Athletes typically falter in their deadlift progress because they lack a clear understanding of the lift and their bodies, and how to make them work optimally. The goal for every repetition should be to create efficiency through proper leverage, by shifting the weight onto the heels, driving them through the floor and dragging the barbell against your body while using your shins as a guide. It may sound like a lot to take in all together, but I assure you that the first step of that sequence puts the athlete in the most advantageous position to accomplish the rest naturally and effectively.
Firstly, let’s dig into this concept of shifting the weight onto your heels and why this is so important. It’s time to rethink the deadlift and recognize that the movement can be broken into two separate parts; Initiating the pull or “breaking the floor,” where it is imperative that this concept be be applied, and the lockout/completion of the movement, which requires the athlete stand fully upright with knees locked out and shoulders squared. Bridging and transitioning fluidly between both components maximizes the efficiency of the lift, but how we address both individually? The answer is, of course, two-fold because we must identify the two fulcrums that are involved in this movement: the heel, as mentioned before, and the hips.
Breaking the Floor
The first challenge with the deadlift is the direction of the pull. If you saw the lift executed for the first time of your life even by the most technical lifter, you would come to the conclusion that you would need to get behind the bar, grab it evenly and pull up as hard as you can to replicate the movement. Erase this thought and replace it with the thought of pulling back rather than up. Counterintuitive…sure, but let me explain why. If you’re 200lbs trying to deadlift 600lbs with pure muscle, you’re either going to risk severe injury or fail completely. By leaning back and shifting the weight onto the heels, theoretically, you’re negating (or countering) some of the weight on the bar with your own bodyweight. Also, you will be pulling with a fairly upright torso utilizing more leg drive to initiate the movement and lining your body up to lock out from a stronger position.
Tips for Shifting the Weight to Your Heels
1. Always, always, always record your lifts. This is not only an easy way to log progress, but a good way to see where you fall short in your positioning and highlight muscular weaknesses, especially if you capture some clean side angle footage.
2. Shoulders should be directly over or slightly behind the bar, which means you’re initiating from your heels when beginning the pull.
3. Experiment with your shins away from the bar. Depending on your structure, you will naturally hover over the bar with your shins making contact prior to the pull, so create a bit of a buffer.
4. If you pull sumo, focus on spreading the floor with your feet and driving your knees out. What this does is open up your hips and shortens the distance between them and the bar. It also helps to improve your shoulders positioning in relation to the bar as well.
5. Thinking about pulling your lats down in the same direction as your glutes. This will help with maintaining a neutral spine position, and mitigating curvature as the weight gets heavier.
6. This last tip is slightly more advanced and often works wonders, but also introduces an issue of missing the groove if the timing is off. Start with the bar away from your shins, roll it towards you, and start pulling at the exact moment you anticipate the bar to touch your shins. If timed right, breaking the floor will become easier and easier with more practice.
The second fulcrum as mentioned before, is at the hip hinge. So much of your success with this component is contingent on your positioning and direction of your pulling in breaking the floor.
Consider a couple unhappy path scenarios:
- Your knees are a constant hindrance in the lockout pulling Sumo. Remember, that by spreading the floor and opening up your hips as a sumo puller, you reduce the distance from your hips to the bar, and a shorter distance requires less effort to lockout. Secondly, you mitigate the abrasion of your arms on your thighs as you are far more upright during the execution.
- You get stuck at the top and can’t push your hips through. If you start with your shoulders over the bar, and manage to muscle the weight off the floor you begin transforming your deadlift into a stiff-legged deadlift. Hovering over the bar obviously puts a lot of weight over your mid-foot and toes which forces you to lock your knees out too quickly while your torso is still angled away from the correct direction of the pull…which is backwards.
- Your lockouts are always slow from 70%+ of your Max. This scenario is most likely due to poor muscle development in the glutes and hamstrings. These two muscle groups are key to driving your hips through at the top. The cue here would be to squeeze your glutes as hard you can, after clearing your knees with the bar. Accessory movements like Block Pulls, Dimels, Stiff-legged Deadlifts and Weighted Glute Bridges also help to strengthen this area.
To reiterate again, having a strong sense of awareness and positioning from the very start of the Deadlift will set you up to be successful in the lockout. Cohesion between both components of the lift is dependent and obviously sequential in nature. Aside from muscular weaknesses, a strong start warrants a strong completion.
Why Stress Technique?
The last piece of advice I want to offer in this article is to always improve your technique. While you can make progress by adding volume over time and forcing adaptation, you can theoretically achieve more with similar volume and being extremely specific to the movement.
Simply put, always put quality over quantity when it comes to Deadlift reps. While grinding reps teaches you how to re-adjust on-the-fly when technique breaks down, reinforcement of superior technique will take you leaps and bounds with regards to progress. It doesn’t matter if you’re squatting, deadlifting, curling or rowing, be a technician.
About The Author
Che Anthony Achat is a competitive 66kg/74kg powerlifter who prides himself in having an objective look at the fitness industry. His mission is to dispel the current bee hive mind mentality, and encourage others to develop their own approach to getting stronger and healthier whether it be physically or mentally.