Deadlift Diagnosis

Fix your deadlift for fast size and strength gains!

03/17/05
Deadlift-diagnosis

Here's what you need to know...

  1. If you can't get it off the floor, your load may be too heavy, your back could be too rounded, or you may actually just be too slow.
  2. If you struggle at mid-shin, you may lack acceleration strength, or you may not be prepared to grind.
  3. If you struggle with the lockout, you may lack glute strength or upper back strength.
  4. If you have a weak grip, strengthen it by losing the straps and using a mixed grip.

Problem #1: Weak off the floor. Bar doesn't even budge.

Barbell Deadlift Floor

This problem has several potential causes, so we'll move from obvious to the not-so-readily apparent:

  1. The bar is too heavy! It doesn't matter where your sticking point is if you're picking a weight that isn't even close to what you can handle.

Solution: Take some weight off the bar so you can find where your true weakness is.

  1. You're too slow. As its name implies, the deadlift is performed from a dead stop on the floor; it's to your advantage to develop force quickly.

This is especially important with heavier weights. The bar won't necessarily move initially when you start the pull. The faster your rate of force development (RFD), the faster that "will this ever budge?" feeling will go away. If you're slow, you'll miss the lift before you ever approach near-maximal force values.

Solutions: Speed pulls are your best friend. Start with as little as 40% 1RM initially, but work in the 50-60% range for the vast majority of the time. Going to 70% is pushing it, but it's been done.

Some lifters have found that conventional plyometric exercises can help, but they don't hold a candle to speed pulls from a specificity standpoint.

Another option is to trick your body by pulling from a deficit. Do your deadlift variations while standing on a box or platform up to six inches in height. Once you "return to Earth" and pull from your regular altitude, the weights will seem to fly off the floor.

You can go from deficit to normal in a single session to improve your speed on normal sets by tricking your nervous system.

In assistance work, like snatch-grip deadlifts, pull heavy from the floor in week one, then pull the same weight in week two from a two-inch deficit, and from a four-inch deficit in week three.

In effect, you increase the amount of work you do by simply changing the distance, but not the force.

  1. Your hamstrings aren't up to par. Take a look at the starting position for the deadlift. Pay attention to the hips.

You'll notice that the pelvis is as anteriorly-tilted as it can get. This positioning places the hamstrings at a mechanical advantage early in the pull. If your hams are weak, you won't be able to get past this initial phase of the pull, so it won't even matter how strong your glutes and lower back are.

Solutions: Beat on your hamstrings in a movement-specific context. Use hip extension movements such as good mornings, glute-ham raises, stiff-legged deadlifts, pull-throughs, reverse hypers, and single-leg movements like lunges, step-ups, and split squats with longer strides.

  1. Your set-up is garbage. This problem can be subdivided into six categories:
Deadlift Set-Up

A. The hips can be too high. Your stiff-legged deadlift shouldn't be on par with your conventional deadlift. Get your butt down.

Solutions: In some cases, it's purely a matter of telling the lifter to arch a little, and the butt will magically drop. Others need to be consciously aware of getting the butt down before every attempt.

Interestingly, some Olympic lifting can help correct this problem because it's so dependent on proper posture. A steady diet of Olympic lifting can teach you to get your butt down at the start of the deadlift.

One movement that's relatively easy to learn, yet highly effective, is the high pull. Clean grip high pulls will carry over best to your deadlift, and snatch grip high pulls will pack some serious size on your upper back.

Related:  More on the high pull

B. The hips can be too low. When you push your hips way back to get more knee flexion, you move the fulcrum – the point about which a lever rotates, the hip joint – away from the bar, therefore increasing the lever arm of the resistance.

The bar becomes a lot heavier for your posterior chain to handle as you move it further away from your hip joint.

Solutions: Start your pull with the hips higher and hammer on the posterior chain. Then you'll have no reason to want to use the quads when pulling. And don't pull in front of mirrors, either. You'll be too tempted to check out your quads, you narcissistic pansy.

C. You're rounded over up top. This is a mess from both a technical and injury-predisposition standpoint. Some guys might appear to be a little rounded-over simply because their upper backs are so enormous. Don't confuse this with simply allowing the scapulae to drift and humeri to internally rotate.

If you can see the lettering on the chest of the lifter's shirt, he's in decent shape from a scapular standpoint.

Solutions: This problem can be fixed quite easily if it's a matter of being too lazy and careless to assume a proper set-up position. Simply think of keeping the chest high and you'll straighten right out.

If your posture is chronically bad, this won't do jack. In this scenario, fix your posture and add to your deadlift poundages appreciably in the process.

