Everyone loves the deadlift, and yet no-one can do it properly. Weird huh?
I see deadlifts from all kinds of people with all kinds of leverages, and generally the same mistakes are made over and over again, regardless of gym environment or athleticism.
In this article, I’ll be talking you through five common deadlift mistakes and suggesting five cues that you can use to fix them. Also, for the record, we’re talking about conventional deadlifts only here. You may be interested in sumo pulling but I am somewhat anti-cheating.
Mistake 1: foot position
A tree is only as strong as its roots, and a deadlift is only as strong as your foot position. The faults that I generally see are feet being too narrow, feet being too wide or feet being too straight.
The perfect deadlift stance is about shoulder width and with your feet pointing out ever so slightly. Not “10 minutes to 2” like a duck, more “5 minutes to 1”. This gives you the optimum weight distribution and a solid base for your pull. Now, there are obviously exceptions to this rule and until you’ve been lifting for a while you won’t know what works for you. Brian Shaw, four-time World’s Strongest Man, deadlifts with an exceptionally wide stance, as just one example.
Cue for success: Climb up on a box or step or anything that is about 2 feet off the ground. Gently jump off. When you land, look at where your feet are – this is your body’s way of telling you what your most secure base position is. Do it a couple of times, just to make sure. Pay attention to this, and you won’t go far wrong.
Mistake 2: hip height
The next big mistake I see repeatedly is lifters whose hips drop too low at the start of a deadlift. Often during the first rep they are nice and high but then as the reps wear on and the weight becomes more challenging, they drop lower each time. It’s completely understandable, you’re trying to use a biomechanical advantage by getting more of your body behind the weight – but it’s bad form and will lead to injury if it goes unchecked. Beware. A deadlift is not a squat and should not be led by your glutes.
Cue for success: this one comes from the master Rippetoe, but your knees should be “soft locked” – not stiff, that’s a different movement altogether, but try and keep flexion to a minimum. This will ensure that your hips are high and the load will be taken by your lower back, rather than your glutes, which is exactly as it should be.
Mistake 3: not using your belly to find the range
People think of the deadlift as a posterior chain exercise – which it is – but that doesn’t mean your belly isn’t involved. If your belly position is off, then your hips might be too high or your back might be in the wrong position, and this can prove disastrous to your efforts. Your belly should be in the gap created by your (slightly externally rotated) knees and pushing towards the floor. A correct belly position will also allow you to hit the required chest position which is every bit as vital for the execution of a successful deadlift.
Cue for success: “belly in the V” refers to your stomach sitting neatly between your legs. The ‘V’ refers to the slight angles created by the external rotation of your hips, pushing your knees out. It’s a good idea at this point to take a big breath in, which will help fill the belly with air. Your legs shouldn’t be wide enough that your belly drops through the V entirely, or narrow enough that it sits on top of your thighs. Play around with this one until you get a feel for what works.
Mistake 4: not finishing your deadlift
We have all seen the Instagram models doing their dumbbell deadlifts and finishing with some nonsense pose like they are in silent, ashamed prayer. Head tilted down, shoulders rounded, knees still slightly bent. Needless to say, this is neither correct nor desirable. The rationale for this, as I understand it, is that staying in this position keeps the muscles engaged so that the Instagram girls’ glutes grow to hitherto unknown proportions. Or something. Either way, as a reader of the site, you’re going to finish your deadlifts properly, thank you very much.
By properly, I mean looking straight ahead, chest proud, shoulders back and set and hips pushed through to meet this bar. Only when every item on this checklist has been achieved has your rep been reached. The reason? Because that is what you’re supposed to do. Period.
Cue for success: When you’re grinding through your rep, think “head, chest, hips” in that order. Leading with your head will mean that your chest naturally follows. Then the hips will come through to the bar automatically. Until these three checkpoints have been achieved, no deadlift for you. So get it sorted.
Mistake 5: dropping at the top
Dropping the deadlift from the top is understandable if you’ve got a lower back issue, if you’re trying to save your CNS or if you’re solely focusing on technique. Any other time, dropping your deadlift at the top is like getting the barbell to your chest and claiming you’ve completed a bench press. It’s half the lift, and the hardest bit is yet to come.
The eccentric phase, as the ‘lowering’ part of the deadlift is called, is where you get all the goodies that you’re after. The muscles are really earning their pay here, and the eccentric section is where you build muscle, spike your metabolism and build the supportive tissue that allows you to lift heavier next time. If you regularly drop your deadlifts from the lockout, you are missing out on the best part of the meal.
Cue for success: “HOLD!” the slower you can lower the bar back down, the more beneficial it will be to you. If you are to compete in powerlifting or strongman, a controlled descent is vital to achieving the white lights and being given the lift. If you are purely into bodybuilding and aesthetics then you should know better than to omit the most important, developmental section of the ultimate muscle builder. You are only cheating yourself.
Deadlifts are so easy that it’s hard to imagine anyone could do them wrong, yet I see them butchered on a daily basis more than any other lift. Hopefully these five cues will get you thinking in depth a little more about your own pull, and how you can optimise it further. As the late, great Jon Pall Sigmarsson said, “there’s no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift”. And who am I to disagree with greatness?
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