Troubleshooting the Deadlift: 4 Simple Fixes For a Stronger Pull

Do you love deadlifting as much as I do?

Good, you’ve come to the right place.

The deadlift is a fantastic exercise but sometimes we get stuck at a certain weight and can’t progress any further.

What are you supposed to do?

In this article, I’m going to share 4 simple fixes you can put into practice today to get your deadlift numbers climbing again.

Sumo- PR of 510lbs

Sumo- PR of 510lbs

Let’s Get Technical

The number one reason people struggle to improve their deadlift is because of poor technique.

Technique is such a broad term so let me clarify what I mean.

Your deadlift technique will be different than mine, and different than the guy wearing tight joggers at the gym.

Everyone’s technique is unique to them, but there are some commonalities that are seen in pretty much everyone with a solid pull.

First, the torso is higher than the hips. Regardless of whether you’re pulling conventional (hands outside of feet) or sumo (hands inside feet) you want your torso to be above the hips.

This means that your back is roughly at a 45° angle (individual differences apply here).

Your feet are flat, arms long, core is braced and tight, and your back is straight as well.

The most common technical flaws I see are:

  • hips shooting up first
  • the bar drifting away from the body
  • excessive rounding of the back
  • starting too far forward

Hips Shooting Up First

If your hips tend to shoot up first, try this cue.

Imagine trying to throw a 45lb plate off your back when you go to break the bar off the floor. I got this tip from fellow strength coach Adam Pine. I also like to tell clients who struggle with the hips shooting up first to lead with the upper back.

What this forces them to do is keep their chest up more the entire time and makes them a bit more patient with their lower body.

I’ve yet to meet anyone whose back is stronger than their legs. So, rather than just pushing hard with the legs when you break the floor, make sure you are pulling hard and leading with the upper back as well. This will help you create more tension on the bar and will keep you in a much more efficient position.

Bar Drifting Away From the Body

If you’ve ever struggled to keep the bar in close it basically means the lats and upper back aren’t tight.

When you set-up to pull, try to squeeze the backs of your armpits as you’re pulling your chest up and getting into position.

What this does is take the slack out of the bar and locks in the upper back. Then, when you begin your pull the bar won’t drift away from you.

Ideally, you want the bar to go straight up and down. A squiggly bar path won’t be the most efficient, and it’ll certainly make the lift harder than it needs to be.

The entire lift you should be pulling the bar into your body to keep it in close.

Your Back Rounds Too Much

If you’ve ever seen someone performing a candy-cane deadlift, it can be pretty tough to watch.

It’s painful to watch, just imagine how the person doing it must have felt.

Now, some rounding of the back is natural and completely safe. You won’t blow your back out if your upper back rounds a bit. Many people don’t realize that the thoracic spine (upper back) is designed to flex. I’d be more concerned about excessive rounding in the lower back.

To prevent excessive rounding in any part of your back, several things need to happen. First, you need to learn how to properly brace your abs and get “tight” before you pull.

Too many people just bend over and pick up the bar.

This is bad.

Every time you perform a deadlift rep you should be tight in your entire abs, lower back and core.

To create a strong and stable core, inhale deeply, filling the stomach, sides, and lower back with air. You want to achieve 360° of pressure.

Now that your core is braced, you want the upper half of your torso to be rigid as well. This means getting the lats tight as mentioned above, as well as getting your chest up so that your back is nice and flat. Imagine showing the logo of your t-shirt straight ahead, rather than towards the floor.

When you grab the bar, you should aim to get your torso as far away from the floor as you can. This will essentially take the “slack” out of the bar and your arms will be very taught. You never want your arms to be bent at any point during the deadlift. Doing so risks injury and potentially tearing a biceps tendon.

Starting too Far Forward

Any good looking pull has the lifter’s shoulders relatively close to straight above the bar.

If your shoulders are too far in front of the bar, your deadlift isn’t going to be as efficient and you’re likely putting unnecessary stress on your back.

Instead, try to get your shoulders over the bar and keep them there as you pull. This will allow you to use your leverages to create an explosive and powerful deadlift.

Technique Goes Hand in Hand

While addressing each of these common flaws will greatly improve your technique, it’s important to remember that your deadlift will improve if you’re doing all of these proficiently. They all sort of work together so it’s a good idea to make sure you’re doing all of them to maximize your technical ability with the deadlift.

