Lifting the most amount of weight possible in the deadlift and reducing your risk of injury relies on superior technique.
This means ensuring your body is positioned effectively in relation to the barbell at each phase of the lift.
If you can do this correctly, then you’ll optimize your own individual leverages and apply the maximum force possible.
The 4 positions that you need to master in the conventional deadlift are:
The risk of not mastering these positions is having your deadlift strength stall unnecessarily or expending more energy than needed to complete the movement. Therefore, it’s critical that we understand these positions and work to improve them during our workouts.
Quick note: This article is only referencing positions that you should optimize for the conventional deadlift. Another popular style is the sumo deadlift. If you’re unsure whether you should be pulling sumo or conventional read the following guide on conventional vs. sumo deadlift.
Position #1: Keeping Your Shoulder Position Inline or Slightly In Front of The Barbell
The most optimal position to start the conventional deadlift is by having your shoulders either directly in line or slightly in front of the barbell.
You can understand your shoulder position better if you take pictures or videos from the side and then draw a straight line down from your shoulders to the floor. Then evaluate where your shoulder position is in relation to the barbell.
As mentioned, there’s no ‘fixed point’ for your shoulders to be, but rather, a range that is considered optimal. This is because we all have different limb lengths and torso angles, and so we all can’t be expected to be positioned on the barbell in the same way.
The reason why we want to have this shoulder position is two-fold:
First, we will be in an effective position to equally distribute the load between our knee, back, and hip extensor muscles. In other words, we’ll be able to recruit the maximum musculature possible, without favoring one muscle group over another.
Second, we will be applying the maximum vertical force possible through the floor. Since we want the barbell to travel in a vertical bar path, positioning our shoulders in line or slightly in front of the barbell will give us the best shot to maintain this vertical bar path.
Position #2: Keeping The Barbell On Your Body The Entire Range of Motion
At all times throughout the deadlift range of motion, we want to ensure that the barbell is ‘on our body’.
This requires us to have the barbell on our shins to begin the movement. If we don’t start with the barbell on our body, then it’s much harder to regain that position once we’ve initiated upward momentum.
Therefore, the best practice is to move our shins toward the barbell as we drop our hips into the start position. As soon as our shins touch the barbell, we’re good to start the movement.
However, once we start the movement, we need to continue to keep the barbell on us as we pass our knees and pull over our thighs to lock-out. If we find the barbell drifting away from our body, the movement will become incrementally harder as we try to fight the additional horizontal forces on the barbell from pulling us forward.
People who struggle to keep the barbell on them throughout the deadlift usually have weak lat and upper back muscles. If this is the case, then we'll need to incorporate targeted upper body pulling exercises (chin-ups, pendlay rows, and wide grip rows) in order to develop the necessary strength to keep the bar on our body during the deadlift.
Position #3: Having The Hips And Barbell Rise At The Same Tempo
Once we’ve initiated upward motion of the barbell from the floor, we want to ensure that the hips rise at the same tempo as the barbell.
What we want to try to avoid is having the hips ‘shoot up’ out of the bottom position at a faster rate than the barbell travels. This will look like the hips popping up before the barbell leaves the ground, or additionally, the hips being so high at any point in the bottom position that the back becomes horizontal to the floor.
If this happens, it’s a sign that our hip extensors are trying to take over the movement and our knee extensors are being ‘lazy’. Having strong hip extensor muscles (glutes, adductors, and hamstrings) is not necessarily a bad thing unless they are being used during ranges within the movement where other muscle groups should be active. If our hips are popping up in the start position, it’s most likely that our knee extensors (quads) aren’t doing their job properly.
What this means is that we need to strengthen our quads so that they can contribute more to the bottom end strength of the deadlift. This is where we should be doing knee-dominant exercises like front squats, safety bar squats, deficit deadlifts, or trap bar deadlifts as an accessory movement.
In addition to working on knee-dominant accessory movements, we also want to cue ourselves to use our quads off the floor in the deadlift. The best way to do this is to think about ‘pushing the floor away’ as you initiate the pull. This should feel like we’re ‘extending from the knee first’.
Position #4: Locking Your Hips And Knees Simultaneously
The final position you want to master is ensuring the top-end of the deadlift is completed by simultaneously locking your hips and knees.
What this looks like will be our hips and knees snapping shut in unison. Our quads will drive the knees to lock-out and our glutes will drive the hips to lock-out. I like to think about ‘squeezing my quads and glutes’ forcefully together to initiate the proper timing.
If our knees lock too early, we risk having the bar dip forward and down, which might throw us off balance.
If our hips lock too early, we might hyper-extend our back, which would cause an unnecessary range of motion with the torso, as well as make it near impossible to lock the knees.
If we’re struggling with the timing of our lock-out, then we can add block deadlifts into our program, which will emphasize the top-end range of motion. Only use loads that allow us to maintain the effective timing -- loads that are too heavy might just reinforce an improper lock-out if not done correctly.
Recovering From A Heavy Deadlift Session
Following a heavy deadlift session, you want to ensure you’re recovering properly.
Dr. John Rusin, an expert in exercise science and injury prevention, says that:
“Recovery from intense training is more than just taking the day off. In fact, that could be more detrimental to your progress than anything. The best methods encourage blood flow, stress reduction, muscular regeneration, and mobility”.
This is why we recommend using the PowerDot to help reduce muscle soreness by bringing in fresh, oxygenated blood to your muscles. This will help flush out lactic acid by keeping your muscles moving with pain-free range of motion.
Furthermore, deadlifts are not just taxing on your muscles. As Erica Suter, professional soccer coach, mentions, “deadlifts can be taxing on the nervous system as well”. This is why she suggests taking walks (without using your cell phone) as a great stress relief activity.
You can practice the conventional deadlift for a long time and continue to get stronger. However, at some point, ‘brute strength’ won’t cut it anymore, and you’ll need to address the four key positions to master your technique.
About The Author
Avi Silverberg holds a Master's of Science degree in Exercise Science with a research focus on powerlifting training. He's been the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting since 2012. As an athlete, his claim to fame was always his bench press, competing at the World Bench Press Championships on three occasions and winning a bronze medal in 2010.