D. You're rounded over lower down. This is as problematic as the last example, and many times it's closely related to rounding-over up top, too (the lifter balls up like a caterpillar).

It's largely a result of tight hamstrings. When they're tight, you can't get sufficient hip flexion to bend down to the bar. Therefore, the lumbar spine has to flex for the individual to get to the down position. Lumbar flexion isn't a good thing, especially when deadlifting. Poor multidirectional core stability is also a problem in this scenario.

Solutions: Stretch the hamstrings and try to avoid prolonged periods of sitting without standing up and walking a bit.

Secondly, every day for a few weeks, practice setting up as if you were going to deadlift (but don't pull). Simply getting into your set-up is a great way to groove movement patterns and essentially force yourself into good flexibility.

Complement flexibility work with core exercises: Trunk flexion (pulldown abs), lateral flexion (side bends, windmills), rotation (woodchops), lumbar extension (back extensions, safety-squat bar and manta ray good mornings), and stabilization (prone and side bridges, heavy walkouts, one-arm suitcase deadlifts).

This core training will yield the greatest functional carryover if it's performed in a standing position.

Learn to create intra-abdominal pressure by bracing the abs, and tell anyone who tells you to suck in your tummy to suck it.

The key is to have muscles firing in all directions so that you have multidirectional stability to support the spine. This dramatically reduces the risk of numerous injuries, most notably those to the intervertebral discs.

Complement this muscular stability by drawing air into your stomach, not your chest. If you're a powerlifter wearing a belt, push your core musculature out against it as hard as you can. If you're not wearing a belt, brace your core as if you actually were wearing one!

Female Deadlift

E. Your grip is too wide. The wider your grip, the further you'll have to pull. Personally, my forearms are brushing up against the sides of my thighs.

Solution: Bring the hands in.

F. The bar is too far away from your shins. The further away from your shins (and, in turn, the hips) the bar is, the longer the lever arm of the resistance.

Solution: Get closer to the bar. You don't necessarily have to be touching it with your shins, but you should be pretty close.

  1. You're bouncing the weight off the floor on your rep work. This is more of an issue with beginners who require more reps per set to groove the movement patterns and build proficiency with the exercise.

If you're always bouncing the weight off the floor, you're really only pulling all the weight in the initial phase of the movement on the first rep of the set. You become proficient in the lockout, but not in the initial pull. If you can't get it off the ground, you can't lock it out!

Solutions: Don't bounce on your repetition work. Instead, pause for a second in between each rep. Cluster sets can be a brutal, yet effective protocol in this regard.

For instance, take 85% of 1RM and pull a single, rest five seconds, pull another single, rest five seconds, pull a third single, rest five seconds, and pull a fourth single.

That's one cluster, often written like this: 4x1/5s. If you were doing four clusters, it would be this: 4x(4x1/5s).

Another solution is to simply can the rep work altogether. This is more appropriate for those seeking maximal strength (not size) and technical proficiency. A 6x1 or 8x1 protocol works quite well, in my experience. These sets are usually speed work performed at a pre-determined percentage of 1RM.

  1. You're taking too long between your set-up and the actual pull. This is something I'm guilty of.

In the past, I'd get my feet lined up, drop down to the bar, set my grip, spend a few seconds focusing while looking down, then get my eyes up, fire the heels into the floor, and pull.

Then I watched a video of one of my meet pulls and realized that it took me a full 11 seconds to pull from the time that I first contacted the bar.

As a result, I lost every shred of help I could get from the stretch-shortening cycle (the elastic energy of which takes several seconds to dissipate completely) present from my drop to the bar. Since seeing that video, I'm pulling more "promptly."

Solutions: Think about all your cues before you get up to the bar. Then, when the time comes, bend forward at the hips and get your grip set one hand at a time. Once the grip is set, think of pulling yourself down to the bar and into the appropriate starting posture.

Rip it off the floor immediately; don't wait for every bit of elastic energy you stored from the initial drop to die off. You'll see some lifters "dive" into the bar and come back up right away.

It takes a ton of practice to get your grip perfect at such a rapid pace, but the "dip, grip, and rip" approach has proven quite successful for these veterans of the iron game.

Problem #2: Weak at Mid-Shin

Deadlift Mid Shin

Here's what could be standing in your way at the mid-shin level:

  1. Your hamstrings are weak... again! There's still a significant amount of anterior pelvic tilt in place when the bar is below the kneecaps, so the hamstrings are still doing the majority of the work.

For some, this is the portion of the movement where they're the weakest, especially if their speed is fantastic and they can get the bar moving fine, but seem to hit a brick wall when the bar is a few inches off the ground.

