There’s a pretty good chance that your deadlift won’t look perfect right away. That’s OK—it just means you have a bit of work to do before deadlifts become your new favourite exercise. I want to share with you the cues and corrections I use to help my clients achieve great deadlift form. In fact, I have found that most deadlift form issues fall into one of these five areas:
Hips Sinking Too Low
Rounding the Lower Back
Bending the Knee Too Much
Not Finishing the Lift
Flaring the Rib Cage
There’s actually a sixth form issue that I didn’t address in these videos, and that is not keeping the feet firmly planted. If any part of your foot comes off the floor while deadlifting, you are losing stability and limiting yourself. If you’re not sure if you do this, consider deadlifting without shoes to get a better feel. Some cues that can help include “crush the floor,” “screw your feet into the floor,” and “spread the floor with your feet.”
What If You Try All of That and You Still Struggle?
I want to share a little secret with you: You don’t have to deadlift from the floor. The truth is that the 8.75-inch full range of motion setup is based on a manufacturing decision that has nothing to do with deadlifts. It is actually related to the size of your head! The size of a 45-pound weight plate was designed for Olympic weightlifting, where people lift bars over head with speed. The standard height of 8.75 inches was determined as a precaution to prevent a crushed skull in the event of a lift gone wrong. That’s an excellent design feature for Olympic weightlifting, but it has no real relevance to deadlifts.
In fact, it is very possible that your body is not designed to deadlift from 8.75 inches off the floor. I know this for certain, as I’ve tested my clients, measuring their arm, torso, thigh, and shin lengths and used Adobe Photoshop to draw diagram representations of their structures. (Oops! My “engineer” is showing!) There are significant differences between the lengths of our limbs, and this can have a big impact on whether your body is structurally capable of deadlifting with good form from 8.75 inches off of the floor.
If you can’t get your back to stay straight in a deadlift…
Add just enough of a riser to fix your form. Make this your deadlift setup for two weeks, while you focus on perfect form. Add weight as it becomes more comfortable.
Add some exercises to work on hip, ankle, and thoracic spine range of motion.
After one month, lower the deadlift weight back to where it was two weeks ago, remove the riser, and try to lift with perfect form. Can you? If so, great! Build from there. If not, that’s OK. Remember that “full range of motion” is an arbitrary standard, and it may not apply to you. Go back to the riser and continue to use it as you enjoy and excel at deadlifting.
If you can’t get your hips up…
If a regular deadlift just doesn’t feel great for you, it may be that your structure is better suited to Sumo deadlifts. Give it a try. If it feels great, awesome! Make that your standard. (Thanks to Nia Shanks for this video.)
If deadlifts bother your low back…
Your back may just be adapting to the exercise. Deadlifts are a great, full-body exercise, and even though the back is not actively moving (remember it should stay straight), it is involved in holding the weight. This may be more work than your back is used to, which can result in muscle soreness. My advice is to pay attention to the level of soreness over a few sessions. If it is just a matter of your back adapting to the work, then the soreness will decrease with each subsequent training session, and should eventually reduce to almost zero.
Something may be “off” with your form. Review the form issues discussed above to see if there’s a correction that helps. If soreness stays the same or increases, you may need to do a little more work on perfecting your form. If none of the corrections from the videos help, then it’s a good idea to work with a qualified trainer to help you sort this out. If this is not an option for you, and you can’t work with someone who can monitor and coach you to a place in which you feel great doing deadlifts, then I hate to say it, but deadlifting may not be your best bet right now. It’s OK—there are other excellent exercises out there!
Your back might just not feel great when you deadlift. It’s not soreness, and it’s not about your form. They just don’t feel right. If this is you, I suggest you book an appointment with a good manual therapist (physical therapist, chiropractor, athletic therapist, or massage therapist) for an evaluation, to see if they can see or feel anything that may be contributing to this. They may find something, work on it, and that may help you get to a place where deadlifts feel great. Or they might not be able to help at all. Again, it’s OK—you have a lot of other excellent exercises at your disposal.
How’s your deadlift now? My hope is that, after implementing these tips, all of the former deadlift skeptics out there become fans, and that all of the deadlift fans come to love—and get more out of—deadlifts than they did before. The deadlift is truly the foundation of strength and total-body performance. Happy deadlifting!
This article originally appeared Girls Gone Strong. We help women achieve their strongest, fittest, healthiest bodies with step-by-step guidance to reach their personal fitness goals, and gain the kind of confidence that extends beyond training.