Unfortunately when it comes to the deadlift, I would say (N=1 of course - if you don’t get this, I’m so sorry, it’s a statistics joke, I’m just like that) that it’s likely that a lot fewer people are actually doing it than anything else. After all, everyone and their mother and their dog bench presses, and we’ve been fetishizing the squat as the Big Thing for leg development for a while, while deadlift doesn’t seem to get the same attention. On top of that, many people are afraid that deadlifting is exceptionally harmful to the back, and it certainly can be - if done wrong. Unfortunately, many people don’t really know how to deadlift right. So here’s a list of common cues and tricks I’ve used to help people improve their deadlift.
One of the first things that confuses and terrifies people is the barbell. For many people, starting off with the weight of a standard 45lb bar may be too much, particularly if they have pretty bad form. Anecdotally, I’d say that some people’s form improves a bit as they go up in weight since there’s less slack for them to go weird with (particularly with the Not a Squat section below) but there are certainly other form issues that can be huge warning signs.
If your gym has a 25 or 30lb starter bar, this may be preferable for women and those starting out a bit weaker. However, even this may be too heavy (or just not available) for the elderly or those recovering from injury. In this instance, I’ve made frequent use of other loading methods. My preferred one is a single lighter dumbbell or kettlebell between the legs. Double DB or KB deadlifts involve a slightly larger range of motion than a single one between the legs, so they may be a bit tougher for beginners to learn good patterns with. Likewise, with some people it may be necessary to start off with a reduced range of motion (via an added step in front or to the sides to tap the weight on and check depth) if they’re weak at end ranges of motion. From there, focus on adding range of motion before adding weight, and only add weight once a full range of motion is safe and usable.
Once, I was starting out with an older woman who couldn’t even do sets with a single 5lb dumbbell at a reduced range of motion. In this instance, I improvised by having her do unweight hip hinges (similar to a forward bend stretch) and tap the step at the desired height in front of her. As she got stronger, I was able to remove the step and add weight little by little. I’ve used this technique with other clients as well, particularly post-rehab clients who aren’t yet confident about movement. You don’t even have to add weight to build muscle and strength, at least at a starting level. That’s the kind of science that makes me light up like a kid on Christmas - please follow that link.
Another common issue is rounding of the upper back. In the deadlift, the back must remain relatively straight by means of the back musculature in order to prevent excessive flexion of the spine, which could lead to injury. While some small amount of rounding of the upper back is often acceptable (and frequently occurs in some high level lifters), excessive upper back rounding or rounding of the mid/lower back are usually a red flag.
This can be a mobility/flexibility issue, but I usually hesitate to blame that right off. Many people and trainers think that stretching and foam rolling should be the primary solution, but the reality is that there’s a lot of potential factors involved.
Make sure first that if it’s a beginner, they know proper hip hingeing and can maintain good for with light weight. As the weight gets heavier, some small amount of deviation is likely, but it’s not usually a terrible thing. If form is hard even at light weights, this may be a sign of something harder to correct.
One cue is to focus on the lats. The latissimus dorsi help keep the shoulders pinned downwards during the deadlift, so if they aren’t working well, this can lead to upper back rounding. A good cue from coach Tony Gentilcore is to think of a pair of oranges in your armpits that you’re trying to squeeze the juice out of. Some prefer to focus on the image of pulling your scapula down, ie “put them in your back pockets” though of course they won’t actually move too far in that direction.
Another consideration is trying a pre-lift activation such as a plank. I highly recommend reading that article, too - Dean is an actual wizard and his favorite spell is the magic missile that is biomechanics. (That’s not true at all, I made that up, but that article is still great.) Core activation can help improve hip mobility temporarily, which may make it easier for everything else in the chain to fall in line.
