Brian Carroll, author of the 10/20/Life training book, helps you to weed through all the poor deadlift technique advice, and improve your form, safety and gym results.

Build strength beyond your wildest dreams with Brian Carroll's best-selling training book 10/20/Life.

The deadlift is gaining popularity in the mainstream world, thanks to exposure from strength sports such as strongman, powerlifting and CrossFit.

I know a lot of people like to knock CrossFit, but there are some very good aspects to it. I like to keep things positive, and the truth is that CrossFit is not all that bad. CrossFit has brought the squat and the deadlift (and to a degree the bench press) to the mainstream in a big way. This includes both the sumo and conventional deadlift.

It’s a better day when people aren’t just focusing on the bench press all the time. These days more and more lifters are pulling the bar off the floor, if you can even call it that. By that I mean some of these deadlifts look more like a cross between a row and a hip thrust.

The problem here is too many people are not getting proper deadlift coaching, and they have no clue about lifting cues, form, what shoes to wear, how to program for it, the mentality of the deadlift, staying tight and how to properly warm up and prepare for a session.

I'm here to fix that. Here are 5 reasons your deadlifts suck.

1. You don't know your lifting cues

I cover this at length in my book 10/20/life, but a very common aspects of deadlifting I see overlooked is locking in your form. This is a huge part of moving big weights.

Here are a few cues I rarely see:

  • Pushing your belly out into your lifting belt and making it stiff, or making your own lifting belt with your core.
  • Gripping the floor with your feet and solidifying your foundation; this is the path that leads to a big and powerful deadlift.
  • Gripping the bar with a firm over/under hand placement, or hook grip if you prefer. This is something that I don’t see done too often on social media.
  • Looking up, not down, where the wall would meet the ceiling.
  • You should wedge in using the lifter's wedge, or Gorilla Lean as I call it, and drive your heels through the floor. This is not only a good and healthy posture, as explained to me by Dr. McGill, but it also gives you the best leverage to pull.
  • You pull the tension out of the bar so it is rising before you’re ready to initiate that big, initial tug on the bar. You should do this from your warm-ups to you final set. Get into this practice and make it perfect. Pulling on the bar forces you to be tight before you jump into a big pull.
  • The deadlift does not have an eccentric start like a squat or bench press does. Neural priming is a key component to getting ready for exertion. This is another little trick I cover at length in my book.

I always see the "so called experts" miss even the most basic and common form cues. They are hard pressed to notice when a lifter is pulling with their head down, lacking wedge, or are up on their toes.

When you are attempting a PR you want to ensure your form is dialed. This will help you be successful. Dialing in your form can only be accomplished by perfecting the steps I listed above, during every set from warm-ups to max weight.

Powerlifter Brian Carroll

2. Drop your heeled lifting shoe

The big thing these days is to wear a heeled Olympic lifting shoe during squats. I am even seeing these shoes worn while deadlifting. While these shoes serve a purpose on the squat, and even on the bench press, there is no advantage to pulling in Olympic lifting shoes that I have found or seen.

Why would you want to be on your toes during a lift that predicates that you stay on your heels and is driven by the posterior chain? It makes zero sense to put yourself in a position where your heels are pitched up by your choice of footwear. Having a flat shoe will really help your stability, as you will be less likely to pitch up onto your toes. This will keep you in the proper position for the pull.

There isn’t a rule of thumb with a lot of things in life, but in this case there is. Here is my rule of thumb for the deadlift: wear a flat sole shoe. Chuck Taylors are a fine choice, and wrestling shoes or deadlift slippers are great too. They all add a little bit of support for the foot, without adding extra distance to the pull. A nice little win/win situation there.

3. Your deadlift programming is sub-par

Deadlift programming sounds pretty damn simple in theory. Just deadlift, right?

Well, it can be. The best way that I have found to program the deadlift is to attack your weak points. Exercises like block pulls, explosive deadlifts (speed), paused deadlifts, rack pulls and wide box squats (sumo stance deadlift) can make the difference in turning your deadlift from a weak into a strong lift.

Attacking your weak points is key to improving your lifts. You don't just do more deadlifts and hope shit gets better.

If you want to get better in any lift, knowing where you are lacking in strength is vital. I go into great detail about this in 10/20/Life. My book explains how to attack your weak points, and how to design  assistance work based around your needs, not someone else's needs.

