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Doubting Your Deadlift Form? Not After This...

Updated: Feb 20, 2020

Hopefully, it isn’t a secret by now that I think deadlifts are the best. Deadlift mechanics are also going to be variable depending on your anatomy. Along with the squat, this is one of those movements where if you are trying to “textbook” deadlift, and you don’t have “normal” anatomy, you are cheating yourself and could get hurt.

Let’s start with some setup cues…

Hips shoulder-width apart, feet under hips.

Now, here is our first opportunity to talk about body anatomy. Your hip width is unique to you. Small tiny women will look like they have a “narrow stance” and big, gigantic men may look like they have a “wide stance”. However, if you look closely, they likely are right under their hips and only slightly deviated from this. You also have to take into consideration body size. If you have an athlete with a larger abdominal area, they may have to be a little wider to get between their legs. In a conventional deadlift, the wider the position, the longer the range of motion to get to the top, which isn't the ideal. I like the cue of asking where an athlete would launch for a box jump. That’s obviously the position they feel naturally powerful in a hip explosive movement and is a good starting point.

Toes forward (most of the time)

With your toes pointing forward, you will be biomechanically efficient and the most advantageous at the top of your deadlift. If you struggle from the floor, or have altered hip anatomy, you may have to toe out a little. Toes out just makes it harder to lock out.

Bar CLOSE So, a standard cue that can mess things up for people is the “bar in contact with your shin” cue. If you are someone who has longer legs/femurs, you may have to have the bar slightly farther away so you can clear your knees.

Vertical Shin (ideally) The best deadlifters in the world start with a vertical shin at set up. This loads the most tension in your posterior chain. You want to be as close to vertical as possible.

HIP HINGE to go down to set up

In my humble opinion, a big issue is that people don’t understand what a hip hinge is. Just like a squat is NOT a good morning/hip hinge exercise, the deadlift is not a squat. If you were to make your first move to the bar a squat and you are moving with a 1:1 hip to knee ratio, you will lose your vertical shin instantly (because remember, your knees track over your toes in the squat). Maintain that vertical shin, and push your butt BACK. If you need help feeling what a hip hinge is, check out this wall touch exercise. Another reason it is important to not squat into your deadlift is that your hips could potentially end up too low. You need tension in your hamstrings and posterior chain. If you start too low with your hips, you’ll likely end up with your hips rising before your shoulders move (affectionately referred to in many circles as stripping). If this is you, find where your hips naturally want to go to before your arms start to rise at the same time and just start your lift from there. This position is likely your body’s natural position where it can generate the most tension. Remember, think vertical shin!

Hands outside of your hips/knees/shins with a full grip We want the bar as close to our shins as possible. If you aren’t outside of your shins/knees, you’ll need to push the bar farther away from you. No Bueno. Bad news for the tiny lifters in the bunch. You may end up being so narrow with your stance, some of your grip is on the smooth part of the bar. The most common grips are the “over under”, where one hand is palm down and one hand is palm up. Or, the “hook grip”.

Which grip is for you? Glad you asked! The hook grip is going to protect you a little more from a bicep tear. If you are moving heavy weight off the floor with the under grip, it’s easier to try and bring in your biceps and bend your elbow at max capacity and end up with a Popeye situation. Obviously, if you are into CrossFit, or also incorporating cleans and snatches into your lifting, it makes more sense to practice your deadlift in this grip as that is how you would pull for your other lifts. The hook grip leaves a little to be desired for comfort, and also can be more difficult for those that have smaller hands. You want at least one finger wrapped around your thumb, ideally two. As far as over under grip goes, you just want to make sure the bar is closer to your fingers and your fingers can grip the bar and “hook” it this way. If you have the bar too far up your hand, it slides more. I will often have my shoulder impingement folks switch to underhand on the complaint side for a few weeks as we try and tame down their impingement as you are more in external rotation and that is another way to take load off of this area.

Feet, in even contact with the floor. Another cue I feel that many athletes over correct is the “weight in the heels” cue. Athletes will wiggle their toes off the ground to demonstrate this and you literally will see people getting ready to deadlift falling backwards, unsteady AF trying to follow the directions of the cue their coach has given. Folks, this is no good! You should feel like you have a steady base and are ready to push mother earth with your strong ass legs! We want your weight loaded in the posterior chain, absolutely. But please, don’t lift your toes off the floor. If your too far into your toes, the bar will move away from you and your deadlift will be a train wreck. You'll probably hurt yourself, and then have to come see me more. I love all of you, but I don't want this for you!

