You can't escape it. There'll come a day when you will have to prove yourself, mentally and physically. Fate will challenge you. There won't be any off-center pulleys, spring-loaded leverage machines, or padded benches to lie down on. It will just be you, up against it. How will you stack up? Can you cut the mustard? To find out just what kind of person you are (before you face some life-or-death challenge) there is a test you can take. It's called the deadlift.
Is there another movement you can make with a barbell that is as guileless, as elementary, as impossible to fake? Picture yourself on a lifting platform. No squat racks, no spotters, no hells, no whistles. All there is, is you and whatever you have inside you to pit against many hundreds of pounds of cold, inert, dead weight.
It's easy. Just bend over and stand up with it. If you can, if you're man or woman enough to handle it. There are no charades when it comes to the deadlift. If you think you can finesse that bar up, forget it. Hitch the bar up on your thighs, lean way back and try to slide it upward — it won't do you any good, because the judges have seen it all before. There are no excuses. You either are good enough to pull the weight up, or you're not good enough to pull the weight up.
Imagine your life is on the line, or the life of someone you love. And to save that life, you must drive every fiber of muscle into and beyond total tension at the same time every neuron of your brain is overloaded to the limits. The deadlift is the lift that will teach you how well you can meet that life-or-death moment, and prepare you to get more out of your body than you ever imagined you had.
I'm going to give you a precise definition of the deadlift, making it as simple as I can, so you have no question about what your task is when you face a half ton or more of heartless cast iron and heat-treated steel crystals rolled into a bar and plates. This is what the word "deadlift" means, straight from the rule book of the International Powerlifting Federation:
- The bar must be laid horizontally in front of the lifter sleet, gripped with an optional grip in both hands, and lifted with one continuous movement until the lifter is standing erect.
- The lifter shall face the front of the platform.
- On completion of the lift, the knees shall be locked in a straight position and the shoulders thrust back.
- The chief Referee's signal shall consist of a downward movement of the hand and the audible command "Down." The signal will not be given until the bar is held motionless and the lifter is in the apparent finished position.
- Any raising of the bar or any deliberate attempt to do so will count as an attempt.
CAUSES FOR DISQUALIFICATION OF A DEADLIFT
- Any stopping of the bar before it reaches the final position.
- Failure to stand erect with the shoulders thrust back.
- Failure to lock the knees straight at the completion of the lift.
- Supporting the bar on the thighs during the performance of the lift.
- Any lateral movement of the feet, or stepping backward or forward.
- Lowering the bar before receiving the Chief Referee's signal.
- Allowing the bar to return to the platform without maintaining control with both hands.
That's all there is to the lift, but there are some further specifications to consider, those of the bar and plates. Again, from the rule book of the International Powerlifting Federation:
The bar shall he straight and well knurled or grooved and shall conform to the following dimensions.
- Total overall length not to exceed 2.2 meters [726 feet]
- Distance between the collar faces must not be less than 1.31 meters [4.32 feet]
- Diameter of the bar is not to exceed 29 millimeters [1.16 inches] or be less than 28 millimeters [11.12 inches]
- Weight of the bar and collars is to be 25 kilograms [55 pounds]
- Diameter of the sleeve 50-52 millimeters [2-2.08 inches]
- There shall be a diameter machine marking or the bar taped so as to measure 81 centimeters [32.4 inches] between machining or tape.
The weights shall conform to the following:
- The whole size of the plate may be a maximum of 53 millimeters [2.12 inches] to 51 millimeters [2.04 inches] minimum
- Plates weighing over 25 kilo-grains [55 pounds] must not exceed 6 centimeters [2.4 inches] in thickness; and/dates weighing 20 kilograms [44 pounds] and under must not exceed 3 centimeters [11.2 inches] in thickness
- The diameter of the largest disc shall be no more than 45 centimeters [18 inches](etc.).
Now you know what a deadlift is, at least as far as the rules address the issue, but how do you really do it? There is no one answer. In fact, there are at least two good answers: two styles, one known as the conventional style and the other as sumo style, after the stance of the elephantine Japanese wrestlers.
Conventional style starts off like this: Place your feet so your shins are about 2 inches from the bar, and about shoulder-width apart. Bend at the waist and knees and grip the bar, with the inside of each hand about 2 inches outside your shoulders, but 'alternate' your grip. By this I mean pinnate one hand and supinate the other — one palm up, the other palm down. The reason for this is that the alternating grip acts as a natural brake to keep the bar from rolling out of the grip, as it will do much more readily if both hands are facing the same way.
Assume the starting position for the lift, which requires that you drop deep into a squat position, with your back flat at about a 45-degree angle and your head up and eyes looking straight ahead. You start moving the lift with a compound action, exerting pressure on the legs as though trying to push your feet through the floor, while striving to arch the back upward, maintaining its flatness, and arching your neck upward to guide the lift to completion. Naturally, your back will round somewhat when the bar is actually off the floor, but great deadlifters have the fortitude to fight to keep that rigid starting position for optimum leverage. As the hips rise and legs begin to straighten, the bar is kept in close to the body and the upper torso starts to rotate about the axis of the hips, rotating the shoulders backward as the bar is pulled upward to completion, with legs straight, body upright, head back, chest out and shoulders back.
That's not the only way to whip a deadlift bar, but it is the most common. The other style is more difficult to master and often (but not always) is used by shorter lifters. In this style, the hand grips go inside the legs instead of outside as in the conventional manner. Yet the starting position, descending into a deep squat position, is even more pronounced, and the back even more upright. The key to this style is keeping the upright back position throughout the lift, and letting the legs do almost all the work. Of course, a wide squat stance is assumed to put the leverage advantage right on the point of the hips. You basically "squat" the weight up, but without it resting on your shoulders.
That's how you do the deadlift, but before you even consider doing one rep, you must think through the following admonitions with the greatest of care.
Your back is, potentially, the strongest aspect of your physical being. Note, I said potentially. No one starts out in life ready for a maximal battle with a deadlift bar. You must prepare before taking on any substantial poundage. Though your back can be developed into the strongest plate in your body armor, it starts out as the most brittle of defenses. The muscles and tendons of the back work at the extremes of leverage and mechanical disadvantage. These structures are seldom stressed, progressively, by the demands of modern life, and are almost universally underdeveloped. The strain of a deadlift can be most serious, even dangerous, to an untrained body. Training routines start light and move up slowly. Over-training must be avoided at all costs, but unfortunately adequate training loads can seem almost negligible to the novice in his zeal to gain all the power he can as fast as he can.
Never train the deadlift without warming up and stretching extensively. Never train the deadlift heavy more than once a week. Never allow the back to be excessively rounded during an attempt. Never overexert your back. The penalties of overdoing it are much severer than those of the squat and bench press. Never hold your breath during a rep; slowly exhale throughout it. Breath holding under such extreme muscular contractions can lead to blackouts.
If strength is the essence of life, and powerlifting is the essence of strength, then hitting a big deadlift must really be "living." Like life itself, it is sometimes hard to get started, and takes a long time to reach physical maturity, but when you've finally grown up into the deadlift, there's no telling how far your physical being and willpower will be able to take you.