You’re Doing It Wrong: The Ultimate Guide to the Deadlift, Part 2

woman standing holding barbell with mixed grip

This is a guest blog post by Adam Farrah, author of The Paleo Dieter’s Missing Linkand Functional Fitness, Kettlebell, Yoga and Meditation coach.

This is Part 2 of the Natural Force Ultimate Guide to the Deadlift. If you missed Part 1, you can check it out by clicking here.

If you’ve already read Part 1 of Natural Force’s Ultimate Guide to the Deadlift, then you already know why the deadlift is important. Now, settle in for Part 2 as we:

Correcting Common Deadlifting Problems

The deadlift is both simple and complex. Just about anyone can lift a barbell off the floor somehow, but high weight and/or high reps increase the potential for injury and magnify form errors to the point where injury becomes likely.

With that in mind, here are the most common deadlift form errors—and how to deal with them.

Back Rounding

As we talked about in Part 1, back rounding is a big one. Pressing the feet into the floor and contracting the back hard in an isometric contraction before starting the lift is the best way to avoid it. If the back is flat before the lift starts, it will be more likely to stay flat through the lift. This goes right along with removing the slack from the bar, also discussed in Part 1.

In some cases, it’s not the form but the weight. Too much weight, too soon in the deadlift will force the back to round. A rounded back means the back is fatiguing—and problems are coming. The only fix is to reduce the weight and/or the rep count.

I generally look for my clients to be deadlifting something around bodyweight for 5 reps with impeccable form before I start increasing weight or reps on them.

man starting to deadlift barbell with rounded back

Above is the INCORRECT, back-rounded posture at the start of the movement.

What About a Weight Belt?

Common gym lore says that a weight belt is mandatory in the deadlift to protect the lower back. This isn’t true. The best way to protect the lower back in the deadlift is, first, to deadlift with correct form—as you’ve learned in this article series—and, second, to progress with poundages slowly enough that your lower back and transverse abdominis—the body’s natural “weight belt”—can adapt to the weight and the movement.

For the majority of trainees, deadlifting without a weight belt is the way to go. This allows the transverse abdominis to develop the strength it needs to support the weight safely.

As Paul Chek says: “Don’t buy a girdle. Build one!”

For pursuing maximum poundages or powerlifting competition, a weight belt can be an asset. But it’s a piece of supporting gear that needs to be trained with over time with a specific focus on max weight and maximizing its benefits as a support tool.

Do the majority of your deadlift training without a belt. And, if you’re also interested in low-rep, high-weight personal records in the deadlift, find qualified instruction for incorporating a belt and modifying your form and training to maximize the benefits a belt can offer.

man starting to deadlift barbell with flat back

Above is the CORRECT, flat-back deadlift starting position with the back contracted against the weight and the slack taken out of the bar.

Hips Rise Too Fast

When the hips rise too fast in the deadlift, it means the legs are straightening before they should. It then becomes a stiff-legged deadlift—a fine and effective deadlift variation, but not if it’s not the intended one. Hips rising too fast are the major contributor to the barbell deadlift’s reputation as a lower back killer.

I generally look for the bar to be somewhere at the knees before the hips and lower back start to move perceptibly.

man holding barbell in the middle of a deadlift

The pic above shows the hips rising at the CORRECT speed relative to the bar’s travel. Note that the bar is close to the shins. The work is mainly in the legs when the bar is below the knees.

man holding barbell bent over in the middle of a deadlift

Above is showing the INCORRECT hip speed relative to the bar position. When the hips rise too fast, the movement becomes dangerous to the lower back, and the weight can throw the trainee forward as the bar travels out and away from the body.

Knees Knock In

If the knees are knocking in during a deadlift, it generally means a return to the air squat is in order. If a trainee isn’t “prying the knees” without thinking about it by this point, the problem isn’t in the deadlift. My two-part series, The Ultimate Guide to the Squat, shows you how to get your squat mechanics in tip-top shape.

“Snatching” at the Bar

I discussed the idea of removing the slack from the bar in Part 1. Generally, when a trainee is trying to “snatch” or “rip” the bar off the floor, it’s because they haven’t set themselves up for the lift properly or aren’t taking their time to focus, contract the back against the bar, and press the feet into the ground before starting to move the weight.

This form error is also a problem in timed CrossFit-type workouts where reps are high, adrenaline is higher, and there’s a timer running.

The best way to avoid errors in competition is to drill correct form heavily outside of competition.

