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Are Deadlifts Right for You?

Deadlift Form
Deadlift Form

The deadlift is known as a "compound movement." That means it works nearly every muscle in your body. A deadlift done properly can easily drain half or more of your training energy. It's exactly the sort of movement that helps build muscle and burn fat, but there's a downside. Not everybody has a body type that allows them to perform a proper deadlift.

To see if you're at risk, you need to understand how a proper deadlift is done.

Deadlift Form

Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing straight ahead. The bar should be positioned so that it's directly above the bow in your shoelaces and about an inch away from your shins.

Inhale, tighten your stomach muscles and brace your core. Then drop your butt down as you HINGE forward at your hips. Your quads should be about parallel with the floor and your shoulders should remain above the bar, not pushed out in front of it.

Grab the bar with both hands using an overhand grip (where both palms are facing back). Your hands should be about shoulder-width apart. Some people like to position one hand over and one under, but this can throw off your balance. If your grip is poor, consider using hand grips to help you hold on.

Keeping your back braced, push down with your LEGS and raise the bar up until you're standing straight and the barbell reaches about mid-thigh. Then slowly use your legs to lower yourself back down, while hinging forward at the hips again.

Avoid These Things

NEVER allow your back to become rounded. Don't hinge your body forward beyond where the bar is. Don't lift with your back. Don't attempt to pull the bar up with your arms, your legs should be doing the work. Avoid shrugging your shoulders at the top of the exercise.

Some people can't perform the hinge part of the exercise properly and that puts them at risk. Two things help determine if this is an exercise you can do. 

The first is how your hips are formed. If your thigh bones sit farther back in the hip socket than the average person, you're going to run into problems. When you bend or hinge your body forward to start the exercise, those hip sockets will stop you sooner than they should. To compensate, people with this problem often round their back.

The second deficiency some people have is the thickness of their spine. The thicker the spine, the better it can withstand heavy loads. Someone with a thin spine tends to be more flexible, but heavier loads are more likely to cause injury.

The only definitive way to determine if you have either of these problems is by having an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) done, and that's simply impractical. Fortunately, Andrew Heffernan of Men's Health put together two simple tests you can perform, to see if the deadlift is an exercise you should consider.

Test #1, the standing toe touch. Stand straight up with your feet shoulder-width apart. Stretch your hands out front, then bend forward and attempt to touch your toes with your fingertips. In this exercise, it's OK to round your back. You pass if you can touch your toes WITHOUT bending your knees.

Test #2, the active straight-leg raise. Lay flat on your back, facing the ceiling with your arms at your side and your toes pointed up. Raise ONE leg toward the ceiling, until it's straight up and down, forming a 90-degree angle with your body. Lower it and repeat with the other leg. You pass if you can move your leg high enough that it makes that 90-degree angle.

Pass both tests and you can go ahead with deadlifting, but start with light weights. Make sure your form is perfect and that there's no pain, before you slowly increase the weight. If you fail either test or have pain while performing the exercise properly, you should try a deadlift alternative.

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