While the squat may be considered the “king” of all exercises by some, the deadlift sure isn’t a walk in the park. There’s just something so primitive about picking up a heavy weight off the ground from a dead stop that can be just so empowering…but are you doing it correctly?
Often times the saying “lift with your knees not your back” is considered to be the holy grail when learning proper body mechanics, forcing people do go into a full squat to pick the tiniest object off the ground, but is this really true? It can be, at certain times, but when it comes to a conventional deadlift, it couldn’t be more wrong.
You’re Mobile Enough To Deadlift People erroneously believe that they need to get their hips as low as possible to perform an effective barbell conventional deadlift. Then when they can’t, suddenly everyone has a “mobility” issue. The story usually goes like this:
“Oh I can’t get my hips in the correct position so I need a million mobility exercises and need to smash and floss my superior and inferior gemelli for 20 minutes before I even touch a barbell”
Here’s the truth. You’re probably “mobile” enough to pull from the floor, you’re just setting up incorrectly. In a correct barbell deadlift, the hips start HIGHER than you think.Stop Squatting Your DeadliftsHere’s the problem with deadlifting with the hips too low. While proponents claim it is imperative to get the hips as vertically close to the bar as possible to “save” the low-back, what they fail to realize is this actually INCREASES the horizontal distance from the barbell to the lumbar spine,
This increased horizontal moment arm (blue line in the picture above) actually DECREASES the efficiency of the lift and puts unneeded stress on the lumbar spine. This set-up is simply inefficient. With the barbell deadlift, the knees are unable to migrate forward, so the trainee results to excessively sitting back.
You’re Forgetting About Your HamstringsIn addition to increasing an unneeded horizontal moment arm, deadlifting with this hips too low also puts your hamstrings on slack, creating further inefficiency. The deadlift is a hip-hinge pattern, and in order to properly perform it, the hamstrings should have a sufficient amount of tension to allow them to produce maximal force.
As you can see in the picture above, the hips are higher thus both minimizing the horizontal distance from the lumbar spine to the bar (blue line) AND maximizing the length-tension relationship in the hamstrings to allow them to maximally produce force.Cue “Chest Up” vs. “Hips Down”One of the most simple cues for the deadlift to promote optimal setup is the “chest up” cue. When utilizing the “chest up” cue, the hips will often naturally assume the position they need to in order for an efficient pull. Check the video out below for proper setup of a barbell deadlift.
Cueing “hips down,” on the other hand, often makes the trainee move the hips TOO LOW. What’s interesting about those who set up with the hips too low, as the weight starts to get heavy, the hips will RISE to the correct level BEFORE the bar leaves the ground! This is wasted energy! Start with your hips in the correct position in the first place!
Again, we want the hips in the optimal position to minimize the horizontal distance from the lumbar spine to the barbell AND put the hamstrings in the correct length-tension relationship to produce force. Stop squatting your deadlifts, set your hips correctly, and go break a PR!
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Proper Deadlift Form: How to Fit the Move to Your Body Type
Maybe you’ve tried deadlifting in the past and thought the exercise just didn’t feel right. If so, you’re not alone.
The deadlift involves many muscles, all of your limbs, and every load-bearing joint (ankles, knees, hips and shoulders) in your body. There are a lot of variables at play. So having hard-and-fast rules about deadlift form is nearly impossible.
Your body is your body. That seems like an obvious fact, yet it’s one that’s often overlooked when it comes to form.
For example, two people who are the same height may have totally different torso and femur lengths.
Long torso, short femurs on the left. Short torso, long femurs on the right.Photo courtesy of bretcontreras.com
Strength coach Bret Contreras does an excellent job of explaining that these different bone structures will result in totally different squat forms. The same is true for the deadlift.
A person who has a short torso and long femurs will have a more hip-dominant pull, meaning that their butt will be higher in the air and most of the force will come from their glutes and hamstrings.
Meanwhile, a person who has a long torso and short femurs would be able to get lower and involve their quads a bit more.
Reading this right now, you’re probably thinking, “How do I know whether I have a short or long torso?”
Glad you asked. There’s actually a relatively simple way to tell.
The technique can also tell you whether you’re better off using a sumo deadlift (very wide stance) rather than a traditional deadlift (where your feet are roughly hip-width apart) stance. (For more discussion about the pros and cons of each, see the section on “Stance” below.)
You’re going to need a measuring tape. Any standard one will do.
Measure the distance from the bony part of your hip to the floor. That’s your leg length.
Then measure from the same point on your hip to the top of your head. That’s your torso length.
Lastly, measure from the top of your shoulder to the tip of your middle finger. That’s your arm length.
