4 Steps to Learn the Conventional Deadlift

Legs | Strength Training 5 min Read

Written by

Keith Hansen

The conventional deadlift is everyone’s favorite feat of strength. And it’s one of the easiest moves to mess up.

Luckily for you it’s also an easy move to get right when you know the right progression.

This article will take you from deadlift noob to deadlift natural.

Caveat: reading about positioning your body is always more complex than just seeing it.

Each section has a video hyperlinked in it that will take the massive wall of text, condense it to about a minute, and complete your understanding. Watch the videos.

Set the Shoulders

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I’ll say it over and over again: setting the shoulders (watch the video) is the single most important thing you need to learn when you step foot in the gym.

Every compound barbell movement comes from set shoulders, and this is the first thing to master when learning the deadlift.

It’s easy.

1. Stand with your shoulders relaxed.
2. Next, lift both shoulders as high as possible towards your ears while keeping your arms at your sides.
3. Then move your shoulders as far back and up as possible like you are trying to hold a pencil between your shoulder blades.
4. Finally, move your shoulders as far down and back as possible.

You should feel your lats contracted (muscle below and a little behind your armpits), and your chest should be sticking out (called proud chest).

Now relax. Go through that series again and again until you gain familiarity with the final position.

When you can put your shoulders (set them) immediately into that position without lifting them first you have mastered setting your shoulders.

Now try this with your arms stretched out in front of you.

Now with your arms overhead.

Congratulations. You’re a pro.

Remember to watch the video to drive the point home.

Conquer the Cat/Cow

Cat/cow is a yoga pose that teaches thoracic (upper back) and lumber (lower back) extension coupled with set shoulders. It puts your body in the perfect position to deadlift.

Get on all fours so your wrists are under your shoulders and your knees are under your hips. Exhale all of your air while lifting your middle back to the sky. Think about the way a cat looks when scared with it’s back in an upside-down U and mimic that.

Then, inhale a giant breath while setting your shoulders, arching your back, and sticking your butt out. This is the cow position–think about the way a cows midsection sags and mimic that.

Watch this video on the cat/cow pose.

Hinge the Hips

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This exercise is a critical component of the conventional deadlift, and is sometimes referred to as the Romanian deadlift.

This is easiest to learn by watching our video on How to do the Hip Hinge Pattern.

Grab a barbell or PVC pipe and then back up to a wall until your heels are 6″ off of the wall and are hip-width apart. Put a slight bend in your knees just so they are unlocked, but there will be no more motion in them. Place your hands on the bar with an overhand grip and just outside of your thighs. Set your shoulders.

Next you want to slide the bar down your thigh by pushing your hips backwards to the wall. When your butt makes contact with the wall reverse your motion. It is important that you do not bend your knees any more (because that would be a squat), the bar stays in contact with your legs, and that you do not bend your back at all. Your back should stay rigid and arched.

Repeat this butt to the wall 5 times, and then move 1″ (look down at your feet to ensure you do not move more than 1″) and repeat the steps above for 5 butt touches.

Now move 1″ further away. You should notice that with each step away from the wall you are able to get the bar/PVC pipe/broom handle further down your thigh before touching the wall. The further down thigh you go the greater a stretch in the hamstrings you will feel.

For most people they will reach max stretch when the bar touches their knee cap. Some people will reach this point a little lower, but if you’re going below the knee cap you are either incredibly flexible(not likely) or you are bending to much in the knee/back (almost guaranteed). Revisit setting your shoulders, the cat/cow pose, and ensure your knees are almost straight.

You will also find that at some point your butt is not reaching the wall before you max out that hamstring stretch. That’s okay. The way was just there to teach you to push your hips back.

Watch this video for a great explanation & visual aid on the hip hinge pattern.

Borrow some Blocks

With set shoulders and a sweet hip hinge pattern you’re ready for the next step–deadlifts. Specifically called block pulls because instead of starting with the bar/plates on the ground we will raise them higher for easy learning.

We use DC Blocks to add 12″ to the starting height. These blocks come in 2″ increments. Many power racks will also allow for a similar set up. You can also get creative by stacking 45lb plates but I’ll let you figure out what works best in your set up.

The reason this is the next step is because it allows you to work on the top portion of the deadlift. The higher the starting point for the deadlift the easier it is to assume good positioning.

Since you already mastered the hip hinge pattern block pulls will be a breeze.

Get close to the bar, grip it, and then assume the same position you were using for the hip hinge pattern by working through cat/cow. The only difference is that instead of starting at the top (standing straight), you will start at the bottom position in cow position.

Get tight, hip hinge to the top, then slowly lower the weight back down.

Work through another cat, then cow, then lift the weight to the top.

After five successful reps where you reset between each rep lower the bar height 1-2″ and repeat five reps.

Continue lowering the height until the bar is on the ground. This could happen in a single session, but it will most likely take several sessions. It may not happen for a long time if you are particularly tall (over 6′) or have flexibility restrictions. That’s okay. You can still develop strength & muscle using block pulls as your primary deadlift.

An important technique shift occurs when the starting height passes below your knees. Remember that this is the height at which your hamstrings will reach max stretch. The technique changes so that you must squat the bar up to your knees and then move through the hip hinge pattern. On the way down you will hip hinge to the knee (point of max hamstring tension) and then lower the bar the rest of the way by squatting.

This is the simplest process to learn the deadlift. To learn more about the deadlift visit our how to do the conventional deadlift guide.

If the deadlift still isn’t clicking for you come in for a consultation.

Keith Hansen

Keith was an All-State wrestler in high school and in 2007 hung up his singlet to attend Florida State University to pursue a B.S. in business management. He wasn't sure what industry he wanted to be involved in at the time, but soon realized after graduating in 2011 that fitness was the ever-constant activity in his life. Keith began studying to become a personal trainer and in 2013 earned the National Strength and Conditioning Association's Personal Trainer certification. After a short stint as a big box gym trainer he realized he wanted to bring something different to Tallahassee. Keith competes in Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting, and Crossfit.