Learning how to deadlift with proper form is fundamental for every lifter. The deadlift is one of the “BIG” lifts when it comes to training, and it builds low back strength better than any other exercise. A deadlift done wrong, however, is potentially dangerous. As you have heard me say often, the hip hinge pattern is fundamental for long term low back health, and low back strength is an important component of health and performance. As such, mastering the hinge and
the potential to load the deadlift is important for both prevention and performance
In my practice, the hip hinge is a fundamental, as is being able to perform some variation of a deadlift with proper form. You need a proper hinge pattern to be functional in activities of daily living, because you certainly can’t go through life unable to handle the weight of your torso moving over the hips.
And you can’t stop there. Once you own that pattern, you need to be able to load it for increased capacity and resilience. Strength, after all, is everything.
Here is the ultimate guide on how to deadlift with proper form, including the various functional requirements and structural considerations that can impact capacity and performance, and how to address them.
There are several functional requirements for the deadlift, which we can break down from the bottom up, starting at the feet. I call these requirements because again, these will impact both capacity and performance. As such, they should be addressed as part of teaching proper form leading up to the deadlift.
Foot stability is the foundation for all your lifts. Therefore, if you are not working on foot stability, you are not working on a solid foundation. If you want to be as strong as possible in your lifts, the first strength leak you need to address is your feet. I’m sure you assess your clients’ lifts regularly. But have you ever assessed their feet? Time to start…
Proper activation of the foot creates not only a natural arch, but a stable base of support. If the foot is not stable or you cannot control pronation (ie. the medial arch of the foot collapses), this results in tibial internal rotation, knee valgus and femoral (hip) internal rotation. On the other hand, properly activating the foot creates a natural hip external rotation torque.
The head of the first metatarsal, head of the fifth metatarsal and heel create a triangle that we commonly refer to as the foot tripod. A common misconception of the tripod is that we should be pushing it into the floor. The idea behind the tripod is that your weight should be centered within it. For that to happen, you need to have appropriate sensation of those 3 points of contact.
Additionally, you actually want to lightly push the toes into the floor. Not too hard, so that you are not gripping with the toes and losing contact with the base of the first and fifth toe, but just enough that you are feeling the medial arch lift as you push the toes down.
Awareness of the foot and tripod is important. A common mistake beginners make with the deadlift is letting all of their weight shift onto the heels. Ideally, you should learn to deadlift barefoot so that you can improve cutaneous sensation of the plantar foot an improve awareness.
If you would like to read more on foot stability, head to my full article: Foot Stability is the Foundation for All of Your Lifts.
Anterior core strength
Intrinsically tied in with dissociation, anterior core strength is required to maintain a fixed torso. Some people place the lumbar spine in an over-extended position, which may indicate failure to engage the anterior core sufficiently to counterbalance the back extensors.
Well-intentioned cues like “chest up” or “keep the torso upright” have resulted in many people letting the ribs flare up, extending through the mid and low back. We typically use this cue when a client is rounded in their lower back at the bottom of the deadlift. However, some people are hyper-extenders, and the chest up cue might simply trigger them to hyperextend the lower back. What they really need is to keep the ribs slightly tucked, like they’re about to get punched in the stomach.
To be clear, extension is not all bad, because at the bottom of the deadlift we need extension at the lumbar spine to keep the hamstrings from pulling the pelvis into posterior tilt. However, for someone who is very mobile, the “chest up” cue might trigger overextension through the lumbar spine, and an over-arched lower back is just as bad as rounded lower back.
I have found that getting clients to understand how to maintain extension without overextending or letting the ribs flare is more about getting them to understand what is going on in the shoulders. Often, the famous “bend the bar” cue works better that the chest up cue for hyperextenders. That said, as it is also a cue, the intent needs to be previously established. I discuss this at length in my article: Is the Chest Up Cue for the Deadlift Good or Bad?
Thoracic extension strength
Often when we talk about the deadlift, one of the things we focus on is thoracic mobility. Indeed, we do need good thoracic extension to get into the proper position for the deadlift. However, one component we often forget is that we also need to have thoracic extension STRENGTH. Once we have the appropriate mobility, we need strength within that range to resist flexion under load. Upper back strength is a big contributor to deadlift performance.
At the deadlift start position, the chest needs to be lifted up, which is achieved using the muscles of the upper back and requires appropriate thoracic extension. This actually creates extension all the way down to the pelvis and that extension strength is what allows us to resist flexion under load. As mentioned in the previous section, hyperextension of the lumbar spine is not desired, but the need to resist flexion under the load still requires an extension action of the entire spine.
The deadlift is a PULLING exercise and requires the entire back to remain rigid in order to pull the bar without dropping the hips. Optimal thoracic mobility and thoracic extension strength are important requirements for the deadlift. For some examples of exercises to work on thoracic extension strength, head to the blog article Thoracic Extension Strength for the Deadlift.
Dissociation for proper deadlift form is the capacity to dissociate movement of the lumbar spine and pelvis from movement of the hips. Why is it important? In my practice, I have dealt with many people who have low back pain. Often, there are two reasons for this. Either pain has changed the way they move or the way they move triggers pain. In either case, focusing on dissociation has always helped restore pain-free deadlifts. A regression of deadlift form to the basic hip hinge pattern, and even all the way to lumbopelvic hip function, is sometimes necessary to re-build to a pain-free deadlift.
When a client is experiencing pain with deadlifts or having difficulty maintaining proper form, regressing to and assessing the most basic function of the hips, pelvis and lumbar spine becomes foremost. While they may seem like simple exercises, I have had 500+ pound deadlifters struggle with these, especially those who have experienced episodes of pain with deadlilfts.
For optimal deadlift form, we need to move our hips and torso about a neutral pelvis. In order to find the proper neutral pelvis range, it is important to be capable of dissociating the hips from the pelvis. Can the individual move the pelvis on stable hips and vice versa, can they move the hips on a stable pelvis?
The pelvic tilting and pelvic rocking exercises are very useful to target this. In pelvic tilting, you move the pelvis into anterior and posterior pelvic tilt while keeping the hips at 90 degrees. In pelvic rocking, find the neutral pelvis and move the hips into flexion and extension while maintaining neutral.
Watch the video below to see how these exercises are performed:
Dissociating movement of the hips from movement of the torso is also an important factor. Can you extend the hips while keeping the torso fixated? Place a dowel in front of your body and perform a hip hinge movement while keeping the following 3 points of contact:
- Middle of chest
- Pubic bone
The deadlift tests the limits of your overall mobility. To get the hips into good position with the hands on the barbell, you need to be able to lift the chest up between the arms. This requires appropriate thoracic mobility into extension. Individuals with more thoracic kyphosis might have a harder time getting into position. Here is an exercise that helps mobilize the thoracic spine and can be used to improve extension:
At the bottom of the deadlift, as you set-up to exert tension on the bar, the lumbar spine erectors need to pull your pelvis anteriorly to resist the force of your hamstrings pulling it posteriorly. When you feel tension in the hamstrings, this usually means you are creating that slight anterior tilt and low back arch and are in good position. It also means your hamstrings need good extensibility to generate tension from this lengthened position.
Try the Active Straight Leg Raise to see what your hamstring extensibility is like. If you cannot get to about 70-80 degrees without the knee flexing, this is something you will need to work on:
For an efficient deadlift, the barbell must travel in a straight vertical line. There are also some structural considerations specific to the individual that will have an impact on this and are worth mentioning.
The deadlift places the bar in front of the legs, making it more of a hip dominant exercise than the squat, for example. Because the knees are not “allowed” to come forward as much with the deadlift, the moment arm at the hip is automatically increased, which is why the femur/torso ratio is important. An individual with shorter femurs relative to the torso can remain more upright and maintain the barbell over the midfoot, while someone with longer femurs relative to the torso will require more forward lean to maintain the barbell over the midfoot.
