Three Training Cues to Improve Your Deadlift
by Julia Ladewski
The bench press is the most commonly performed strength training movement in gyms across America, but the deadlift is right behind it having in recent years gained the reputation as a “must have” exercise in one’s regimen. There is no denying it is one of the best overall strength training movements, but despite this fact, and its popularity, it is also one of the most commonly improperly performed exercises. Proper form and technique does vary due to unique individual anatomy and physiology, but there are some training cues which can be nearly universally applied. The balance of this article will cover three of them.
Foot placement in relation to the bar
Some people hit certain sticking points and plateaus and can’t figure out where the problem lies. The most common weak spots are right off the floor, or at lockout. While one could assume that it’s a weak muscle group, many times the problem lies with the start of the lift, and more specifically, the foot placement. Limb length and body structure will play a role, so what is right for one lifter may not be for the next. The key is finding what is optimal for you. Try altering your foot position such that the bar is closer or further away from you at the start and see how it affects your pull.
Point in fact, just last week a gentleman emailed me his deadlift videos for analysis and critique. He knew something was wrong, but couldn’t figure it out. After assessing his videos I suggested moving his feet either closer to the bar or further away. He had been lining the bar up with his shoelaces, so he tried lining it up mid-foot. This put him in a better position and allowed him to pull the bar back and up, not straight up, resulting in an instantly better deadlift.
How you push through your feet
This cue is different for sumo vs. conventional style. How you initiate and perform the pull relative to your weight displacement on your feet can make a big difference. For example, with conventional pulls I often see people pushing with their weight on their toes which causes the hips to rise too quickly and often results in the bar getting out too far in front of them. Instead, you should think about building tension and forcing the chest up prior to the actual pull. You then push through the heels (not the toes) as you drive your shoulders back. Your body weight will act as a counter balance to the bar which allows you to stay in a good position and thus properly involve the hips at lockout.
A common issue with sumo deadlifting is pushing the feet straight down which precludes proper use of the hips to initiate the movement. The sumo lifter should think about pushing the feet and knees out (like you’re trying to spread the middle of the floor apart). This will keep your hips closer to the bar putting you in a stronger position off the floor.
Deadlifting to improve your deadlift
While doing a lift week after week can improve your technique and the efficiency of the central nervous system (CNS) relative to the specific movement, you don’t need to deadlift every week to see your numbers go up. In fact, it is not recommended. Deadlift variations and special exercises work well to improve your relative weaknesses and still allow you to strain through a high intensity maximal effort.
Let’s drill a little further into this. Doing the same exercise over and over does not allow the lifter to address relative weaknesses. For example, if you’re trying to improve your sumo deadlift, but are having trouble with hip mobility and strength, more (wrong) sumo pulling isn’t going to help. Lack of hip strength will just cause you to pull with mostly your back thus never really working the hips. Target your hip mobility and hip strength another way (and don’t forget that if you improve your conventional deadlift, your sumo will also go up).
What if you can’t seem to overcome a weak lockout with your conventional pull? Again, simply pulling conventional from the floor over and over again will not optimally address the issue. Using deadlift variations like heavy rack pulls, and or using accommodating resistance (bands and or chains) will directly target the problem and allow you to increase your pull.
The take home message here is that working your relative weaknesses can allow you to improve your deadlift.
Don’t just train hard, train SMART and you can use the deadlift to full advantage in your training.
Julia Ladewski, CSCS, is currently the director of Parisi Speed School in northwest Indiana working with youth and adults. Previously, she spent 8 years as a Division I strength coach at the University at Buffalo.
As an Elitefts.com sponsored athlete and Q&A staff member, Julia is an Elite level powerlifter once holding the #1 spot in the 132 pound class. After having two kids, she is back on the platform making her way to the top in the 123’s. Her best lifts to date are a 462 lbs squat, a 255 lbs bench, and a 424 lbs deadlift.
Julia continues to write about youth sports performance and female strength sports. Her writing can be found on Elitefts.com and DangerouslyHardcore.com. She also offers training programs for powerlifting and female strength training as well as nutritional consultation.