For many people, all that’s needed is practice. After long hours sitting in front of a desk, they can get tense and locked in place, and all it takes is just simple movement practice for those positions to unlock themselves and allow for better movement. Of course, if you’re just practicing movement, it’s not ideal to load up too much weight right away. Others may suffer from not having any kind of feedback - they don’t have a coach or friend to provide criticism, so they don’t even realize that they’re not lifting with solid form. Hiring a coach or getting videos of your lifting may help you take a closer look at what needs to be fixed so that you can focus on it.
And this isn’t to knock mobility work, foam rolling, and stretching - they can often work. But the problem is that often they’re the ONLY solution a lot of people have, rather than just one out of many. Don’t hesitate to give it a try.
Lastly, I want to caution against getting TOO obsessed with form. As I’ve mentioned, many hella strong lifters don’t even have perfect form. Meanwhile, some studies have shown that form doesn’t really seem to matter in terms of injury rates or strength and muscular development. I myself have written an article about how I think form shouldn’t be as important as a lot of people think it should. That article’s a bit dated now, but I still agree with many of the points I raised in it.
Form isn’t magic, and it should be understood that form is a range of acceptable variations rather than a strict and perfect model. If you’re able to handle a decent amount of weight without any excessive back rounding, chances are that you’re doing ok - and you don’t need to overanalyze it.
It’s not a squat/Hip Hingeing
One of the biggest problems a lot of people have when first starting out is that they treat the deadlift more like a squat. They sink down into a deep knee angle, squat-style position, and then act like they’re going to squat before inevitably switching movement patterns halfway through and finishing it the way they have to: like a deadlift.
This is a rather minor issue with form, and it usually corrects itself as the weight gets heavier - there’s simply less room for fluff, so your body more naturally goes to the movement pattern that works best. However, I still see it happen with surprising frequency with some amateur lifters. Oftentimes, they’re afraid of using their back, so they try and over-involve the legs even though it’s more of a hip dominant exercise to begin with.
As with squatting, it’s a good idea to nail down your hip hinge pattern before deadlifting. A good hip hinge is the basis of the squat and only more so for the deadlift. Focus on a hip hinge pattern rather than a squat, since this is what you’re doing with the deadlift anyway.
With the squat, footwear becomes crucial due to the issue of balance and stability in getting down into the deep squat position. This is less true with deadlift due to the lesser reliance on stability and the shorter knee angles involved, but it can still be an issue.
With the squat, running shoes and similar sneakers are usually a bad idea, because they introduce instability into the lift that makes it hard to keep good form. With the deadlift, it’s usually possible to get away with that.
However, there’s another consideration in the deadlift: distance off the floor. With the squat, range of motion isn’t defined by shoe choice. With the deadlift however, you’re pulling from the floor, so the closer you can get your feet to the floor the shorter the distance you have to lift the bar to get it to your hips. People will deadlift even in socks. The shoe of choice is often a cheap pair of chuck taylors, since they’re pretty flat and let you get close to the floor while still providing some support and foot coverage. The difference between a set of chucks and a running shoe isn’t huge, but it can mean about a half inch or so - and that added distance can potentially add up over the course of a lot of reps in a single workout.
Squatting shoes are usually NOT ideal for deadlifting. Squat shoes are designed with a tall heel to make it easier to get into deep squats, but that added mobility is completely unnecessary in the deadlift. Additionally, many people would find it awkward or strange since that added heel height could throw off your balance if you’re used to lifting in flatter shoes. One exception is Olympic lifters, and by extension CrossFitters who do a lot of Oly lifting - since the Oly lifts involve both a pull from a floor and a deep front or overhead squat in the same lift, they have to have that added mobility. Thus, they likely grow accustomed to using the squatting style shoes for pulling, and have little issue with it. This is an area of personal preference more than anything else, but using squat shoes could be an issue for some.
Range of Motion
Range of motion, as with the other lifts, should be kept to maximum. More range equals more muscle and more strength. However, unlike the squat and the bench press, you don’t have to worry about the issue of not hitting the right depth - all reps start from the floor, so they’re strictly kept to the same range of motion. Thus, it’s far less of an issue for the deadlift.
