By Dan Hipkiss
So whilst this is a subject that has been covered countless times, by many different people, I thought I would put my two cents in. The deadlift is one of the key movements in strength sports, and though it is often overlooked by collegiate athletes in favour of power cleans and trap bar deadlifts, it is my view that the standard, conventional barbell deadlift is the king of the lifts. Performed safely and with good form there isn’t a lift that compares. Variations of the deadlift at least should feature in everyone’s training plan, if you are training for strongman then the conventional deadlift should be the foundation of these variations, and although sumo deadlifts aren’t allowed in strongman, they shouldn’t be overlooked as an accessory lift.
Rather than go over good technique, and give a load of cues that can be found on a vast number of websites I thought I would cover what I think about when programming deadlifts for athletes of all levels and ways of overcoming potential weaknesses. If you want to learn to deadlift, the best recommendation is to find a coach, with a good track record, and be taught your best deadlift, as it is unlikely that there is someone with exactly your lever lengths who has made a deadlift tutorial that will fit you perfectly. The human body is wonderfully unique and frighteningly varied, people’s muscles are different lengths, bones may sit differently in the joint, have longer limb segments and that is why your perfect is different to someone else’s and it takes either a lot of trial and error or a good coaching eye to help discover your own version of perfect lift.
So that being said and with the caveat that no one can write a one size fits all post about how to “magically fix your deadlift in a few easy steps” here’s an article about how to fix some common deadlifting problems and areas of weakness!
Weak off the floor
So we have all seen people straining and turning every shade of blue and purple known to man trying to get a heavy deadlift off the floor, only for it to creep up half an inch and then fly to lockout, we have also seen that bar stayed glued to the floor and not move at all. This is one of the best ways to fail a lift in my opinion, it’s a sign that raw strength is an issue and strength is infinitely trainable. I fall firmly into the camp that the best way to train strength off the floor is to raise the bar with 1” blocks and pull from there, this builds a great amount of strength in the starting position and there have been multiple studies highlighting that the best way to build strength at an area of weakness is to train slightly around this from a dead stop.
If people have such a specific weakness off the floor but a massively disproportionate lockout then a phase of touch and go deadlifts is my go to. These should be pulled as fast as possible on the way up, but tempo on the eccentric, and touch the floor silently, and maintaining full tension before being lifted as fast as possible. These are not bounced! This allows for a massive amount of time under tension, and build a disgusting amount of strength off the floor as well.
I am fully aware that someone is reading this and already typing a comment that xyz say deficit deadlifts are the best way to train floor speed, that’s fine, I disagree and everyone I’ve worked with has had massive improvements off the floor by following a phase of either low block pulls or touch and go deadlifts. These are normally coupled with a speed deadlift on another day as well. But I’ll get into that later.
Weak Around The Knee
How many times have you heard someone say “if I’d have got it an inch higher it would have gone”, whilst on a few occasions that may be total codswallop, it is mechanically one of the weakest parts of the deadlift, more often than not you are in a no man’s land of muscular activation, and your levers are all wrong to allow for a smooth transition. Whilst this may be solved by simple technical adjustments, it may also be trained out. I am a fan of using 15” block pulls for this, they should be below the tibial tuberosity (the lump at the top of your shin) so 15” is a loose measurement, if you’re 5ft tall with short legs, don’t chuck the bar to 15” and have it above your knees!
Alternatively to the block pull, weakness around the knee can be trained using bands set at the same height as the top of the shin, this will help encourage acceleration through this area of weakness, train with sub maximal weights and a low to moderate band tension at first, this can be really effective in sets of 3-5 (dropping the reps as the bar weight increases). By having a submax bar weight off the floor, you are getting the benefits of speed work, which is then slightly overloaded at the point of typical slowing allowing for increased motor unit recruitment.
Weak at Lockout
If you were the person writing the comments about deficits being the best thing for floor speed, you’re going to want to fire up that copy and paste and be prepared to disagree with what’s coming next.
One of the best exercises for training lockout is the deficit deadlift, this (in my opinion and its only my opinion so you can’t be angry) is an absolutely amazing exercise for teaching you to pull for longer and make sure you are fighting for that position on the way up. My logic behind this, is you are pulling for longer, you are pulling the bar a longer distance and this takes more time, which means you have to work harder, which makes you stronger.
Alternatively to the deficit pull is using bands that add even more tension than before and really overload the lockout, these can lead to the amount of band tension being relatively large compared to the load on the bar, however this is fine, you’re training and bar weight isn’t everything all the time!
A few more things to consider
This is not an all encompassing list of exercises, techniques and weaknesses, but this is a small example of things that are seen fairly often, and are common issues that people ask about, I do however want to cover a few other exercises, and a few things people need to be aware of.
Sometimes... “you aren’t strong enough” is the best, most helpful advice, and was the advice I most strived for when I was starting out, I was obsessed with making sure what I did was technically as good as possible, and if that was true but the weight still didn’t move, I wasn’t strong enough and I was weirdly happy. You can always get stronger, it just takes a bit of time, but a lot less time then having to change or relearn a technique. So if you aren’t strong enough, just get stronger, it’s the best way! And really every thing you’ve already read is based around the theory that in some part of the deadlift, you aren’t strong enough.
Stiff Leg Deadlifts - these are awful, I love them, especially from a bit of a deficit, if you hate your lower back and hamstrings chuck these in, you’ll feel things that you never knew you could and certainly never wanted to. They’re a great deadlift variation and can have some massive strength benefits.
Romanian Deadlift - as I said above, these are awful, I love them! Programming these for sets of 8 will light your hamstrings up and lower back, and learn how to suffer.
Sumo Deadlifts - controversially I am a big fan of these, especially for strongman, they’re a great way of building up the glutes and really learning about how to feel your adductors working.
General and typical areas of weakness and muscles to make strong- for gods sake train your core! Do aleknas (see image), hollow holds, iso holds, hanging leg raises, anything! I am fully fed up of people moaning about lower back pain who don't train core, you don’t train core... you don’t get to complain. I have a post on my Instagram covering a few basic core exercises that you can add into any program.
As well as your normal mirror muscle training and hammering quads and hamstrings for the deadlift don’t neglect your adductors and abductors, these muscles will make a much bigger difference than people realise, not only to the deadlift but to everything you do. Calves and the muscles of the lower leg are the first line of defence (after feet but I’m saving that rant) when it comes to balance, train your calves with a bent knee and a straight knee, this well lead to maximum benefits and more importantly growth of those baby cows.
Right I’m doing it.... Look after your feet, your feet are so ridiculously vital and bad feet make life actively worse. If you aren’t looking after your feet you aren’t really doing the most basic thing, think how much abuse they take every day and you can’t be bothered to roll them!? And then... Complain that your ankles or knees or hips hurt!! Roll your feet, stop wearing shoes all the time, stop wearing super soft cushioned shoes forever and work on learning to extend and flex your toes, your feet are just hands at the bottom of your body and should be able to perform the same functions.
Finally... Back, this is going to be broad and general, you should row either dumbells, cables or bent over rows, you should do lat pull downs with a multitude of grips and you should train the hip hinge, Hyper extensions are absolutely great for drilling the hip hinge and battering the lower back, as are reverse hypers, I am also a fan of single leg hypers as they also help with anti rotation which if you compete in strongman or any combat sport is massively important!
In conclusion, the best advice I can give someone is to find a coach, this will make the process much easier but if you don't want a coach or can't afford one be your own harshest critic, video your lifts and look at form breakdown and where you are failing and why. When you know this you can start to apply some of the exercises I spoke about here.