I can hear your spine screaming at you from across the gym!!!!
There is always that guy at the gym…you know the one…the loudest guy in the place. Grunting like a rutting moose. Slamming weights so heavily on the ground that you think that they just might cause the floor to buckle. He’s usually the same guy who walks around the gym picking up every 45Lb plate to put on the leg press machine, just to say to his girlfriend “This is not heavy enough…can you jump on top to give me a few extra pounds?!”
We jest. But behind the joking and gawking is a small sense of insecurity. Or dare I say jealousy…not about his girlfriend…but there is one move in the gym that he can do that you can’t…
He can deadlift. And he can deadlift a lot!
I like to think of myself as a fairly seasoned professional when it comes to going to the gym. I’ve done it for a while. I’ve done CrossFit. Kettlebells. HIIT. Machines. Free Weights. Barbells. You name it, I’ve done it.
But deadlifting is my nemesis. I put a couple of plates…well one plate on each side and you can hear my lower back start to scream from across the parking lot. I usually do one or two reps and if it “just doesn’t feel right” I put the weight down and walk away. Because if I don’t, I won’t be able to work for a week.
I’m not alone.
I know a guy who could literally snap you in half on a jiu-jit-tsu mat. Black belts. World Championship MMA fighter. OCR extraordinaire…But cowers at the sight of a barbell sitting there on the floor daring him to lift it.
So what goes drastically wrong when an athletic, experienced, and healthy middle-aged man grabs the bar off the floor to be immediately reminded by his lower back why he has avoided deadlifts so adamantly? There are 5 common mistakes that people make when deadlifting that make you more prone to injury. Correct these five things and you won’t just survive your next trip to the gym, you might just turn into that guy with 6 plates on each side of the bar.
Mistake 1: Your Stance is Wrong
The first mistake most people are going to make when they deadlift is their starting stance. The stance is what sets you up for the exercise, if the stance is wrong, it can alter the form of the actual deadlift. The two main stance issues are standing too wide or too narrow. Starting too wide can decrease the range of motion of the deadlift, meaning you’re moving less and working less to get the bar to the end position. This also limits the strength gains you’ll be able to achieve. Starting too narrow is also an issue for two reasons: it decreases stability by using a smaller base of support, and in turn, this increases the risk of injury. For conventional deadlifts, you want your feet to be closer to hip-width apart which allows for stability and a full range of motion.
On top of foot position, the starting bar position and your body relative to the bar is also important. Going too far over the bar (when your shoulders and armpits are in front of the bar) increases pressure on the low back when lifting and increases the risk of injury. This is because the bar is too far from your body when lifting. Having your shoulders behind the bar is also an issue. This is because your knees will be in the path of the bar, and in order to clear your knees, you’ll have to move the bar further from your body, which we just learned can cause low back injuries. General guidelines for any deadlift are starting with the bar directly below the shoulders/armpits and above the peak of the arch of the feet, then pulling straight up with the bar nice and close to the body.
Mistake 2: You’re Knock-Kneed
When most people think of deadlift injuries, back issues are generally the first that come to mind. However, if you’re knock-kneed when deadlifting, you’re more likely to end up with a knee injury. When your knees cave inwards when lifting, the bones of the leg are not stacked, which puts stress on the ligaments and tendons on the inner side of the knee and the lateral meniscus on the outer side of the knee. This is not ideal if you want to keep your knees working nicely. This pressure can lead to torn, sprained or strained ligaments and/or tendons in the knee. In addition to acute knee injury risk, consistently deadlifting with this form can, over time, lead to muscular imbalances in the knee which can shift the patella (kneecap) and cause knee pain and discomfort when bending the knee. To decrease the risk of these injuries, keep your knees tracking over your big toes when bending down to lift the bar.
Mistake 3: You’re Off-Beat
The third mistake that people make when deadlifting is mistiming the knee and hip extension. To get to the top of a deadlift, you want your legs to straighten out at the same time as the hips push forward to a neutral position. This is called the ‘double extension’. If you straighten your torso before your legs the bar will get stuck below the knees, and we already know why this is a problem (see mistake 1). On the other hand, straightening the legs and then bringing the hips forward is also an issue because it causes the bar to hang farther from the body which increases pressure on the low back and increases the risk of injury. For proper deadlifting form, you want to focus on straightening your legs like you’re trying to push through the floor, while simultaneously using the upper body to pull the bar to your hips.
Mistake 4: You’re Not Keeping Your Back Flat
If you asked someone at the gym what you should never do when deadlifting, most people would answer with ‘rounding your back’. Keeping the spine flat is an essential part of proper deadlift form. The issue with letting the back get all curvy is that all the weight gets sent to the low back rather than distributing it evenly across the whole back. Focusing the weight on one area of the spine is a big risk of injury. To avoid this risk and maintain a flat back, try to keep a ‘proud chest’. This means squeezing the shoulder blades together in the back and puffing the chest out a bit. You can also try using a ‘bend the bar grip’. This is a grip where you try to turn your wrists as if you were bending the bar around your body. This will help to engage the lats (lower back muscles) to stabilize the back, and keep the bar below the shoulders.
Sometimes it can be tricky to know if your back is flat the entire time if you don’t have someone to watch your form. One way you can check on your own is by using a broomstick. Hold a broomstick along your spine and make sure it is touching the back of the head, between the shoulder blades, and between the hips. Then push the hips back and bend forward in a hip hinge keeping the broomstick touching these 3 points. If the broomstick lifts off the head or hips it means that you’re rounding your back. Do this a few times to get used to the motion, then you’ll be deadlifting like a pro in no time!
Now you’ve got the proper grip and form for lifting the weight and you’ve come to the end of the lift! The only issue now is that sometimes people want to keep going. This leads us to the next mistake that involves not keeping the back flat: overextending the back at the end. Some people push their hips forward to finish their lift and they achieve this by arching their back so their shoulders sit behind their feet. This position puts a lot of pressure on the back side of the vertebrae in the spine, which is not good. To avoid hurting yourself, stop once your deadlift is done: when your shoulders, hips, knees, and feet are stacked in a vertical line (or as close as you can get). Not bending forward or over-extending backwards.
Mistake 5: You’re Actually Doing a… Squat
Another common deadlifting mistake is that… you’re not actually doing a deadlift in the first place. When it comes to a deadlift, the fundamental movement is the hip hinge. The hinge is important for the lift and the return of the deadlift because it makes the movement more efficient and safer on the back. When lifting, the initial pull has the torso staying in a rigid position with a constant angle to the floor. Then the hip hinge happens once the bar starts to pass the knees and brings the body into the ‘double extension’ (see mistake 3 for a refresher on the double extension). To lower the bar back to the ground, you’re doing the same thing but in reverse. The action starts with that hip hinge, then when the bar reaches the knees, you can get a slight bend in the knees to bring the bar fully to the ground. If you miss out on the hip hinge and keep the torso angle the same from start to finish, you’re not only making the lift less efficient and putting more strain on your back, but you’re also doing a squat, not a deadlift.
Sounds simple. Right?
It can seem a bit daunting when you are staring at that bar just laying on the floor waiting for you to lift it. You don’t have a friend with you to tell you what you are doing wrong (and let’s get real, does your friend really have the expertise to tell you what you are doing wrong?…).
But you really want to lift that barbell.
Start with this checklist of mistakes. If you eliminate these, you’ll likely feel a lot more confident and strong.
Look at yourself in the mirror. Check yourself. Add weight gradually. Don’t be a hero on your first day.
And you’ll be “that guy” in the gym sooner than you think.
Dr. Scott Rude, Erin Leidl, Elijah Hicks