1. Starting with the Hips Too Low
This is the king of all mistakes I see. Too many times lifters try to squat the weight up rather than pull the weight. Think back to the number of times that you’ve seen a big deadlift and thought to yourself how much more the lifter could’ve pulled if he didn’t damn near stiff-leg it? I see it all the time. Someone will say, “Did you see his deadlift?” Then the other guy will comment, “Yeah, and he stiff-legged the thing.” Am I telling you to stiff-leg your deadlifts? No, not at all.
All I want you to do is look at your hip position at the start of the lift when you pull, and watch how much your hips move up before the weight begins to break the floor. This is wasted movement and does nothing except wear you out before the pull. The closer you can keep your hips to the bar when you pull, the better the leverages are going to be. Once again, next time you see a great deadlifter, stand off to the side and watch how close his or her hips stay to the bar throughout the pull. If you’re putting your ass to the floor before you pull, your hips are about a mile from the bar. You’re setting yourself up for disaster when the lever arm is this long. Consequently, this is the second most common reason why lifters can’t get the bar off the floor. (The first reason is very simple: the bar is too heavy!)
You need to find that perfect spot—where your hips are close to the bar, your shoulders are behind the bar, your lower back is arched, your upper back is rounded, your belly is full of air, and you can pull toward your body. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy, but then again, what is? Definitely not training in a commercial health club…
2. Where to Look When You Pull
Your body will always follow your head. If you’re looking down, then the bar is going to want to travel forward. At the same time, you don’t want to look at the ceiling. Focus on an area that keeps your head in a straight, up and back position with the eyes focusing on an upper area of the wall.
3. Dimel Deadlifts
This exercise helped Matt Dimel increase his squat from the mid-800s to over 1000 pounds in a two-year period. To perform this exercise, grab a barbell with an overhand grip, hands about shoulder-width apart. Pull the bar up to a standing position.
At this point, arch your back and get your abs tight. Keep your back as arched as possible, push the glutes out, and keep the knees slightly bent. Lower the bar by pushing your body weight back onto your heals while pushing your glutes out. Try to lower the barbell to a position just past the knees. At this point, you should feel a tremendous stretch in the glutes and hamstrings.
Raise the bar back up by contracting your glutes first. At the top of the movement, contract the glutes as hard as possible. Perform the exercise in a ballistic fashion. You want to drop to the mid- point position and explode back to the starting position. This is best trained with moderate weight for sets of 15-20 reps.
Going too low. Make sure to keep the tension on the hamstrings.
Not pushing the hips and glutes back. This is also to keep the stress on the hamstrings.
Rounding the back. Keep your back arched to help keep the stress on the hamstrings.
Using a slow tempo. This movement is designed to be trained fast. You’ll begin with a slow tempo and build the speed up with each additional repetition.
One of the best ways I’ve seen this implemented is when it is used as a finisher movement (using two sets of 15-20 reps). Do this at the end of three to four workouts during the week for three to four weeks.
The most popular way to implement this is to just toss them in once a week on your squat or dead.
4. Dumbbell Holds
There are very few things that I’ve found to work when it comes to helping with dropped deadlifts due to grip. Dumbbell holds, however, are one movement that’s shown great results.
Grab the top of a hex dumbbell, making sure that you don’t touch the numbers. Grab, stand, and hold for as long as you can. If you can go over 20 seconds, then up the weight.
5. Binder Clips
One easy thing that will help your grip for pulling is to use binder clips. These are the big paper clips that have a black end on them (and other colors). Use these like you would use grippers, but only use your thumb and little finger. You can work all fingers, but the little guy is the first to go.
Ed Coan told me this one a few years ago at the SWIS conference.
6. Get Strong(er)
If you drop your pulls, one solution is very simple—get stronger! Let’s say you always drop 700 pounds, but you can pull 650 pounds easy and pulling 700 pounds with straps is no problem. Well, get strong enough to pull 750 pounds with straps. Then, 700 pounds will feel like 650 pounds.
7. Get Your Head Right
Get your head right. Training isn’t easy and won’t always be a walk-in-the-park. There’s more to getting strong than just lifting the weights. You have to get an attitude with the weights and bust your ass. Louie once told me that he would NEVER train with anyone who didn’t scare him in one way or another. This is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard. I’m not saying that you should be a dick, but there’s a HUGE difference between “training” and “working out.”
