So, your deadlift has been stuck for the last few months and you can’t figure out what’s wrong?
Well, truth be told, weight lifting is an acquired skill. You don’t just wake up one day with the ability to rip 500lbs off the floor. Sure, it would be cool if you could, but that would take all of the satisfaction out of it, now wouldn’t it?
Any challenge worth surpassing requires hard work - there’s simply no way around it. Being able to pull double bodyweight is a great goal for most folks, but it’s not going to happen overnight.
Deadlifting is a somewhat complex movement despite what most perceive from YouTube sensations and Instagramers claiming to have the “one deadlifting secret you’ve been missing all along.” Here’s a hint: there is no secret.
This article is going to cover the bread and butter required for a big pull. Put in the work if you want to reap big benefits and be sure to avoid these 5 common deadlifting mistakes along the way.
1. You're Trying to Grip It and Rip It
John Daly may have had success on the golf course with this slogan, but when it comes to the deadlift, I think it's best to have a methodical approach. Ever watched Michael Jordan shoot a free throw? His setup is identical every single shot. I like to apply the same mindset towards deadlifting - zero deviations from the norm will help to ingrain specific habits within the cerebellum.
I see some lifters approach the bar with reckless abandon: smacking their face, yelling, or even snorting pre-workout prior to the lift. Wait, you haven’t tried that yet? In case you haven’t heard, it increases absorption by 18% due to the fact it passes the blood brain barrier and doesn’t get dissolved by stomach acid.1
One key topic I try to convey to my athletes is that their setup will determine their lockout. If you setup in a poor position and you’re out of position biomechanically, it’s going to limit activation of specific muscles and their corresponding motor patterns.
Takeaway: When you approach the bar, you should already have completed the pull in your mind. It doesn’t matter if it’s 135 or 535, your setup and execution should be exactly the same.
2. You Fail to Pull the Slack Out of the Bar
When you’re initially learning to deadlift, it’s crucial that you learn how to pull the slack out of the bar. I know a number of coaches who have written articles telling lifters to completely forget about pulling the slack out of the bar, but as a beginner or intermediate lifter, I think it’s vitally important for you to understand this concept.
You’ll notice that most Olympic and Texas deadlift bars contain a tiny amount of space between the actual bar and the ball bearings in the ends. Most new bars are designed with this technology to allow for adequate spin during a variety of lifts.
However, I’m sure you’ve seen this scenario before in a commercial gym: someone sets up for a big pull, takes a breath, and yanks the bar off the floor instantly losing tension. Well, if they had taken the tension out of the bar and utilized my third tip from this article, it would have been much easier to maintain a braced position and complete the pull with less shearing forces upon the spine.
If you’re still not tracking with me, here’s a short video, which should help tie everything together.
Takeaway: Don’t initiate your pull off the floor until you hear the bar “click” into the plates and feel tension throughout your entire body (especially through your quads and hamstrings).
3. You Don't Understand How to Use Your Lats
When we’re talking deadlifts, we’ve got to remember that the most important component during any lift with high compression forces is spinal stabilization within a neutral position. I know what you’re thinking, “Well that’s what your abs are for, right?” Yes, that is one important component for preserving spinal integrity from the front. But what about the back?
Enter the latissimus dorsi. Your lats attach on the head of your humerus (large bone in your upper arm) and also at the thoracolumbar fascia running along the lower portion of your spine. When engaged, they help to maintain spinal positioning as the bar is trying to drift away from the body. However, if they’re not engaged, it’s very easy for the lifter to lose tension and their hips will pop up during the initial stages of the lift.
Have you ever watched a lifter on YouTube and noticed that one side of the bar always drifts away from their body? This typically occurs when a lifter mixes their grip. One of the lats' main functions is internal rotation of the shoulder. When someone mixes their grip, they essentially externally rotate one of their hands, and it becomes increasingly tougher to facilitate lat recruitment - not impossible, just more difficult. As such, it’s vital for beginner and intermediate lifters to pull double overhand for as long as possible until grip becomes the limiting factor in their pull.
Takeaway: Squeeze oranges in your armpits then show off the logo on your shirt before initiating your pull.
4. You're Leaning Back at Lockout
The deadlift is not a lower back movement.
Read that again. Alright good, just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page. For some reason I see a lot of lifters who think the deadlift isolates the spinal erectors. We know that maintaining spinal neutrality is priority number one when deadlifting, so why would we ever want to emphasize a muscle group which generates spinal extension?
As you lockout the deadlift, you should be focused on bringing the hips into the bar by squeezing the glutes, not trying to lean back and arch your back. Essentially, your lockout position should resemble your standing posture. Sure, there will be a few deviations as you’ll be holding a couple hundred pounds in your hands, which is quite different compared to gravity, but for the most part they will be similar.
