Secrets to the Perfect Deadlift

To Build Muscle and Strength

The deadlift is one of the three powerlifting movements. It happens to be my favorite exercise, and I feel it is one of the best exercises to increase lean muscle mass and overall strength. The lift engages several muscles: erector spinae, rhomboids, trapezius, glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and forearms. It is an ideal movement for gaining thick, dense muscle tissue. It is also ideal for strengthening the entire body, which consequently improves strength in other power movements as well. My first encounter with deadlifts was in my freshman year at Monsignor McClancy Memorial High School when I was training for field events (shot put, discus, javelin.) I was able to see the applied results on the field in the distances of the throws we were executing as a team. Granted, we had a very strong team of athletes who were above average in size and strength and went on to dominate track and field for five consecutive years. Deadlifts contributed to the victories. Later, as I entered the bodybuilding arena, my workout partner and I based our training primarily on the training philosophies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the late Franco Columbu, incorporating powerlifting into our regular training. We moved a lot of weight, and it greatly benefited our bodybuilding pursuits. We also admired and applied Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty training philosophy and Dorian Yates’ Blood and Guts training philosophy. We were honored to have the opportunity to discuss our training with Dorian and how we were applying his philosophy. We pushed our bodies to the limits and deadlifting became one of our centerpieces of our training.

Technique as important as strength. In a movement such as the deadlift, technique is equally important as strength. I always have had strength, but it was technique that had me hoisting ever-increasing weight on a consistent basis. The most important thing is to begin the movement properly in a foundational position in which the scapulas (shoulder blades) are in line with the barbell. The feet should be spaced apart with the barbell directly over the mid-foot. We were fortunate to have a highly ranked professional powerlifter, Ernie Paucuolo, as a member at Gold’s Gym. He often critiqued our form and oversaw our lifts. He taught us a technique that immensely improved our deadlift. He taught us that with the deadlift, the breathing is reversed from other lifts. One should inhale as they ascend, and exhale as they descend. Most exercises that are performed engage the exhale on the positive motion (as the weight is being moved through space) and inhale on the negative motion. That one lesson from a pro is how I ascended to the 645-pound deadlift at a bodyweight of 185 pounds. Our lifts increased dramatically from that point on. Ernie, of course, encouraged us to compete in powerlifting, but our competitive hearts remained in the bodybuilding arena.

The grip. Another important aspect of deadlifting is the grip. Some people prefer a forward grip with both palms facing the body. I prefer an alternate grip with my right hand in the forward position with the palm facing the body, and my left hand inverted with my palm facing forward. Either grip is acceptable and is a matter of preference and comfort.

Wrist straps and chalk. The other important items to mention about gripping a barbell with a heavy amount of weight are wrist straps and chalk. Whenever we were deadlifting 405 pounds or less, our rule was not to use wrist straps or chalk. We used both chalk and wrist straps for anything over the 405-pound deadlift range. The reason we didn’t use them for anything less than 405 pounds was to strengthen our natural grip, unassisted. We felt that we were able to securely hold the weight below the 405-pound threshold. When you climb to the heavier lifts, it becomes difficult for the hands to grasp the barbell firmly. The chalk really helps the grip, and the straps create a secure appendage so you and the barbell move as one unit.

Will deadlifting make you look blocky? You’ll hear a lot of mixed reviews on the importance of complex power movements in regards to how it affects the body’s shape, and some will say it makes for a blocky physical appearance. When I was deadlifting anywhere from 500- 645 pounds regularly, my waist onstage at bodybuilding competitions was 28 inches. Deadlifting did not make me blocky. On the contrary, it just added mass to my normal symmetry. So, I encourage you to incorporate powerlifting, especially deadlifts, into your training. Even if it’s only one week out of each month, it will benefit you.

Flawless form, incredible strength. Arnold Schwarzenegger executed his deadlifts (and all of his lifts) with flawless form. His former workout partner, Franco Columbu, had some very impressive deadlift numbers, recording a 750-pound deadlift at a bodyweight of 185 pounds in a powerlifting competition, and in 1972, he hoisted up 700 pounds for three repetitions in a deadlifting competition. Though not competing at the time, Franco’s maximum deadlift was 780 pounds at his consistent bodyweight of 185 pounds.

Arnold and Franco redux. My maximum deadlift, also at a bodyweight of 185 pounds coincidentally, was 645 pounds. That’s why they used to call me “Franco” at Gold’s Gym back in the day! My former workout partner was Mike Gigante, who, weighing in at nearly 250 pounds, was nicknamed “Arnold.” I guess it’s a rarity to see two different size bodybuilder-powerlifter types training successfully together for many years. We were honored to be given those nicknames of two legendary Olympia champions.

Don’t rush it – strength will come. Just remember that technique is equally important as strength. Keep precise form in all your power movements and never sacrifice form for the increase of weight. Don’t rush it. The strength will come.

John M. DiFazio II

John M. Di Fazio II is a nutrition consultant, a personal trainer, and a massage therapist and has over 25 of experience working in the fitness industry. He was employed by Gold's Gym for 13 years and in 2005 co-founded Remedy Fitness, a unique fitness establishment located in East Setauket, New York. While in the employ of Gold’s Gym, he was recruited into Nutritionalysis, a nutrition company based in Venice Beach, California that specialized in individualized nutrition programs, and received his certification. Excelling in the field, his clientele grew by thousands. While establishing such a full clientele in nutrition and personal training, John also graduated from the State University of New York at Stony Brook with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and also graduated from the New School for Holistic Health & Research in Long Island, New York with a degree and a New York State license for massage therapy. For more information, visit

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