deadlift setup mistakes

The 5 + 1 Deadlift Eye

The barbell deadlift’s constraints are a feature, not a bug. By limiting the range of positions, the lifter can learn very quickly what’s right for them, and the coach can apply a simple “5+1” framework to catch the vast majority of setup errors.

The 5 + 1 Deadlift Eye

By: CJ Gotcher, Barbell Logic Academy Director

In this article, we outlined a 5-step procedure for setting up the deadlift that universally places lifters into a correct or near-correct starting position.

The reason it works so well is that the deadlift is tightly constrained. With the exception of the back, the major body segments are effectively fixed. The bar has to be very close to the midfoot, the hips have to stay as close as they can to the bar to save the back from having to do extra work, and the shins can only travel as far forward as the bar will let them.

These constraints demand that, if the weight is heavy and the stance, grip width, and back are set, the lifter has a narrow range for the position they will take when the bar leaves the floor. This is not the case for other lifts with different constraints; the trap bar deadlift, for instance, allows free travel of the knees, so the lifter has more freedom to choose their starting stance.

The barbell deadlift’s constraints are a feature, not a bug. By limiting the range of positions, the lifter can learn very quickly what’s right for them, and the coach can apply a simple “5+1” framework to catch the vast majority of setup errors.

The 5-Point Check

Assuming a rigid back and that the lifter is trying to lift a heavy weight in the strongest way possible, there are 5 key interrelated checkpoints in the lifter’s setup:

  1. Bar Position: The best position balances the need to have the shoulders in their best position—just slightly in front of the bar—with the efficiency of having the system’s center of mass over midfoot the moment the bar leaves the floor. The bar’s best position, then, will be over midfoot or slightly forward of it. Because a heavy bar will be most of the center of mass, this difference between midfoot and “ideal” will be smallest at working weights.
  2. Balanced: The lifter is strongest when the full surface of the foot is in contact with the floor and the center of mass is directly over the lifter’s midfoot. Watch for any part of the foot coming up off the floor, especially as the lifter sets their back just before the pull.
  3. Shin Contact: In a heavy deadlift, the bar should start in contact with the shins. If it isn’t—and the bar is in the correct position—the lifter is holding the hips too far back, increasing the work the back has to do. This also often happens when the lifter extends the knees without realizing it, pulling the shins off the bar and reducing the quad’s ability to help in the lift.
  4. Shoulder Position: The shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar as viewed from the side. 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.
  5. Hip Height: If the bar is at the correct distance from the shins at the start, the act of taking the grip and bringing the shins to touch the bar will place the hips at the correct height. Ensure the lifter freezes the hips when the shins touch, and watch for movement from there. If the hip height changes in relation to the rest of the lifter as the bar begins moving, that’s a useful signal for an upstream or downstream error, but it only works as a diagnostic tool if the lifter locks it in place and doesn’t roll the bar or jerk away from it.

The Hip Bone’s Connected to The…

It can be difficult to mentally track 5 different objects—and we haven’t gotten to the +1 yet—but because the system is interrelated, you, as a coach, have a head start and a range of options to solve any setup problems you see:

None of these five checkpoints can be in error on its own. To understand what I mean, imagine a lifter in a starting position that’s correct for them.

If the lifter loses their balance forward, towards the toes, the bar must move forward of its good position and the shoulder will shift too far forward with it.

If the lifter shifts their balance to their heels, either the bar will lose contact with the shins or be pulled out of position, and the shoulders will move with it.

If the lifter places the hips too low, usually from a poor setup or when they attempt to put the back in extension, the hips will push the bar forward, placing the shoulders too far back—a position that they’ll inevitably have to “swoop” back out of as the bar breaks the floor once the weight gets heavy enough.

If the hips are too high, the shoulders are too far forward, and the bar is either off the shins or out of position over the midfoot.

Back Extension—the +1

At the Coaching Academy, we default to coaching rigid back extension at the start of the deadlift for a few reasons:

  • Most lifters can’t lock out a truly heavy deadlift if the lumbar (lower back) spine starts rounded, with the pelvis tilted.
  • Keeping a “flat back” keeps a slightly longer moment arm on the back, ensuring that it is being trained in the movement by holding the spinal segments in their normal relationship.
  • Maintaining spinal extension under load is a useful general skill that the deadlift allows the lifter to practice, a skill that applies to other pulling movements.

However, strong lifters will intentionally round their thoracic spine (upper back) to shorten the moment arm on the back, allowing for a heavier lift. Lifters with a natural kyphosis can deadlift safely despite their upper back being rounded more than “normal,” and the fears of catastrophic spinal failure from a rounded upper back are unfounded.

In the setup, then, the “flatness” of the upper back is in part a coach’s choice, determined by the needs and goals of the lifter.

Instead of fixating on getting clean, straight lines, the coach is better off focusing on whether the lifter is able to hold the back fixed at whatever position it begins as they squeeze the bar off the floor. A rounded-but-rigid back is one thing. A flat back that begins to roll forward as the lifter breaks the bar from the floor is another, as it will likely cause numerous downstream errors that will make it harder to complete the lift.

The Cheat Code for Coaching

The novice coach often fails to find the cause of an error, instead cueing only what they see directly. If the lifter isn’t able to keep the bar against the shins at the start of the lift, the novice coach might instruct the lifter to use the lats and actively pull the bar back. If this doesn’t work, they might do drills to ingrain the idea, and when the bar still stubbornly swings away, they’ll start to wonder if the lifter needs extra lat work to address this “weakness.”

When you can see the five checkpoints, you realize there’s always another solution. You can cue the error first—”Keep it close”—and if focusing the lifter’s attention doesn’t help, you know where else to go. The bar has to be touching the shins if the other pieces are in place, so you widen your gaze, identify the other fault in the chain, and by helping them correct that problem, you fix both, like a boss.


Barbell Logic has a a new section to our website called the Coaches’ Corner and a new Facebook group dedicated to coaching development.
From the Coaches’ Corner you can download a free ebook from our Coaching Academy leadership team on the Core Principles of Coach Development that lays out an educational framework that can take you from a novice coach to a skilled professional. The Coaches’ Corner will also feature other free content related to coaching and a link to the new Facebook Group where you can talk to other coaches, share resources, and begin or continue your development as a coach.

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