Divide each of those numbers by your total height in inches. Then check the numbers against this table:
Source: “Improving the Deadlift: Understanding Biomechanical Constraints and Physiological Adaptations to Resistance Exercise”
Your percentages will tell you whether you have a short, long or average-length torso. Same for your arms. (We can disregard your legs, since they are essentially the opposite of your torso — i.e. if the torso is long, your legs will be short.).
Those two pieces of information can tell you whether a conventional deadlift or sumo deadlift will likely feel better for you (note: no matter what the chart says, you can always go by “feel”):
Source: “Improving the Deadlift: Understanding Biomechanical Constraints and Physiological Adaptations to Resistance Exercise”
Both of those tables are from Professor Michael Hales’ excellent paper “Improving The Deadlift: Understanding Constraints and Physiological Adaptations to Resistance Exercise.” And he’s the first to state that they are not the be-all, end-all. They are merely lifting recommendations based on your body’s structure.
Other factors like strength and flexibility will also come into play. But this should help you see which approach should feel better based on what your momma gave you.
Keep in mind, this does not mean you have to “only” do conventional-style or sumo-style deadlifts forever. In fact, Hales and nearly everyone else worth their salt will recommend that you switch between the two styles occasionally.
Conventional and sumo work your muscles slightly differently (conventional requires more hip drive, while sumo involves the upper legs a little more), so using both can develop a more well-rounded base of strength.
#1: Your Head
Where it goes wrong: You know that whole “look to the sky” cue? Don’t do that. Looking upward extends your neck, which is a great way to give yourself a neck strain.
How to get it right: Keep a level head position and a neutral gaze. Your chin should stay tucked. Think “tall through the back of your head.” Or, just think about creating a “double chin.” Maintain that position by looking straight ahead, rather than up, through the entire lift.
#2: Your Shoulders
Where it goes wrong: There are two potential problems here. First is the “Whoops, I rolled my shoulders forward in order to grab the bar” issue. This sets you up to pull like Quasimodo—and you don’t want to do anything in the gym looking like a hunchback. The other is the “I just wasn’t paying attention to my shoulders at all” issue. This one often winds up going Quasimodo-like as well, especially if you’re using heavy weight.
How to get it right: Pull your shoulders in and hold them tight to your sides. “Squeeze your armpits as if you had oranges in them and were trying to make juice,” is a cue we love from the always-clever Tony Gentilcore that achieves this. By pulling your shoulder blades down and in (think squeezing a pencil between your shoulder blades), you decrease the distance between your shoulders and hips, which will help you move more weight more efficiently. Plus, you’re getting your lats more involved, which will help prevent rounding.
#3: Your Legs
Where it goes wrong: Some people just bend over and grab the bar without putting any tension on the muscles they’re trying to work. While you can get away with this, it won’t put you in a position to pull the most weight, or pull it effectively. There is a better way.
How to get it right: Standing at the bar, hinge at the hips by pushing them backwards (imagine you have to open a door with your butt and you can’t use your hands). You should quickly feel tension running up the back of your legs and into your glutes. That’s a good thing. Once you feel that tension, maintain it while bending the knees just enough so that your hands can reach the bar.
#4: Your Core
Where it goes wrong: Pulling without breathing in first. What’s wrong with that?
Think of a soda can. When it’s full and sealed, it can support a ton of weight no problem. But once it’s opened and all of that pressure is released, the same weight will crumple it with ease.
A big breath in creates intra-abdominal pressure. That pressure will make you more stable, protect your spine, and help you lift far more weight.
How to get it right: Step up to the bar and get into position. Take a big breath in. As you inhale, push the air down and out to fill your abdomen. This is important: you’re not filling your chest with air (think about how you react when you’re out of breath); instead, you want to fill your belly.
Engage your core to hold your breath in that position, then lift. Keep that breath held throughout the rep, from the floor, up to lockout, and back down to the floor. Take a new breath in before every rep.
#5: Your Hands and Arms
Where it goes wrong: Gripping the bar loosely, or just pulling the bar without taking the slack out first.
How to get it right: First, when it comes to grip, grab ahold of that bar like you mean it. Regardless of which type of grip you chose, you should be gripping the bar as hard as you can.
Next, pull the slack out of the bar. What does that mean? When you grip, don’t just try to crush the bar into dust, also pull it apart.
Now, it’s go time.
Executing the Deadlift
You really only need to think about two things when you pull the bar:
- Push off the floor
- Keep everything tight (especially your core and lats)
During a conventional deadlift, if you are thinking about “pushing the floor away,” it will help you generate tension throughout your hips and knees.
If you’re doing a sumo deadlift, it may be helpful to think of this as “spreading the floor,” since that means pushing outwards on the sides of your feet.
In either case, the goal is the same: to generate tension through your knees and hips.
Keeping your core, arms, and lats engaged will help you avoid what you might call the Angry Cat Deadlift.
Don’t do this.
In an Angry Cat Deadlift, the lats aren’t activated enough, or the person’s core isn’t sufficiently braced, and the first thing that comes up is their lumbar spine.
