Written by Dave Thomas
As I am sure you know by now, the deadlift is my favorite exercise
because they feel awesome for a variety of scientific reasons. It gets you stronger, improves your posture and makes your body composition plain more attractive top to bottom. There is no other exercise that challenges the entire body quite like the deadlift.
If you think about it, it’s incredibly primal in that you are using your body in a chained movement to pick up a heavy object and place it back down. In that regard it’s also an incredibly functional exercise. Functional is a word that’s tossed around a little too lightly these days but the deadlift truly is a functional movement that will benefit your daily activity, whether it’s hauling groceries or properly sitting at your desk.
I pay more attention to the deadlift than any other exercise when coaching clients. The risk goes way up because so many joints and muscles are used and as a coach, I am always thinking ‘what can go wrong and where’. I rarely watch for things done right so much as keep an eye out for things going wrong.
I’d like to first show you the worst deadlift of all time. I am positive that when cavemen were deadlifting trees to carry to their houses being built, they did it far better than this. This gentleman manages to literally break every single rule below, one through nine, and complete the worst, most inefficient and dangerous deadlift I’ve ever seen, all the way to screaming and passing out molars first into a pile of steel.
Here are nine ways for a stronger and safer traditional deadlift. For the sake of this entry we are going to exclude sumo, wide-grip, speed and other variations most people need not worry about.
Some are subtle, some are major but they are all equally important in completing the movement safely and allowing you to progress towards some big gains.
Starting from the ground up.
#1: Your Feet Are Too Wide
This is a big one and often overlooked. You dont want your feet wider than shoulder width. If you do, your knees will invert on the pick-up putting them in a compromising position if there is any challenging weight on the bar, whatsoever.
The Right Way: Place your feet underneath your hips or just slightly outside of them.
#2: You’re Too Far From the Bar
This is a big one. If the steel of the bar is not physically touching your shins prior to pick-up then there is high chance it will drift on the lower portion of the lift and over stress your lumbar. It is very common for folks to tweak their lower back by not keeping the bar air tight against their legs.
The Right Way: Address the bar with your shins touching the steel and continue the physical contact on the pick-up. While not completely necessary, scrapes up and down your shin are often visible when done properly.
#3: Your Knees Bend First
The deadlift is a hip dominant exercise that relies on flexion to start the movement, extension to lock it out up top and then flexion again to the return of the weight to the floor.
If your knees are the first joint to bend when pulling and/or returning the weight to the floor then you’re setting the chain of movements completely out of whack. Further, if your knees initiate the movement then you are going to inevitably push your weight through your toes. Big no, no. You want to push through your heels and this is best executed by driving your hips back first.
When you pick up the bar you do not want your knees to be bent at 90 degrees like a squat! This is very important as the squat and deadlift are vastly different. You want your knees closer to 135 degrees and the only way to achieve this is through dominant hips.
The Right Way: When you go to move the bar you want to throw your hips back first, and aggressively. Your knees only bend after your hips are fully extended. Push through your heels.
#4: You Look Up
By far and away the biggest injury risk is cervical hyperextension as it’s a very sensitive part of your spine that takes ages to heal.
To show you how serious this is I want you to try a quick exercise with me. Stand up at your desk and look straight up at the ceiling.
Feels awkward, right? You can physically feel your neck pinching and all you are doing is just standing there looking up. Now picture that exact feeling while trying to move two to four hundred pounds. Something bad is probably going to happen, right?
The Right Way: Your head and neck should always remain neutral. Look straight down about five feet in front of you. Some people coach to look ten to fifteen feet on the ground in front of you but I find that slightly too risky. We mark X’s on the ground in our gym for people to look at on the pick-up.
Take this one very seriously.
Let’s take a quick intermission here. At this point in the movement you are in the midst of moving the weight off the ground and in my humble opinion, the riskiest parts are now over. It all starts with the set-up and if you can execute the previous four guidelines then you will be in good shape for the remainder.
#5: You’re Rounding Your Lumbar and Thoracic Spine
All three parts of the spine are equally important in the deadlift as we already covered the damage that cervical hyperextension can cause to your body.
On the pick-up, you want to make sure you have a flat back. That means your entire back. Most people pay attention to just the lumbar when a rounded thoracic spine can also be problematic and cause that hunched look.
