If we could only choose three exercises for the rest of our lives, the deadlift would be among those three (and probably # 1). In our opinion, it is the one of the most functional exercises you can do while stimulating more muscle fibers both anteriorly and posteriorly than any exercise. Coincidentally, it releases anabolic hormones like nobody’s business and helps improve posture, further enhancing dopamine production; two great reasons to deadlift on top of the profusion of other positives. Think about it, when you bend down to pick something up like a couch when you’re moving, groceries when you’re shopping, or a kid when they’re having a temper tantrum, the deadlift prepares you for those daily tasks. Hate being in the gym? Don’t have enough time to exercise every angle and muscle in your back? Then the deadlift, although exceptionally difficult, is your answer. If your form, the load and intensity are right, the deadlift will build more mass than cable rows, lat pull-downs, and dumbbell rows combined. However, the deadlift is one of the most abused exercise we see everyday as trainers.
1) Fishing Rod Technique
The first mistake is what is known as the fishing rod technique. This is when your body begins to look like a bent fishing rod with a big ol’ marlin on the end of it. Often, too much weight is the culprit, or a weak upper back and core. To combat this, drop some weight, add in some upper back and ab accessory work, and most importantly, brace your abs. We can’t tell you how many people we see that don’t engage their core during most compound movements, especially the deadlift. So remember, when bracing, big breath in, flex that core, and then begin the lift. Check out “Turn on your Core” for more info on how to brace through your core.
2) Jerking and Bouncing
The second mistake we see most often is jerking and bouncing. We’ve combined these two as they are minor fixes that slightly mimic each other. Jerking is when you set up for the deadlift and violently pull the bar to initiate the movement. This is essentially snapping the arms straight (where they should have been to begin with), giving abrupt and added stress to the upper/lower back and your shoulders. Instead, set up for the deadlift and pull the ‘slack’ out of the bar. In other words, pull on the bar by engaging your arms and shoulder blades but don’t initiate the lift. When you do this, you’ll fill the small space in between the barbell and plates and hear a light ‘clink’ noise… that is the slack being taken out of the bar. On the other hand, we have bouncing at the end of the movement. This is when someone comes down rather quickly during the eccentric portion of the lift and bounces the plates down onto the ground. More often than not, this is either due to fatigue, a weak upper back or core, poor knowledge of form and/or too much weight. Implementing more accessory work for the back with barbell rows and pull-ups at the forefront, recording yourself and/or hiring a trainer, and not letting the ego lift for you, are some important tips for combating the bounce.
3) Grip Placement
The third major mistake we see is grip placement, and more specifically, the mixed grip. Yes the mixed grip allows you to pull more weight, but it’s teaching a poor motor pattern due to the way we twist at the hips towards the supinated side. (ie, your hips rotate toward the hand with your palm forward). Coincidingly, that very supinated side is more susceptible to a bicep tear. Trust us, we can be caught using a mixed grip, but we’ve since found two solutions. The first is increased grip strength which can be done with accessory movements such hammer curls (hands not touching the top of the dumbbell), pull-ups (pronated grip), pinch plate carries, and of course, more deadlifts. In second, we have wrist straps. They come in handy when grip strength and endurance can no longer keep up with that of the prime movers (hamstrings and glutes), but they should not be used prior to total grip failure. Another common mistake with grip placement is too wide or conversely too narrow. Your hands should be 4-6in wider than your hips, enough to allow your shoulders blades to squeeze together. Ultimately, grip placement and hand positions can be used for various reasons. Pronated to keep the bar close to your body, likely the majority of your lifts. Supinated can help support good posture and shoulder positioning. Alternated to assist with grip.
4) Knee Bouncing
At number four we have knee bouncing, both concentrically and eccentrically. Concentrically (lifting up), knee bouncing is when you’re over extending with your upper body (going beyond lockout) while your knees are still bent, ultimately causing you to have to pull the bar over your still bents knees (also known as ‘hitching’). On the eccentric side, lowering the bar without getting your hips back first will also cause you to hit your knees, but on the way down. Setting up too close or far from the bar can be an area to consider (we’ve found that for most people, setting the bar over your cuneiform bones of the feet tends to work more often than not – more toward your shin at the mid-foot), but mainly it is just a misunderstanding of proper form when under load. So watch and learn via someone else, record yourself, or ask a trainer from Precision, just sayin’.
5) Ego Lifting
Lastly, at number 5, we have ego lifting. We’ve mentioned it in one of the aforementioned mistakes, but we feel as though it should have its own place. All of us are guilty of ego lifting, but let’s get one thing straight, attempting a new weight for a prescribed number of sets and reps to occasionally gauge progress is one thing, but blindly lifting to feed the ego and impress the unimpressed is another, so let’s not get those confused. My advice is to continually assess form, critique it and fix it every single time you perform an exercise, and master the basics before becoming too distracted by isolation accessory movements (they always have their place but they’re often fixated upon over more effective exercises). Lastly, when it comes to strength training, use your intuition and stop before form fails…don’t lie to yourself when adding more weight. Going for personal records at any more than 5-10 lb increments (on most lifts) is going to risk sacrificing form and ultimately increasing your risk of injury.
For good deadlift form, follow our guide below:
1) When setting up the lift, feet should be hip to shoulder width, shoulders tucked back with mid traps and lats engaged. Drop hips into a squat, while tucking hips, and pull the slack out of the bar with your shoulder blades before lifting. Take a deep breath in before lifting.
2) Driving legs into the ground, spread the floor with your feet while maintaining a strong core and upright posture. Here, it is easy to let your shoulders slouch, so keep tension in your mid to upper back by pulling the bar.
3) Towards the top of the lift, much like a glute bridge, aim to bring your hips toward the bar, and chest through your shoulders. This is where most people start to exhale.
4) Engage your glutes drawing hips to bar, while finishing in upright posture. Regroup to prepare for a controlled eccentric phase.
5) While lowering the bar toward the floor, keep shoulders back with mid traps engaged, with tension in your glutes and hamstrings.
6) As you descend, draw hips back with knees staying behind toes. Bar should stay as close to your body as possible, ideally above your mid-foot. This is where most people tend to inhale.
7) As you reach the floor, ensure not to lose tension on the bar. Bouncing off the floor will only cause your upper traps to engage cause stress on your neck. Light touch, maintain posture, and perfect form before your next rep.