Shoulders OVER or SLIGHTLY in front of the bar. Arms straight, rigid torso, LATS ENGAGED

Ever see someone look like an arched zombie monster or human version of a question mark shape trying to pull the weight off the floor (? < -- see the zombie?!)? This is usually the result of un-engaged or weak lats, and the bar floating away from them.

Here you will see the "angry cat" deadlifting pose, which you should not try at home. It is also known as the zombie, ?, or Quasimodo around the office.

I like the cue of making orange juice out of the oranges in-between your arm and the side of your body. Don’t like orange juice or that cue? No problem. Imagine you are protecting yourself from some dink trying to tickle you. If you are doing this correctly, your armpits should be totally covered and protected from a rogue tickling attack. You’ll feel like you have really long arms and almost like you are pushing into the floor with them. Keep in mind... if you are in the long femur club (relative to torso), you will be much more parallel with the floor at set up. If you have a longer torso, you will be more upright.

Eyes on the horizon. NEUTRAL SPINE- Breathing and Bracing We’ve reviewed the proper brace with you previously. With the deadlift you have some options, you can breathe and brace BEFORE you set up or you can set up and then brace. Heck- some folks do both! If you chose to breath and brace at the top prior to set up, you may have a better brace as your abdomen has more room to fill with air before you scrunch down at set up. So, it is ideal to do this. However, if your set up takes longer, don’t do this! We don’t want you light headed and passing out. That would be embarrassing and dangerous. You could then take air in at the top, start to set up, and brace again.

Coaches and trainers- THIS IS FOR YOU! We are constantly telling people to lift with a neutral spine. I love that we all assume our clients and members are totally kinesthetically aware, and I hate to burst the unicorn myth on this one- but they aren’t. Look, be real. You know they aren't either. The majority of people I see couldn’t actually demonstrate a neutral spine if they tried. Pro-tip: do this in class one time so you can see it with your own eyes, and also watch your members have some “ah-ha” moments! Now, neutral spine isn’t just your low back. It is your head too. Don’t have that overarching crane neck at set up. Set your neck in neutral. It will stay here until the end of the lift. Your neck will not arch through the movement, defaulting to double chin is better than over arch. Set up complete.

Feet hip width apart, toes forward. Brace at top. Hinge down. Hands outside of shins, shoulders at or slightly over bar. Lats engaged, tension in posterior chain. Eyes on the horizon. Neutral spine. Shins as vertical as possible.

You are braced. Now, for the main event, The PULL. This is actually super easy if you’ve done the set up correctly. If you are in a bad position at set up, honestly, it’s pretty hard to fix any flaws during the pull. So, if your deadlift looks like garbage, reference the set up cues again.

Alright. Lets push the floor and move something heavy. Hips and shoulders rise at the SAME rate until the bar passes the knees

Be patient here! We want even tension. You want everything engaged in your arms. Push those feet into the ground and RISE!

Remember, if your hips are rising early, you likely have squatted into your deadlift set up, your hips are too low at the start, and you haven’t generated tension in your posterior chain. You can also have the zombie look and you haven’t engaged your lats. Here is that whole "set up properly and the rest should be easy" coming into play. Enjoy the sound effects.

Or, if your low back rounds and you are doing everything right, the weight is likely to heavy. Lower load, work resistance over time with good form, and try again next time.

Here is the big one that you CAN mess up here... Next, you will pass the knees with the bar, and START to extend the hip NOW. Complete at full hip and knee extension. Straight bar path.

Here, we want to shorten the distance of the bar path. Once the bar is past the knees, you want to quickly initiate hip extension so that the bar and your hips meet at the top.

In these photos I've waited until the top of the deadlift to extend my hips, necessitating the overarch and extending your low back to hit lockout. At lockout, you should be standing up tall and strong, and not arching your back.

Wanna practice that hip extension and glute activation to finish strong at the top? Stay tuned for our next blog and we will show you! That’s all for now. Go forth and lift heavy things.

Until next time, Doc Amy

PS- If you found this helpful, will you do me a favor and share it? You’re the best!

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