Posted June 6, 2016

Top Down Versus Bottom Up Deadlift Set Up

There’s a lot of things in life that seem to be binary decisions of yes/no, Team Jacob/Team Edward, Pepsi/Coke, Trump/sanity, and so forth. Invariably, a lot of training won’t fall into such a binary construct simply because there’s a lot more variety of the individuals, what will work well and what might provide less benefits, and how much work an individual has to put in to see some outcomes. Instead of being like a light switch of on or off, it’s more like a dimmer switch with varying outcomes based on inputs.

Let’s take deadlifting for example. There’s typically 2 different ways of setting up to pull the bar off the floor. A top down approach tends to have the person set up and get their brace and breathing at the standing up tall position before bending down to grab the bar and rip it off the floor.

Here’s Eric Cressey doing a top down approach with 550 lbs for 5 smooth reps:

Jordan Syatt using a similar approach to set a world record of 485 at a bodyweight of only 132:

And just in case you thought it was only the guys who got in on the action, here’s a friend and colleague Jaime Krumins pulling a routine 405 lbs with a quick grip and rip:

A top down approach allows a person to get into a spinal position that will be used with the lift and also ramp up their bracing in a relatively neutral position compared to trying to find that same tension in a flexed position while holding a barbell. Once they work on developing the tension through their abdomen, lats, and shoulders, they breathe in to fill the lungs, hinge from the hips to grab the bar, get into their final position and pull.

A benefit from this is the use of a stretch reflex that can help generate more force off the floor. It’s a concept used with plyometrics where the stretch shortening cycle of reflexive loops can cause a muscle to contract involuntarily within a short timeframe of the stretch response. It’s sort of like what happens to a tennis ball when you drop it and it hits the ground. It deforms, then the elastic recoil causes it to rebound up and the amount of rebound is dependent on the amount and rate of deformation. The faster someone gets to the bar and pulls it, the more of a stretch reflex they can use.

Beyonce makes lifts so much faster. So do back flips.

In order to do this kind of speed effectively, the person has to have some solid control over their spinal position from the top to grabbing the bar and then pulling. It’s very common to see someone lose tension once they bend over, and again as the weight starts to move, so setting up for this has to be solid.

Grip considerations have to be there as well, as the speed of set up means you only have one shot to get your grip set. It’s like Bunny Rabbit in 8 Mile, but with more skin ripping and a way less cool soundtrack if you screw it up.

For a slower top down set up, You definitely have to have a level of local endurance to hold a braced position while setting up, then bending to grab the bar and get into position Essentially, you’re holding a max or near max contraction for up to 3-5 seconds, BEFORE pulling the weight. Then depending on how heavy the bar is, that could be another 3-5 seconds before you get a chance to release some tension at the top of the movement.

You also need to have solid control over your ability to hip hinge, as bending to grab the bar should not be using the spine or the tension developed at the top of the movement won’t be maintained.

Conversely to this is a bottoms up approach. This involves getting to the bar, setting grip, and building tension in the flexed position before taking a big breath and pulling from a set position.


This is typically a favoured set up for olympic lifters, as the use of a hook grip does take a few seconds to set up, especially as the weight gets up there.

It’s also necessary if the lifter is using straps while doing some higher volume sets so their grip doesn’t wind up in the toilet. Wrapping the bar takes a few seconds, so setting up at the bottom is pretty much a necessity.

No belt, and Arnold cheering right in front of you. Not a bad life moment.

Now a takeaway from setting up at the bottom like this is it’s actually harder to take as big of a breath as at the top of the movement, meaning your ability to generate sufficient intra abdominal pressure is reduced, therefore reducing the likelihood of having max pressure to stabilize your spine during the movement. A benefit is you have more time to fine tune your positioning and get set up before pulling, but again there’s the drawback of the breath. If you can get a full breath at the bottom, however, the difference is negated.

So which option is best for you? I don’t know. I would say try both and see what happens. If positioning at the moment of lift off is an issue you struggle with, spending some time fine tuning your position in a bottoms up setup might be more beneficial than a very dynamic top down sestup. However, you might find by getting set and tight at the top you can maintain it easier as you bend to grab the bar. At the end of the day, try both and see which ones work well to have you feel strong, stable, and fast at a given weight. Then play with both in a conventional and sumo or modified sumo stance and see what you prefer. There’s no one way, there’s just a way that works for you.