At the same time, the range of motion can be altered in the deadlift to target weak points, much as I’ve noted in the section on weight. Some may struggle to use a full range of motion to start, and more advanced exercisers may benefit from using purposefully limited or extended ranges of motion in order to target weak phases of the movement. Rack pulls and deficit deadlifts represent the application of this principle.
Bar path in the deadlift shouldn’t necessarily be straight up and down, but it should maintain a relatively straight line of pull. This makes it easier to keep the weight in check. One easy way to correct issues with bar path is to ensure a proper positioning at the start of the pull.
In starting a traditional stance barbell deadlift, it’s necessary to have the bar positioned relatively close to the body. Not completely touching the ankles (this means you’ll probably skin your shins a lot on the way up) but certainly not as far out as the toes. This may require some tinkering to find a good position for you, but ideally you’re keeping it as close to the body as possible without causing issues with the bar scraping the knees or shins on the way up. When you start moving up the thighs, it’s usually okay to keep it moving while touching, but you should obviously avoid hitching the bar to cheat.
With the sumo deadlift, it’s usually ideal to keep the bar even a little bit closer in than that - many sumo deadlift primarily to be good at powerlifting, so they don’t mind skinning their shins up a bit if it means more weight moved, and they get used to it enough that they probably don’t skin themselves too badly.
If you start too far out on the deadlift for either of those two variants, chances are that the bar path will end up weird as well. In order to compensate for the unnecessarily far out bar, your back has to work overtime and you have to pull the bar in closer later on. This messes up all your joint angles and puts you in a disadvantageous position, making you do excess and unnecessary work and limiting your ability to move an ideal amount of weight.
Stance: Sumo or Traditional, but also Jefferson, Split, Hex Bar
When it comes to stance, there’s two main types of deadlift: the traditional and sumo stance. The traditional stance involves the feet planted at shoulder width, toes pointed slightly outwards, with grip occurring outside the legs. In contrast, the sumo stance is much wider, with the toes pointed more outwards and the grip occurring between the legs.
Both stances enable you to handle roughly the same amount of weight, but some people will find one or the other more comfortable and natural, and may be able to handle more weight. Give both a try and see what you prefer. If your goal is just to get hella strong, either will work just fine. However, Olympic lifters and strongmen have to pull traditional due to the rules of the sport. Since the sumo keeps the bar a bit closer in to the body, it may be easier for some people who struggle with low back or joint issues.
Less frequently seen versions are the Jefferson deadlift, split stance deadlifts, and the hex bar/trap bar deadlift. These versions are less frequently seen, but they can still be highly useful, particularly for certain populations.
The split stance deadlift trains the movement pattern in the same way that the lunge and split squat train the squat movement pattern. Because you’re using one leg at a time, you won’t be able to handle as much weight as with a traditional deadlift, and you’ll have to switch off legs in order to evenly train both sides. However, this can help build useful core musculature and have a positive effect of hypertrophy. At the same time, training primarily with this stance is probably a no-no for powerlifters, strongmen, Olympic lifters, and CrossFitters since they will need plenty of practice with more traditional deadlifting to prepare for competition. They can still be used as an assistance exercise, or as a corrective exercise to help with postural imbalances.
The hex bar deadlift or trap bar deadlift uses a specific bar shaped like a hexagon or octagon. This bar then has two sleeves sticking out of either end as usual, and these sleeves are then used to hold the weight of the plates. The user then stands in the center of the hex/octagon, grips a pair of parallel handles attached to it, and lifts it to standing.
Due to the nature of the hex bar, the weight of the bar is centered even MORE under the body than even with the sumo deadlift. This actually renders it more like a squat in terms of knee involvement, and thus places less stress on the back. The trap bar deadlift is considered more of a hybrid between the squat and the deadlift for this very reason.
