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:
- Show you how to correct the common form problems that happen in the deadlift
- Deadlift modifications and variations
- Give you a healthy dose of practical deadlift applications—plus three killer workouts!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Deadlift Burpee WOD
5 rounds for time:
5 deadlifts (185 lb for women/275 lb for men)
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
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 handstand push-ups
9 handstand push-ups
What is your favorite deadlift variation? How do you incorporate deadlifts into your workouts? Let us know in the comments!
Also published on Medium.