Unless today is the day you’ve discovered the Internet for the first time, you’re almost sure to have heard about the benefits of the deadlift.
I’m not going to go over them all again, but this short quote from strength and conditioning coach Eric Cressey sums up many of the reasons why the deadlift is such a good exercise.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a single weight-training movement that’s more complete than the deadlift,” he says.
“It’s not just an upper or lower back exercise, or a grip exercise, or a posterior chain exercise, or a core exercise; it’s an everything exercise. To that end, it’s a must-have in any lifter, athlete, or weekend warrior’s training arsenal.”
But despite all the good things the deadlift will do for you, it’s an exercise that very few people are actually doing. And of those that are, there aren’t many doing it properly.
So in an attempt to restore balance to the universe, I’ve highlighted the three most common deadlift mistakes that I see in the gym and what you can do to correct them.
Mistake 1: Rounding the lower back.
Rounding the lower back, as shown in the video below, leaves your spine in an extremely vulnerable position. It can lead to an injury, although not necessarily straight away.
You might know someone whose back “just went” while they were in the middle of a simple everyday task – picking up a pencil from the floor or lifting a bag from the car.
Many injuries to the lower back result from damage that’s accumulated over time. And the seemingly innocuous event that appeared to cause the injury was – no pun intended – simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.
You will find some debate about the pros and cons of rounding your back during the deadlift, which Matt Perryman has discussed here.
If, for example, you’re training for something that involves lifting with a rounded back (such as lifting the Atlas stones in a strongman competitition) then some of your training time should be spent with a rounded back in order to prepare you for the event.
And if you’re aiming for a 1-RM (the maximum amount of weight you can lift once), then your form isn’t going to be picture perfect and you will see some rounding of the back. But it’s not a technique I recommend for most people most of the time.
The solution: Stand next to a mirror sideways on with your top off. You’ll see that your spine has a series of curves. It’s important to maintain this natural curvature when you deadlift.
In other words, your lower back should be arched. It might not be a perfect arch, but it certainly shouldn’t be rounded either.
The way to do this is to keep your chest up, pull your shoulders back and look forward rather than up or down.
If you’re not sure what your back is doing when you deadlift, then ask someone to video you doing it. This can help you correct any problems with technique before they lead to an injury.
Mistake 2: Lifting the bar by raising the hips before the chest.
If your knees start to straighten before the bar rises above them, the movement becomes a stiff-legged deadlift rather than a regular deadlift. It’s one of the many mistakes demonstrated in the video below.
The solution: Make sure the bar stays close to your shins, focus on keeping the weight back on your heels (rather than your toes) and think about pulling the weight towards you on the way up.
Don’t let the bar come out in front of you. It should stay close to your body, touching your thighs on the way up.
Taking off your shoes and deadlifting in your socks, some weightlifting shoes or a pair of Vibram Five Fingers can also be beneficial.
Why does this help?
The fact that there’s no cushioning in the sole means that your feet are a little nearer the ground. This reduces the distance the bar has to be pulled, as well as making it easier to maintain the correct spinal position.
Because the heel isn’t compressible, it also gives you a stable position from which to drive up. This is a lot better than squatting in running shoes with spongy heels, a practice that strength-training expert Mark Rippetoe has likened to squatting on your bed.
Mistake 3: Bouncing the bar off the floor between reps.
The “dead” in deadlift means that the weight should come to a dead stop between each rep.
Having a slight bounce can work if you’re strong enough to hold your position. But most people I see using the “touch and go” style lose their tightness and end up rounding their back.
The solution: Let the bar come to a complete rest between each repetition. While it’s on the floor, take a moment to “reset” your body position and run through a quick mental checklist – chest up, upper back tight and eyes looking forward – before lifting it up again.
If you need a few more pointers on technique, Accelerated Muscular Development author Jim Smith shows you what correct deadlift form looks like in the video below.
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ABOUT CHRISTIAN FINNChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a certified personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine.