While the bench press may be the most commonly done exercise in gyms across America (hello bros), the deadlift is regarded as one of pure brute strength. While everyone is built differently and will have slight variances in form, there are a few common mistakes that I see coaching at seminars that make a huge difference when corrected.
Foot placement in relation to the bar
Some people hit certain sticking points and plateaus and can’t figure out where the problem lies. The most common weak spots are right off the floor or right at lockout. While one could assume that it’s a weak muscle group, and it very well could be, many times it links back to the start of the lift, and more specifically the foot placement. Limb length and body structure will play a role, so it’s difficult to say exactly where to place the bar. But if you are having problems, you might need to adjust your starting position.
This happened just recently when a guy emailed me his deadlift videos for some critiquing and analysis. He knew something was wrong but couldn’t figure it out. After assessing his videos, I suggested moving his feet further away from the bar (he was just too close to get in a good position). He had been lining the bar up with the laces, so this time he tried lining the bar up closer to the big toe knuckle. This put him in a better position and allowed him to pull the bar back not up.
Pushing the feet/toes down
This cue is a little different for sumo vs conventional, but the concept is the same. Many times, I see people start the pull from the floor and the weight immediately shifts to their toes. This causes the hips to rise first and the bar gets out in front of them. They either miss the lift, hurt themselves, or just can’t recover the bar position.
With both conventional and sumo deadlifting, you should think about pulling the bar back and not up. Your body weight acts as a counter balance to the bar that is in front of you. This will allow you to stay in a good position, keep the bar close to you, and still be able to use the hips at lockout. If you think about just pushing straight down into the floor, you will either shift forward onto your toes or your hips will rise, both of which put you in a terrible position for locking out. For sumo deadlifting, you want to think about pushing the feet and knees out, like you’re trying to spread the middle of the floor apart. This will keep your hips closer to the bar, putting you in a better position off the floor.
Sitting the hips too low at the start
This is a HUGE mistake that I see many beginner lifters make. The deadlift is not a squat. Your hips do not need to be at parallel at the start – nor should they be. With the bar being in front of you (as opposed to on your back), the leverages and forces of the lift are very different. A person’s build again comes into play but if you sit the hips too low at the start, there’s a few problems that arise:
1. The knees will be too far forward over the bar. As you begin to pull, you’ll either need to move the bar out around the knees, or pop your hips up first so the bar doesn’t hit your knees. Either one, and you’re losing poundage.
2. Your shoulders will be behind the bar. Same problems from above come up. You want your shoulders right over the bar so that the bar path moves in a straight line.
3. Same problems arise with sumo deadlifting. We are not doing a booty-building plie squat thingy here. We’re trying to pull massive weight off the floor.
Not keeping the lats tight
The lats are an integral part of the deadlift that most people don’t think about. In point #1, I talked about foot placement and how the bar can get out in front of you. Lat tightness is also tied into this. If the lats are loose, the bar drifts away from the body, making the lift very difficult and lockout nearly impossible.
While lat tightness is key, we don’t necessarily need to have the shoulder blades retracted. If you retract the shoulder blades, you actually have to sit lower at the start just to reach the bar, hence increasing your range of motion. (Hint: You want to pull the bar the shortest distance!) A couple weeks ago at our charity deadlift meet, a girl sumo deadlifted 390 pounds. As soon as she pulled, the bar drifted away from her. Fortunately she was brutally strong enough to muscle it up and finish the lift. I told her what I saw, and she said, “I know! That happens a lot (the bar getting away from her at the start) and I can’t see to figure out why!”
After seeing the video posted on Facebook and watching it carefully again, you could immediately see that as soon as the bar started to flex, her lats loosened up and that’s what caused the bar to get away from her.
Many near maximal or competition lifts will result in some technical breakdown. It just happens when you’re pushing the limits. Pinpointing your technical weaknesses can often be fixed by videoing your lifts and studying where your problem is. If you’re unsure or don’t know exactly what to look for, ask. Find a good coach, a smart lifter, and someone who has an eye for small technical issues.