Deadlift day at the gym. You grip the bar, but a question lingers: Is your form on point? Because in deadlifting, form isn't just about lifting more - it's about resilience and mental toughness.
The deadlift is a litmus test for your functional strength and mental grit. A full-body powerhouse, the deadlift engages everything from your glutes to your core.
But a small mistake in form can not only stall your progress, but lead to big setbacks.
That's why That’s why MTNTOUGH places a premium on mastering this lift, especially for those who face the rigors of the backcountry, military service, and law enforcement.
Inspired by Coach Bigham’s Form Lab video on the deadlift, this uncovers the 8 most common deadlift mistakes and how to correct them.
The Importance of Proper Deadlift Form
Deadlifts are more than just a gym exercise; they're a test of your functional strength and mental resilience. A single mistake can set you back weeks, if not months. That's why mastering it matters - like any good functional exercise it simulates the real-world challenges, like lifting and loading heavy packs in the backcountry or in the line of duty.
8 Common Deadlift Form Mistakes and How to Correct Them
Laying the Groundwork: Deadlift Setup
Your approach is foundational to a successful deadlift. It's the backbone that supports the entire lift, determining if you'll hit perfect precision or risk injury. Here are a few common ways the setup prevents proper execution.
Mistake 1: Improper Foot Placement; Inactive Feet
Your feet aren't just there to keep you upright; they're your power base for the entire lift. A lot of guys go wide, thinking it's stable, but that wide stance is messing with your balance and cutting your power. You're sidelining key players like your glutes and hamstrings. Plus, a wide stance limits your range of motion, which is a no-go if you're looking to maximize your lift.
Your feet should be active participants in the lift. Whether you're pushing through your heels or toes, consistency is key. Shifting your weight or letting your feet rotate mid-lift? That's a recipe for a botched pull.
Solution to Poor Foot Placement and Inactive Feet:
Get your feet hip-width apart. This is the sweet spot for power and balance. Your shins should be about an inch from the bar, putting it right over the middle of your feet.
Keep those feet active and engaged from start to finish. No heel-toe dancing, no rotation - just solid, consistent force through the ground.
Mistake 2: Misaligned Shoulders
When your shoulders are out of whack - either too far forward or too far back - you're throwing off your center of gravity. That makes the lift harder than it needs to be and puts you at risk for injury. You want your shoulders directly above the bar, locked and loaded, ready to distribute that weight evenly.
Solution to Misaligned Shoulders:
Before you even think about lifting, check that your shoulders are in line with the bar. Picture a straight line running from the top of your head down to your tailbone. This sets you up for a balanced lift, letting the right muscles do the heavy lifting, literally.
Mistake 3: Incorrect Hip Movement and Angle
Coach Bigham would be the first to tell you that your hips are central to your deadlift, and they reveal a lot about what’s working and what’s not. There are two main issues to keep in mind, and they are exact opposites. Make either mistake and you're not lifting efficiently.
If your hips shoot up too fast, you're putting all the strain on your lower back, creating slack in the system (no tension) and missing out on the leg power. On the flip side, hips too low can push the bar forward and mess up your pull.
Either way, you're not lifting efficiently.
Before you start the lift, find that hip sweet spot. It's neither too high nor too low, and it's where you can feel the tension in your legs. Keep those hips down and maintain that tension as you initiate the pull. This makes sure you're using your legs and back in unison, maximizing your lift.
Solution to ‘Hips Shooting Up Too Fast’:
If your hips shoot up too fast, you're putting all the strain on your lower back, creating slack in the system (no tension) and missing out on the leg power. To fix this, create tension in the legs before initiating the pull. In Coach Bigham’s Deadlift Form video, he recommends having your partner put their hand on the small of your back at the start, among other drills to fix this. Building knee extensor strength, adjusting the stance to increase quad activation, and understanding the optimal back angle can also help.
In general though, try to focus on keeping the hips down and maintaining tension in the legs before initiating the pull, double-checking the setup position and that your hips are angled just right.
Solution to ‘Hips Too Low’:
On the flip side, hips too low can push the bar forward and mess up your pull. In your setup position, take the time to assess your hip height. Many times when your hips are too low it comes back to how your feet are positioned. Go back to the basics and check that your shins are 1 inch away from the bar so falls directly over the middle of the foot.
Slack in the System - Bar Movement and Position:
For killer deadlift form, your bar awareness needs to be extremely high. How the bar moves and its proximity to your body are the measures of success, where the bar should move vertically straight and remain close to your body throughout the move.
When there’s a mismatch you create slack in the system. Any slack in the system will make the exercise harder, less effective, and increase the chances of injury. It’s an indicator that the right parts of your body aren’t moving in unison.
The usual suspects include improper arm, shoulder, or hip movement when bringing the bar up to the top position. The biggest tell that something is off and there’s a slack in the system is if your bar moves in an ‘S’ shape throughout the lift.