Use Variations to Improve Sticking Points

Once you’ve addressed any technical flaws in your deadlift, the next step is to utilize various exercises to help improve any sticking points or weaknesses in your pull.

I’ve found there to be 3 main sticking points in the deadlift. While there might be more, most people usually fail at one of these points in the pull:

  1. Breaking the floor
  2. Mid shin
  3. Lockout

Breaking the Floor

If you struggle to get the initial break from the floor, there are a couple of variations you can use to help.

The two I’d recommend are deficit pulls and pause deadlifts.

Deficit Deadlifts

Deficit pulls are great because the bar starts lower than it would if you were pulling from the ground. This forces you to execute with good technique and blast through that tough spot.

To perform deficit pulls, you’ll simply stand on an elevated surface 1-3″ high, which means the bar will be a bit lower on your shins than normal.

Treat it similar to a regular pull. The same rules apply technique wise, but the only difference is that your hips will have to be slightly lower to adjust for the deficit. If you kept the hips in the normal spot, then you’d be changing your technique. Your goal with deficit pulls should be to lift through a longer range of motion with good technique. This is going to build strength through that sticking point.

Pause Deadlifts

Another useful variation if you struggle off the floor is the use of pause deadlifts. These are great because you can choose where you pause. For improving strength off the floor, I’d recommend pausing right after the initial break from the floor.

Pause deadlifts will help you build TUT or time under tension at the hardest point of the lift for you. When performing these, you’re forced to maintain tension and form while holding the pause which is very advantageous for improving strength off the floor.

Utilizing good technique while performing these variations is of high importance. You simply won’t gain the benefits of these variations if you just slop through them, only worrying about completing the reps.

Good technique with these specific variations is what will help you get stronger off the floor.

Mid-Shin

Maybe you can rip that bar off the ground just fine, but when you get to mid shin you lose it.

If you find yourself struggling to get past mid shin with those heavy weights, low block pulls and pause deadlifts will be very beneficial.

The pause deadlifts here will be the same as mentioned above, but the difference is you’ll pause at mid shin as opposed to right off the floor.

Low Block Pulls

To perform these, you’ll want to elevate the bar onto blocks or plates so that the bar lines up in the middle or slightly below mid-shin.

This will require you to generate force through that range of motion. I’d say the height should be anywhere from 1-3″ on these. The main idea is to set it up so that the bar is right around mid shin.

You want the hips to replicate the position they’d be in if there were no blocks underneath. This means setting the hips at the same position you’d be in at the mid point of your deadlift.

Lockout

If you’re an animal off the floor and at mid shin, but have a tough time locking out at the top then consider doing high block pulls and pauses at the knee.

High Block Pulls

These are very similar to low block pulls. In this instance, though, you’ll elevate the bar a bit higher, possibly 3-6″ off the floor. You want these to be set right around the knee cap and work on pushing the hips through from this point.

I like block pulls much better than rack pulls (bar sits on safety rails) because you’re able to pull the slack out of the bar.

Pauses at the Kneecap

Finally, you can do pauses at the knee if you struggle at lockout. You’ll simply deadlift the weight all the way up to the knee, pause for 1-3 seconds, and then lock it out. Just like the other pause variations, the increased time under tension forces you to remain in an efficient and tight position.Regardless of where you struggle, pausing will benefit you greatly.

Get Your Mind Right

There’s more to deadlifting than just yanking the bar off the ground. We’ve covered some technical areas to improve on, as well as specific variations to use depending on where you tend to fail.

Now, I’d like to touch on an overlooked part of lifting, the mental side.

Regardless of whether you lift to look better or to compete in powerlifting, the mental aspect applies to everyone.

It’s one of the biggest barriers preventing tons of people from getting stronger.

With light weights, maybe you aren’t as intimidated.

But what happens when the weights get heavier and heavier?

Or when you’re going for a PR or doing triples at 90-95% of your 1RM?

If you approach a heavy set with a nonchalant attitude, you’ll likely get crushed by the weight.

Commit to the Pull

If you haven’t heard this saying before, it’s vitally important to improving your deadlift.

