Deadlift - Thoughts on the King of all back exercises

Powerlifter Mark Chaillet locks out another world record deadlift: whenever he was asked how to improve the deadlift he would respond, “Get a bigger squat.”

In recent years, the deadlift has become immensely popular in elite coaching circles. I love the barbell deadlift and have done them for over fifty years. I do them to this day; just last Sunday I pulled a limit triple. I began competing in powerlifting in 1966. I made my first 400-pound deadlift at age 15.  Weighing around 200, I have pulled (and raw squatted) 400 or more every year for 53 straight years. My deadlift bell curve peaked with a 750-pound deadlift in the early 1980s. I have done a lot of deadlifting – and at a high level.

I have made a lifelong study of the deadlift and how to improve the deadlift. I have strong opinions that rarely line up with how the deadlift is presented and taught in 2019. As an athlete, I have always been a physiological overachiever. I was a slightly above average guy that had to train smarter and harder to overcome my genetically superior opponents. We have a phrase in powerlifting – there are four different types of powerlifters…

  • looks like Jane, lifts like Jane (the muscle-less beginner)
  • looks like Jane, lifts like Tarzan (me)
  • looks like Tarzan, lifts like Jane (muscular lifters fearful of big poundage)
  • looks like Tarzan, lifts like Tarzan (Karwoski, Coan, Cash, Chaillet, etc., the champs)

As a competitive powerlifter I had to come to grips with being physically outgunned by shorter, stouter, more powerful opponents. I was always way too tall for my weight class(s.) I knew this starting in 1980 walking around backstage at the national powerlifting championships when I noticed that all the superheavyweight lifters were my height. Doyle, Moran, Paul Wrenn, Dave Waddington, et. al., and all the top 275-pound lifters were 5-foot 10 or less. At the time I was competing in the 198-pound class. I looked like a 7-foot basketball player compared to my stumpy, thick-muscled short opponents.

Early on I realized that with perfect technique I could outlift stronger men with rougher technique. I had good instruction early on: as a teenager I was shown squat, bench press and deadlift techniques (that I use to this day) by a world champion. Since then, I have made a lifelong study of the deadlift and deadlift technique. As you might imagine, with a half century of practice under my belt, I have strong opinions.

As an athlete competing in national and international powerlifting competitions (as an IPF Master lifter) I deadlifted 644-pounds in the 198-pound class, 688 weighing 220 and 750 weighing 240. All were done between ages 42 and 47, over a five-year span. All the deadlifts were done after squatting and benching. I won six national master titles in three different weight classes. I was the IPF world master champion in the 220-pound class masters division in 1991. As a strength coach, I have created world champion powerlifters and world record holders.

For six glorious years I trained with one of the best deadlifters of all time, Mark Challiet. Mark pulled 880 weighing 265. We were training partners. I coached Mark at national and world championships. While I learned my core deadlift technique from world champion Hugh Cassidy, my six years with Mark Chaillet were deadlift Graduate School. Chaillet was taught the Cassidy deadlift style by IPF world champion (and Cassidy protégé) Mark Dimiduk. Mark C. layered on his own stylistic innovations atop Hugh’s basic pull technique.

Both Hugh and Mark were powerhouse squatters: Hugh was the sixth man in history to raw squat 800. Chaillet consistently squatted 900 + pounds in competition. Both Hugh and Mark felt leg power was the prerequisite, the foundation upon which to build a big deadlift.  My mentors used increases in leg strength to “automatically” push up the deadlift. I call this highly stylized deadlift technique the “Maryland” deadlift style. Maryland is where the technique was hatched, incubated and workshopped.

When devising the ideal technique for deadlifting, Cassidy asked himself, “What is the most efficient motor-pathway for an optimal deadlift?”  The answer: pull the bar upward in a perfectly straight line – the shortest distance between two points. A good deadlifter makes his body conform to the bar as it is pulled upward in a straight line pull; the bad deadlifter makes the bar conform to his out of position body.

The Cassidy-Chaillet school of conventional deadlifting swears allegiance to the straight-line pull. Everything flows from this core contention. To pull upward in a straight line necessitates vertical shins. You can’t pull straight up if your knees are six-inches in front of the barbell at launch.

A narrow stance width shortens the length of the rep stroke. The shoulders are directly over the bar at the instant of launch. The hips are set low and coiled. At the exact instant of launch, the legs are “pushed through the floor.”  The Maryland style uses leg power to break the bar from the floor, allowing the hip-hinge to be held in reserve.

