People fear the deadlift. For one, the word “deadlift” is ominous. 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. You’re setting yourself up for injury.”
But they’re wrong. The movement is a foundational human one. If you look at a kid picking something up 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 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, connects every other part of the body. Ruin your back, and you compromise your ability to move through the world.
So deadlift, but deadlift properly. Take the time to learn and practice proper deadlift form. Practice with light weights to lock in the mechanics before lifting heavy. And avoid the common deadlift mistakes we’re discussing today so you can safely and effectively integrate the deadlift into your training regimen.
10 Common Deadlifting Mistakes
What are some common mistakes people make when deadlifting? How can you fix them?
Mistake #1: Pulling with rounded back.
When you lift the weight off the ground, your back should be straight and your gaze slightly forward. Rounding your back not only makes you look like a turtle, it compromises strength by creating a “floppy lever” and leaves you open to injury.
Solution: Before you bend over to pick up the bar, brace your core to create a straight and elongated spine. Think about maintaining that straight spine as you hinge forward to grab the bar.
Mistake #2: Allowing your back to round under load.
Mistake #1 involves rounding your back before you pick up the weight. Allowing your back to round under load means you start with a flat back but round it in the middle of the lift. This might be the most dangerous mistake you can make form-wise. Some people may pull deadlifts with slightly rounded backs (advanced powerlifters who know what they’re doing—I don’t recommend it), but no one allows their back to round in the middle of the lift. The nuance is important.
Solution: Once your flat back position is set, don’t stray from it. Maintain a straight and elongated spine throughout the entire movement.
Mistake #3: Bending at the back rather than breaking at the hips.
Bending at the back makes your lower back the prime mover. The back is not a “mover,” it’s a stabilizer. It builds strength by resisting movement.
Solution: Stand tall and brace your core. Then reach for the bar by hinging at the hips and reaching back with your butt. Feel the movement initiating in your hips, and let your torso go along for the ride rather than actively trying to propel your chest toward the floor. Breaking at the hips establishes the glutes and hamstrings as the prime movers and the back as the resister.
Mistake #4: Holding the bar too far in front of you.
The bar should touch your legs as it moves. This is why some lifters coat the front of their legs with talcum powder. It helps the bar glide up and down without sticking. When the bar drifts farther from your legs, the load on your back and, hence, the injury risk increases.
Solution: Start with the bar over the midfoot. Try to maintain contact (or near contact) between the bar and your legs on both the concentric and eccentric (lifting and lowering) portions of the lift.
Mistake #5: Trying to brace and tighten up after grabbing bar.
Don’t wait until you’ve already grasped the bar to try and establish proper core tension. Your form will already be compromised.
Solution: Brace the core when you’re standing, then hinge correctly at the hips to descend and grab the bar.
Mistake #6: Lifting the weight by extending the back rather than the hips.
As you lift the weight off the floor, you should not feel the strain in your back. Your upper body—back, shoulders, arms—is there to stabilize the weight, not to pull the weight off the ground. Your glutes and hamstrings are doing most of the real work.
Solution: You should feel the exercise mostly in your glutes and hamstrings. As you lift the weight off the floor, imagine driving through your feet and letting all the motion come from those muscles.
Mistake #7: Squatting rather than deadlifting.
A deadlift is not a squat. It is a hip extension movement. Flexion and extension of your hips move the weight down and up if you’re deadlifting correctly.
Solution: Avoid bending your knees too much when you pick up the weight. Bend at the hips and push your butt back. Only bend your knees as much as is needed to reach the bar with your hands.
Mistake #8: Overly arching your back.
Sometimes, people will arch their back in an attempt to brace the core and maintain a flat back. Doing so places the spine in a disadvantageous position.
Solution: Again, lock in a straight, supported back position while standing upright before you begin the lift, and maintain it throughout the entire movement. If you feel your chest or ribcage thrusting out or shoulder blades pinching together at any point, stop and reset.
Mistake #9: Shins not vertical.
As your shins angle too far forward, you turn the movement into a knee-flexion-centric squat. Keeping your shins vertical will ensure that your hips and posterior chain bear the majority of the load.
Solution: See #7
Mistake #10: Letting your chest drop when lifting the bar.
As you lift the weight off the ground, the angle of your torso shouldn’t change. Don’t let the torso drop toward the ground as your hips push forward.
Solution: Imagine a straight line connecting hips to head running through your back. Keep your chest up as you push the hips forward. The hips, torso, and head move as one unit.
Don’t be intimidated by the deadlift! Yes, there are lots of ways to do it wrong, but once you get the hang of it, the payoff is huge. Watch the video above to see an example of each of these form issues in action. If you’re not sure whether you’re making any of these mistakes, it’s worth paying an experienced trainer to help you make any necessary adjustments and learn to “feel” a proper deadlift. Once you’ve got it, you can increase the weight and make impressive strength gains.
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.