Why Novice Weightlifters Should (and Shouldn't) Deadlift

2016-rio-olympicsWe’ve spoken at length before about both weightlifting and powerlifting on this blog—after all, they form the basis of proper training for strength, fitness, and sport performance. With the Rio Olympics literally around the corner, the sport of weightlifting will be thrust into the international spotlight once again as athletes attempt to throw as much weight over their heads as possible and push the limits of human performance, while we watch in awe and admire their insane strength and impeccable technique.

The snatch and clean & jerk are poetry in motion, while the squat, bench press, and deadlift exude raw strength. However, anyone who has been going to the gym and lifting long enough to dabble in both sports realizes that while strength is universal, the softer skills and nuances of weightlifting mean that powerlifters or those training for strength are not immediately proficient in weightlifting. This is especially true in the case of the deadlift, and today, we’re going to be talking about how one of these nuances can throw novice weightlifters for a loop.

For starters, having general strength and physical preparation is mightily important, and in this regard, most people will not need to look any further than powerlifting and proper programming for the squat, bench, and deadlift to attain these qualities.

Once this baseline of strength is established though, if someone aspires to be a good weightlifter, the focus should then shift to transferring that general strength to the snatch and clean & jerk. This is no easy task, as the technical demands of weightlifting are something else.

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Both powerlifting and weightlifting feature perhaps the two most crucial movement patterns in fitness—the squat, and the hinge—albeit in very different ways. I discovered this myself, as my workouts were rooted in powerlifting principles and techniques for the longest time. Last fall, I pulled 475 lbs at my first powerlifting meet. These days, I’ve been focusing a little more on weightlifting, and by comparison, my 155 lb clean is very pedestrian.

I’m still working on bringing up that clean of course, but this highlights one of the biggest things that I struggled with coming from a powerlifting background: the deadlift and Olympic-style pulls are completely different.

In other words, deadlifting was so ingrained in my motor patterning, that pulling for the Olympic lifts felt entirely foreign, even though both of these are essentially hinge patterns. It took me about a month before I really began to develop a feel and awareness for what the pull phase of a clean/snatch should feel and look like, and I began to appreciate just how different the deadlift and the pull are.

Not surprisingly, I still struggle with full cleans (from the floor). This is only reinforced by the fact that my hang clean from the knee, and even from the power position not only feel way better, but have caught up to my full clean in terms of weight in my training so far. The pull phase in a hang clean from the knee is abbreviated, and there is no pull phase in a hang clean from the power position. Pulling from the floor just doesn’t feel natural for me, and that phase causes chaos in the rest of the clean.

You can see what a hang clean from the knee looks like in the video below, and if nothing else, I hope you guys appreciate that thumbnail!

A video posted by Jeremy (@jrlaukinetics) on

My situation is actually not unique, and we typically find that our clients who want to take up weightlifting have sufficient strength and training experience to do so. I’ve recruited our resident weightlifting expert, Ross Curtis, to share his perspective on deadlifts, Olympic-style pulls, and how they differ. After watching it, it won’t be hard to see why many trainees who come from a strength background will struggle with the Olympic lifts.

In summary, it all comes down to angles and position. In a deadlift, you want to sit back with your hips higher than your knees, maintain a vertical shin, and push predominantly through the heels to utilize the posterior chain. In a pull, you want to sit over the bar with the hips low, the knees forward, and push through the mid-foot to utilize the quads more.

In a deadlift, you want to lock the bar with your lats and turn your elbows into your body to create as much tightness as possible in the torso. In a pull, you still want to keep a rigid torso, but you want to keep your arms loose with your elbows turned out so that they can freely guide the barbell into a catch on the shoulders or above the head.

The goal in a deadlift is to lift as much weight off the floor as possible, while the goal in a pull is to get your body into optimal position to accelerate the bar upwards onto your shoulders or above your head. It’s no wonder that the deadlift and Olympic-style pull interfere with one another; to the untrained eye they look very similar, but the movement patterns and the goals of each one are entirely different.

If you are already strong or come from a powerlifting background, these subtle differences will feel unnatural, even with very light weight. But you certainly don’t want to lose the strength you already have, and may even want to continue improving strength in your deadlift. After all, it’s one of the most important lifts in the gym. You certainly won’t be getting stronger at it by practicing light pulls while you build familiarity with the Olympic lifts. In this regard, Ross explains why going sumo is perfectly okay for the novice weightlifter:

Once again, it all comes down to angles and position. Due to the different positioning of the body, the sumo deadlift won’t interfere with the clean/snatch pull, and there is less chance that the mechanics of each will interfere with one another. However, a deadlift is a deadlift is a deadlift, and going sumo will more or less provide the same stimulus as a conventional deadlift.

I’m really only scratching the surface here when it comes to proper technique in the sport of weightlifting, but getting the pull right is one of the first and most important steps to getting better at the Olympic lifts. You just want to make sure that you’re not losing the raw strength you’ve already acquired while you work your way up to proficiency. Keep in mind that the conventional deadlift can interfere with the pull, but going sumo is perfectly viable if you want to continue deadlifting. Keep training hard!

featuring Ross Curtis

Ross Curtis

Ross Curtis Halevy LifeRoss Curtis is a Senior Staff Coach at Halevy Life.

Ross holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science and a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, both of which were earned at University of Northern Iowa. Ross is not only an accomplished athlete in weightlifting (Olympic Lifts), track and field, and football — but also a highly qualified coach, holding both Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and USA Weightlifting (USAW) certifications.