This past weekend I met up with a bunch of friends from grad school and trekked out west to Columbus, Ohio, for the Arnold Classic – the world’s largest expo of anything and everything related to fitness. It was awesome to see some familiar faces and watch some incredible powerlifters, Olympic lifters and Crossfitters. But the best part about going to Ohio is always the same:
Environment is a powerful thing when it comes to lifting performance, and the environment was electric at Showtime Strength and Conditioning on Saturday night. After 10-plus hours of driving, limited sleep and a full day dodging through the crowd at the Arnold, most humans would crumble on the couch for a nap, but not us. When you travel over 700 miles to see old training partners, you don’t waste the chance to lift some heavy iron.
And after watching Dan Green hit an 865-pound deadlift in the Animal Cage like it was a warmup, how could you not be salivating to hit the weights?
As someone who usually lifts alone, it’s not often I get to be surrounded by so many strong people or have so many eyes on my deadlift. The immediate encouragement and feedback felt amazing.
Having people around to impress helped unlock some hidden strength, but I also was made aware of some technique flaws that needed to be put in check. You’ll recall that I’ve always struggled to dial in my deadlift form, so I was more than open to the criticism.
It’s the little things that make a good deadlifter. You have to look past the obvious things like back rounding or the bar drifting too far in front of you. Here are three lesser-known mistakes that might be keeping you from taking your deadlift from good to great.
1. STARTING WITH THE HIPS TOO LOW
The deadlift is not a squat, no matter how many times the commercial gym trainer tells you that it’s just a squat from the floor.
The above picture is the correct starting position for a clean or a snatch, but NOT a deadlift. Don’t confuse the two.
A deadlift should start with the hips above the knees, the shin as vertical as possible and the torso more parallel than perpendicular to the floor. “Squatting” the weight (i.e. starting with the hips too low, the knees too far over the bar and the torso too upright) will mess up the bar path when you run straight into your knees on the way up. Take a look at the diagram below. See the difference?
When talking about the deadlift setup, Dave Tate always says, “What lets you move more weight? A full squat or a half squat?” While it’s not quite that simple, the point stands: starting with the hips high, the shins vertical and the torso leaned over lengthens the moment arm, essentially giving you a longer lever to move more weight.
A moderate hip position also allows you to break the floor more quickly. Speed off the floor will make or break a heavy deadlift attempt, and very few people can get the bar flying with low hips. Exceptions include sumo deadlifters in multiply suits (they need to squat down low to load up the suit like a spring) and the almighty Ed Coan. Even then, most people who start with their hips low let their hips shoot up before the bar moves anyways, so you might as well start with your hips high.
2. INCORRECT HEAD POSITION
There’s a lot of debate about where your head should be during the deadlift. Some argue that you should keep your head up because the bar follows your head – if you look up, the bar goes up. Others argue that “packing” the neck (i.e. making a double chin, seen on the left) keeps the head neutral and therefore keeps the rest of the spine neutral, which is essential for keeping your back healthy.
My opinion is that whatever maximizes performance while keeping you safe is the best bet. This will change from person to person, but for me, a packed neck feels best. Little did I know that I was taking it too far, nearly touching my chin to my chest and looking straight down. This made my back round excessively (even more than normal) and could be seen plain as day when my buddy filmed it on his iPad.
To fix this, I’m still packing my neck, but now I’m looking down at a spot on the floor about 20 feet away instead of straight down. So far it seems to help keep my upper back tight.
Whatever you do, DON’T look straight down and DON’T look straight up. Experiment with the head position that makes you feel stable, balanced and powerful.
3. GETTING YOUR STABILITY FROM THE WRONG PLACES
“Chest up!” and “Arch hard!” are two of the oldest coaching cues in the book for powerlifting. An arched back gets your spinal erectors firing and keeps your back from rounding, which creates stability. Makes sense, right?
Not so fast. All stability is not created equal. We want it to come from the right places.
Expert strength coach Eric Cressey and physical therapist Mike Reinold talk about the difference between static stability and dynamic stability. Static stability comes from the orientation of our joints in a certain position, while dynamic stability comes from the ability to “turn on” our muscles. This sounds nerdy, but it’s important so stick with me.
Static stability often occurs passively or as a compensation pattern. For example, as you sit at your computer reading this, you’re probably slouching over with your head poking forward and your shoulders dropping. You’ve allowed gravity to have its way with your body, and it’s taking the path of least resistance. You’re just resting on your neck and shoulder joints, creating static stability. Not good.
Now that I’ve called you out, you sit up straight, pull your shoulders back, pick your head up and tighten your stomach. You’ve called upon your muscles to create dynamic stability, putting everything back in its healthiest, strongest position.
The same thing happens when you deadlift. If you arch your lower back excessively, you’re creating static stability by smashing your vertebrae together in the front. This creates static stability, which may keep your lower back from rounding dangerously, but at a cost. Now your pelvis is locked into anterior tilt (think “stripper arch”), which puts your hamstrings and glutes out of position to contribute to the lift. What do you get when your glutes and hams can’t contribute to a deadlift? A really dangerous lower back exercise.
Instead, get dynamic stability from some of the strongest muscles in the body, like your glutes, abs and lats. Take a big breath of air into your belly and hold it – this turns on your abs and stabilizes your spine. Next, squeeze your armpits and pull the bar back into your shins – this flexes your lats and keeps your chest up. Finally, try to spread the floor with your feet as you pull up – this fires your glutes and builds a strong lockout.
The same goes for a really wide stance sumo deadlift. Sure, you feel tight when you sit back into your hip sockets, but that’s because the head of your femur (upper leg bone) is literally jamming into the socket. This can lead to a familiar “pinching” feeling that’s called hip impingement. This is static stability, but it will also grind away at your hip capsule and put you on the fast track for a hip replacement after years of abuse.
Get dynamic stability instead by using the cues we already mentioned. Start with a narrower sumo stance, about two steps outside your hips and adjust accordingly. Hinge your hips backward instead of dropping straight down, and keep your hips above your knees to prevent your hips from jamming.
DIAL IT IN
The next time you deadlift, remember these mistakes. We’ve all made them, now it’s time to learn from them. Now make like you’re from Ohio and get to pullin’.