W., Welch, Christian, M., Kayes, Andrew V., Speer, Kevin, P., Andrews, James, R. (2000). Three-Dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 32(7), 1265-1275.

International Powerlifting Federation. “”

“McGill, S.M. 2002. Low Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.”