I am a huge fan of deadlifting. For those with a strong grasp of the mechanics involved, the deadlift is exceedingly simple: lift that heavy thing off of the ground. There is something very primal about challenging your body with such a basic task. Unfortunately, if you haven’t developed the mobility, stability, and awareness necessary to engage your body as a single functional unit, the deadlift ceases to be useful and becomes outright dangerous. I want to take a moment to address some of the most glaring flaws I see among those attempting deadlifts at our gym (in no particular order), and suggest some steps that can be taken to improve performance reduce the risk of crippling low-back injury.
Prevention is the key to avoiding many of the errors described below. Having someone credible teach you how to deadlift is probably the best way to go, since you will not have the option of watching yourself perform the lift (more on that later). In my opinion, the principles behind the lift should be learned before ever touching the weights: you should have clean hip extension, a functioning core, strong shoulder stability, and above all a keen awareness of what these things feel like. If you are lacking any of these qualities, you have more important things to deal with in your training.
Rounded Lower Back (Lumbar Spine Flexion)
A rounded lower back probably the most danger when deadlifting. When your lumbar spine is outside of its natural alignment it becomes particularly vulnerable, and loading this position is the last thing you want to do. When discussing this form issue in a video tutorial for single leg deadlifting, Gray Cook said, “… that’s the easiest way, probably, to herniate a disk in your lower back, and I’m not an advocate of that.” I couldn’t agree more.
This issue often crops up if you have tightness in the posterior chain of the lower body, namely the hamstrings or glutes. As you bend forward at the waist your range of motion is cut short by tight muscles, and you begin rounding your back to continue to get lower. Dealing with this issue involves two things: being aware of your available range of motion (and operating within it) and improving your mobility to increase your range of motion.
Rounded Upper Back (Poor Scapulothoracic Stability)
Alright, the lower back is now in check, but don’t think for a second that means you can start dropping at the shoulders! If this is happening to you, it might be shedding light on an issue that will affect your training in many more ways than a sloppy deadlift. Shoulder stability and a strong upper back are the foundation for pretty much anything you do with your upper body. Fortunately, the deadlift can be part of the solution (that’s part of the solution, people).
The first step to improving your upper back posture within the deadlift itself is to make sure you are using a load that actually allows you to achieve good upper thoracic alignment (how it looks if you’re standing up very straight and tall). If suddenly that bar is only half as heavy as what you have been lifting, you’re going to need to swallow your pride because this is actually what you are capable of deadlifting. The next step is to grip that bar like you’re trying to leave dents in it. A strong grip sends feedback to your shoulders to keep them stable. Finally, externally rotate your shoulders to lock them in a solid position. To do this, twist your arms like you are trying to bend the bar towards you or trying to point your elbows downward.
Incomplete Repetitions (Not Achieving Full Hip Extension)
Hip extension is the main movement that occurs during the deadlift, and cutting it off early isn’t going to do you any good. This means when you complete a repetition you should be standing as tall as possible with your pelvis in a neutral position (not tilted forward). If you are guilty of this, it might not be for lack of trying but rather a symptom of tight hip flexors. If the fronts of your hips are too tight to allow you to extend well in the first place then you need to sort out that problem before ever touching that bar. Stretching between sets couldn’t hurt either.
Check out this MobilityWOD episode for an intense hip flexor intervention. They’re not going to get any better on their own.
Locked Knees (Knee Hyperextension)
There is a fine line between extending the knees and locking them out, and many gym-goers are on the wrong side of it. I have seen this problem manifest in a couple different ways:
Some people have had the great misfortune of being taught to lock their knees out while deadlifting, to engage the hamstrings more or some other ridiculous reason. This technique, which I have been given the impression is a more archaic straight-leg deadlift, is just all-around a bad idea. It also involves allowing the bar to hang directly below the shoulders, putting undue strain on your lower back. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, I’ve seen people hang in this position holding loaded barbells to stretch before deadlifting.
I would not suggest doing that.
Knee hyperextension can also happen if you are trying to complete your hip extension like a good deadlifter but your tight hip flexors won’t let you. Instead, you lock your knees as you try to stand straighter in order to keep your center of mass above your feet and avoid eating dirt. Your knees don’t really appreciate being popped back into a hyperextended position at the best of times, never mind with the weight of a barbell in the mix.
Checking Your Form / Guns in the Mirror (Faulty Neck Positioning)
I understand it can be difficult early on to know whether you have a good back position or not while deadlifting, but watching yourself sideways in the mirror is not the answer. Work out with a friend who can deadlift well, ask someone for a spot, or hire a trainer. I especially recommend that last one (zero bias here). Let’s set-aside all the nasty cervical spine issues that might result from your neck being out of line while you yank your bodyweight and then some off of the ground, your posture has this funny way of following your gaze. If you look to the side, you will likely move and twist slightly (or not-so-slightly) to that side, and that’s going to ruin all the wonderful alignment-related benefits of your deadlifting experience, not to mention increase your injury risk.
Guys (and gals, don’t assume you’re innocent), there is plenty of time between sets to inspect your physique (or that of others). Don’t put your health on the line just to check yourself out.
So, to wrap things up, the deadlift is awesome, but it’s what you make it. If your deadlift is lousy, your results will be lousy, and so will the injuries you eventually sustain. Take the time to deal with your mobility issues, learn to move, and build this lift from the ground up. You may be able to fix your lift with a little bit of prep beforehand. If you have some more glaring shortcomings, it may take a bit longer, but you owe it to yourself to put your health first. Deadlifting should make you feel mighty, not uncomfortable. If you aren’t rocking it like a titan, something is missing.