Champion Powerlifter J.L Holdsworth’s Tips on How To Revive Your Deadlift
J.L. Holdsworth (@coach_jl) is a strength coach and world champion powerlifter who’s squatted 905 pounds, benched 775, and deadlifted 804 during competitions. When he issues advice, it’s best to listen. So, when he mentioned on a recent episode of M&F’s podcast, Reps, that people everywhere are teaching and learning the deadlift incorrectly, we took note. Then we followed up to learn more.
“Unless you’re an elite level powerlifter, the way you’ve been taught [to deadlift] is often just wrong,” says Holdsworth, founder of the Spot Athletics gyms in the Columbus, OH, area. He mentions that physical therapists began applying pain-mitigating rehab strategies to basic barbell lifts, which filtered down to personal trainers and strength coaches. Squatting low, keeping your lats tight, and your chest up can reduce pain if you’ve injured your lower back.
“This is in direct opposition to good form,” says Holdsworth. “It might help you to safely pick up a laundry basket, but it’s not how you deadlift. Anatomically, the lats are not built to retract or depress the shoulder blades. They are meant to abduct the arms to the body.” To get it right, he advises to keep your shoulder blades abducted, or rolled forward, and your lats long and tight, reaching down far for the bar.
“It’s basic physics,” he says. “If you go chest up, it increases the length you have to pull the bar, and you’re forced to drop your butt lower. This takes away that pure hip hinge, and the hinge is what allows for better mechanics through the lift.”
Holdsworth says that few people made this mistake 15 years ago. Then, more people began visiting physical therapists, and PTs even started to have online presences where they could speak to mass audiences. “A lot these guys were really great at rehab and super well-intentioned, but inexperienced when it came to lifting heavy,” says Holdsworth. As the sports of Powerlifting, CrossFit, and Strongman became increasingly poopular over the years, compound lifts became more prevalent, even among beginners. “The demand for doing these lifts exceeded the supply for qualified teachers,” Holdsworth adds.
This even impacted Holdsworth. After herniating a disc in his back in 2004, he enlisted a physical therapist, who gave him those same instructions—shoulder blades together, chest high.
“It sounded good and came from smart people, so I switched the way I deadlifted,” he says. Then, during a 2010 workout with powerlifting icons Steve Goggins and Brian Carroll, he was put in his place. “They looked at me like I was crazy and told me I was doing it wrong,” he says. “I think I’m a smart guy, and I still fell for [the improper technique] because it sounded good.” Once his form was perfected, everything fell into place—he was able to deadlift more weight more comfortably.
How to Deadlift, Correctly
Follow Holdsworth’s step-by-step instructions for getting it right:
- Stand with your shins a half inch away from the bar. When you pick up the bar, it should come straight up. If it drifts toward you or away from you, you’re too close or too far from it.
- Reach your arms down as far as you can, staying long and tight through your lats until you grip the bar.
- Hinge your hips until your wrists are at your knees. Then squat down. That puts you in perfect position.
- Keep your lower back flat, not arched.
- Finish with your glutes, not your back, until your hips are locked out.
Accessory Work to Help Your Deadlift
Once you’re deadlifting like a champion powerlifter, you can still hit a wall. That’s why Holdsworth recommends the below accessory work to help drive your strength gains:
- Glute Pull-Through: Face away from a pulley machine. Grab a low cable through your legs. Hinge back and lean forward, then stand up and squeeze your hips through to reinforce the proper deadlift lockout.
- Wide-Stance Box Squat: “Really sit back to nail that poster chain,” says Holdsworth.
- Romanian Deadlift: “The top part of a deadlift is an RDL. Most of the benefit here comes from the eccentric work, which will help to build your deadlift.”
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