Do you feel cramped up or awkward while deadlifting? Perhaps you steer clear of them altogether… this blog is for you. Deadlifts are often avoided out of fear. Although understandably daunting, at their core deadlifts are simple, safe and very good for your spine and overall health. This blog will provide simple tips to build your deadlifting confidence.
In This Blog:
- Knowing which muscles to feel
- Bar Positioning
- Body Positioning
- Soreness After Deadlifting
It is important to clarify that is no universally perfect technique to prevent pain or injury with any lift, and that incorrect or bad form is not inherently dangerous or bad for you. Changing form will alter where the load is placed on the body, so slight changes in form can often make lifting feel more or less comfortable! Everyone has differences in their build, mechanics, and structure so everyone will have differences in what set up feels best for them. The ideas discussed in this blog, particularly on body position, are general guidelines more than firm rules. The goal is to provide you with options to experiment with if you have discomfort or feel off balance during your deadlifting. If you are unsure and just starting out, start light and get familiar with what body and bar positions feel best for you. If you’re still not feeling it, I would love to help you out with an assessment and some advice, so feel free to book in!
Knowing What Muscles to Feel During a Deadlift
A common complaint with deadlifting is only being able to feel the back muscles work. Typically, the deadlift works a combination of your back, quads, glutes and hamstrings. If you get a sore back after doing deadlifts and during the lift you can’t feel those other areas, it’s very possible that the back is simply doing most of the work. This doesn’t mean you have a bad back and isn’t always a bad thing. Some people deliberately use this to target their lower back!
The tips below on Bracing, Body Position and Bar Position are intended to redistribute the load on your body and change which muscles work. If they don’t help, you may need to reduce the weight or spend more time warming up those other areas with different exercises like hip thrusters, step ups or leg press.
Bracing During a Deadlift
Bracing is the act of creating strong tension within the body before you lift. A strong brace creates a strong base which means more effort can be directed towards lifting the weight rather than stabilizing the body. If bracing is unfamiliar, start with a light weight or broomstick to practice before lifting heavy. You want to create your brace right before you lift the weight, e.g. after you grip the bar. Follow these steps:
- Grab the bar.
- Take a deep breath in to your abdomen. **think: breathe into your waistband**
- Squeeze your abs and back muscles outwards into the waistband of your pants – think: you’re in a dark room, about to be punched but not sure where.
- Stick your chest out slightly by squeezing your shoulder blades together. This will naturally reduce excessive rounding.
- Clench your butt cheeks together.
- Lift the bar: push the floor away with your feet.
Image from: https://www.restoreptri.com/blog/2021/4/6/what-is-intra-abdominal-bracing-and-how-does-it-work
Deadlift Technique – Bar Position
This one is important and probably where people see the biggest improvements with their lifting. The bar moving or sitting too far forward during the lift can change the motion and feeling of the lift quite significantly. The bar can be too far forwards for one of two reasons. Either you don’t stand close enough to the bar or initially, or your knees move forwards as you bend down which pushes the bar over your toes and away from your centre of gravity. We want the bar to start directly over your centre of gravity and stay there throughout the entire lift.
- Position the bar over the halfway point between your toes and heel (over your shoe laces).
- Use the rack or a foam roller standing on its end to make sure the bar doesn’t move forwards during your lift. You can also film yourself from side on and see if the bar stays directly over the midfoot.
- Practice hip hinging to get comfortable sitting back without needing to drop your knees forwards.
Pro Tip: As you place the bar back on the ground, literally look at your knees, shoelaces and midfoot.
Deadlift Technique – Body Position
There are many ways to change your body position when setting up a deadlift. To cut to the chase, for a standard deadlift:
- Foot position: somewhere beneath your hips/shoulders, either pointing straight ahead or ever so slightly turned outwards.
- Hand Position: outside your legs when you grab the bar. Pictured below shoes how resting your extended thumbs on the outside of the thigh gives a rough idea of ideal hand placement.
