Deadlifts are bad for your back… just kidding. They’re not. Deadlifting with bad form and technique is bad for your back. The deadlift is THE must-have exercise to build total body strength, pack on slabs of muscle, and sculpt awesome athleticism. It is arguably one of the very best exercises out there, and is almost indispensable for developing a well-rounded, muscular physique. And for many guys, it is also the exercise where they are lifting the most weight, in terms of sheer poundage, which can be very satisfying, almost reputation building. So I mean, how complicated could it be? In theory, you perform a deadlift by simply bending over and picking something heavy up off the floor. Just like Arnold famously once said…. “I pick things up and put them down!”
However, anyone who's spent any time above the bar knows how complex this “simple” movement can be. It's amazing how often I see athletes screwing this movement up. Compared to many other exercises, it is extremely easy to do it incorrectly if you have poor form. In fact, I would say that the vast majority of guys and gals that I see deadlifting are doing it wrong. This means that they are inefficient, not getting as much out of the exercise as they could be, not lifting as much weight as they could be, and are often really risking injury in the process.
But not to worry - for all you deadlifters out there (and aspiring deadlifters), I’ve outlined below 7 of the most common deadlifting errors to be careful of, along with a few bonus tips at the end. Apply these principles, and don’t be surprised if you can pull much more weight—with less pain—the next time you deadlift.
Error #1: You Squat Your Deadlift
The deadlift and squat are two very different movements, performed differently, for different reasons. And I get this: the 2 exercises have their similarities – but make no mistake about it, the deadlift is not simply a squat in reverse. The squat is geared more towards quad development, whereas the deadlift is geared more towards posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) development. Therefore the chest up, butt down position cue is not ideal for the deadlift. The deadlift is a hip hinge based movement, with a much lesser degree of knee bend, and a much greater focus on the hips themselves.
When you see someone attempt to perform a heavy deadlift from a squat set-up, outside of constantly scabbing their shins, you'll notice that the body will actually attempt to reorganize its starting position before the weight actually leaves the floor. This happens because squatting a deadlift is inefficient. The brief moment it takes to re-adjust body position from an incorrect setup, however, may not allow enough time for the lats to generate maximum tension, which means they may lose the ability to properly support the lumbar spine. This greatly increases the chance of experiencing excessive lower back tightness and pain. Not to mention the glutes are much stronger than the quads, so you will not only fatigue faster, but won’t be able to move as much weight.
Error #2: Your Hips Shoot Up Too Fast
As I mentioned, the glutes are the primary movers during the deadlift exercise. If your hips are shooting up to fast, that means you are extending your knees and engaging your quads prematurely. The movement then becomes more of a stiff leg deadlift rather than a conventional deadlift. As weight increases, this pattern becomes more common - lifters drive through and extend their legs, with the bar hardly moving at all - which leaves the back to perform more work, greatly increasing the chance of undo stress and irritation. This will also increase the chance that your back rounds before completing the lift. Keep your core tight and make sure the bar rises as your legs and hips extend simultaneously. The back angle should remain the same when the bar leaves the floor and throughout the first segment of the lift.
Error #3: Your Grip Is Too Wide
When you grip the barbell too wide, you lose the ability to properly engage your lat muscles, which is an integral part of the deadlift. Not to mention it feels awkward too. Really, your grip position should be just outside of hips, right next to your legs. With a closer grip, you can keep the barbell closer to your body which creates a more efficient, more controlled lift.
Error #4: The Bar Path Is Too Far From Your Body.
This is a big one, and largely related to your setup. In order to perform an efficient deadlift, the bar path needs to be as short as possible from start to finish, which means the bar needs to travel in a perfect vertical line. Far too many athletes start too far away from the bar. Then, when they execute the lift, the bar travels too distant from the body, greatly increasing lower back strain. Start with the bar directly over the midfoot. As you execute the lift, make sure the bar travels directly vertical and stays close to your body all the way to the top. The final position of the bar should be directly over where it was on the floor.
Error #5: You Excessively Round Your Back
Experienced deadlifters don’t make this mistake, however it's quite common among new and novice lifters or those who have never been coached properly. Similar to the early hip rise error, this often occurs when the lifter allows their knees to extend too quickly at the initiation of the lift. This causes you to lose the natural (slightly curved) position of the lower back much easier and increases the likelihood of rounding your back. Keep your barbell weight evenly distributed throughout your spine, and be sure include a slight bend in your knees to help keep the lower back in its neutral alignment throughout the lift.
Error #6: You Set Up Your Deadlift Stance Too Wide
When you set up your deadlift stance too wide, and the feet are outside of hip width, there’s no place for the knees to go except in. You will see valgus (collapse) at the knee and pronation (collapse) at the foot, which is the last thing you want when trying to generate force to lift a heavy weight off the ground. Keep your feet hip width apart, no wider, and toes pointed forward.
Error #7: You Lean Back At The Top Of Your Lift
This error occurs when you complete the lift but continue to arch and extend your lower back after lockout, jutting your pelvis forward. This is totally unnecessary and a useless addition to the deadlift. In some cases, you may simply be unaware of how to properly use your hips during the deadlift, so you resort to a compensation pattern by hyper-extending the low back. In other cases, the glutes may just be too weak to finish the movement, so you rely on using your lower back excessively to help complete the lift. In either scenario, using less weight and/or going over technique will help to reinforce the correct movement pattern and stop this monstrosity from ever happening again. If not, the added lumbar stress will one day catch up with you. In the name of safety, efficiency, and performance, finish the lift strong, stand tall, and resist the urge to lean back!
Correct those errors and you’ll greatly reduce the likelihood of an injury. Add these tips below and you’ll bust through performance plateaus!
Heavy deadlifts will put muscles on places you didn’t even know existed. Keep these cues in mind every time you deadlift, and not only will that annoying lower back tightness and pain subside over time, but you’ll likely hit a PR in no time! If you're in the Charlotte area and are dealing with lower back pain or need help safely executing the deadlift, I’d love to work with you to help you get reach your goals. We work with athletes and active individuals all the time who are trying to improve their fitness and overall health so they feel great long term. If this is you and you’re struggling with pain or recurring issues, I can help. E-mail me email@example.com to get started!
PS - Make sure to check out next week's blog for 7 ADDITIONAL tips to improve your deadlift!
Thanks for reading,
This is where we share our expert opinion on hot topics in physical therapy, injury prevention, sports performance, strength and conditioning, nutrition, and sometimes other random thoughts. Enjoy.