common deadlift mistakes

Common Deadlift Errors: What Happens When Your Mass Changes Suddenly?

By: Barbell Logic Team

As a deadlift machine, there is a necessary precision to a correct setup if you are going to lift the heavy weights required for strength training. Precision, here, means a consistent setup and execution of the lift within a narrow range that will constitute “good form.” You can deadlift a light weight with poor form (just check YouTube for the evidence), but as the bar gets heavier and heavier, the range of tolerable form issues—those that may exist while still allowing you to complete the movement—narrows. All preparation must come during the setup, prior to the lift. A failure to prepare or to execute the lift in a manner that anticipates the abrupt loading of your system can lead to some common form errors.

Deadlift Errors: Changing Center of Mass During the Lift

Photo: Nick Soleyn

Despite what you may feel like after a heavy set of five deadlifts, the deadlift does not get its name from the dark tunnel you enter in around rep three. Rather, the deadlift starts from a “dead stop” on the ground, which is part of what makes the lift so harrowing. There is no stretch reflex to precede the main work of the lift; there can be no momentum as you start to pull; and importantly, the deadweight of the deadlift is external to your musculoskeletal system when you set up for the lift.

Your musculoskeletal system is the collection of muscles and bones that work as a series of levers to impart external resistance to the world around you. That system transmits force between your body and your base of support—your feet when you are standing on the ground. When you squat, press, or bench press, you take the bar off its support and carry it on your body. This “unracking” adds the external resistance of the bar to your system before the movement actually starts. But in a deadlift, until the bar breaks contact with the floor, some of its mass remains external to your system. By the time you “unrack” the bar from the floor, you must already have prepared your system for lifting the weight—your back must be set and able to handle the force from the load, the bar must be over the middle of your foot, and your body position relative to the bar must be correct. The five-step deadlift setup helps you get into the correct position.

Without some simple machine, due to the external nature of the lift, no amount of gyrating, rolling, or bouncing at the bottom can produce vertical work against gravity. The only machine is you.

As a deadlift machine, there is a necessary precision to a correct setup if you are going to lift the heavy weights required for strength training. Precision, here, means a consistent setup and execution of the lift within a narrow range that will constitute “good form.” You can deadlift a light weight with poor form (just check YouTube for the evidence), but as the bar gets heavier and heavier, the range of tolerable form issues—those that may exist while still allowing you to complete the movement—narrows until, at very heavy loads, two conditions must occur for the bar to leave the ground. Rip describes these conditions as necessary to the “Standard Pulling Position” for the deadlift in the best article on pulling mechanics:

“[T]he barbell travels up the legs in an approximately vertical line over the middle of the foot, while the shoulders stay in a position just forward of the bar until the top of the pull. And this is true no matter what the lifter attempts to [do] with the bar; you may start somewhere else, but you’re going to end up doing the pull this way.” (Mark Rippetoe, “Deadlift Mechanics: The Obvious Can Be Obscure,” (May 24, 2017)

This Standard Pulling Position is a necessity of the load. A heavy deadlift is a refining force, removing inefficiencies from the mechanical system that is you and your barbell.

The model of the deadlift and the Standard Pulling Position identify balance as one of the key conditions for performing a correct deadlift. For the lifter-barbell system to be in balance, the center of mass (COM) of the system must be situated directly over your base of support. (Read more about balance and strength training here.) Looking from the side, your base of support is your feet, with the exact center of your feet being the point of rotation for the system. Any time your COM is not over the middle of your foot, you have to exert extra force to keep from falling over. Try it, the more you lean forward or backward the harder you have to work to keep from falling over until, if you lean too much, you have to take a step to keep from falling.

The more massive your COM, the more directly vertical it needs to be over your midfoot balance point for you to keep from falling forward or backward. Your COM is the combined average of your and the barbell’s masses and exists at some point between the two. As the lifter-barbell system’s combined COM increases it moves closer to the barbell, since it is the increasingly heavy weight of the barbell that increases the combined COM. At the very heaviest weights, we can assume that the COM of the lifter-barbell system is the barbell.