Arm length also plays a role. For example, if the arms are longer, the range of motion to the floor is shorter which will shorten the moment arm required at the hip. If the arms are shorter, the range of motion to the floor is longer.
Here is an image that depicts these relationships quite well:
The deadlift starting position will differ based on different individuals’ structures. This is important to understand before jumping to the conclusion that a person’s hips are too low or too high, or that their torso is too forward or too upright. What we should be looking for is that the barbell is over the midfoot and the shoulders slightly ahead of the bar.
If you want to hear more about deadlift proportions, watch Tom Purvis’ video.
Of course, when we talk about proper deadlift form, we need to address technique. The hinge pattern is a fundamental movement pattern. Performance is about loading that pattern to increase capacity, and this is where the deadlift and its many variations come in.
Pulling the « slack » out of the bar:
When setting up for the deadlift, make sure to pull any slack available out of the bar. This will keep the wanted tension in your body and prevent losing any of it into the bar. From the starting position, pull the bar up until you hear a click sound.
This is true even if you are not performing a conventional barbell deadlift. The idea of “pulling the slack” is essentially to set your torso into a position where you are already exerting an extension force on the barbell, kettlebell, or other implement. That way, once the load leaves the floor, it is less likely to pull you into flexion.
We often talk about the importance of the CORE when lifting, especially in the big compound lifts. We say the core is the pillar for a successful lift, but do we truly understand what it means to use our core in a way to increase performance while lifting?
Breathing and intro-abdominal pressure are an interesting component of creating core strength for lifting. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and increases intra-abdominal pressure. Holding your breath increases the pressure in the thoracic cavity. Both of these pressure gradients help stabilize the spine, along with the pressure exerted by your spinal erector muscles, and together, they create 360° stability for your spine.
While hips are up the air, take a deep breath through the belly and expand the mid-section circumferentially and contract the abdominal wall and obliques by pushing OUT. Avoid breathing during the lift, inhale before you lift the bar off the floor and exhale once it is back on the floor.
Upper back and lat tension
In the starting position, the shoulders are slightly ahead of the bar, but the arms do not hang straight down. Lat tension creates shoulder extension required to keep the barbell close to the body. This also generates shoulder stability and tension through the lower back via the thoracolumbar fascia.
In the bottom position, drive the shoulders down, aiming for the back pocket. You should actually avoid retracting the scapulae (or “squeezing the shoulder blades” as so often we hear mis-cued), as this pulls your chest down closer to the bar and is a position that you cannot maintain with a heavy weight.
Here is an exercise that re-creates this feeling quite well:
For the most efficient pull, the bar path must remain vertical, which means the bar stays close to your shins as you lift it off the floor. This is why all the upper body and lat activation are so important.
It is also why driving through the entire foot is important. If your weight shifts to your heels and your shins move back, it is equivalent to the bar moving in front of you. It is initially the quads, as you push through the entire foot, that will extend the knee, then focus on bringing the hips through into extension by pushing the ground away. Your torso is a rigid unit that moves as a function of the hips coming forward.
As you lower the bar down, maintain the same rigid torso and timing of the hips and torso, that is, the torso comes forward as a result of the hips hinging back.
MASTERING THE KING OF EXERCISES
The deadlift seems like a very simple exercise, but it can in fact easily be done wrong. Despite this, in my opinion as well as in my practice, it is a fundamental and an essential part of training.
Learning how to deadlift with proper form involves working on the many different aspects that can impact execution and performance. While there are structural elements that are specific to each individual, the functional requirements of the deadlift can be addressed for optimal capacity and performance.
Starting with the feet, working up through the hips and the entire spine, the capacity to load the deadlift results in increased robustness, resilience and ability to transfer loads safely and effectively through the entire kinetic chain. This is not something people can afford to be missing in their repertoire!