Over the past few years, I’ve delved heavily into the field of biomechanics, which has helped me achieve a much greater understanding of resistance training. I’ve worked my way through biomechanics textbooks, conducted hundreds of hours of experiments via EMG and force plate, and spent hundreds more hours consulting the literature. There’s another thing I like to do, and this is something that’s free and readily available to everyone. I often pull up YouTube and analyze video footage of the strongest lifters on the planet. The combination of learning scientific principles, lifting heavy weights, training other lifters, talking shop with fellow powerlifters, reading research, conducting experiments, and analyzing other powerlifters’ form makes for the ultimate combination of knowledge.
Regarding the deadlift, the most difficult position is right off the floor, at least in terms of joint torque magnitudes. Furthermore, your positioning and explosiveness off the floor play a large role in determining how hard the lockout will be. Therefore, proper lift-off position is crucial for successful deadlift performance.
In this article, I have freeze-framed and snipped pictures of bar lift-off positions from twenty-five of some of the strongest heavy conventional deadlift videos available on the internet. Though the list is dominated by powerlifters, I was sure to represent strongmen, Olympic lifters, and bodybuilders too. I stuck to heavier weight classes and ignored sumo pulling as that’s a different animal. Of course I could have posted pictures of Coan’s monumental 901 at 220 lbs, as well as Andrei Belyaev, Lamar Gant, Dan Green, etc., but I had to draw the line somewhere so I stuck to conventional deadlifts and the heaviest lifts. Let’s see what common trends are apparent with the strongest pullers on the planet.
Please examine the following kinematic aspects of the deadlift in each picture below: shin angle relative to the floor, hip height, torso angle, degree and location of spinal flexion, level of scapular protraction, shoulder position relative to bar, bar proximity to the shins, stance and grip widths, foot flare, and head-neck position.
Benedikt Magnusson: 1,015 lbs
Andy Bolton: 1,008 lbs
Andy Bolton: 1,003 lbs
Zydrunas Savickas: 948 lbs
Konstantin Konstantinovs: 939 lbs
Marc Henry: 935 lbs
Gary Frank: 931 lbs
Vlad Alhazov: 925 lbs
Kevin Nee: 925 lbs
Mikhail Koklyaev: 920 lbs
Vince Urbank: 906 lbs
Brian Shaw: 905 lbs x 2
Doyle Kenady: 903 lbs
Chuck Fought: 900 lbs
Steve Goggins: 900 lbs
Ed Coan: 887 lbs
Stan Efferding: 837 lbs
Tibor Meszaros: 837 lbs
Mike Tuscherer: 832 lbs
Nick Best: 815 lbs
Vince Anello: 810 lbs
Derrick Poundstone: 800 lbs x 9
Ronnie Coleman: 800 lbs x 2
Vytautas Lalas: 792 lbs x 5
Pat Mendes: 728 lbs x 4
What did you observe? Here’s what I see:
- Shins are extremely vertical – this was the biggest eye-opener for me
- Hips are high, but never higher than the shoulders – getting the hammies into the lift is absolutely paramount
- Spines are flexed, but not too flexed, and more so in the upper back compared to the low back
- Shoulders are rounded forward – scaps are never retracted
- Bar skims the shins – it never drifts away from the lifter
- Torso angle varies – some are more vertical while others are more horizontal, but it appears to stay between 10 and 50 degrees relative to the horizontal, so this is likely dependent on the individual
- Stance and grip width varies – some lifters take a wider stance and some take a narrower stance, so this is likely dependent on the individual
- Foot flare varies – some lifters point their feet straight ahead and some turn their feet out, so this is likely dependent on the individual
- Shoulder position relative to the bar varies – some lifters have their shoulders in front of the bar and some have the shoulders directly above the bar, so this is likely dependent on the individual
- Head-neck position varies – some lifters look down, some look forward, and some look up, so this is likely dependent on the individual
It’s worth noting that a handful of these lifters bend over significantly and don’t appear to rely on any leg drive whatsoever to accomplish these pulls, and yet they’re some of the strongest deadlifters that the world has seen. If they were training in a commercial gym, a slew of pencil-neck lifters would surely scoff at their form. If these accomplished deadlifters could pull greater loads using more leg-drive, they would. But it doesn’t suit their strengths, so they naturally gravitate toward pulling in a manner than maximizes their poundages. Furthermore, the squat is unlikely to transfer very well to these lifters’ deadlifts and vice-versa. Take home point – learn how to work with your body to maximize your strength, but remember that the lifter who trains injury-free week in and week out makes greater gains than the lifter who is consistently riddled with pain and injuries.
So what are the keys to stronger deadlifts?
- Having rather vertical shins and high hips (but not too high) as soon as the bar leaves the ground in order to get full output of the hamstrings into the pull
- Skimming the body with the bar as it rises
- Limiting lumbar flexion but allowing for some thoracic flexion and scapular protraction
Your torso angle will vary but shouldn’t be too upright or too horizontal – keep it in between 10 and 50 degrees relative to the horizontal. Stance widths, grip widths, and foot flares will vary, just don’t stand too wide – slightly outside shoulder width is acceptable. Shoulder position will vary but should either be slightly in front of the bar or right above – never behind the bar. Finally, optimal head-neck position will vary as well according to individual preference, but it’s never cranked too far back or too far forward – keep the head-neck in mid-ranges.
Take some pictures of your heavy deadlift form and compare it to the pictures in this article. If something is off, then you might be leaving some room on the table for increased strength. Remember, it’s highly unusual to learn a new technique and immediately set a PR in the gym. If your form isn’t up to snuff, start working with your technique, and remember to gradually increase the loading. However tempting it may be, be patient and let form improvements “cement” so you don’t end up reverting to old habits. Hopefully I’ve helped arouse excitement for your next deadlift session. Train hard and train smart.