The hex bar is useful also for training deadlifts with parallel grips - useful for strongmen, who may need to train parallel grip deadlifts for things like the car deadlift or the farmer’s carry. However, since the trap bar isn’t allowed in Olympic lifting or powerlifting, it’s less useful for these sports. It can still be used as an accessory exercise, but may be a largely superfluous one if you’re already deadlifting frequently in some other way. Sadly, this renders this useful lift less popular, as well as the fact that the trap/hex bar is a relatively specialized piece of equipment that may not be seen as much in the standard gym setting. I love to use this one to help correct issues with clients who struggle with normal deadlifting, but rarely use it with strength athletes.
Lastly is the Jefferson deadlift. This hella sexy but rarely seen beast is a deadlift with the traditional barbell but with the barbell passing between the legs. Since this shares some properties with the split stance deadlift, it must once again be alternated in order to ensure even development across both sides. However, the Jefferson deadlift, repopularized by David Dellanave, is one beautiful lift that has a wonderful capacity to, as David so eloquently puts it, “unfuck” people. This lift is extremely helpful for helping correct imbalances while also building strength, and is highly versatile for average health and wellness exercisers. It’s also far more accessible than the trap bar deadlift, my other go to fixer-upper, since it uses a standard barbell instead of a specialized trap bar. Again, this has little applicability as a primary lift for strength athletes, but it’s still hella useful as an accessory exercise or as a primary for others.
As with the squat and the bench, speed in the deadift is tantamount. Unlike the other two, however, much slower, grindier reps become possible because it’s simply easier to muscle up a weight with bad form than in either of the other two powerlifts. Thus, in order to finish super heavy deadlifts, lifts can sometimes slow to a crawl. Otherwise, you should be trying to keep speed quick.
When it comes to grip, positioning is dictated by the primary stance used. A sumo stance allows a relatively close grip with arms parallel and hands in line. The traditional stance, due to the legs being in the way, requires a slightly further out grip - ideally not too far out, because extremely wide grips are called the snatch grip, which limits your ability to pull heavy weight due to compromised grip strength and the need to pull the bar a bit further to get to an end range of motion. Meanwhile, the trap bar dictates a hands parallel grip instead of in line, and the jefferson deadlift requires one arm in front and one behind.
However, there’s still a lot of other factors that can be going on. In traditional and sumo stances, a double overhand grip (both palms facing downward) is the default. This is also required by Olympic lifting, so it requires a lot of practice if that’s your primary goal. At the same time, this is a weak grip because it places the weak point of the grip (where the fingers meet the thumb) in the same position for both hands. In order to offset this, non-Olympic lifters typically used a mixed grip, with one hand over and one hand under. In this way, the two weak points are facing each other, enabling you to hold onto more weight. This grip isn’t without issue, however. Depending on your mobility, you may suffer increased risk of bicep tears at a heavy weight, which is obviously no no no bueno. While this is generally an acceptable and necessary risk for competitors, it’s not ideal for general health and wellness exercisers. Also, with a mixed grip you’ll want to alternate which hand faces up and which faces down in order to balance it - sadly, most are too lazy to do this, increasing the risk of bicep issue.
Other considerations are grip aids, such as chalk and lifting straps. Chalk is a form of powdered chalk which dries out the hands and provides a stickier surface for the bar to stick to - making it easier to hold onto and thus allowing you to pull heavier weight. Chalk is also hella cheap - you can get a virtually endless supply for 15$ provided you’ll be the only one using it. I carry around a small plastic baggie (you may need to switch the bag out occasionally and use thick, strong resealable bags in order to ensure it doesn’t leak everywhere and make your gym bag look like a crack den) and use it every time I deadlift, and have in years of lifting only used maybe a quarter of that package.
However, be careful with chalk. Some gyms don’t allow chalk usage, or might frown upon it, so unless specifically agreed upon ahead of time, it’s a good idea to focus on cleaning up the bar and lifting area from any chalk dust residue after you’re done. Chalk has no downsides and is allowed in all competitive lifting sports, so there’s no reason not to use it if possible.