You want to maintain this flat back throughout the course of the entire movement, both off the ground and returning the weight to the floor.
Now, I don’t care what anyone says. If you are at maximum weight for a given amount of reps then you are most likely going to round a little bit. I am not talking about rounding like the guy in the first video but some slight break in the flatness of your back will happen if you are a female lifting 250# plus or a guy up over 400 or 450#. Just don’t make it excessive and so long as you are focusing on keeping it tight you are probably in okay shape.
The Right Way: Prior to pick-up, arch your lower back and squeeze your scapulae together. This will ensure that vertebrae L5 through L1 and T12 through T1 are all in the correct position. Maintain this position throughout the entire movement.
#6: You’re Over or Under Locking
It’s very important that at the top portion of the deadlift you are reaching proper hip extension. You do not want to under extend and be caught standing with your chest slightly tilted over your hips, but more importantly you do not want to hyperextend your lumbar and have your scapulae drift past your hips.
The Right Way: You simply want to execute full hip extension as if you were standing perfectly upright. No more. No less.
#7: You Slam the Weight
When you return the weight to the floor it’s important that you simply rewind what you did to get the weight to hip extension. On the return trip make sure your hips lead the way again and your knees don’t flex first.
Once you have the weight past your thighs on its way down to Earth, DO NOT slam the weight on the ground prior to beginning the second rep.
For two main reasons.
- It creates momentum and acts as a ‘cheat’ to the second rep. It will take away from the work your posterior chain has to do to move the weight. making it less effective.
- On the flip side it’s also common for people to let the weight sit there once they’ve slammed it and end up jerking their back to re-start the movement.
The Right Way: Be in complete control of the weight as it returns to the floor and perform a ‘touch and go’ re-start. Do not slam, simply touch the weight to the ground, do not re-grip, and then start the second rep.
Congratulations. You have just completed a respectable single rep of the deadlift. It’s important to maintain all seven of those form cues throughout the course of the entire rep count.
Here are a few more that are not necessarily mechanics specific but are still equally important to ensure you get all that you can out of each deadlift workout.
#8: You’re a Cannibal
Shitty programming pisses me off. There is nothing that annoys me more than a workout that overdoes itself and takes away from the big exercises. Deadlifts, squats, single-leg work, presses, heavy pulls/rows and cleans should be the bulk of your workout. Plain and simple. When you throw too many complimentary exercises in there you end up cannibalizing the gains you can make on those big exercises. The big stuff gets the results. The small stuff helps the big stuff. That’s it.
Two very common ways I see gyms and people cannabilize their deadlift results are:
- Too much legs in the rest of the workout. This is more prevalent in circuit style straining than traditional slow sets, but many are guilty in the circuit world of this. If you are setting the deadlift with other exercises, why in the world would you have a scheme such as deadlift -> lunge -> box jump…congratulations, you’ve just completely taken away from all three exercises and successfully cannibalized all of them.
- Dumbass Rep Scheme – Don’t deadlift over ten reps. Just don’t. Preferably three to eight will do just fine. When people use deadlifts as a conditioning exercise I die a little bit on the inside. That is not to say you can’t take it up to ten reps and use it for fat loss, we do that very effectively at P360, but don’t go on these crazy sets of 25 and 50.
#9: You Have an Inefficient Grip
I am by far least adamant about this correction. This can come in a variety of forms and errors but I would like to focus on ways you can most benefit. While the double overhand grip is a great way to start off and build forearm strength, you are vastly underutilizing the strength in your arms if you do not switch to a mixed grip as you begin to reach your max.
The Right Way: Learn the mixed grip. It will feel awkward at first if you have traditionally stuck with double overhand but once you get comfortable you will see an increase in weight simply by switching to this technique.
Some prefer the hook grip. I am not one of them but I won’t freak out if I see it like other coaches. Whatever allows you to lift the heaviest weight in the safest manner is the grip I prefer. For me, it’s the mixed grip.
There you have it. Some are simple and only effect your strength, others are far more serious and can jeopardize your health if not completed properly. I’ve seen these coaching cues help 17 men in our gym hit 400# or higher (one at 500#) at an average weight of 174 pounds and six women over 240# (one at 300#) all under 139 pound body weight. I believe them to work.
Let’s get some comments going in the section directly below this article. What other techniques and rules do you seasoned veterans out there have for both results and safety?