A Deadlifting Machine

It is not the width of your base of support that matters here, but the precision with which you maintain the vertical arrangement of the load and your midfoot base. If you think of the arrangement like a tower crane, a wider base might allow you to lift larger submaximal loads farther from your base without falling over. A tower crane is fixed into a concrete 30x30x4 base, weighing approximately 400,000 pounds. This allows the crane to move heavy loads at the end of a 200-foot boom arm. A good base of support and large counterweight allow for a lot of variability in the crane’s function, extending the machine’s versatility with a wider reach.

The heavier the load, however, the narrower the range of a crane, moving horizontally closer and closer to the base of support as the load increases. The standard crane has a 300 tonne-meter rating, meaning if the operator places the load 30 meters from the mast, the crane can lift 10 tonnes despite its maximal load capacity being ~18 tonnes. The crane, then, has both a maximum load that it can lift (which must be lifted close to the base of support) and a maximum load moment—the maximum that it can lift at a given distance from the mast without tipping over. No matter the load-rating for the crane, maximally heavy loads must always be positioned near the mast, over the base of the support.

In training your deadlift, we are concerned with increasing your maximum load ability and not how much you can lift without falling over. Your maximum load moment is a function of your overall mass combined with the mass of the barbell, and the arrangement of your COM in relation to your base of support. This is an entirely systemic variable and not dependant on the strength of your “machinery,” your force production capabilities being a non-factor since any distance from your midfoot balance point requires submaximal loads anyway.

This arrangement, however, acts as a limiter on the maximal load you can move. This is why the standard pulling position that Rip describes above positions the barbell directly over your base of support. No matter how wide or strong your base of support, even if you were anchored into the ground by concrete, maximal loads require precise placement over the middle of your foot.

Though this is the correct orientation of lifter vis-a-vis the barbell, it is not required prior to attempting a deadlift. You can position your body any way you like before actually lifting the bar because the bar is wholly supported by the ground. When you squat, you take the bar out of the rack, take two steps back, and prepare to lift. As soon as you take the bar out of the rack, your COM changes, adjusting to accommodate the bar. When you take two steps back from the rack, you do so in balance; when you start the lift with the full weight of the barbell. But when you deadlift, you do not feel the full weight of the bar in your hands until the bar breaks contact with the ground. By then, it is too late to make adjustments or prepare your body for the lift. All preparation must come during the setup, prior to the lift. A failure to prepare or to execute the lift in a manner that anticipates the abrupt loading of your system can lead to some common form errors.

Lifting Too Quickly

Imagine the forces on your body during a deadlift occurring instantaneously. One moment you are standing there, and the next you are holding two- three- or four-hundred pounds in your hands. During a heavy deadlift, your arms carry the weight of the bar as tension. The soft tissues—your muscles, ligaments, and tendons—prevent your upper and lower arms from separating. Your torso carries the weight of the bar first as moment force, moving toward compression at the top of the lift, your spinal erectors maintaining a rigid vertebral column both to transfer force to the bar and to prevent your spine from failing in flexion under the load. Even if you knew it was coming, this sudden load would be a shock to your system. At the best, you would simply drop the bar, at worst you’d be injured by being unprepared to support the load.

This is what happens if you try and pull the bar off the ground quickly and with sudden maximal force, though to a much lesser degree. Muscles do not produce their maximal contractile force instantaneously. If you are to maintain the Standard Pulling Position as the bar breaks contact with the floor and you assume the full weight of the bar, you must prepare your system to handle the load.

The standard pulling position requires a rigid spine, your shoulders to be slightly angled, and the bar to remain vertically over the middle of your foot. Each of these criteria benefit from a common cue: “Squeezing the bar off the floor.”

Squeezing the bar off the floor doesn’t mean you have to lift slowly. Rather it’s an acknowledgment in your setup and the beginning of the pull that the deadlift prevents the introduction of momentum, a stretch reflex, or any help that might be gained by lifting quickly. To squeeze the bar off the floor, you first take out all the slack from the system between you and the bar. You do this as you set your back, pulling your arms and wrists straight, and beginning to carry a significant amount of the barbell’s mass in your hands. If you were standing with your feet on a scale, you would be making yourself as heavy as possible just through your setup. Indeed, making the bar “heavy in your hands,” getting “heavy on your feet,” or “putt[ing] some bend in the bar” are some of the common cues we use to get lifters to squeeze the bar off the floor.