I prefer lower reps (1-5) on the main movements(bench, squat and deadlift) and higher reps for the assistance work. These rep ranges can be anywhere from 4-12, depending on the exercise and where you are currently at in your training cycle.

For example, I use lower reps for deadlifts from the floor, rack pulls, deficit or blocks. For movements like rows, pulldowns and similar exercises, I focus on higher reps. Pretty simple, but more is explained in the book.

4. You have the wrong mentality

Your mentality when approaching the bar plays a huge part in your lifting success. You have to be confident, believing you can lift the weight before you even feel it in your hands. Visualize a successful lift and approach the bar knowing you own it. You need to respect the weight, but you should not have an unhealthy fear of it. Iron doesn’t fight back; it’s a one way battle where you hold the fight in your hands.

Having a mental checklist is a great idea. Think about the cues listed above and go through them in your mind. Take your time and set up properly. Be controlled but explosive, be methodical. Going up to the bar and pulling with reckless abandon is the perfect way to take those form cues and throw them out the window. Don’t be that lifter.

The deadlift is probably the most mental lift of the big three; you cannot be casual and lazy. If you are not ready to grip and (methodically) rip, you will be stapled. I have seen this happen numerous times.

Just like I mentioned above, there is no eccentric portion of the deadlift. You don’t get to feel the weight in your arms or on your back before you start to pull. You must be ready for the pull to feel f***ing heavy, but you also must be ready to explode.

Treat all weights, from light to heavy, the same. Don’t assume that just because it's only 135 pounds on the bar that you can casually walk up and lift it half-assed. Use the same setup and the same form cues with 135 pounds as you would with your one rep max.

5. You aren't staying tight

This might be the most important part of a good deadlift. Being loose while lifting is not good for staving off injuries or your power.

Locking yourself tight from top to bottom is vital when trying to generate the most power from the floor. I went the important cues already, but they are worth repeating. Pushing your belly out and keeping it firm is important, as well as having the ability to generate the tightness necessary for a successful lift.

The McGill Big 3 is great for fortifying your ability to remain as tight as possible; the rolling plank, McGill crunch and birddog. Add in some stir the pots and kettlebell swings, as they help greatly as well. Also, use the cues in the above section to stay as tight as possible.

Do not strive for super loose hips; a little bit of tightness in the hips is a good thing. If you can get down in the deadlift and into position without having to force it, don’t stretch. If you are mobile enough to pull with proper form, extra flexibility isn’t going to help you pull more. Tightness is part of what helps you explode and create power.

On the other side of the coin, you may have to do a little mobility work from time to time to ensure a healthy back and hips. A great exercise to use that will help you get into a proper position is the lifter's wedge with an empty bar.

This will help you to stay tight in the areas in which you need to stay tight in, and loose enough to do what is needed...which is to move some big weights.

Final thoughts on the deadlift

These are the 5 most common deadlift issues I see all over and over again on the Internet. My purpose in writing this article is to help you improve your lifting in an effective and healthy way.

One little correction could make the difference between a new deadlift record, missing badly, or even a broken back (I know about this). When you lift big weights, the margin of error between good form and a missed lift can be extremely small.  With more people discovering the benefits of barbell lifting, you also have more people doing it wrong because they aren’t being exposed to proper coaching and proper programming.

My job is to help in any way I can. As a powerlifter, we know these lifts better than anyone. It is our craft; it is our job to help as many people as we can get stronger while minimizing the risk of injury as much as possible.

I encourage you to check out my articles here at M&S on the bench press and squat. Also, be careful who you listen to and take advice from. There are "experts" around every corner.

The squat, bench and the deadlift are parts of every successful lifting program, but what good is that program going if you are destroying the very body you are trying to make stronger?

1 Comment
dennis board
Posted on: Sun, 06/08/2014 - 01:20

Question... I have fairly decent programming and can work up to a good 620lb deadlift in a couple of 12 week cycles. the problem is every time, I get up there without fail, I end up blowing out my left side QL and erectors. This ends up setting me back big time generally to the low 400's and then I have to build back up. This last time, I have developed lots of tightness in my lower left back, the kind where even after getting better you end up bending over like an 80 year old man. I might add that I have a very bad left knee that had an ACL replacement 20 years ago and am bone on bone with a tendency to turn to the left on very heavy lifts. I suppose my question is, what type of doc might point me in the direction of getting better? I have been to a sports chiro and get soft tissue work done as often as I can afford.