In essence, the deadlift can be thought of as a push and a pull - the lifter should be pushing the floor away while simultaneously pulling the bar into their body with their lats to maintain spinal integrity.
Takeaway: Think about finishing the lift by squeezing your glutes, bringing your hips into the bar, and exhaling.
5. You Don't Trust the Process
Deadlifts are like fine wine, it takes time to mature as a lifter, refine your technique, and reach elite levels of strength. However, many lifters approach each session like it’s their last.
Look, I have nothing against some aggression and intensity once you step under the bar or up to the platform, but you have to remember that strength is built upon submaximal loading. As I’ve said before, spend more time building strength rather than testing it.
Pick a solid program based upon the fundamentals of strength and conditioning (progressive overload, specificity, proper exercise selection and progression, SAID principle, etc.) and stick with it for 4 to 6 months. Not weeks, months. Neural and physiological changes to time to manifest, so stop looking for the quick fix and put in the work. In fact, if you’re feeling adventurous, try out my latest DUP program and let me know what you think.
Takeaway: Strength is a process, don’t rush it; learn to embrace the journey rather than being so focused on the end goal.
Get Ready to Push Your Limits and Grow
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, no one ever said it was going to be easy, but nothing worth having ever came without a fight. Now the choice is yours, continue on with the status quo or accept the challenge and get better starting today. You decide…
- In case you thought I was serious, here’s my full disclaimer: don’t snort pre workout, or anything for that matter. If you’re checking pubmed or Google scholar for research supporting aerosol-based stimulants, you can stop now. Fix your setup, don’t just abuse caffeine because your biomechanics suck and you still want a PR.
I know this was posted a long time ago but this was the most helpful article ever. Thank you so much for the videos as well. I’m just getting back into weight lifting after 1 yr of inactivity and deadlift (which used to be my strongest life) is my weakest lift. I have a very good program and I am usually able to move up in weight fairly quickly, but have been stuck on 205lbs w/DL for months. I’ve been researching into lifting belts and what not, but now I realize that my form was absolute TRASH. I always thought that deadlift was a lower back lift—thank you for correcting that thought and educating me:)
Hey Lenisha - glad to hear you're getting back into the gym!!
There will be rounding once you start moving more weight, it is pretty much inevitable. But it is always good to still maintain rigid back to pull, you don't want form going to crap in an effort to move more weight.
This was one of the most informative articles in a long time. I appreciated it. Question: is it possible to keep the back completely straight at the higher weights (350+) or there will be a very slight bend?
Thanks Dan, glad you enjoyed it.
Completely straight is some what of a misnomer. The spine has natural curves within it that should be maintain throughout the lift. For example, the lumbar spine has 3-5 degrees of curvature in males and 5-7 degrees in females. Like wise, the thoracic spine should have about 30 degrees of flexion naturally.
I'm sure you've seen many powerlifters who hit deadlifts with much more rounding in the spine but this specifically centered within the thoracic spine and not the lumbar region.
As I mentioned in the article, "when we’re talking deadlifts (ESPECIALLY when we're talking maximal weights), we’ve got to remember that the most important component during any lift with high compression forces is spinal stabilization within a neutral position."
Should we never pull maximal weights for fear of slight deviations in form? No. There will likely always be some slight rounding or movement within the spine when you're reaching maximum exertion. However, the goal should always be to limit those slight deviations whenever possible.
Lifting technique always exists within a spectrum - you can obviously be too loose with your form and potentially risk injury or you can be a stickler for form and never push yourself to the point of technical breakdown. How will you know the difference? Experience or with the help of a good coach who understands biomechanics.
Great info, I'm wondering what a good rep range style would be to perfect my form on deadlifts. Currently I do 3 Full body routines a week and I Deadlift for 5x5 pyramid every 4th workout, I also do rack pulls for 4x12-8 two workouts after deadlifts, so it looks like this work 1 Squats, Work 2 Rackpulls, Work 3 Goblet Squats, Work 4 Dealift. Would I be better off just setting a time for 1 pull and repeating that pull every set time or doing sets of 5 and 3? Sometimes I feel that my setup has little to do with my lift when I do reps and think maybe I should just set up and lift for 1 every 20 seconds or so for 20 - 30 reps
Good question. For the most part, I've found that sometimes the limiting factor in technique improvement is fatigue from subsequent sets. Whether that be central (CNS) or peripheral (localized muscular failure), it will still affect the lifts biomechanics.
With that being said, I like higher sets but lower reps (nothing over 5 typically). For example, you might hit 8 sets of 2 or 6 sets of 3, things of that nature. I wrote a pretty solid program with some standard deadlift periodization here: https://www.muscleandstrength.com/articles/train-like-an-athlete-look-li...