If your lats are engaged and your core is firmly braced, then you probably won’t run into this problem. However, if you do feel your lower back rounding, it’s a sign that you’re using too much weight. Lower the load, work at a resistance that doesn’t cause you to go cat-like, and build up over time.
When you reach the top of the rep, known as lockout, pay attention.
Some people seem to think that “locking out” means “leaning back,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Doing that hyperextends your knees and spine, which can compress those all-important spinal discs between your vertebrae.
The goal, really, is to just stand up. When you’re standing tall while holding the weight, you’ve completed the rep. You do not need to try and shrug with your traps. Simply stand up straight, thrust your hips, and focus on squeezing your glutes at the end of the lift.
Lastly, when you reach the top of the rep, you have two options:
- Dropping the weight
- Lowering the weight back to the floor
Option #1 is generally considered bad form for most fitness trainees (and definitely will get you some angry glances from your gym’s owner, especially if you aren’t using bounce plates), but there are some times when you may consider it.
Certain training modalities use this pull-and-drop technique—Pavel Tsatsouline employed it with Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix to famous results.
But even if you’re not training for a gold medal, removing the eccentric (lowering) phase may decrease the likelihood of hamstring or lower back injuries. So if those are concerns of yours, you may want to consider using the drop. (And if you do, definitely look for bounce plates.)
But if you’re just looking to build full-body strength, you’re better off lifting and lowering the weight.
That brings us to Option #2. Remember all of that tightness you generated in order to hoist the weight? Don’t let go of it once you reach the top.
Having several hundreds pounds of weight in your hands is typically a bad time to lose rigidity.
Instead, keep all of that tension in your arms, lats, core and legs, and lower the weight to the floor. Continue to keep your feet pressed firmly into the ground. Maintain that tight grip on the barbell as you set the weight back back where it started.
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Benefits of Deadlifting
- Get strongerFor most guys, this one is a no-brainer – you want to deadlift heavy things so you can get stronger.However, I would argue that many women could reap a lot of strength benefits from deadlifting as well. Trust me, you’re not going to get big and bulky unless you eat garbage. Instead, what you’ll find is that deadlifting helps you build muscle in some keys areas that most women actually want to develop (more on this below).
- Develop the glutes, hamstrings and lower backFor guys, this may not be the focal point of their programming, but let’s be honest – most women don’t mind if you’ve built yourself a backside!Women, on the other hand, often want to develop this area, which is why we’re forced to hear about cardio classes like “Bunz and Gunz.”If your goal is to develop a rock-solid and sexy backside, the deadlift can you get there faster and more effectively than any and all of the toning classes you take combined.
- Improved sports performanceLook at almost any great strength/power athlete, and you’ll see a well put together backside.The glutes, hamstrings and lower back are critical for running faster, jumping higher (or further), and in general, being awesome. If you want to be a stud athlete, you owe it to yourself to train your posterior chain.
- Prevent injuryFinally, I don’t care what your goal is – it sucks if you’re sitting on the sidelines due to injury.The glutes and hamstrings play a critical role in not only knee but lower back health as well. With regards to knee health, strong glutes and hamstrings can help prevent overuse injuries such as patello-femoral pain, patellar tendinosis, as well as traumatic injuries like ACL tears.Along those same lines, a strong posterior chain can help keep your back healthy as well. Too often, people want to use their back and only their back to lift pick things up off the ground. This is how an often benign day of household chores can land you in your bed for the next 7 days chewing ibuprofen like it’s candy.By strengthening the glutes and hamstrings, along with learning how to deadlift properly, you’ll be much less likely to injure your lower back in the future.
The Deadlift Variations – Sumo or Conventional?
Now that we’ve covered the basics of the lift, it’s time to look at the basic variations. The sumo and conventional deadlift are the most common, so we’ll spend a bit more time on those.
While we cover these two lifts, I’m also going to throw out some characteristics of people who like to pull using each style. While you can use others as a reference, I would really implore you to try both and see what feels best for you!
If your goal is to lift heavy things, you need to find a style that blends great technique, good mechanics, and some degree of comfort.
The Conventional Deadlift
The conventional deadlift is performed with a shoulder/hip width stance. As such the toes are pointed straight forward, or toed out very slightly.
To get into a good starting position, you’ll really have to push the hips back (as compared to a sumo deadlift) to get into the appropriate position.
With a conventional deadlift you’ll tend to have a more inclined torso (relative to the ground) than you would in a sumo deadlift. This will place more shear forces on the lower back, and in general, is more stressful on the back than a sumo deadlift.
Here are some characteristics for people who like to deadlift in a conventional stance:
- Strong lower back relative to hips.
- Long arms.
- Typically, those in heavier weight classes (242 and up) pull conventional, although it could be argued that sumo would be more efficient as they wouldn’t have to fight against their belly to get into the starting position.