Straps, on the other hand, can be useful but provide significant downsides. Straps anchor around the wrist and then are wrapped around the bar, providing an additional anchor point and making it much easier to hold onto the bar. Straps are allowed in some strongman and Olympic lifting, but aren’t allowed in powerlifting. Because the straps alter the fundamental movement and grip pattern, they can lead to a lack of grip training in the long term, meaning that your grip will suffer. This makes you more and more dependent on the straps in order to complete lifts, and is usually frowned upon by most serious lifters.
However, the straps aren’t all bad - they do allow you to train past the normal point of failure. Here’s an example of where they can be useful. When I was just starting to train for powerlifting, I was coming off of bodybuilding style programs and so I programmed my training pretty stupidly. On deadlift days, I would do traditional stance deadlifts, followed by lighter stiff leg deadlifts, followed by a lot of back work, trap work, and then finally some bicep work. Of course, all of these exercises are grip intensive, so even after the first two exercises I would be absolutely dead. However, the use of straps allowed me to continue doing grip intensive exercises long after my grip would normally have failed. This is a good example of when it’s perfectly fine to use straps - when you’ve already exhausted your grip strength elsewhere and still have grip related work to do. This offers no downsides, but is unlikely to occur in most people’s exercising because it’s relatively easy to avoid such a scenario (by making a more competent program). Thus, while it’s still useful, particularly if the lift being trained is an upper back exercise or shrugging type exercise instead of a deadlift, it’s not generally recommended to use straps.
Pauses, like with the squat and bench, allow the lifter to train weak points in the motion that may otherwise be difficult to train fully in deadlifts done for a full range of motion. However, unlike the bench and squat, there’s no clear pause/reversal phase in the lift - the bench and squat both feature an eccentric (lowering) phase, followed by a brief pause/reversal and then a rapid concentric (raising) phase. The deadlift, however, starts with the concentric phase, and then can simply be dropped. If being done for multiple reps, the pause comes into play, but this is less of a focus since it’s not as naturally part of the program.
One major “pause” consideration is whether to bounce the bar off the floor with multiple reps, or whether to let it completely rest before beginning the next rep. This second option is generally considered preferable - it’s harder but more rewarding. By bouncing the bar off the floor, you make the very beginning of the pull a bit easier, subsequently meaning less training of that range of motion (since you’re using the bounce to do the work and not your own muscles) and a weaker start of the lift. This isn’t ideal for powerlifters, who have to be hella strong for just one rep - they need to be strong throughout every part of the motion, particularly if they tend to fail close to the floor. At the same time, it can be relatively alright for strongmen, Olympic lifters, CrossFitters, and general exercisers, who don’t focus as much on top-end strength and may not need to worry about it as much since they’ll primarily be training with multiple reps.
You can also do pauses at various ranges throughout the movement in order to build strength at whatever point’s weakest. If you tend to fail in the middle of the lift, just above the knees, for example, you can implement a pause at the knees before completing the lift as normal. With the deadlift, such pauses can be really exhausting and should be taken carefully. Another similar concept is the half deadlift, in which the bar is only raised to a certain point and then dropped instead of going to a full range of motion. This can be useful for training the lower end of the lift if you tend to fail at the bottom of the lift, in addition to making the lift a bit easier to recover from (since you’re not going through a full range of motion). However, this is of course recommended more for advanced athletes with specific issues, rather than general population and hypertrophy style exercisers, since they would tend to benefit more from the increased musculature built with a fuller range of motion.
Get a good program
As with the bench and the squat, a good program is required to see continued progress in the deadlift. Ensure your program is adequately training you before worrying too much about anything else.
