Pick Your Deadlifting Poison

Deadlifting truly epitomizes the saying, “Pick your poison.”

You can start with a nice, flat, neutral spine and be slow as molasses off the floor. Or, you can go with a bit more of a rounded back starting position, only to struggle with finishing the big weights at the top.

In this piece you’ll learn how to fix that deadlift up, regardless of where you miss.

Let’s start at the beginning.

It’s all in the set-up

Before you ever pull a weight, your set-up largely dictates where you’ll miss a weight. Keep in mind, this is by-and-large true regardless of whether you pull sumo or conventional; the big difference is most people start in a more lumbar flexed position when pulling conventional, while most who pull sumo can keep a more neutral spine alignment.

If you start in a nice neutral spine alignment, the start or initiation of the lift is going to be the hardest part. In this position, your back is held in static, neutral alignment and you’re totally reliant on the strength of your legs and hips to get the weight moving.

The benefit of pulling in this fashion, is two-fold:

1 – It’s much easier on your back and spine.

2 – You’re in a great position to finish the weights. If your spine is neutral, assuming you have an appropriate amount of hip strength, locking the big weights out should be no issue.

In contrast, if you start in a slightly rounded low back position, finishing the lift is going to be the hardest part. You can blast the weight off your floor by recruiting big, strong muscles likes the quads and lower back.

The downside, however, is that with your back in that poor position it’s hard to get the hip drive necessary to lock the weights out.

Let’s take a look at both sticking points, and how you can train to remove any possible sticking points.

If you miss at the bottom of the deadlift….

If you miss at the bottom, here are a few random tips and tricks you can use:

  • Lengthen the pull.
    If you consistently miss weights in the bottom, one of the simplest things you can do is make the starting position even more difficult.  Try pulling off blocks or a 45# plate to improve leg/hip drive for 2-3 months, and when you go back to traditional pulls, I guarantee it feels much easier.
  • Get your lats tight.
    People often miss weights off the ground because their body isn’t prepared to accept the weight, or it drifts out in front of them. To rectify this, think about getting the lats tight and “pulling” the bar back into your body. If you need some clarification, be sure to watch this video on cuing tight lats when deadlifting.
  • Take the slack out of the bar.
    Another common mistake that goes hand-in-hand with the above is not taking the slack out of the bar. Get your lats tight and give the bar a gentle “tug” before really bearing down and starting your rep. This will smooth out your pull off the floor and keep things tight.
  • Strengthen your hammies with knee flexion.
    Chances are if you miss out of the bottom, your back is in a good position and the resulting knee flexion is forcing you to use your hammies more. If they are weak in this position, this is a problem! The best exercise I’ve found to deal with this are glute-ham raises.

If you miss at the top of the deadlift…..

  • Start more neutral.
    This may sound simple, but there’s a fine line between a small amount of lumbar flexion and downright atrocious form. I have no preconceived notions that a max deadlift is going to be performed with a 100% neutral spine, but if your spine is rounded over horribly you’re not only limiting the weights you can handle, but greatly increasing your risk of injury as well.
  • Overload the top end.
    If you miss at the top, many would say to use rack pulls. In all honesty, I just haven’t seen the return on investment when rack pulls with the clients I’ve trained. Instead, we use exercises that overload the top end like deadlifts against chains, deadlifts against bands, and band-assisted deadlifts to hammer the lockout.
  • Strengthen your hammies with hip extension. If you struggle to finish weights, chances are your backside is weak when your knees are fairly straight. If that’s the case, exercises like RDL’s and good mornings are ideal for you. Focus on minimal knee bend and really forcing your hips back to “get into” the hammies.

Which type of deadlift is best?

So I’m sure you’re probably wondering, which is best? Should you go with a 100% neutral spine? What if your back is a strong point – should you allow for a bit of lumbar flexion?

Unfortunately, that’s impossible to answer. Without being able to evaluate you, your current strength levels, your leverages, and to know what your long-term goals are, I can’t tell you definitively one way or the other how you should pull.

I will say this, though….

Unless your goal is to pull maximal weights in a powerlifting meet, I would suggest erring on the side of a more neutral spinal alignment. This will not only spare your spine, but also allow you to keep lifting much, much longer.

