The Jefferson Lift – How to do it and why you should

As with all things in life, workout and weight lifting trends cycle back around every once in awhile. The same is true for old-school, heavy and basic lifts like the Jefferson Lift. I was first introduced to this movement around the age of 10 when I took a stack of 1930’s magazines out of an old man’s barn and for the first time, discovered weight lifting! I immediately cut some pipe, put some bricks on the ends and began lifting weights. The Jefferson Lift was one of the first movements I learned from those old magazines and recently, fitness magazines and websites have begun to discuss this old war horse movement yet again and rightly so – it’s awesome! The benefits of the Jefferson Lift are many, but total body strength is the primary benefit you will experience and that by itself is enough to merit placing it in your workout routine.

The appropriate Jefferson Lift movement itself is relatively simple.

  • Load a barbell with weight
  • Straddle the bar
  • Bend over and grab the bar
  • Stand up with the weight
  • Put the weight down

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While this is probably what most online resources have to say about the Jefferson Lift, this is an oversimplification to say the least.

First and foremost, the Jefferson Lift, in most cases, should not be done if your standard dead lift technique is not rock solid. The Jefferson Lift presents some movement requirements that aren’t typical of most compound movements – exercises where multiple joints are moving at the same time. However, in some cases, standard dead lifting causes people pain for various reasons. I have found that a Jefferson Lift with its asymmetrical aspect, in a few instances, can sometimes be done pain free by those who a deadlift otherwise hurts.

Here is a video with coaching tips for you to see the lift from two angles:

Here are some optimal capability requirements of the Jefferson Lift:

  • ability to maintain core stability while loaded in a twisted position
  • ability to perform a loaded lift throughout an asymmetrical movement
  • ability to open your hips during the lift without knees collapsing inward
  • ability to maintain flat back, while twisted, throughout the lift
  • mobility in the upper back (thoracic spine) to gain a twisted position throughout

As you can see, the Jefferson Lift isn’t that complex. It’s just a deadlift with the bar under your center of gravity instead of in front of it and it requires you to maintain a twisted thoracic spine (upper back) position throughout the lift. Other than that it’s pretty standard. There’s a big BUT coming!

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BUT – in my experience, most people have a hard time extending their upper back and twisting it at the same time while loaded. Of course this is more true of people with back posture who may tend to sit a lot and slouch in the upper back and shoulders, but anyone who doesn’t have the strength to maintain posture while loaded with weight is susceptible to this. Typically, the shoulders and upper back tend to round under the load and/or the hips fail to open during the lift which limits strength. Not to fear! If this happens to you, simply go back to a lighter weight and practice your standard deadlift and Jefferson Lift until your upper back mobility and strength are up to the task, then try again. The twisting of the upper back required for a Jefferson Lift is relatively minor – it is usually just a subtle twisting position, but the key is the ability to maintain that twisted position while keeping your back extended in a flat position throughout the lift. Pretty basic. Also, the Jefferson Lift is somewhat “self correcting” in that your body gets better and better at it if you pay attention to the few technical requirements listed above so work on the lift and just practice it. If you are just not able to maintain an extended back and open hips, you will want to work on some corrective exercise first in order to help achieve the mobility and strength necessary to achieve these positions. Corrective exercise is an area where you may consider enlisting the help of a well educated personal trainer who works in the area of “corrective exercise” which is really just a catch-all term used in the fitness industry for exercises designed specifically to help make your body’s movement more efficient. One thing that is important to note is that you will more than likely have a dominant side where your Jefferson Lift is stronger and one where it is naturally weaker. I recommend you do not allow this to persist by lifting on one side only. I have seen this cause asymmetry issues in muscle development and movement pattern efficiency. Even though one side is weaker, train it with the same purpose, volume and focus that you would the stronger side. Soon you’ll find the strength and comfort gap between your stronger and weaker sides getting smaller and that’s what getting strong and capable is all about.

One thing that seems to be the same in all Jefferson lifts:

Most Jefferson lifts are not performed with a squared foot position in relation to the bar, the side of your body that you feel has the leg slightly “in front” of you will have the hand of the same side grasping the bar in front of you as well. And, as you can imagine, the leg that you feel is “in the back” of the lift will have the hand of that same side holding the bar behind you as seen in the image above. While your legs are usually in a relatively symmetrical position, the orientation to the bar makes you feel as if there is a front and back so use the rule mentioned above to guide your approach to grasping the bar.

Some things that are nitpicky but don’t matter that much:

  • Hip hinge – This is a very important movement to master for any lifter. But for the Jefferson Lift, a hip hinge is ideal (since it’s a deadlift) but since the load is under you instead of in front of your body as in a deadlift, a squatting movement is just fine too. Either is good to gain benefit from this lift safely.
  • Head position – As long as your back is straight from bottom to top you’re fine! The position of your head, whether in-line with your straight back, or whether somewhat extended isn’t going to matter much (I show you both in the video). Of course a head that is too far down or too far into extension could create some issue, but don’t over-think this aspect of the lift. Keep your hips engaged and your entire back straight and you’re fine. I personally like to look straight ahead or slightly up when I deadlift – it’s really up to you.
  • Bar position – It doesn’t matter as long as you’re in the middle of the bar. Everyone’s body is different and the Jefferson lift will look slightly different depending on a number of factors unique to each lifter. Arm length, hip depth, hip mobility, upper back mobility and torso length all play a part in where the bar feels best for a lifter. Don’t concern yourself with it. Align yourself evenly on the bar and experiment with the lift. You’ll quickly find the bar position that is best for you.
  • Load – Don’t worry about the amount of weight you lift at first. Start out with a light weight using standard olympic sized plates and go from there. Get the movement down, find what feels best for you, check your form and then begin loading more weight on the bar. You’ll gain strength in the lift quite quickly as you tap into strength you already have that just isn’t accessible to you initially due to the fact that your nervous system has not yet learned the movement. As your brain and spinal cord get used to the movement pattern and the demand of it, they’ll work to send stronger impulses to the correct muscles to make a bigger lift happen.

In closing, it seems that the recent trend of “rediscovering” foundation lifting movements has also brought about a bunch of new names that previously didn’t exist. The same is true with the Jefferson Lift.

Keep in mind it has one name. Jefferson Lift. That’s it! That’s the name of the exercise.

But just in case you’re reading something somewhere, you may also see it called one of these unnecessary names:

  • Jefferson Squat (This is not a squatting movement)
  • Straddle Deadlift (I can see how someone may see it in a gym and call it this)
  • Jefferson Deadlift (The Jefferson Lift by nature is a type of deadlift. Saying “deadlift” in the name is redundant)

It’s the same exercise by any of these names, but you’re definitely going to be more accurate calling it by it’s true name: Jefferson Lift.

Here’s to your big strength gains my friends!

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