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Using Your Levers to Reach Maximum Deadlifting Potential

Quick Hit Summary

If one is looking to throw on thick, dense muscle and increase total body strength levels, it's hard to beat the deadlift. However, to truly maximize your potential in this lift, one needs to tailor the lift to fit their body type. The setup for someone with long limbs & a short torso differs vs. that of an individual with short limbs and a long torso. This article will explain those differences and help you tailor the lift to fit your body type.

Deadlift Article Series

This is the first part of our Deadlift Series. This collection of articles is focusing in on how to properly perform the deadlift for your body form and then how to tweak your training by incorporating Olympic lifts to maximize your deadlifting potential. In all, there will be 3 parts to this series:

Long Live the Deadlift

Figure 1 Killer deadlifts = killer strength and size gains!1

If you ask most people what lifts are most important for throwing on thick, dense muscle and ratcheting up your total body strength levels, you'll likely hear either A) Back Squat or B) Deadlift. Although some like squats, if I had to pick one, I'd go with the deadlift. Besides being great for strength/size development, one could argue that deadlifts have greater "real world" application. For instance, how often are you hoisting heavy weight on your back in a squat type motion? Not too often. Rather, much more time is spent lifting objects off the floor or holding onto heavier items at ~ waist level. OK, enough theoretical talk about which exercise is best. Let's get into the nitty gritty on how you can reach your deadlifting potential…

To truly tap into our maximum deadlift potential the first step is to accurately identify your body structure, your natural leverages and the strength/weaknesses that result from them. Like all else in training and nutrition, the cookie cutter "one size fits" all approach only goes so far. Yes, a generic lifting module can get you started as there are some basic rules that everyone can and should follow. However, after you nail those foundational skills it's time to go further, and individualize your lifting style to fit you; what is strong and safe for you may be horrible for another, and vice versa.

Think about it, if we were all truly made to perform a "best one standard way" in anything, by now we would all be elite. This is where proper learning, coaching, and training come into play. Being able to properly manipulate these variables are invaluable tools. Without assistance on these things, people can become largely confused and frustrated with lack of results in the gym. For instance, Jimmy can be great at completing task X, Y or Z. Yet when you try it that way, which MUST be the "right way", you are atrocious. Does this mean that you will never succeed? Of course not! Rather, it’s due to the fact you're not Jimmy. While Jimmy happened to find the right way to do the lift for him, that doesn’t mean it’s the right way for you!

How do you then go about learning what’s right for you while deadlifting? I will give you two short and sweet explanations; they will arm you with a starting point for identifying your strengths and weaknesses, as well as how to exploit them to reach your full potential. These tools will help you learn your body and break through to new personal records in a safe, effective, and efficient manner.

Rule #1 – Keep it close to your trunk.

Ok, maybe this principle falls more under the “general” principle vs. body structure specific category with respect to performing the deadlift. However, I still see many people letting the bar sway away their trunk. Thus it’s worth noting that the number one factor above all to moving maximum loads, in a safe and effective manner is to keep the load as close to your center of gravity as possible. The further the load travels away from this direct center the harder the movement becomes and the more undue strain is placed on your levers.

Figure 2. Sturdy tree houses are built near the trunk. Likewise, if you want a sturdy deadlift, keep it near your trunk!

Using an analogy, if you were building a tree house where would you look to place it? Of course, the answer is simple. If you didn’t want to send your kids falling to their demise you would place it on, around, and as near to the trunk of the tree as possible (the tree’s center of gravity); Not out on the limbs. In similar fashion, you want to keep the load near your center of gravity (ie – your trunk) while deadlifting.

By keeping the load as close as possible or directly over your center of gravity at all times allows you to tap into your utmost power, speed & strength potential in the safest manner possible. Much like you wouldn’t want the children falling to their demise by having them place their tree house on an outer limb, you also don’t want that same fate for your limbs and back by allowing the bar to drift away from your trunk.

Rule #2 – Lean on your Strongest Shortest Levers.

Figure 3. Less tourque = easier lift!

The second factor, to keep in mind, when identifying the most effective way for you to safely and efficiently move a load is to analyze YOUR specific body structure. More specifically, identify your strongest and shortest levers. Think of your levers as the handle of a sledge hammer and the load the task you are attempting to complete as the head of the hammer. Let’s say that you take a 16 pound sledge hammer with a 36 inch handle and raise it from the ground to above your head to swing it? Which one of the following tasks is harder…

  • A) To lift the hammer by holding the handle all the way at the end
  • B) Choke up on the handle to near the head of the hammer

Of course if you have lifted anything with a handle you will know the torque (ie – rotational force) is multiplied the further you get from the load. In the same manner, when you lean on your bodies long levers to lift a load you are multiplying the load by letting it get out on the end of that handle and placing your body at a disadvantage. You need to readjust and learn to rely on these short, powerful levers.

