The deadlift is perhaps the best way to demonstrate pure full body strength. Like a big squat, a big deadlift is generally representative of a strong lifter overall. Also like the squat, the deadlift involves almost all the major muscle groups of the body—the entire torso, including the stomach and upper and lower back; the entire posterior chain; the legs, and the grip. As such it is a phenomenal developmental exercise especially when we take into consideration all of its variants: conventional, sumo, snatch grip, one arm or one leg, pulling from varying heights or with different bars or implements, and more interesting ways of lifting a barbell from the floor like zercher or Jefferson lifts. Finally, the first way the deadlift is taught and for many, the only way the deadlift will ever be done is in the hinge pattern—one of the more important basic movements that a human body can perform.
Despite the massive potential for variation in deadlift form, there are a few basic rules that should always be followed to make the lift both safe and mechanically efficient. And… guess what… plenty of people don’t know about them or ignore them completely. We try to instill these general guidelines as soon as possible in all of our clients; but when I venture outside the most common mistakes I see are as follows:
- Starting the lift with the hips too low
- Starting the lift with the bar too far away from the shins
- Loss of torso integrity
Starting with the hips too low is probably the most common. This basically means that at the start, the setup will look more like a squat with the lifter’s butt down and back:
This makes sense because reflexively many people try to ‘squat’ anything heavy they pick up off the floor. A lot of this is probably due to the form that’s instilled in us first world dwellers from a very young age: lift with your legs, not your back, try to squat heavy objects instead of bending over. If the object in question is directly between your legs this can make sense but a barbell is a bit different. To get the bar as close as possible to you your hips should be high, like so:
This is the hinge pattern, minimal knee flexion with more drastic hip flexion. This is actually the safest and most efficient way to lift something off the ground; and if it looks familiar that’s because it is also the basic athletic stance in a lot of sports. From here the hips and lower body can generate a lot of power (efficiency) and the weight is very close to the lifter’s center of gravity (safety). How high should the hips be? Well that varies depending on individual leverages and limb lengths but that is a subject for another article. Suffice to say that above the knees but below the shoulders is a great place to start experimenting if you can’t get quality coaching.
Starting with the bar too far away from the shins goes hand in hand with squatting the weight up—if the knees and shins are forward the bar will be pushed further away. Check out where the bar is here:
We want the bar over the center of the foot or sometimes even closer to the heel, which generally means right up against the shin or very close to it:
This like hip position is also very individual and depends on the style of the deadlift and which strengths the lifter wants to emphasize. But either way, that bar should be over the middle of the foot or slightly further back toward the shins to keep it close and under control. Let the bar swing too far away from your shins, especially while lowering the weight back down to the floor and you might be in for a really bad time.
Finally and perhaps the most elusive mistake to fix is simple loss of torso integrity. While moving the weight the lifter’s torso should be a solid cylinder with everything locked in place. Some people overextend the back which results in the abs being stretched out and prevented from stabilizing the torso properly:
Some people round their back over forward which usually means the lats are relaxing and the low back muscles are lengthening, not a great scenario either:
I should note that rounding your back will get the bar even closer to your center of gravity which is one reason why it sometimes happens automatically and is hard to stop. But keeping proper tension while in a position of spinal flexion is definitely a higher end skill for more advanced lifters to try and get a bit more weight on their lifts, it’s not for everyone. For most people both the safest and strongest position will be closer to the middle with a neutral or maybe slightly lordotic spine.
Fixing this one is very difficult—finding that strongest position might take some time and of course plenty of coordination to maintain under a super heavy load. The two quickest tips I can offer here: first, do some high tension planks or hollow position ab work to test out where you can engage your core and lats the best. Then, if you’ve been lifting with a belt try without for a while. Lots of people wear thick, too-tight lifting belts to hold themselves straight. This is one way to make up for a weak core, but a belt works much better once you’re strong enough to lift heavy without it and learn how to use it properly. Ditch the belt for a while! Beltless deadlifting and squatting is a great test of general strength and a good way to build it properly too.