Solutions: Use plenty of variety in your training for best results in bringing the hams up to par.

  1. You're not prepared to grind. Not all pulls are going to be lightning-quick.

If you're not prepared to exert force over at least a few seconds, you'll likely miss any pull where your speed doesn't carry over to the top portion of the lift.

Solutions: It helps to be super-fast (so that this problem doesn't ever really arise), so don't write-off speed work.

One of the best ways to develop grinding prowess is isometric deadlifts against pins. Set the pins in the power rack at your mid-shin sticking point, and position a bar beneath them on the floor. It should be loaded with a speed weight percentage (40-70%).

Rip it off the floor as quickly as possible, and when you hit the pins, keep pulling like crazy. Use grinding periods of anywhere from five to ten seconds (yes, I've had competition deadlift PRs that have lasted a full ten seconds). Your blood pressure will be sky-high, but so will your new PR after a few sessions.

This technique can be used for a variety of sticking points, but it's imperative that you initiate the pull from the floor (and not a lower pin) in order to replicate the body position present in a true deadlift.

  1. You lack acceleration strength. The mid-shin sticking point is where one should miss a deadlift, as it's the weakest portion of the strength curve (i.e. where the lever arm of the resistance is longest).

Fortunately, one thing that isn't held constant is bar speed, so if you can increase the speed of the bar (acceleration strength) after you've initially gotten the bar moving, you can blast past this sticking point.

One way of getting past the shins is to develop acceleration strength to increase bar speed following the initial phase of the pull.

Solutions: Pull against mini-bands, chains and weight-releasers with a weight that approximates 40-60% of your 1RM. Speed work with this set-up will teach you to accelerate the bar at the crucial mid-shin portion of the lift, effectively forcing you to "outrun" the accommodating resistance.

It'll also increase the resistance at lockout on your speed work, a challenge that isn't present when using straight weights.

Try using rep work with bouncing the plates off the floor. While ineffective for those who struggle off the floor, a controlled bounce can actually help those who struggle at mid-shin to learn to accelerate the bar following the initial rebound. Ideally, you'll have bumper plates to do this.

Woman Deadlifting
  1. Your upper back needs to get with the program.

The entire trap muscle – including the upper, middle and lower fibers – and rhomboids are active in the first portion of the movement, but they don't take on a huge role until the mid-shin phase begins. The same can be said of the lats and teres major, too.

Recall that this is the natural sticking point in the movement, and therefore the point at which the bar has a tendency to track away from the body even further – that is, unless you fight to keep it close by using your upper back musculature.

The trapezius complex and rhomboids (collectively known as the scapular retractors) hold the scapula back and somewhat down, therefore keeping your chest up and out and the torso in the right alignment.

Meanwhile, the lats and teres major (the humeral extensors) work to keep the elbows tucked (to the sides instead of up, as in a front raise) in the sagittal plane relative to the torso. Essentially, you've got a ton of isometric upper back work taking place in the presence of some serious loading.

It's no wonder deadlifts are king when it comes to putting slabs of muscle on your back!

Solution: Hit the scapular retractors and lats with a wide variety of horizontal pulling movements. Some vertical pulling in moderation won't hurt, but it won't have as much functional carryover to your deadlift as variations of seated and bent-over rows and face pulls.

If your torso is fine position-wise, but your arms are tracking away, opt for more rowing with a supinated grip to emphasize the lats and teres major.

But if your torso is rounding over, stick to neutral and pronated grip rows and pull closer to the waist than the neck.

Problem #3: Weak at Your Lockout

Deadlift Lockout

You're two-thirds of the way there, but struggling to lock it out. Here are a few potential roadblocks at the lockout:

  1. Your gluteus maximus is weak. At lockout, the pelvis finally posteriorly tilts to reach a neutral position, and the gluteus maximus is the primary muscle involved in establishing this upright pelvis position.

If you can't fire the glutes, you'll either stall the bar short of lockout or hitch the lift in a "fake lockout."

With hitching, one bends the knees, but appears to straighten up the torso by hyperextending the lumbar spine. This is dangerous and isn't considered a completed lift by powerlifting judges.

Weak glutes are typically related to tight hip flexors and overactive lumbar erectors (and sometimes hamstrings).

Solutions: Loosen up the hip flexors with things like the warrior lunge stretch, and activate the glutes with things like supine bridges, kneeling squats, and single-leg exercises.

Do some stretching for your hamstrings and lumbar erectors. Focus on driving your hips into the bar once it passes the knees. You should feel your glutes fire as if you're pinching something between your cheeks.

