Deadlifting Setup Technique: Building the Foundation for Success

I am in a very unique situation where I get to train athletes from over a dozen different high schools.

It’s very intriguing because I get to see what the physical preparation approach looks like at each of the different programs. 

What I find completely fascinating is that I can now predict how an athlete will move just based on the school they come from. For example, I have one school that does next to nothing when it comes to mobility and every kid has tight hips and suffers from low back pain. So I know when a kid comes in from that program he will need some extra mobility work. Likewise, I have one school that really hammers home the back squat so I know every kid that comes from there will be a very technical lifter. 

But, there is one glaring gap that almost 90% of the programs my kids come from have… 

They can’t deadlift!

Now, I am not talking about a Trap Bar deadlift, those are phenomenal a ton of programs use them (as they should). What I am talking about is a simple, old-school, double overhand barbell deadlift.

You know what I’m talking about. The real deadlift… 

As the late great Franco Columbo once said – “Life is not worth living if you can’t deadlift”

Here’s the thing about deadlifting…

Nothing builds the posterior chain better, and with the fact being that we are dealing with athletes who’s #1 priority early in their strength career should be building the posterior chain.  

Oh yeah, just to pile it on, if you are power cleaning then you should have perfected a deadlift first. 

So, why don’t more programs use this amazing athletic development tool?

I think it boils down to this: the deadlift takes time to teach and in a world of instant gratification it can be tempting to simply choose a different lift that can be mastered in a shorter time frame.

With the deadlift I have a few beliefs that I need to mention before we dive too far into the topic:

  1. Athletes should only pull with a clean grip (double overhand). The alternating grip puts the body a little bit off-center and makes the lift easier. We want this movement to work towards a power clean so the clean grip should be used exclusively. 
  2. Lifting straps are OK if grip becomes the limiting factor. However, they should be avoided for as long as possible. 
  3. Superset the first few sets with an upper back exercise that will activate the upper back and posterior deltoids. This helps cue the athlete to maintain posture through the lift. I like a straight arm pull down, a banded face pull or a prone T/Y/W raise.
  4. The athlete should start in a foot position that fits them. We know that every athlete is built different which means every hip is built differently. Allowing the athletes to find a stance that fits their bodies is key. That said, we still want them in a clean stance so don’t be so wide that your arms cannot be outside of your legs. 
  5. The breakdown of the technical execution of the lift should end the rep immediately. This is a lift that requires a very high level of technique and the breakdown of technique can cause some issues. 

On that note, here is my progression for teaching the deadlift…

  1. KB/DB Deadlift (elevated if needed)
  2. BB Elevated Deadlifts
  3. BB Eccentric Dead Lifts (lighter weight) 
  4. Dead Lifts 

In my opinion, this lift is won in the setup and the first 2 inches off the ground. As we are teaching the deadlift, I will put a very strong emphasis on how we approach the bar and how the athlete puts themselves into the pulling position. For this, I use a setup taken from a great powerlifter Brandon Lilly. What I like about this setup is the intentional focus on starting the lift from the moment you reach to grab the bar. 


For this setup style, I have the athlete approach the bar with their arms straight forward. From there they squat down to their pulling position and then lower their arms to the bar. The squat aspect does a great job of activating the antagonist muscle groups and creating tension throughout the body.

As you grab the bar I have the athlete “pull the slack out of the bar”. This pre-load creates a connection between the athlete and the bar. This tension locks in the pull and allows the first two inches off the ground to be smooth and tight. 

I believe that many athletes have low back issues with the deadlift for two reasons:

  1. They lack strength in the posterior chain (primarily in the spinal erectors)
  2. Their technique is poor and they lack tension during the lift

In my opinion, every program should have a curriculum for building their athlete’s strength training capacity and a major part of that curriculum should be built around the Deadlift. As with any topic, you won’t be successful in the long run if you don’t master the basics first.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: