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The Deadlift (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of a three part blog about the deadlift. In this part we discuss what a deadlift is and some of the equipment you will need to deadlift.

What is a deadlift?

What is a deadlift? An exercise? No, that doesn’t seem right. Exercise is what your Aunty does when she goes to her “bums and tums” workout class at the community centre. It’s what we’re doing when we roll around the floor under the instructions of the latest celebrity fitness guru’s video stream. It's going for a walk. It's working up a bit of a sweat to get a short term feel good.

No, that won’t do. Exercise is moving around because you know you shouldn’t be sitting around so much. That’s not a befitting descriptor for the deadlift. It’s ridiculous to think that Strongman Eddie Hall merely exercised his way to picking up 500 kg from the floor, or four times Britain’s strongest Woman Andrea Thomson holds the women’s deadlift world record at 280 kg because she exercises. These are displays of raw strength in its most basic and complete form and they didn’t happen by accident. It took dedicated training. How did they train to get their deadlift so strong? By deadlifting.

So, if it’s not an exercise, then what? Is there a succinct way to put it? I’ll try:

The deadlift is both the most elemental way to display raw strength and the best training mechanism to obtain said strength.

How’s was that? Terrible, you say? Okay then...

it’s picking up a weighted barbell from the floor to get stronger and also to display that strength.

About the equipment

It’s a pretty basic really; a barbell, some weight discs and clips are the bare minimum. I’d add to that some proper footwear and a lifting belt. Proper attire would be shorts, long socks and a gym t-shirt . We’ll also discuss wraps and gloves.

The barbell

When it comes to selecting a barbell, there are choices. There are what are called standard bars, Olympic bars, Elephant bars, Trap/Hex bars, Power bars, Hybrid bars and other specialty bars not suitable for deadlifting.

A standard bar is a bit of a misnomer; it refers to a barbell which has a diameter of 1 inch so that “standard” weight plates can slide on it, but the bar itself is not standardised across the industry, typically ranging from 4 to 7 foot long and are not usually made to withstand heavy lifting. This kind of bar is better suited for casual exercising, which as discussed, is a category the deadlift does not fall within.

We’ll discuss the trap/hex bar next. This is an unusually shaped bar. One that isn’t actually bar shaped, but rather an irregular hexagonal frame that the lifter stands within, with a handle for each hand built within the frame that the lifter grips either side of their legs with a neutral grip, rather than grabbing the bar in front of them like with the straight bars.

Using such a bar for what are termed “hex bar deadlifts”, may sound like a suitable variation to a deadlift, however, it usually causes lifting mechanics that are so far removed from actual deadlifts that it can’t be said that the lifter is actually doing a deadlift. Experienced lifters may have found their own success with them, but more often than not amongst those left feeling their way around the hex bar, they end up using squat mechanics, without the ability to squat to the bottom position of the squat. This makes the trap bar deadlift a partial squat, which does not have the benefits of a full squat (another important strength training movement) and does not have the benefits of a deadlift.

In addition, the bar in never in contact with the body, like when correctly deadlifting with a straight barbell, that there are stability issues that detract from the main purpose of getting strong.

The Elephant bar, made by Rogue is similar to what we will be finally discussing next- the Olympic bar, the Power bar and the Hybrid bar. Except at 9 foot long it is 2 foot longer and pairs with the manufacturers 2 inch wide plates. This causes the bar to feel very different to a deadlift done on an Olympic Bar, and so is trained for as its own type of deadlift by strongmen/strongwomen competitors in addition to the regular strongman/strongwoman deadlift.

And finally, we will talk about the Olympic Bar, Power Bar and Hybrid Bar. These are the bars best suited to deadlifting and are far closer to an industry standard, unlike the “standard bar” talked about above.

Each of the three are approximately 7 foot in length and weigh 20 kg (I make no apology for mixing imperial and metric). An Olympic bar is 28 mm in diameter with 50 mm diameter rotating sleeves on each end to accommodate the Olympic plates. It is called an Olympic bar because it is the standard bar for the sport of Olympic weightlifting (Clean & Jerk and Snatch).