One major consideration with the deadlift is that it’s a bit more taxing than everything else. There’s a lot of possible reasons for this, but it’s generally accepted that heavy deadlifting shouldn’t occur much more than once per week. It may be fine to program in lighter assistance exercises or isolation exercises which use the same muscles, but it’s not a good idea to deadlift too heavy, too frequently. You’ll likely also feel very sore after a good deadlift session, so it may be prudent not to program much heavy leg or back work the following day. However, the deadlift can still be pushed far, provided you keep the intensity lower and remain careful. It can be very easy to cause back issues if you overdo it, so take it carefully.
Target weak points
As with the bench and squat, while beginners simply need to practice the deadlift itself, advanced exercisers will need to target their weak points with specific assistance exercises.
Pause deadlifts, half deadlifts, deficit deadlifts, and targeted upper back work can all help with improving the lift if you have trouble off the floor. If you fail further up, pause deadlifts, rack/block pulls, dedicated upper back work, and stiff leg deadlifts can help. I also recommend shrugging as well - this is based less on concrete experience, but I’ve always felt that the traps have a useful effect in stabilizing the shoulder joint while deadlifting.
If you have a significantly rounding back, dedicated upper back work tends to be a major focus, but it’s not a perfect solution. Mobility work including foam rolling may help, as well as simply practicing the movement (if you’re a beginner), or just getting stronger in the muscle groups involved. Sometimes, a significantly rounded back may suggest that a change in deadlift stance or exercise may be a necessity in order to ensure optimal development.
Another weak point that can frequently come up is grip strength. If you’re lacking in grip strength to complete a movement, there’s usually two major issues that can be the culprit - either you’re working with many more reps than you’re used to (say, doing 10 rep sets after being used to 5’s) or you’re not adequately using grip aids (not using chalk or overusing straps). Normally, people’s grip strength tends to develop pretty evenly in line with their overall deadlift strength, so it’s not often an issue. However, once you find you’re unable to hold onto the bar, this can limit your ability to train the other, larger muscles that are responsible for moving the weight, and this can suck.
In this case, there are just a handful of major grip exercises I recommend specifically for deadlifting. Many people make the mistake of doing grip strength exercises that are highly non-specific - forearm grippers, plate pinches, and so on. These kinds of grip strength make you better at these motions, but don’t make you better at keeping your fingers wrapped around a single bar. Thus, it’s ideal to train grip strength through other exercises that do use a bar. One major one is dedicated back work - all back exercises are also pulling exercises, so they’ll also train grip, although to a lesser extent due to the overall lighter weights used.
One exercise I like in particular is the dumbbell one arm row, also known as the Kroc row after Matt/Janae Kroczaleski, the powerlifter who popularized the movement. The dumbbell one arm row is done one arm at a time, with the body steadied against a bench or rack with the other arm. This exercise trains the back while also putting a relatively large amount of weight on each hand one at a time rather than splitting the weight between both, enabling you to hold onto a lot of weight and train that way. Another exercise I particularly love was taught to me by Louie Simmons at Westside Barbell when I interned there - a banded barbell hold for time. In this exercise, a barbell is looped to the bottom of the rack by a pair of heavy resistance bands, and then all you have to do is stand up and hold onto the bar for as long as you can. The exercise can be done equally well with plate weight or some combination of the two, but the bands simply feel particularly punishing due to the unstable nature of the weights. Over time, simply focus on adding weight or holding onto it for longer. Even a pretty light weight can get punishing over time.
The deadlift initially seems intimidating, but it’s also a brutally useful exercise and easily my favorite. I tend to see a lot of mistakes when it comes to understanding the deadlift, definitely more than with the bench press, if probably about the same as the squat. Sadly, the deadlift is less commonly trained, which sucks because it’s such an awesome lift. Try these tweaks to help improve your deadlift today.
Also, if you're looking for a super scientific analysis of the deadlift, I recommend Greg Nuckols' recently published deadlift guide. It's a monster (several times the size of this beast) but it's about as comprehensive of an article as it gets.
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