Shrugging the Bar

Shrugging the bar is somewhat of a natural inclination—but it’s also one to avoid. It indicates that the elbows are bending and the biceps are becoming involved. The arms should remain straight throughout the deadlift and simply be “connecting” the body to the weight.

It’s helpful to verbally cue a pressing “down” of the shoulders, which should be easy because there’s a lot of weight to pull them down into position. Sometimes I also put some upward pressure on the bar or kettlebell during the movement—in practice, not during a work set—and have the trainee contract the shoulders against the upward pressure to get a feel for the proper shoulder position.

man holding barbell in the top of a shrugging or snatching position

Above is the INCORRECT bar “snatching” or “shrugging” position at the top. The shoulders should be driving down with the upper back contracted and the elbows straight.

Deadlift Variations and Modifications

There is a wide range of deadlift variations and modifications. Some are form modifications that provide different leverage points for different bodies or movement limitations, while others are different exercises in their own right.

Sumo Deadlift

Some people just naturally sumo deadlift better than they conventionally deadlift. According to Stuart McRobert, many trainees find it easier to keep the back flat in the sumo deadlift than in the conventional deadlift. McRobert also says those who tend to squat widely in general, as well as those with poor biomechanical leverage for the squat and conventional deadlift, can make efficient use of the sumo deadlift as a variation in their programs.

man squatting holding barbell with a narrow grip

Above is the starting position for the sumo deadlift.

man standing holding barbell with straight arms and a narrow grip

Above is the top position for the sumo deadlift.

Sumo Deadlift with a Kettlebell

This is one of my favorite exercises, and a definite go-to with certain clients—especially those who are just learning to deadlift. I use this exercise as a warm-up for kettlebell swings, and to teach some kettlebell swing form nuances.

Besides instilling good general kettlebell habits that carry over to other areas, the simplistic nature of the kettlebell allows a trainee to focus 100% on a flat back and technically correct deadlift without the distraction of a bar and plates and the additional mental focus and form adjustments they require.

I discussed the kettlebell sumo deadlift in detail in The Ultimate Guide to the Squat. Check it out for everything you need to know about this deadlift variation.

Sumo Deadlift High Pull

This is one that probably existed before CrossFit, but it reached widespread exposure in that community because it’s featured in some of the classic CrossFit workouts. It’s a good total-body exhauster, but working poundage is limited, and high reps are a must to get a good burn without overworking or injuring the shoulders.

man squatting holding barbell with a narrow grip

Above is the starting position for the sumo deadlift high pull.

man standing holding barbell with a narrow grip at top of sumo deadlift high pull

Above is the top position for the sumo deadlift high pull.

Stiff-Legged Deadlift

This is a deadlift variation that is really its own separate exercise. It’s a great one for both strengthening the entire posterior chain and giving the hamstrings quite a stretch. Max weight is reduced from a conventional deadlift on this one, but it can still be a central “lower body pull” movement in a program. Keep this one lighter and progress slowly—especially if you have a sensitive lower back or tight hamstrings.

man bent over with flat back arms straight with hands clasping barbell

Above is the starting position for the stiff-legged deadlift.

man bent over with flat back arms straight holding barbell off the ground in a straight leg deadlift

Above is the midway position for the stiff-legged deadlift. The legs stay in virtually the same position throughout the movement. The hamstrings and lower back provide all the contraction that moves the bar.

Deadlift Workouts

The Deadlift Burpee WOD

5 rounds for time:
5 deadlifts (185 lb for women/275 lb for men)
10 burpees

Fight Gone Bad

Author’s Note: This one was a favorite of UFC superstar B.J. Penn when both CrossFit and MMA were much younger than they are today. It’s designed to be three 5-minute rounds with a 1-minute rest in between—just like a UFC fight.
3 rounds, scored for total reps:
1 minute wall balls (14 lb for women/20 lb for men)
1 minute sumo deadlift high-pulls (55 lb/75 lb)
1 minute box jumps (20-in box)
1 minute push press (55 lb/75 lb)
1 minute row
1 minute rest

CrossFit Diane

Author’s Note: For an in-depth discussion of upper-body pressing and substitutions for the handstand push-up, see my article for Natural Force “The Ultimate Guide to the Push-Up”.
1 round for time:
21 deadlifts (155 lb/225 lb)
21 handstand push-ups
15 deadlifts
15 handstand push-ups
9 deadlifts
9 handstand push-ups

What is your favorite deadlift variation? How do you incorporate deadlifts into your workouts? Let us know in the comments!

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Also published on Medium.