This technique results in a more gradual pull. Your spinal erectors benefit from this because they act in isometric contraction. Isometric contraction can only be so forceful without external resistance. You can set and hold your back in normal anatomical extension, but if you add some resistance, some force trying to round your back and flex your spine, then the muscles that hold your back flat can contract much more forcefully. When you prepare to squeeze the bar off the floor by taking some of the weight of the barbell into your lifter-barbell system, your spinal erectors can contract harder, better preparing them for the full load of the barbell when you start the lift in earnest.

Squeezing the bar off the floor also helps you stay in balance during the lift. As you take the slack out of the bar, your center of mass changes. If you weren’t centered on your midfoot before this point, you should be able to feel that condition as you take the slack out of the bar. Developing this feel is similar to the Master Cue for the squat. As you get heavy on your feet, you should feel the pressure of the weight centered more and more narrowly on the middle of your foot. This calibrates your balance as you finish the setup and start the pull, helping ensure that you can lift maximally heavy loads.  

Telltale signs that you need to work on squeezing the bar off the floor include your back rounding as you start the pull, usually before the plates break contact with the ground; elbows bending before straightening as you start the pull in a “jerking” or “yanking” motion; or a loud “click” as you start to lift before taking the slack out of the barbell, this being the sound of the bar being pull up tight against the sleeves and plates on the end. Try instead to be more deliberate in your setup, use the cues here and lift more like you are turning up the dial on your force production from zero to eleven.

Losing Contact Between Your Legs and the Bar

The Standard Pulling Position requires that the bar moves in a straight vertical line from the floor to the lockout position. This means that your shins will be in contact with the bar during your setup and that you should maintain a connection between the bar and your legs for the entire range of motion.

One common error is allowing the bar to swing away from your legs early in the movement. When you are positioned so that the bar is over the middle of your foot and your back is set in normal anatomical extension, your shoulders will be slightly in front of the bar. Starting Strength says that they will “hang at an angle of somewhere between 7-10 degrees behind vertical, placing the shoulders just in front of the bar and, perhaps coincidentally, directly under the scapulas.” The correct pull will maintain this angled arm position until the bar reaches your knees.

This creates a potential problem. If your arms were simply straps, with nothing to hold them at that 7 to 10-degree angle, then the bar would pull them straight as soon as it broke contact with the ground. This is actually what the bar tries to do. Or rather, what gravity acting on the bar tries to do. There is a fight between gravity and the bar pulling your arms straight and your latissimus dorsi muscles (lats) keeping the bar at the necessary angle to remain over the middle of your foot. You can, perhaps, see the potential problems you are facing. If the bar swings away from your legs due to a failure of your lats to hold the bar back, then the bar is no longer over the middle of your foot. Not only are you potentially out of balance, but, as we’ve discussed, you cannot lift a maximally heavy load that is not positioned over the middle of your foot. Two things may happen: You fail the lift or your back rounds to bring the load closer to your midfoot. Usually, it’s both.

The preparation for your lift that includes “taking the slack out” and “squeezing the bar off the floor” also includes an active contraction of your lats to help keep the bar on your legs as it breaks contact with the ground. You do this by getting your chest up very hard, improving the angle of attachment for your lats and by actively engaging your lats. The lat muscles’ origins start on your spine at vertebrae T7 and extend down to the iliac crest of your pelvis. The muscles insert on the heads of your humeri. Your lats are responsible for shoulder extension, adduction, horizontal abduction, and internal rotation. Shoulder extension is sweeping back motion that keeps the bar on your shins. These big powerful muscles are capable of holding your arms at the angle needed for the standard pulling position. If they aren’t doing their job, you are likely jerking the bar off the ground, not setting your chest up high enough, or not actively resisting the bar’s pendulum swing before it breaks contact with the ground.

There are a host of potential errors in this seemingly simple lift. But these are a few that we see stemming from the nature of the lift itself, the standard pulling position, and the requirements of gravity and physics. If you’ve been struggling with the deadlift, let us know what your issues are and what you’ve tried that has (or hasn’t) helped.

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