Young Roman soldiers were required to do one thing post-battle: they had to walk the battlefield searching for their slain brethren and hoist them into a wagon for burial.
Lifting dead weight from the ground and placing it into a wagon is, well, it’s backbreaking work. This hoisting of the deceased led to numerous strained muscles and injuries. And injured soldiers are useless in battle. So something had to be done.
According to legend, a Roman officer in charge of dead dude clean-up worked out a solution that prevented his soldiers from jacking up their backs during their post-battle duties. This Roman commander invented what would later become known as the deadlift.
The deadlift is a total body strength exercise; it hits every muscle group in your body. And, it’s also the best way to feel like a badass.
Legit, there’s no other lift on Earth that makes you (or me) feel more powerful than the deadlift. But it’s also a lift that if done incorrectly can injure you. Then again, any lift done with piss-poor form can injure you.
So I’m going to this loud and clear:
Deadlifts are not bad for your back. Deadlifting with shit form is bad for your back.
What leads people to injure themselves with deadlifts is usually a combination of poor form and way too much freaking ego. Your body wants to move itself and any weight you lift as efficient as possible. And the more efficient you can be lifting a barbell, the better your chances of moving more weight.
But you could be making a few mistakes in your deadlift that are preventing you from lifting as efficiently as possible. And that could be setting you up for potential injury. And who the hell wants that?
Note: Everything in this article is focused on conventional deadlift form. However, the mistakes and how to fix them apply to sumo deadlift form as well. One is not better than the other, I just prefer conventional for personal reasons.
Deadlift Mistake #1 – Your Hip Hinge is Terrifying, and I Need You to Fix It
99% of the women I’ve ever worked with in-person or online can hip hinge like a boss. But guys? Good God, it’s like we have no idea how our hips operate. Deadlifting with a round back is the quickest way to injure yourself. So if you can’t hip hinge, what you need to master first is the art of the hinge.
Think of hip hinging like this: imagine your asshole is a hungry hungry hippo that needs to eat the wall behind it. “Bending over” and rounding your back doesn’t put your butthole any closer to the wall. For your hippo-butt to eat the wall, you have to push your hips back. And pushing your hips back is what the hip hinge is all about.
How to Get Better at Hip Hinging
I don’t coach in-person clients any longer. But I can still teach anyone how to hip hinge and properly deadlift online. These drills are where I start first before a coaching client ever picks up a barbell.
I have clients start with these drills and then have them work on what is one of the best exercises for teaching the hip hinge, the cable pull-through.
Deadlift Mistake #2 – You Suffer from Squatty Potty Syndrome
Yes, the deadlift recruits every muscle in your body to lift the barbell off the ground. And the Internet will always debate about what exercise is King: the squat or the deadlift. And though each of these movements requires hip flexion and knee flexion, they’re different in this distinction:
Squats = maximal knee flexion and maximal hip flexion
Deadlifts = minimal knee flexion and maximal hip flexion
Good deadlift form positions your hips between your knees and your head. Or what I call “The Zone of Go.”
Now, if your deadlift looks more like the picture to the left, then you suffer from Squatty Potty Syndrome (SPS).
Squatting your deadlift places unneeded tension on your low back. It also takes away your ability to generate tension through your hamstrings. Those are problems. Remember, the deadlift is a hip hinge movement — you want your hamstrings working as efficiently as possible.
The first way to fix this is to learn how to hip hinge properly by using the drills I mentioned above. But one reason why SPS happens is due to a lack of hamstring mobility. So if your hamstring flexibility is craptastic, don’t go to the bar, bring the bar to you.
How to Fix SPS: Raise the bar off the ground.
Instead of trying to deadlift off the floor, stack a couple of plates on top of one another, use gym mats (if your gym has them) or if your gym has a power rack, pull from the bottom first couple of blocks.
You don’t HAVE to deadlift off the floor. If your mobility is limited, deadlift from where your hip hinge is strongest. And then add the drills and exercises from above into your workout(s) to help improve your ability to hinge deeper.
But here’s another reason why you need to stop squatting the deadlift. Deadlifting with SPS also kills the ability for you to engage your lats. Your lats, along with your traps and all the other muscles of your mid-back, act as an anchor for the weight you’re pulling when you deadlift.
When your hips are lower than “The Zone of Go,” you decrease the angle between your arms and torso. This limits your lat engagement. And without tension in your lats, guess what? Your movement will be inefficient, and you won’t pull as much weight.
Deadlift Mistake #3 – You Have No Tension in Your Lats
As I said above, the deadlift hits every muscle in your body: glutes, hamstrings, quads, shoulders, biceps, calves, core, and every muscle in your back, especially your lats. But one reason why you lack the ability to hoist more weight off the ground is that there’s no tension (or very little) in your lats.
Yea, you grab the bar and “lift,” but your lats are what anchor your arms to your body and the bar. Without a strong anchor, you’re not gonna be lifting much.
One of my favorite cues to give for lat engagement in the deadlift is to imagine you have oranges in your armpit. Then, squeeze those oranges so you make juice out of them before you lift the weight. That will help you engage your lats.
But here’s an even better one: Shove your armpits into your pelvis.