The power bar is the same length and weight as the Olympic bar and also has 50 mm diameter rotating sleeves. The bar itself is slightly thicker at 29 mm, which makes it a stiffer bar than the Olympic bar (which is said to be whippier).

The stiffness of the Power Bar changes the feel of the whip during a fast Olympic lift, and so is not suitable for Olympic lifting, but is the correct bar for the sport of Powerlifting (Squat, Bench press and Deadlift).

Using the whippier Olympic bar when deadlifting technically causes more flex of the bar before the weight plates break from the floor, making the start point of bearing the full weight higher up the legs of the lifter. For training purposes, this effect is only really significant at advanced weights and so it is not of major concern to begin with.

There are some other slight differences between the Olympic and Power bars. This is the hand position markers, but are a concern for the Olympic lifts and the bench press and so will not be discussed here.

The hybrid bar again has the same length, weight and rotating sleeve characteristics, but is 28.5 mm in diameter. This makes it half way between the whippier Olympic Bar and the stiffer Power bar, making it feel not too different to either- a great choice if you want to practice both sports with one bar.

To sum this section about barbells up, if you’re serious about deadlifting, you need either an Olympic Bar, a Power Bar, or a Hybrid bar.

Note: For completeness, I’ll mention that there is also what is called a “deadlift bar” and it is the same as the Olympic/Power/Hybrid bars but 27 mm in diameter and is used in Strongman/Strongwoman deadlift competitions. There are “female Olympic bars” which are 6 foot long and 15 kg with a 25 mm grip with. The 25 mm width was to accommodate smaller hands and the 6 foot length is to match the whip to the 7 foot thicker bar.

Weight Plates

Phew! If you’re still with me, well done! Who would have though there was so much to talk about when discussing a barbell?! Thankfully, there’s less to talk about with plates.

They are round discs that slide on to the barbell to make the bar weight incrementally scalable.

Standard plates have a 1 inch hole for the “standard bar” and are usually not sufficiently large enough in outside diameter to place the barbell high enough up the leg for the starting position of a deadlift, further negating the standard bar’s usefulness for deadlift.

Then you have plates with a 2” hole (50 mm + slop) which fit on our Olympic/Power/Hybrid/Deadlift bar. They are often described as being Olympic plates due to the 50 mm hole, but take care here, as the description can mislead you into assuming, they will be of the correct Olympic outside diameter (45 cm) when what they really mean is, they fit an Olympic bar.

When getting plates for your 50 mm sleeved bar, get ones which are 45 cm in outside diameter. They can be steel plates or bumper plates, it’s not too important- although I will mention that the very thick bumper plates can eat up available space on the bar sleeves for adding more weight. The lighter plates can be less than 45 cm as the heavier plates will do the job of setting the starting height for you.

Using plates of a smaller outside diameter throws off the ability to set up for beginning the deadlift, usually by causing the lower back to round, so it’s an important point to get the 45 cm plates.

Another important point is to make sure the plates you get are actually round discs. Polygonal plates were popular in fitness suites for a while and you still see them knocking around from time to time. They are no good for deadlifting, as after you have lifted the bar they will rotate so that when you put back down the bar you end up putting the plate down on its corner, kicking the bar out or in on one or both sides as the plate settles down on to an edge, increasing injury likelihood and throwing out your position for the subsequent rep.

Always put your clips on to secure your plates. These don’t necessarily have to be the full threaded clamping locking plates, with spring clips usually being sufficient. Plastic quick locks are good too, and less cumbersome than the spring clips.

And that’s enough for Part 1. Part 2 will discuss the rest of the equipment (belt, footwear, clothing etc.) and how to execute the deadlift. Part 3 will discuss how to train the deadlift, sensibly progressing it to get stronger.

In the meantime, why not check out our gym theme t-shirt collection below.

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