- Grip Type: double overhand (left) or mixed (right). Typically a mixed grip is used when the weight is too heavy for your fingers/forearms. A great, cheap alternative to the mixed grip is buying some lifting wraps, particularly if your shoulders are uncomfortable using the mixed grip.
Back Pain and Deadlift Technique – Common Issues
I have outlined some common movement patterns I see in people who feel uncomfortable while deadlifting below. These patterns often occur in combination, so addressing one often improves others. Let me reiterate that these position patterns are not inherently bad for you. Different set up positions change where the work happens. This can place a bigger demand on certain areas like the back or knees. For example, lifting 100kg with an excessively rounded posture compared to a straight/slightly rounded posture will potentially place a bigger load on the back, which will mean it will work harder!
Ultimately, the position you lift from should feel comfortable, balanced and strong – some rounding or sitting a little deeper might feel better for you. So, experiment!
- Losing form. Although losing form is commonly blamed for back pain and injury, there isn’t any conclusive evidence to demonstrate this. What is far more likely is that any loss of form is due to the weight being too heavy. This could be from lifting too much, too soon, or that the person is fatigued or under-recovered.
- Excessive rounding of the back. Contrary to popular opinion, rounding your back when lifting is NOT bad for your back. It can increase the amount of work the back muscles do. As mentioned previously, a standard deadlift targets more than the back alone so keeping a straighter posture can be more comfortable. Refer to the Bracing component to address excessive rounding.
- Excessive forward knee movement. Again, this isn’t bad for your knees but it can put more load on them or push the bar forwards which often makes you feel cramped up on the bar and makes the lift feel much harder.
- Try to keep your shins as close to vertical as possible.
- Try the Bar Position tips
- Sitting too deep. This happens when the lifter confuses keeping their back straight with trying to stay vertical as they grab the bar. To reach the bar the person will have to sit deeper, turning the lift into more of a pushing movement like a squat rather than the intended pulling pattern.
- Stress less about staying upright and straight – especially when you feel cramped up or stiff in this position. Let your chest point down at the floor,
- Look down at the floor as you set up, rather than straight ahead.
- Practice hip hinging as part of your warm up by trying to reach/sit backwards with your butt as you bend down.
Image from https://barbellrehab.com/stop-squatting-your-deadlifts/
Soreness after Deadlifting
Some tightness or mild soreness after weightlifting is quite common and often due to something called DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness. DOMS is a normal response after working to a point of fatigue and is not serious but can last up to five days. During this time, keep up comfortable movement, reduce your training load if required, get good sleep and stay on top of your nutrition. If you are concerned that your soreness could be something more than just DOMS, we are always here to help.
There are many things that can trigger or contribute to specific soreness and injuries with deadlifting. More common triggers include doing too much too soon or being under-recovered. Overtraining could be specific to an isolated workout, or the accumulation of multiple hard sessions without giving your body the chance to recover. Other influencers of recovery like a good night sleep and balanced diet can also contribute to injury risk and should be considered when the trigger isn’t clear.
In a nutshell, deadlifts are safe and one of the best ways of building strength for your lower back and legs. Your technique does not need to be perfect for the lift to be safe, because there is no such thing as perfect technique for preventing pain or injury! The more important thing is gradually increasing the weight and feeling balanced and strong during the lift. Changing technique may change which muscles have a mechanical advantage which makes some work harder, and some more efficiently. Remember that changing technique can feel different and that you should initially use a lighter weight when experimenting with new techniques.
If you are having trouble deadlifting, don’t avoid the issue. Try these tips out with a lighter weight or make a booking. Happy lifting!
Written by Patrick Brewer
Chiropractor at Thrive Health Co
Martin Fuentes et al, ‘Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7046193/
Edington et al, ‘The Effect of Set Up Position on EMG Amplitude, Lumbar Spine Kinetics, and Total Force Output During Maximal Isometric Conventional-Stance Deadlifts’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6162543/