Powerlifters know and understand the risks associated with their sport. While you can train in a somewhat healthy and intelligent fashion, there’s nothing that’s truly “healthy” about picking up heavy stuff day in and day out.

Can you limit the stress and strain on your body by using good technique and recovering well? Absolutely.

But the cost: benefit ratio is definitely skewed the heavier you train.

Keep in mind as well that powerlifters are very skilled at avoiding the last 2-3 degrees of end-range flexion where a lot of bad things happen (like disc herniations).

Summary

So there you have it – how to get stronger regardless of where you miss on a deadlift.

What would you have added? What other exercises, tips or tricks do you like to use to bring your deadlift up?

I’ll be looking forward to your comments below!

Stay strong

MR

14 Comments

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  1. Great post Mike. I especially like the paragraph stating that unless you are a powerlifter, choose the more neutral spine starting position for spine and back health. Great info there. In the past, a few things have improved my deadlift: alternating periods of frequent pulling (the classic lift, not special exercises) with little to no pulling. Based on goals, periodization, etc. Also, lots of abdominnal stability work, tons of rows and chins, and a vast amount of hip mobility stuff.

    Thanks for putting out great information. Look forward to more.

  2. What do you mean by the “last 2-3 degrees of end-range flexion?”

    Also, I have what I consider to be a better build for squatting (short femurs) and bench pressing (short arms) than for dead lifting and want to give pulling sumo a shot. Do you have any advice for someone who has somewhat tight hip flexors and tight glute medius and quads? Would starting out with a narrower sumo be beneficial?

    • Levi –

      The last 2-3 degrees of end range flexion is lumbar flexion; in other words, that last little bit of “rounding” is the most potentially injurious when lifting.

      For sumo pulling, I would definitely work on hip mobility a bit before jumping right in, as it can beat your hips up a bit. I’ve never personally had issues, but I know others who have. Work hard to get some more hip external rotation and flexibility through the groin and medial hamstrings.

      MR

  3. Nice post, Mike! Reading between the lines — when you say “unless your goal is to pull maximal weights in a powerlifting meet, I would suggest erring on the side of a more neutral spinal alignment,” are you implying that sumo is the better choice?

    I’ve always pulled conventional (sumo just feels weird) and have never had any lower back soreness. I also happen to have good levers for deads. But I don’t lift in competition and I want to keep lifting till I’m 95, so I do try to take a long-term view of things. Do you think I’d be wise to work sumos and get better at them?

    Thanks,
    Peter

    • I’m not saying necessarily that sumo is better – if you can pull conventional with a neutral spine, that’s fine as well.

      However, many will have greater success setting up and staying in neutral vs. a conventional stance, at least in my experience.

      If you like pulling conventional and set-up well, stick with it. Throwing in some sumos from time-to-time definitely wouldn’t hurt and you may like the variety.

      MR

  4. What are your thoughts on picking an optimum DL variation based on torso/limb proportions? It’s something I’ve often wondered about. Thanks Mike!

    • I’ve given up on thinking about “optimal” – what’s far more important is finding a position that’s comfortable and efficient/effective for the person standing in front of me.

      Not very helpful, but that’s the truth – I tried for too long to fit round pegs into square holes, and it just doesn’t work in the long run.

      MR

  5. “Powerlifters know and understand the risks associated with their sport. While you can train in a somewhat healthy and intelligent fashion, there’s nothing that’s truly “healthy” about picking up heavy stuff day in and day out.”

    This is about powerlifting, right? Or is it lifting in general?

  6. Thanks, Mike. This supports some of what I feel when deadlifting. I’ve mostly gone conventional, but as I go heavier, feel less secure with my low back. More and more, I like the sumos. As a tall, long-limbed person, they seem to work well with my body type. Great tip to lengthen the pull – I’ll give that a try to help with the bottom of the lift.

    Dealing with golfers elbow at the moment, so resting up for now, but itching to get back; do you have any good resources for dealing with that?

    Thanks again for all the great info.

  7. Hey Mike,
    Awesome article. I have a question. Recently my grip started failing and I switched to mixed grip. I am now concerned about bicep tear. Any tips to avoid bicep tear on mixed grip deadlift?
    Thanks!

  8. I was about to incorporate rack pulls into my workouts, but there seems to be a lack of “ROI” regarding the exercise.

    Time to invest in bands and chains!

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