Figure 4. Opposing body shapes and positions when deadlifting

Let’s take a deadlift with two people of opposing body types to serve as an example. They will have very different and distinct ways of executing the lift due to the variance in body type, neither of which is wrong, even though they are very different in execution.

Please note in Figure 4:

The short powerful levers are represented in red. Their lesser limbs, or weak points of leverage, are represented in green.

Referring to Figure 4, LEFT vertical column – Body Type #1

  • Characteristics: Short limbs and a long torso in relation to those limbs.

Body type #1 is very quad dominant when using its optimal levers. When performing a deadlift with this body type, the movement is much more efficient if the long torso is as upright as possible, keeping the load as directly above that long lever arm as possible (ie – head of sledge hammer directly over the base of the hammer handle). If the back is flatter at the start of the movement, the lever is lengthened, the load is multiplied, and the lift is harder to perform. If this body type were to get the load out on that extended long lever arm they are not only compromising their ability to perform maximally but also putting themselves at a much greater risk of injury.

Use the above form when looking to perform maximally. That said, those with this body type should also identify this weakness (ie – long lever arm being their back, etc), and make it a point to bring up the low back, glute, and hamstring strength.

Referring to Figure 3, RIGH vertical column – Body Type #2

  • Characteristics: Short and powerful torso in relation to those limbs

Body Type # 2 two is the polar opposite of Body Type #1. Due to the long limbs and short strong torso, when properly deadlifting there is going to be a much greater torso lean, bend at the hip, with the majority of the load leaning on the hamstrings, glutes, and low back as a prime mover. Body Type #2 will get most of its power potential generated from this position, and have a tendency to be weaker in moves that require a great deal of knee flexion and elbow flexion as those long limbs will place a great deal of stress on a long handle. As such, much time needs to be spent trying to bring up those weak long limbs to both avoid injury and maximize potential.

These are merely two extreme examples of body types, and one movement to serve as an example as to how body structure affects "ideal" lifting form. There are, of course, going to be many more variations in body type; Each one having natural tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.

A Little Video Always Helps

Video 1 Phil Stevens discussing how body type affects deadlift form at CrossFit Sherwood Park, Alberta Canada. Video taken by Mark Oxer
and reused with permission here at CasePerformance.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a video worth…. A million? A billion? A trillion? I don't know the answer to these questions, but in case you're still a little confused on my discussion, here is a video clip of me explaining how body type dictates what ones optimal deadlift stance should look like. It was taken at a seminar I did at CrossFit Sherwood Park in Alberta, Canada, this past May.

Bottom Line

The way you execute a move may be nowhere near the way your training partner does, but that doesn’t necessarily mean either is wrong. Remember this in the future as you read dogma stating that there is “ONE” particular way to execute a movement. The fact is the “BEST” way in some cases (as stated in books or by personal trainers) may actually be YOUR worst way as it may put you in a compromised position, thus increasing the risk of injury. Furthermore, it can greatly limit your pulling strength and power.

Devote some time to assessing your structure. Figure out your leverages, your strengths, and weakness. If you're unsure, seek the help and advice of a competent professional. The time spent working on this now will pay back many fold by allowing you to instantly move greater loads in a safe and more effective manner….

…. And that's what everyone wants – to be stronger and healthier!!!


1 Created by Rhodney Carter. Accessed September 18, 2010 from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bar_bending.jpg

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Written on September 08, 2012 by Phil Stevens
Last Updated: August 01, 2013

This information is not intended to take the place of medical advice.Please check with your health care providers prior to starting any new dietary or exercise program. CasePerformance is not responsible for the outcome of any decision made based off the information presented in this article.

About the Author: Coach Phil Stevens is an accomplished strength athlete with considerable experience in Powerlifting, strongman competition, and highland games. Phil is the 2007 APA World Champion in the 242-pound class (total). He has held the APF 275-pound class raw National bench, squat, deadlift, and total records. Phil’s marquis lift was his 725-pound raw beltless deadlift, performed on February, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. He has been ranked in the “Top 10” in the deadlift across all national powerlifting federations. In addition, Phil has in a few short months moved to the A class in highland games with the goal of going Pro. His coaching services are avalable by clicking on the Strength Sport Consultation tab.
Professional Commitments:In addition to his coaching duties, he also serves as the California State Chair for the North American Highlander Association, as well as the founder of Lift For Hope an annual strength competition with proceeds donated to charity. He also runs his own printing business (business cards to t-shirts with everything in between) that can be found at www.bingcolorprint.com.