The Sumo Deadlift
The sumo deadlift is performed with a much wider than hip width stance. When assuming this stance, you’ll need to turn the toes out quite a bit to get into a solid starting position. Ideally, we keep the feet, knees and hips in a straight line throughout, although the toes can be pointed slightly inwards assuming the knees and hips are neutral.
When setting up, you’ll want to use a mixture of pushing your hips back and down. Your hips will start in a lower position, and your chest will be more upright than it would in a conventional deadlift.
While the conventional deadlift is more stressful on the lower back, the sumo deadlift and it’s extreme positioning is typically more stressful on the hips.
Here are some characteristics for people who like to deadlift in a sumo stance:
- Strong hips relative to their lower back.
- Shorter arms.
- High degree of hip mobility (specifically, a high degree of hip rotation).
- Typically, those in lighter weight classes (220 and lower) pull sumo. A good reason for this (outside of improved mobility and no belly), is the fact that you’ll tend to get more out of a deadlift suit in a sumo deadlift vs. a conventional deadlift. More on this below.
Common Deadlift Flaws and Coaching Cues
Now that we’ve covered the lifts, let’s look at some of the most common deadlifting issues, as well as ways to fix them up!
Horrible Hip Mobility when Setting Up
One of the most common issues you’ll see when setting up is when someone just has flat-out horrible hip mobility and can’t get into the correct starting position.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a short-term fix; Improving your mobility is going to be a long-term process. For starters, I would highly recommend picking up a foam roller. As well, if you haven’t checked out Assess and Correct, I would highly recommend that as well. It will take you through a ton of assessments to determine where your movement limitations are, as well as how to address them in your warm-ups and training.
In the interim, you’ll probably have to substitute either RDL’s or trap bar deadlifts in your programming until your mobility is up to par.
Weak Glutes and Hamstrings when Setting Up
Another common issue with the set-up is not having the posterior chain strength to push back and load the glutes/hamstrings.
Again, this isn’t a quick fix that we can address in one or two workouts. I would highly recommend throwing in RDL’s and good mornings to strengthen your upper glutes and hamstrings, and you may be able to get away with a high handle trap bar deadlift in the interim until you can get your hips back further.
If you struggle getting into the bottom position, exercises that build the lower hamstrings (like ball leg curls, glute-ham raises, etc.) will help get your strength up to snuff.
Shins Too Far Away when Setting Up
When setting up, many people start with their shins too far away from the bar. This could be due to one of three reasons:
- It’s a mobility-related issue (they don’t have the hip mobility to push back),
- It’s a strength-related issue (they don’t have the glute/hamstring strength to push back), or
- They simply don’t know to get their shins closer to the bar!
When setting up, you want to think about crowding the bar with your shins. If there’s too much space between your shins and the bar, you’re going to end up squatting the weight up and using your quads versus your glutes and hamstrings.
Leading with the Hips Versus the Chest
When lifting the weight off the floor, the goal is to keep the torso angle relatively constant throughout.
If you start to the lift the weight and your chest caves over and your hips shoot up, you aren’t deadlifting correctly!*
Instead, think of keeping the chest up and back flat throughout. Use the powerful muscles of the legs and hips to get the bar moving, and keep the back in a neutral, rigid position throughout to transfer the power that the legs and hips have to offer.
To fix this issue, I like to use the cue of “Lead with your chest.” If you are unable to do it, it could be load-related – take some weight off the bar and see if technique doesn’t improve.
* Keep in mind that during a maximal deadlift, this may not always the be the case. Technique will suffer to some degree on maximal attempts.
The Low Back Rounds
This point coincides really well with the previous one; chances are if your hips shoot up and your chest caves over, you’re going to round through your lower back as well. If this is the case, try the cues I listed above.
This could also be a strength-related issue; some people may have a weak lower back (and therefore can’t hold their arch), or some may be strong in their lower back relative to their hamstrings, and as such want to rely on their lower back to help them hoist the weight.
I’ll discuss weaknesses and assistance lifts below.
The Bar Drifts
When the weights get heavy, the bar is going to have a tendency to drift out in front of the body. This definitely isn’t a good thing, especially when you have a maximal weight in your hands!
Two things will help address this issue:
- I cue my clients to engage their lats and pull the bar back into the shins before the lift, and
- I cue them to continue pulling the bar back as they actually lift the weight.
When deadlifting, don’t think about picking the bar up – think about pulling the bar BACK.
Finishing with the Lower Back
A final issue you’ll often see is that when someone has weak hips (specifically, the glutes) they will have a tendency to hyper-extend their lower back at the top versus driving their hips through.
If it’s a technique related issue, I like to use the simple cue of “Hips!” as they approach the top.
If it’s a strength related issue, you need to get their hip extensors stronger.