When the deadlifting bar touches the lower knees, leg power is augmented with the instantaneous and violent opening of the powerful hip-hinge. The hip-hinge has been held in reserve and fired as the lifter encounters the deadlift sticking point.

Why purposefully throw away the legs – legs that set squat records? Why purposefully use a pulling technique that diminishes the role of legs in deadlifting? While that might be an appropriate course of action for the weak-legged, why would lifters that held national and world records in the squat throw away their best muscular asset, powerhouse legs?

A commonality among all the national and world champion powerlifters that came out of Maryland was they all had big squats and big deadlifts. The two went hand in hand. Mark, Hugh, George Hecter, Don Mills and Kirk Karwoski, all were big squatters. Kirk was the greatest squatter in the history of powerlifting. Kirk was a Marylander and I coached him for ten years.  Kirk pulled 800 for three reps and 840 for a training single. Why would he not utilize the strongest legs in the world?

If leg power is insufficient, the hips need be set high in order to break the weight from the floor. A high-hip start allows the lifter to telescope the legs, putting the thighs in a more advantageous (leverage-wise) position to begin the lift. This technique has the unfortunate side-effect of turning the spinal column into a crane.

Because the shoulders are in front of the barbell when the weight plates clear the floor, the barbell will automatically drift forward. Any bar that drifts forward will require the lifter ‘derrick’ the barbell back into place to attain lockout: this creates incredible stress on the 2-3 spinal column vertebra that lie at the perilous fulcrum point.

Those that use the Maryland pull style never let their shoulders get in front of the knees. The barbell stays in contact with the lifters body throughout the lift and because of the upright torso, the vertebras stays safely stacked one atop one another.

Powerlifter Roger Estep performing a barbell deadlift Powerlifter Roger Estep performing a barbell deadlift

 

World champion Roger Estep shows how the Maryland deadlift looks at the exact instant of launch. His shins are vertical, his hips set low, his shoulders are directly over the bar. Roger is coiled and tensed. He launches the bar upward with his 800-pound squat legs. When the bar touches the bottom of his knees, the hip-hinge, purposefully held in reserve, is fired – the effect is afterburner like. Roger is accepting the hard start in return for the easy finish.

Powerlifter John Gamble performing an 845 lb. barbell deadlift Powerlifter John Gamble performing an 845 lb. barbell deadlift

 

World Champion and world record holder John Gamble is in perfect position to finish this 845-pound deadlift. John exemplifies our deadlift technique: note narrow stance, vertical shins and upright torso. Gamble used his 880-pound squat legs to break the bar from the floor. Once the bar touched the bottom of his knees, he fires the held-in-reserve hip-hinge. Once the bar is atop the knees, as pictured, Gamble now gets to pull not so much up as BACK to lock it out. Since launch, his shoulders have stayed over or behind the bar, never in front.

At the instant this photo was snapped, Gamble is beginning the back-pull phase.  He will slide the bar up his angled thighs while thrusting his hips forward to finish the lift – which he did. He has applied baby powder to his thighs to reduce bar friction. The high-hipped start trades the easy start for the excruciating, potentially injurious finish; the Maryland style trades the hard (but safe) start for the easy finish and is predicated on having strong legs. 

To our way of thinking, the deadlift is inexorably linked to the squat. Increase the proper squat (vertical shins, upright torso, shoulders behind knees throughout) and the proper deadlift (vertical shins, upright torso, shoulders behind the bar throughout) automatically goes up.

If your legs are not strong enough to break the bar from the floor while maintaining a proper start position – you are leg weak. Don’t compensate by setting your hips higher, thereby making the start easier and the finish harder – get your leg power up, build your squat.

Stop continually playing to our strengths. The greatest progress and fastest progress lie in attacking weak points with the same gusto and verve formally reserved for the favored exercises and body parts. When it comes to big league deadlifting, trade in the easy start for the hard start. If you cannot break a weight from the floor while maintaining vertical shins and keeping the shoulders over the bar, then you need to bring your leg power up. Concentrate on increasing your below-parallel squat, low reps, triples and fives. Feel free to add some muscular bodyweight while getting a bigger squat.

The squat and deadlift are husband and wife, John and Paul, Mick and Keith, Butch and Sundance, ham and eggs – they should never be separated and always considered two sides of the same coin. Proper squatting is the foundation for proper deadlifting. This eternal exercise duo is – or should be – inexorably linked.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.