The deadlift is the must-have exercise to build total-body strength, pack on slabs of muscle, and sculpt an awesome physique. When done right, it strengthens the muscles at your hips, hamstrings, and back that generate tremendous athleticism. (Heck, it can even improve your posture.)
But walk through any commercial gym and you’ll struggle to spot a clean deadlift. Poor technique, however, makes the exercise harder and increases chances for injury—because the deadlift involves such heavy weights, the margin for error also skyrockets.
In this article, Matt Kasee, MS, CSCS, owner of Matt Kasee Training and Performance (and a 500lb-plus deadlifter), joins us in dissecting the worst deadlift mistakes, why they’re bad, and exactly how to avoid them. Don’t be surprised if you can pull much more weight—with less pain—the next time you deadlift.
When you set up with the bar, keep your shins as vertical as possible. Avoid angling your shins forward, which resembles a squat.
“When your shins are too far forward, you can’t efficiently engage the glutes and hamstrings, which are the primary focus of the deadlift,” says Kasee. Also, because of your misaligned setup, the barbell will be too far forward as well—you’ll have to pull the bar path backward at some point to return the barbell over your feet. That wastes strength, use more quads, and stresses your lower back.
The deadlift is not a squat. It’s a completely different exercise and movement pattern. “The basic movement of the deadlift is the ‘hinge,’” Kasee explains. “This allows you to work the hamstrings and glutes through a highly loaded hip extension.”
From the starting position, bend your torso over the bar while keeping your back flat.
Never round your back while deadlifting—that’s a recipe for spinal injuries and lower back pulls and strains.
“Learn how to brace by taking a big belly breath and pushing out against your tightened abdominal muscles,” explains Kasee. “This creates tremendous internal pressure to protect your back and help maintain a neutral spine throughout the lift.”
This is also called the “stripper deadlift.” (Use your imagination.) Guys will mistakenly raise their hips and lockout their knees before their upper-body has risen. But by lifting your hips first, you’ll have to extend with your lower back to pull the barbell up.
Instead, lift your shoulders and hips at the same rate. “At the start of the lift, develop tension through your hamstrings and glutes,” says Kasee. “Focus on driving your heels through the floor and pulling with upper back.”
As you lift the weight, drag the barbell along your shins and thighs. The further the bar drifts away from your body, the more stress you’ll put on your lower back.
“Think about pulling back and pushing your heels though the floor,” explains Kasee. “Engage your lats as you pull and this will ensure that the bar stays close to your body making it a safer and more-efficient lift.”
For proof, watch world-record deadlifters—you’ll often see scrapes on their shins from dragging the barbell along their skin.
A common complaint among deadlifters is the barbell slamming on the knees when lowering the bar. Instead, on the way down, reverse the same motion as lifting the bar.
“Push your hips back to initiate lowering of the weight,” says Kasee. “Do it in a quick, but controlled manner so you don’t put your body through unnecessary stress by doing slow eccentrics.”
Avoid deadlifting for high reps—with all the muscles and joints that it targets, deadlifting to fatigue compromises technique. Kasee’s favorite rep range for deadlifts is 2 to 6 reps.
“You don’t need to go much higher than that,” he says. “As you fatigue during the set, you put your body at greater risk of injury.” To target your hips and hamstrings with volume training, use barbell hip thrusts instead; you’ll strengthen the same muscles as a deadlift without the forces on your spinal column and lower back.
Although many guys bounce the weight or even miss the ground, each repetition must start from the floor.
“Bouncing the bar off the ground gives you momentum, making the lift easier,” Kasee explains. “You aren’t able to develop the strength from the initial pull off the floor.” If possible, use bumper plates and drop the deadlift from the top, each time. That eliminates the eccentric portion and forces you to pull from a dead stop.
Never look up. That hurts your cervical spine and strains your neck muscles. Although some lifters believe they can better maintain a flat back by looking up, you should still be able to keep a neutral spine regardless.
Keep your neck in a safe position throughout the deadlift. “In order to keep a neutral neck, find a spot a few feet in front of you and focus on that throughout the lift,” says Kasee.
At the top, avoid leaning backward or overarching your lower back to finish the rep.
“Fill your abdomen with a big belly breath before the lift and drive your hips into the bar at the top of the lift for lock out,” says Kasee. “At the top, you should be standing straight up with solid brace in your core and your glutes squeezed tight.”
BY ANTHONY J. YEUNG, CSCS