Deadlift Form Fixes: Becoming a Deadlift MachineSqueezing the bar off the floor does not mean you have to lift slowly. It is an acknowledgment in your setup, and the beginning of the pull, that the dead-stop start precludes momentum, a stretch reflex, or any help that might be gained by trying to rip the bar from the floor. To squeeze the bar off the floor, you first take out all the slack. Set your back and pull your arms and wrists straight as if they were ropes that you are trying to pull taut.
Deadlift Form Fixes: Becoming a Deadlift Machine
By: Nick Soleyn, Editor in Chief
Despite how you might feel after a heavy set of five, the deadlift is not named for the dark tunnel opening in your vision or the fight-or-flight survival instinct that kicks in around rep three. The deadlift is so named because it starts from a dead stop on the ground. No momentum or bouncing, no stretch reflex, the bar starts at rest on the floor, and your goal is to grab it and stand up with it. The deadlift is elegant in its simplicity, making it one of the best ways to build and test raw strength. But it is a mistake to think that the lift starts when you start pulling or that a successful lift involves no more than the “grip it and rip it” approach. There are a host of common errors in the barbell deadlift, most of which can be fixed with a good setup and a proper understanding of how one should lift. Here, we will talk about the standard deadlift position produced by the setup and two common errors: lifting too quickly and the bar leaving the lifter’s legs during the pull. Both of these issues come from the eponymic dead-stop starting position, the lack of momentum as you start to pull, and that the deadweight of the deadlift is external to you when you set up for the lift.
The Lifter-Barbell System
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. Your system transmits force between your base of support (your feet when you are standing on the ground) and external resistances, making good balance during lifting crucial for generating force, helping you keep control over the barbell and not fall over.
Balance is a state in which the center of mass of an object is over its base of support. Every object on earth has a center of mass, defined as the mathematical average of gravity acting on your body. Balance is the act of maintaining that average vertically over your base of support. If you are standing, your base of support is your feet, from your toes to your heels (front to back) and the width of your stance (side to side). This is why you find it easier to keep from getting knocked off balance with a wide stance. Under gravity and other external resistances, much of human movement, including barbell training, is a choreography, controlled by the nervous system and comprising mechanical interactions between bones, muscles, ligaments, and joints that seeks to apply external force while maintaining the balance of the system.
When we squat, press, or bench press, the lift starts when we remove the barbell from its place on the rack and carry it on our bodies, either in our hands or on our backs. This unracking adds the external resistance of the bar to our system; it adds the mass of the barbell to our mass. If your center of mass is the average mass of your system, then a heavy enough barbell will move that average slightly in space. The heavier the barbell, the more that average moves toward the barbell’s center. So, when we unrack the bar for a squat, bench press, or press, our bodies automatically adjust your balance to account for the additional mass. When you squat and press, you have a chance to settle on your midfoot and anticipate how the added mass will affect your control of the barbell and of your own movement.
When we deadlift, however, the change in mass is less gradual. Until the bar breaks contact with the floor, some of its mass remains external to your system, at a dead stop on the floor. By the time you “unrack” the bar from the floor, you must already have prepared your system for the added mass: your back must be set and able to handle the force from the load, the bar must be positioned so that the system’s center of mass is over the middle of your foot, and your body position relative to the bar must be correct. We use a five-step deadlift setup to help teach this correct starting position.
It is common to see a lifter roll the bar during their setup, usually rolling the bar toward them directly into the first part of the lift. Very good lifters may use this method out of habit, having learned how to get into a good starting position despite this extra movement. We see this rolling start in many novice lifters, however, who end up out of position. Many of these lifters mistakenly believe or feel like the roll actually imparts useful movement to the barbell, helping with the lift itself. The problem is that this is impossible. Given a constant velocity, the direction or magnitude of a force cannot change without a simple machine. The horizontal movement of a rolling barbell cannot become vertical movement against gravity that will help you lift more weight.
Classical simple machines—the lever, wheel and axle, pulley, and inclined plane, and a few others—are what humans use to magnify or direct our force to do more work. For example, if we installed a ramp in your gym and you rolled the bar up the ramp, then you could translate the force you are using to roll the bar into vertical work against gravity. A deadlift jack similarly creates work against gravity through a force that is not applied vertically to the barbell. Without some simple machine, 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 constitutes good deadlift form. You can deadlift a light weight with poor form (just check social media for the evidence of this), but as the bar gets heavier, its mass becomes a more dominant part of your lifter-barbell system, and the range of tolerable form issues—those that may exist while still allowing you to complete the movement—narrows. At very heavy loads, there are a few conditions that must occur for the bar to leave the ground. (1) The lifter’s back must be set and rigid in normal anatomical extension. The rigidity of the lifter’s trunk determines how effectively your body can resist the force of the barbell. In essence, you must maintain the same posture you have when standing with good posture, in a bent over, loaded position. (2) The center of mass of the system must be over the lifter’s midfoot as the bar leaves the floor. (3) The bar will be in contact with the lifter’s shins, maximize the amount of muscle mass the lifter can contribute to the pull. (4) The shoulders will be slightly in front of the bar when viewed from the side. (5) Hip height will be determined by the bar’s position on the floor and contact between the bar and the lifter’s shins. A good setup will help the lifter meet each of these criteria. And a successful lift will have the bar in contact with the lifter’s legs as it travels vertically over the lifter’s midfoot. A heavy deadlift is a refining force, removing inefficiencies from the mechanical system that is you and your barbell, making this pulling position a product of the load as much as it is an intentional setup from the lifter.
