Deadlifts are such a great exercise, not only do they work a phenomenal amount of muscles within the body they are also absolutely brilliant for increasing the strength through the posterior chain, especially when performed correctly.
But, what constitutes it being performed correctly and what can happen when you don’t?
A deadlift is a classic example of a hip hinge movement.
What is a hip hinge you ask?
Well I like to explain this to clients that we should think of our body’s like a door hinge and the moving hinge in the middle represents our hips.
Hip hinging requires both flexion and extension of the hips and this is really important to remember moving forward as it sets the base for performing a deadlift correctly.
So, what are some of the common faults you will see or experience with deadlifting?
1. Bending from the knees instead of the hips
As I mentioned above, the deadlift is a hip hinge movement, so this requires movement from the hips, not the knees. One of the issues with bending from the knees first is that it not only distributes the weight incorrectly over your feet, it makes it much harder for your hips to actually do their job properly as you’ve effectively loaded up your quads and upper back instead.
If you struggle to get your hips through and lock the lift out, this will be a big component as to why.
It also creates a longer distance for the bar to travel which defeats part of the purpose of moving the most amount of weight in the most direct line possible. By squatting down more, you’re making it much harder.
2. Rounded spine and limited to no glute activation
Have you ever seen anyone start a deadlift from here?
How difficult does it become for them to lock it out properly?
There are two types of rounded spine that cause this issue, the first one is when you set up mostly correctly but are unable to activate your glutes, the quads will extend and the torso will extend but the first part of the back that will move into hyperextension almost immediately is the lower back because they are trying to do the job of the glutes.
As soon as the lower back begins to hyperextend, even slightly, the core becomes disengaged and the lift mechanics completely change.
The other type of rounded spine is thoracic, when someone either completely does not set their spine in a neutral position (straight) before beginning or lets everything go in order to get the bar up, often this results in hitching to get it up (knees underneath bar attempting to squat it up).
If you are finding this is happening, go back to basics, learn to set and cue properly before upping the weights, if you can’t move a weight efficiently then there’s no point doing it. You’re not only at risk of a disc bulge but you’re losing out on strength and muscular gains.
So how can you learn to set your glutes?
There are a couple of ways, one way that I am particularly fond of is using a resistance band or purchasing a hip circle to use around your knees to assist with training not only the neurological feeling of glute activation but actually training the muscles as well, so that by the time you go to remove it they will be able to activate fairly well both consciously and subconsciously.
During a max effort deadlift there may be a fractional breakdown of technique but not so much that you look like a stick of bamboo.
3. Gripping and ripping the bar
I actually see this one a lot at powerlifting competitions.
People will set the deadlift well, but instead of taking the slack out of the bar and building up the appropriate amount of tension through the upper back, latissimus muscle, core and glutes for the lift, they pull a stationary bar without tension and then lose all the appropriate activation in their lats, upper back, core and glutes as they transfer as they try and pull a motionless bar without tension.
The extension of this problem, which is a lack of correct muscle activation, is you will find that you will struggle to drive your hips through for lockout once again.
So what should you do?
Before you start lifting the bar take whatever slack is in the bar out by lifting up ever so slightly through your chest and pulling back against the weight with your latissimus muscle, almost like attempting a game of tug-of-war with the bar. You will know you are in the right spot as the bar will shift to the top of the weight plates or it will semi begin the lift without the weight actually leaving the floor.
Constant consistent tension is always better than trying to encourage the muscles to engage while loose.
4. Looking at the ceiling
Lifting a deadlift by looking up at the roof is a really good way to strain or seriously injure your cervical spine (like pinching a nerve). It can also affect the positioning of the rest of your spine.
Instead of overextending the neck, look at the floor approximately 5-6 feet in front of you and keep your chin tucked in. Necks take time to heal so be careful.
5. Dropping the weight
Do you have that person at the gym who seems to just drop or slam the weights down every time they deadlift?
Please don’t be that person, not only are you losing relevant strength and muscular adaptations by doing this you can also hurt your back by not controlling it well as it is most likely your core and glutes have disengaged.
Furthermore, the bar will then bounce off the platform and you will lose your position on the bar, which means you need to reset each rep over and over again.
6. Stiff leg deadlifting it
This is where the hips are pretty much in line with the shoulders and your back lifts the weight in its entirety, with some help from the hamstrings. Please make sure before you lift that your shoulder is just slightly in front of the bar, below your hips in height and that your weight is distributed in your heels, not your toes.
These few cues alone should help prevent this.
Deadlifting is an absolutely fantastic exercise and as I mentioned before, it is great for developing a strong posterior chain, improving core strength and enhancing overall muscular strength but, it is not something to be taken lightly and can cause some serious injuries if it is not performed correctly.
If you are not sure on how to deadlift appropriately, ask someone who is experienced, has a good deadlift and if they are a coach their clients have a good deadlift. Look for the basics as per the photos above, no spinal rounding, hip dominant movement and minimal issues struggling to lock out the deadlift.
Don’t write off this exercise, it is definitely one worth doing and doing well!
Image 2 (deadlift squat image)
Image 3 (correct deadlift technique)