Mistake 4: Pulling Instead of Pushing
With exception of your lats, deadlifts are primarily a lower body exercise. There’s obviously more to it than that, but you can appreciate that deadlifts place extra emphasis on your glutes, hamstrings, and quads.
And still, that obvious nugget of knowledge doesn’t stop people from trying to turn deadlifting into a test of upper body strength; one where they ‘muscle’ through the lift and ignore the functional purpose of the exercise.
When this happens, the biceps and forearms enter the equation and the posterior chain muscles exit, which limits the amount of weight lifted and invites injury to the training session.
In the end this mistake neglects the powerhouse of leg muscles available and prevents them from doing their job in the movement.
Solution to Keep You Pushing:
If you're committing this mistake, fix it by focusing on your feet. More specifically, pushing your feet into the ground and using your legs to initiate the pull. Do this by engaging your glutes and hamstrings, guaranteeing they play a major role in generating power.
Feel the tension in your legs and use them as the primary driver for the lift.
As for your arms, remind them of their role. They should be used to maintain grip on the bar and not to lift the weight.
Mistake 5: Weak Grip
A weak grip dovetails into the ‘Pulling vs. Pushing’ concept above - it dictates whether your deadlift is led by pulling with the arms or pushing from the legs. When the arms are used to lift the weight, grip strength becomes a limiting factor.
It controls your ability to hold the bar through the entire lift and the total weight you can comfortably muster, which will be significantly less than if you were to push from your legs. Performance aside though, this will destroy your wrist health by placing all that additional strain on your wrists, potentially causing discomfort and even injury during heavy lifting.
Usually it's the result of gripping the bar too wide or too narrow, or not using a mixed grip. In other words, one of the simplest aspects of a deadlift - where and how you grip the bar - ripples throughout every aspect of your form.
Solution to Grip Issues:
Experiment with different grips to find the most comfortable and secure one for you. A mixed grip, using one palm facing up and the other facing down, can help you maintain a better grip and protect your wrists.
Alternatively, consider using lifting straps to reduce strain on your wrists while focusing on your form and building strength in the intended muscle groups.
Mistake 6: Squatting the Deadlift
One of the most common deadlift form mistakes is treating the lift like a squat. This approach overemphasizes the quads at the expense of the posterior chain, limiting the weight you can lift and the muscles you effectively engage. This is another mistake that’s partner in crime with your hips.
Solution to Prevent Squatting:
To correct this, focus on pushing through your heels and engaging your hamstrings and glutes. Maintain a consistent back angle throughout the lift, and watch that your hips don't shoot up too quickly.
This will harness the full strength of your posterior chain, leaving you with a more effective and safer deadlift.
The Importance of Stability in Deadlift Form
Stability in deadlifting isn't just about keeping your balance; it's the source of power and efficiency in the lift. A stable core and spine act as the conduit for force transfer from your lower body to the barbell.
The result? Maximum lifting potential and safety.
When your core is stable, each muscle group involved in the deadlift can perform its role more effectively, reducing the risk of injury and boosting your lifting performance. Here are two watchouts to make sure your stability isn’t compromised during the deadlift.
Mistake 7: Not Engaging the Core
Failing to brace your core during a deadlift can result in a loss of stability, reducing your lifting efficiency and increasing the risk of injury.
Solution to Brace Your Core:
To counteract this, take a deep breath and hold it in before initiating the lift. This technique, known as the Valsalva maneuver, helps brace your core and maintain a neutral spine, providing a stable base for the lift.
Mistake 8: Rounding Back
Rounding your back is simply a sign of not bracing your core - but since it’s such a common issue in deadlifts, it’s worth isolating as a separate issue.
Rounding your back is a clear and bright red flag for potential spinal injuries and strains. This poor form distributes the weight unevenly, making it harder for your muscles to generate force and puts your lower back at severe risk.
Solution to Stop Rounded Back:
To correct this, engage your core and maintain a neutral spine throughout the lift. Visualize pushing your chest up and keeping your back flat. This will help you maintain proper alignment and reduce the risk of injury.
Form Follows Function: Elevate Your Game with MTNTOUGH
You've got the knowledge, now it's time to put it into practice. Proper deadlift form isn't just about lifting more weight; it's about building a resilient body and mind capable of conquering any challenge—be it in the backcountry, on duty, or in daily life.
That's where MTNTOUGH's Form Lab steps in. Crafted by Donny Bigham, a world record-holding powerlifter and former military fitness instructor, our Form Lab program is the perfect companion to this guide. Experience the nitty-gritty of deadlift form through our detailed video tutorials and get personalized tips to elevate your performance.
Ready to take your functional fitness and mental toughness to the next level? Don't miss out on our 14-day free trial to experience Form Lab and all that MTNTOUGH has to offer.
Forge a stronger you with MTNTOUGH. Because when form follows function, greatness follows you.