The deadlift is a lift that has the potential to have excellent utility and carryover to rowing. I emphasize potential because many rowers perform the lift with the goal in mind of lifting the absolute most weight or reps that they can, rather than the goal of becoming a better rower. Training for rowing always comes back to this question—am I using this activity correctly to become a better rower? In many cases, lifting the absolute most that you can is NOT actually making you a better rower.
The biggest mistake I see with rowers’ deadlifts is turning the lift into a pull with the back rather than a push from the legs and hips. Performed correctly, the deadlift should look almost identical to a half-slide stroke. Rowers tend to incorrectly set up at the bottom of the lift, often turning the lift into a squat or a stiff-leg pull or failing to maintain a braced torso and neutral spine. Check out my video below from How to Deadlift then read on for more deadlift FAQs for rowing.
How should I set my stance? Should I do sumo deadlifts?
As demonstrated in the video above, your stance width should be roughly your “jump stance.” This is also very close to where your rowing stance in terms of foot width. Your feet may be slightly turned out, but should not be further than 45-degrees. If an athlete is unable to deadlift without turning their toes out severely, look to mobility restrictions in the hip flexors or glutes. Sumo deadlift does not have much carryover for rowing and it is a very complex lift from a technique perspective, so I don’t use it with rowers. Just like Olympic lifts, if you are already proficient at the lift and want to include it in your program, do so in the General Preparation Block furthest away from your competitive peak as a general strength lift.
Should I use straps, double-overhand, or mixed grip when deadlifting?
Many rowers are natural workaholics and are unsatisfied with a single weak link in their body. It is very, very rare to be able to double-overhand grip a truly maximal weight. Lifters who you see doing double-overhand are likely actually using the hook grip, which is another technique of its own. Thinking about this logically, your back and legs should be stronger than your hands, so it is natural that your grip gives out before you reach a maximal weight. Some rowers may be comfortable using a mixed grip, and others are not. I encourage my rowers to use wrist straps so that they can continue lifting double-overhand without grip fatigue limiting the amount of weight they can lift. You get a lot of forearm and grip work in through rowing anyway, so keep the goal of deadlifts the goal and focus on developing a stronger posterior chain.
Bonus tip: Straps have a left/right. Align your straps so the loop is on the little finger side of your hand, not your thumb side, for the most secure grip on the bar. Shown at bottom right below.
Should I wear a belt?
It is a popular myth that lifting belts are designed for safety, and that there is a certain level or weight one needs to reach in order to earn wearing a belt. Belts exist for the sole purpose of helping the lifter lift more weight. Belts act similarly to a sprinter sprinting out of start blocks. By providing something for the trunk muscles to push against, torso bracing is more effective and more weight can be lifted. Using a belt in the absence of proper torso bracing is neither safer nor will result in more weight lifted. Learn more about belt use from Greg Nuckols here.
Should I reset every rep or do touch-and-go?
Coming back to the question “is this making me better at rowing,” I coach a dead-stop for every rep rather than using touch-and-go (TNG). TNG deadlifts tend to turn into an awful bouncy affair by the end of a hard set, with athletes slamming the bar down to maximize the rebound out of the bottom. This can put you in a terrible position and cause injuries, so I avoid even introducing the idea of TNG with my rowers. Dead-stop deadlifts allow you to put yourself in a correct position to deadlift for every rep, minimizing risk of injury, and also build the most strength at of the bottom position of the deadlift, which is where we want to build power for the rowing stroke.
Should I do 25+ reps for endurance or 1-rep maxes for strength?
Neither! The deadlift should always be done with attention to correct form. At super high reps, it becomes impossible to maintain your focus and you’re likely to suffer an injury. I have noticed more people hurting themselves with high reps with low weight than low reps with higher weight–it’s too easy to get sloppy and make a mistake. The sweet spot for the deadlift is in the 2-8 rep range. If we go above 8 reps, we are usually using a Romanian Deadlift (RDL). The 2-8 rep range does a good job building strength and power without being overly taxing to recovery or exposing the rower to unnecessary injury risk. We will also often perform peak power work using the deadlift to build power and connection for starts and pressure pieces.