This cue will help you lock down your lats and increase the length of your arms. This creates more tension in your upper back and allows your body to stabilize the bar more efficiently. With a stronger anchor (i.e., your back), you’re going to be able to move more weight.
How to Fix Your Lack of Lat Engagement: Prime your Lats Before You Deadlift
Before you deadlift, spend a few minutes getting the blood pumped into your lats. Wake those bad boys up and get them ready for what’s to come. Straight arm pulldowns are one of the best ways to get your lats primed for deadlifts. You can use either a cable machine or resistance bands.
You can also use a dumbbell and perform a more lat-focused dumbbell pullover.
Deadlift Mistake #4 – Bar Too Far Away At The Start
Where are your feet when you deadlift? If the barbell were like the blade that cut off Ned Stark’s head, would it hack off your toes or the middle of your foot?
If it’s your toes getting cut off, you’re setting yourself up for a potential low back injury. When the bar’s over your toes, the weight’s farther away from your center of mass. And that will lead to an inefficient deadlift. But if you move closer to the bar and cut your foot in half, you bring the weight of the bar closer to your center of mass.
Why is that important?
Because your point of optimum balance is in your mid-foot. The better your balance, the easier time you’ll have deadlifting. And better balance means better efficiency. Remember: moving heavy weight with the deadlift is about efficiency.
The cue to “cut your foot in half” isn’t an ideal cue either. Why not? Because when you’re looking down at your feet, all you see is everything from your shin to your toes. And this leads to one big mistake I see people make with their deadlift set-up all the time: people measure the middle of their foot from where their shin and ankle connect down to their toes; they forget that they have a few more inches of foot behind them with their ankle.
So I’m not a huge fan of the cue to go all Ned Stark on the middle of your foot. But here’s an even better way to phrase this so that you actually cut your foot off at its center.
How to Fix Your Deadlift Mistake: Keep Your Shins about 1-2 inches Away from the Bar.
Or, if you happen to deadlift in Converses, cut your foot off at the top of the tongue. When your shins are 1-2 inches away from the barbell, then you actually do cut the mid-point of your foot in half. And now you’re in the optimal position for deadlifting as efficiently as possible.
Deadlift Mistake #5- No Torque in Your Hips
The Torque Bow was my favorite Gears of War weapon. The longer you held the arrow back, the more torque you created, and the greater the damage inflicted.
When you deadlift, generating torque through your hips is often what makes or breaks you. Without enough torque generated through your hips, your body will compensate elsewhere. And that is not what you want. So how do you create more torque?
How to Fix Your Deadlift Mistake: Corkscrew your Feet into the Ground
Once you have your mid-foot cut in half and you’ve hinged down to grab the bar, think about corkscrewing your feet into the ground — press your big toe hard in the ground and create a “screwing” motion from big toe to your heel.
This will help generate more support and torque through your ankles, legs, and hips. And to really generate as much torque as you can in your hips, you need to do one more thing. Press your knees out and into your elbows. By pressing your knees out, you engage more of your glutes and hip stabilizer muscles. And guess what that does?
It places tension where you want it in your posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, etc). With more of your glutes and hip musculature engaged, the less likely you’ll be to pull the weight with your low back. And the more stability you can build in your body before you lift, the better.
Deadlift Mistake #6 – You are overextending your Low Back
Bringing your hips forward and locking out your glutes at the top of a deadlift doesn’t mean you need to overextend your low back like in the video below. Stand tall at the top. That’s all you need to do. Leaning back into the deadlift places far too much pressure on your low back/spine.
If you overextend your low back when you deadlift, lower the weight for a few weeks and practice simply standing tall at the top.
How to Fix Your Deadlift Mistake: Stand tall at the top.
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Deadlift Mistake #7 – You Make Too Much Noise When You Lift
The deadlift is nothing more than you pulling dead weight off the ground. But some people have to be jerks about it. And I’m not talking about those douche-canoes who grunt like a rhino giving birth every rep.
When you start your rep, if you hear the weights *clang* against the bar as you lift, then you haven’t generated all the tension you can. Why not? Well, as super stronger powerlifters like to call it, you haven’t “pulled the slack out of the bar.”
Think of it like this: imagine you’re trying to pull a boat to shore with a long rope. To move that boat across the water, you’d want the rope to be as taut as possible to create more leverage on the boat. When it comes to deadlifting, your arms are the rope. And if you’re not pulling the slack out of the bar, you’re wasting energy and efficiency.
How to Fix the Lack of Slack: Watch this Video
Deadlifts Are like O’Doyle: They Rule
Want to build more muscle? Then deadlift. Do you want to gain impressive levels of strength? Then deadlift. Do you want to look and feel like a badass? You guessed it, deadlift. There isn’t any other lift out there that will benefit your entire body more than deadlifts.
Deadlifting will do more for your overall health and well-being than any other lift. And yes, it “can” be dangerous. But so can bench pressing like an idiot. So, um, don’t be an idiot number one. Number two, film your deadlift to see where you need to improve. And if you suffer from any of the above, drop the weight and fix your form before you try and lift heavier weights.
If you can make your deadlift more efficient, you’ll not only lift more weight, but you’ll do it without fear of injury.
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