You’ve got to “commit to the pull” way before you approach the bar.

If you simply walk up to the bar with fear and doubt that you’ll be able to lift it, chances are you’re right.

However, if you approach the bar confident that you’ll crush the weight, you’re chances of doing so greatly improve.

The bottom line is, you’ve got to believe you can lift it, or it probably won’t happen.

You Don’t Need to Get Mega-Hyped Up

I’m all for some intensity in the gym. As long as it’s directed and useful for achieving a lift.

What I’m not a fan of is excessive huffing and puffing, only to see someone miss a lift because they were out of breath from carrying on like an ogre.

If you like to get pumped up for a big lift that’s fine, just make sure you’re not wasting precious energy that could be spent performing a successful lift.

Instead, try to channel your aggression/hype/intensity into the set rather than seeing how many people you can get to stop and stare while you deadlift.

Some of the most impressive deadlifts I’ve seen have come from guys approaching the bar with a fierce but calm determination. My buddy Adam, who I mentioned earlier, deadlifts 700+lbs and is as relaxed and calm as can be before a heavy pull.

It’s all about focusing your energy to the task at hand. In this case, the deadlift, not the entertainment, is most important.

Proper Programming

I won’t get into every single way you can program to improve the deadlift, but rather I’ll give you some practical guidelines to help you add pounds to your pull.

I recently wrote an article where I talked a bit more in depth on how to improve deadlift strength (programming and what not) HERE.

A good program depends on what you need most. Do you need to put on size? Gain more overall strength?

It’s a good idea to train the deadlift in various rep ranges which will depend on the specific phase of training you’re doing at that time.

You’ve got hypertrophy phases (higher volume), strength phases (low-moderate volume), and peaking phases (low volume).

Ultimately if you want to see how crazy strong you can get, you’ll want to use each of these phases.

In the order above, you might do each one for a few months at a time before moving onto the next phase. Train to make the muscles bigger (hypertrophy), train to make those muscles stronger (strength), and finally peak to display the strength of those bigger stronger muscles.

If it seems complicated don’t worry. It’s not that complex. There are many different programs to follow, just make sure they follow these guidelines.

*If you just want to improve your deadlift strength and don’t plan to compete or anything, you probably don’t need to do a peaking phase. You can simply go back and forth between hypertrophy and strength work, doing several months of each at a time before switching.

Using a Belt

Personally, I recommend holding off on wearing a lifting belt until your weights start getting into the 80ish percent range. This means that everything below 80% or so should be trained without a belt.

This forces you to brace properly and keep your form throughout. This is especially useful when doing rep work. You’re forced to use good technique during lighter sets, otherwise, the light sets will feel much tougher due to technical flaws.

Pulling Too Heavy Too Often

Like I said above, you should be following a logical program. You want to make sure you’re training the entire body and working on weaker body parts to help improve your deadlifts. Quads, glutes, adductors, hamstrings, erectors, and lats are the biggest movers during the deadlift.

Train lifts that will help you build size in these areas, because a larger muscle has the potential to be a stronger muscle.

If you just roll into the gym without a plan how do you expect to make any real progress with your deadlift?

You can’t just randomly test your max every week and think you’re going to improve. Don’t pull super heavy all the time.

Sure, during strength and peaking phases you should be pulling heavier and heavier, but if you’re deadlifting heavy year round, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

The deadlift should be trained following the guidelines above in regards to utilizing different phases depending on your needs.

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2 Comments on "Troubleshooting the Deadlift: 4 Simple Fixes For a Stronger Pull"

  • I need help with my deadlifts but can’t afford to get coach… My pr’s are squat 140kg, bench, 130kg, deadlift 200kg. If anyone has good program or can tell me which one is worth to try. Please let me know. ohh btw I’m almost 40yo 183cm tall 103-105 kg heavy ( 19-20%bf) many years in bodybuilding but first steps in Powerlifting… following sheiko program now 37v2, +31+32v2.
    Regards
    Greg
    nayas4@o2.pl

    • Hey Greg,

      There are lots of great programs out there. What in particular are you struggling with?

      Without having a bit more detail, it’s tough to just recommend a program without knowing your specific goals and sticking points. Feel free to shoot me an email (ryanwoodtraining@gmail.com) and we can chat further.

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