  1. Your upper back is weak. This time, it's not the scapular retractors that are the problem; it's the scapular elevators, too.

You're going to need to retract your scapulae to get the torso upright in order to lock out the bar. Simultaneously, the upper traps and levator scapulae need to be firing like crazy to assist with the upward pulling motion. Little to no movement occurs but there's definitely some serious force contribution to the overall effort.

Solution: More of the rows mentioned above, but with somewhat of an added emphasis on pulling toward the shoulders, rather than the hip. Seated rope rows to the neck are a great choice along these lines.

Related:  Upper Back Training for Deadlifts

This is one case where supplemental shrugging exercises can be beneficial, although most lifters get plenty of scapular elevator work simply from deadlifts, rows and any Olympic lifting they may do. Snatch grip deadlifts will also give you plenty of bang for your buck.

Rack pulls can be extremely helpful in terms of the upper back strength thickness that we desire in this instance. However, many lifters find that their carryover to improving lockout strength is minimal at best.

The main problem is body position. The set-up for a rack pull doesn't exactly replicate the joint angles that occur in mid-pull.

If you're seeing progress on your deadlift poundages from using the rack pull, it's likely because these pulls are strengthening your upper back, not because they're directly training the lockout (which they aren't).

Your upper back may have plenty of strength; it could be your glutes that fail you at lockout. Getting the torso out over the bar and focusing on simultaneous hip and knee extension enables you to attain greater specificity.

Deadlift Gym
  1. You're not getting the head extended. This component of any hip extension lift is more important than you might think.

Performing compound movements like deadlifts, squats, cleans and good mornings with the neck flexed (head bent forward) is dangerous because this position forces the important thoracic and cervical spinal erectors to relax.

Since neck extension is a crucial step in these complex kinetic chain sequences, performing such movements with the neck flexed will also make you weaker. I mean, honestly, does anyone really want the muscles protecting their spine to relax during a deadlift?

Solutions: Fix your eyes on something slightly above your line of sight during the pull so that you aren't tempted to look down.

If this still doesn't help, add in some extensions with the neck harness at the end of your lower body sessions and you should see improvements in technique and lifting safety in a matter of weeks. make sure that you don't close your eyes with the head extended at lockout.

The best exercise for overloading the last third of the pull is the reverse band deadlift. You get help off the floor, but you'll feel like you've hit a ton of bricks when it comes time to lock that sucker out (when the band tension is much less).

This approach enables you to conserve energy on the initial pull in order to focus on your weakness at the top. The set-up can be a pain in the butt, but the results will justify your efforts.

Problem #4: You have crappy grip strength.

Grip Strength

If you can't hold a weight, you can't deadlift it.

Solutions: First, lose the straps on all pulling exercises.

Next, make sure that you're using a mixed grip when pulling. And alternate the pronated and supinated sides from set to set, and use your stronger set-up for all maximal lifts.

Some lifters have mastered using the hook grip for some really heavy deadlifts, but they're the exception, not the norm. Nonetheless, if you feel that it's something that might help you out, rest assured that others have done it before you.

Related:  Grip Training for The Deadlift

Lastly, use chalk. No one should ever miss a lift because of sweaty hands.

Try to incorporate some specific work to train your supporting grip (as opposed to your pinch and crushing grip), especially in time periods specific to the deadlift.

Doing sets that last a minute won't help much unless you're pulling for a lot of reps. Ten seconds is a better time period to use if preparing for maximal attempts. Thick-bar training and farmer's walks are great, as are suitcase deadlifts, isometric pulls against pins, and even heavy barbell holds for time.

Lessons from the Best

Heavy Bar

Look at the best deadlifters, you'll notice that they rarely miss lifts. There are three primary reasons for this low miss frequency.

  1. The stronger they get, the less frequently they deadlift.

This movement really beats on the body. While a newbie might be able to get away with pulling every fifth day, experienced lifters might only pull once per month. If you're not pulling as often, you're not missing as often.

  1. They don't overshoot their abilities.

They test the waters and go for PRs, but they aren't stupid about it. Nobody sets PRs when they're injured from taking an attempt 100 pounds over their previous PR, and it won't do much for your nervous system or confidence if you're constantly missing max attempts.

  1. Attitude!

This is deadlifting, not cardio kickboxing. When you deadlift, you should be training, not working out. It isn't a matter of doing what's on the paper and calling it a success; because you plan doesn't mean you prepare.

In the days and hours prior to a deadlifting session, you should be anxious to the point of twitching from thinking about pulling. Grow some balls and some calluses.

It's a combination of smart training and being so fired up when the time comes that there's no way you'll let yourself down and miss the lift.

03/17/05