People fear the deadlift. For one, the name itself has the word “dead” in it. Two, they’ve been told for years—often by medical experts—that deadlifts are terrible for your back. “Oh, you might look/feel good now, but just you wait. One day you’ll regret it.”
But they’re wrong. The basic idea of a deadlift is sound and the movement is a foundational human one. If you look at a kid pick something off the ground, they hinge at the hips, maintain a flat back, and pick it up by extending the hips (bringing them forward). Now, there are certainly wrong ways to perform a deadlift. Dangerous ways, methods that can (some might say will) damage your back and put your future health and basic ability to function at risk. The back and all it contains, including but not limited to the spine, is a foundational human structure. It connects to and connects every other part of the body to each other. It’s riddled with nerve endings that start along the spine and run down to every muscle in the body. You ruin your back and you compromise your ability to move through the world. So deadlift, but deadlift properly.
Today, I’m going to lay out proper deadlift form and highlight some common mistakes you might be making when performing it. That way you can safely and effectively integrate the deadlift into your training regimen.
Basic Deadlift Form
Here’s how to do the basic deadlift.
Stand with feet at jump width apart.
Act as if you’re going to jump and then see where your feet naturally are. That is probably the strongest, most stable stance for you.
Bar over midfoot.
Stand over the bar with the bar directly over the middle of your foot. Make sure you’re measuring the middle of your foot starting from the back of your heel, not the front of your ankle.
Brace your core, get tight while still upright.
It’s important to brace your core and tighten up all over before grabbing the bar. Once you grab the bar and then try to tighten, it’s hard because your position is already compromised. Bracing before bending over improves cohesion and stability.
Break at the hips to grab the bar.
Push your butt back and break at the hips, rather than “bend” at the back, while keeping your back flat. This will place the load on your glutes and hamstrings with your back as the supporting lever, rather than employing your back as the prime mover.
Try to “break the bar” with your hands to keep your shoulders in the right position.
Imagine you’re trying to bend the bar in half. Doing so will keep your shoulders externally rotated and stable and strong.
Keep your back flat and extend your hips (hip thrust) to bring the bar up.
You bring the bar up by extending your hips—thrusting them forward—with a flat, neutral spine.
Drag bar up your legs, don’t let it drift in front of you.
Keeping the bar in contact with your legs as it rises will keep the immense weight close to your center of gravity, enforce proper form, and keep you safe.
Feel it in your glutes and hamstrings, like you’re pulling against the floor.
You should feel the exercise in your glutes and hamstrings.
Stand up straight.
At the top of the pull, you should be standing up straight. Don’t lean back, don’t arch your back. Just be straight and tall.
Lower the weight the same way you initiated the initial unweighted descent.
Lowering the bar should look the same as the initial descent without the weight: break at the hips, flat back, staying tight.
10 Common Deadlifting Mistakes
What are some common mistakes people make when deadlifting? How can you fix them?
1. Pulling with rounded back.
This compromises strength by creating a “floppy lever” and leaves you open to injury.
2. Allowing your back to round under load.
This might be the most dangerous. Once your back position is set, don’t stray from it. Some people (advanced powerlifters who know what they’re doing; I don’t recommend) may pull deadlifts with slightly rounded backs, but no one allows a back to round in the middle of the lift. The nuance is important.
3. Bending at the back rather than breaking at the hips (reach back with your butt)
Bending at the back makes your lower back the prime mover. The back is not a “mover,” it’s a stabilizer. It resists movement, and that’s how it builds strength. Breaking at the hips establishes the glutes and hamstrings as the prime movers and the back as the resister.
4. Bar too far in front of you
The reason for the “drag bar up legs” is to protect your back and improve your performance. If the bar drifts in front of you (away from contact with your legs), the load placed on your back increases dramatically.
5. Trying to brace and tighten up after grabbing bar.
Don’t try to brace when you’re already bent over. Brace when you’re standing, then descend to grab the bar. Get arranged before your lift.
6. Lifting the weight by extending the back, rather than the hips.
Again, don’t lift with your back. Lift with your hips—glutes and hamstrings.
7. Squatting rather than deadlifting.
A deadlift is not a squat. You don’t want to squat down and try to lift it up with deep knee flexion. It is a hip extension movement.
8. Overly arching your back.
Sometimes, people will arch their back in an attempt to get tight and maintain a flat back. Doing so places the spine in a disadvantageous position. You want to brace your spine by engaging the musculature surrounding the discs, not by stacking your discs together in a hard arch. An arch feels stronger than it is.
9. Shins not vertical.
Keeping your shins vertical will ensure the majority of the load is borne by your hips and posterior chain. As your shins angle too far forward, you turn the movement into a knee flexion-centric squat.
10. Letting your chest drop when lifting the bar.
Even though you initiate the movement with the hips, the angle of your torso shouldn’t change. Keep your chest up as you drive your hips forward and lift the bar so that you’re entire body moves in concert. The deadlift is not a good morning.
If you’re not sure, it’s worth paying an experienced trainer to help you make the adjustments and learn to “feel” a proper deadlift. Once you’ve got it, you’ll be using more weight than other groups.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.