Looking more closely at the second of the above criteria, however, there is a slight problem. How can the lifter-barbell system’s center of mass be over the lifter’s midfoot during the setup if it will continue to change until the bar breaks contact with the floor? Anticipating the change is mass is where we can learn to build precision into our lifts and become better deadlift machines
A Deadlifting Machine
A tower crane is perhaps the second most impressive deadlifting machine (Hafþór Björnsson being the first). The 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.
Taking a lesson from the crane, we know that it is not the width of our base of support that matters when we deadlift, but the precision with which we maintain the vertical arrangement of the load and our midfoot base.
Unlike the tower crane, we are concerned with increasing our maximum load ability and not how much we can lift without falling over. Maximum load moment is a function of your overall mass combined with the mass of the barbell and the arrangement of the center of mass and base of support. This is an entirely systemic variable and not dependent on the strength of your “machinery,” our force production capabilities being a non-factor since any distance from your midfoot balance point requires submaximal loads anyway. No matter how wide or strong the base of support, even if you were anchored into the ground by concrete, maximal loads require precise placement over the midfoot.
Though this is the correct orientation of lifter and 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. 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 deadlift form errors.
Lifting Too Quickly
Imagine the forces on your body during a deadlift occurring instantaneously. One moment you are standing there minding your own business, 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, then moving toward compression at the top of the lift. Your spinal erectors maintain 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 best, you would simply drop the bar. At worst, you would be injured by being unprepared to support the load.
As we have learned through the discussion of the center of mass, being prepared is not just mental preparation. The system needs to be loaded with the bar’s mass and given a chance to adjust as much as possible. This argues against trying to pull the bar off the ground quickly, with sudden maximal effort. When lifters attempt to “jerk” the bar from the floor with heavy weights, they will usually be pulled out of position.
The pulling position we described above requires a rigid spine, your shoulders to be slightly in front of the bar, and the bar to remain vertically over the middle of your foot. You can help meet these each of these with a single concept: “squeezing the bar off the floor.”
Squeezing the bar off the floor does not mean you have to lift slowly. It is an acknowledgment in your setup, and the beginning of the pull, that the dead-stop start precludes momentum, a stretch reflex, or any help that might be gained by trying to rip the bar from the floor. To squeeze the bar off the floor, you first take out all the slack. Set your back and pull your arms and wrists straight as if they were ropes that you are trying to pull taut. The tighter you pull, the more of the barbell’s mass will be 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 “putting 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 were not centered on your midfoot before this point, you should be able to feel that condition as you take the slack out of the bar. As you get heavy on your feet, you should feel the pressure of the weight centered more and more narrowly on your midfoot. 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, your elbows bending before straightening as you start the pull in a “jerking” or “yanking” motion, or a loud “click” as you start to lift as space between the bar and plates is taken out. Try instead to be more deliberate in your setup, use the cues here, and lift like you are turning up the dial on your force production from zero to eleven.
Losing Contact Between Your Legs and the Bar
The deadlift pulling position requires 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 upward portion of the lift.
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. “If the lifter starts with the shoulders back, arms vertical, the lifter will ‘swoop’ the hips up before the bar leaves the floor anyway. If the shoulders start too far forward, the bar will ‘swing’ away from the shins once the bar leaves the floor.” (Gotcher, “The 5 + 1 Deadlift Eye”)
The correct pull will maintain this angled arm position until near the top of the lift.
This creates a potential problem. If your arms were simply straps, with nothing to hold them at an angle, then the bar would pull them straight as soon as it broke contact with the ground. This is 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 maintain the center of mass over your midfoot. 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 you cannot lift a maximally heavy load this way. Your crane arm has become too long. One of two things is likely to happen from here: either you fail the lift, or your back rounds to bring the load closer to your midfoot; sometimes, 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 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 a 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.
You might also try to pause before you pull. Acknowledging each of the setup conditions before you start the lift and committing that feeling to muscle memory makes for a consistent, precise deadlift. In addition to the five-step deadlift setup, try adding a short pause before you pull. As you pause, pay attention to your balance; you should be heavy on your midfoot. Pay attention to your grip; the bar should be heavy in your hands from squeezing all the slack out between your arms and the bar. Pay attention to the bar’s position; the bar should be touching your shins. And actively keep the bar back so that it stays on your legs during the lift. This is the pulling position, which you should pass through before every single rep. A slight pause here—no more than a moment—gives you the opportunity to recognize, confirm, and repeat the deadlift setup position no matter how much weight is on the bar.