8. Multiple-Rep Deadlifts
Next time you see someone doing multiple reps on the deadlift, take note of the form of each rep. You’ll notice that the later reps look nothing like the first. In competition, you only have to pull once, so you need to learn how to develop what’s known as starting strength for the deadlift. This is the strength that is needed to get the bar off the floor without an eccentric (negative) action before the start.
In other words, you don’t lower the bar first and then lift the weight as you do with the squat and bench press. When you train with multiple reps, you’re beginning to develop reversal strength, which isn’t needed with the deadlift. These two reasons are enough to keep the deadlift training to singles. If you’re using multiple reps with the deadlift, then stand up in between each rep and restart the lift. This way you’ll be teaching yourself the proper form and developing the right kind of strength.
9. Not Pulling the Bar Back
The deadlift is all about leverage and positioning. Visualize a teeter-totter. What happens when the weight on one end is coming down? The other end goes up. So if your body is falling backward, what happens to the bar? It goes up! If your weight is falling forward, the bar will want to stay down. So if you weigh 250 pounds and you can get your body weight to work for you, it would be much like taking 250 pounds off the bar. For many natural deadlifters, this is a very instinctive action. For others, it has to be trained.
Proper positioning is important here. If you’re standing too close to the bar, it’ll have to come over the knee before you can pull back—thus, going forward before it goes backward. If your shoulders are in front of the bar at the start of the pull, then the bar will want to go forward, not backward. If your back isn’t arched, the bar will also want to drift forward. For some lifters, not being able to pull back can be a muscular thing. If you’re like myself, I tend to end up with the weight on the front of my feet instead of my heels. This is a function of my quads trying to overpower the glutes and hamstrings, or the glutes and hamstrings not being able to finish the weight and shifting to the quads to complete the lift. What will happen many times is that you’ll begin shaking or miss the weight. To fix this problem, you need to add in more glute ham raises, pull-throughs, and reverse hypers.
10. Shin Placement
I’m not too sure where this started, but I have a pretty good idea. Many times the taller, thinner lifters are the best pullers, and they do start with the bar very close to their shins. But if you look at them from the side, they still have their shoulders behind the bar when they pull. This is just not possible to achieve with a thicker lifter.
If a thicker lifter with a large amount of body mass—be it muscle or fat—were to line the bar up with his shins, you’d see he would have an impossible time getting the shoulders behind the bar. Remember, you need to pull the bar back toward you, not out and away from you. So what I believe happens is that many lifters look to those who have great deadlifts to see how they pull, then try to do the same themselves. However, what they really need to do is look to those who have great deadlifts and who have similar builds as them and follow their lead.
11. Pulling with Big Air
As with most exercises, you must learn how to breathe. Stand in front of a mirror and take a deep breath. Do your shoulders rise? If so, then you need to learn how to breathe. Learn to pull your air into your diaphragm. In other words, use your belly! Pull as much air into your belly as possible, then when you think you have all you can get, pull more. The deadlift isn’t started by driving your feet into the floor; it’s started by driving your belly into your belt and hips flexors.
One note on holding air while you pull: You do need to try and hold your air as long as possible, but this can only last for a few seconds while under strain because you will pass out. So for a long pull, you’re going to have to breathe or you’ll hit the floor… and people will stare. While there are several people out there who may think this is a cool thing, I disagree. It’s much cooler to make the lift!
So when you reach the point where you begin to really have to fight with the weight, let out small bursts of air. Don’t let all of it out at one time or you’ll lose torso tightness and that will cause the bar to drop down. By letting out small bursts, you can keep your tightness, continue to pull, and lock out the weight.
12. Rounding the Lower Back when Deadlifting
This is another mistake I see all the time, and most lifters know better. It happens most of the time because of a weak lower back or a bad starting position. Even though your shoulders should be rounded, you must keep your lower back arched. This will keep the shin straight and the shoulders behind the bar, allowing your body to be in the proper position to pull big while keeping the back under minimal stress.
If you pull with a rounded back, the bar is going to drift forward away from the legs—putting your back in a very difficult position from which to recover. When the bar drifts forward, the weight of it will begin to work against your leverages and cause you to have a sticking point just below the knees or mid-shin level. When you pull, you can either arch your back in the beginning standing position before you crouch down to pull or once you grab the bar. Either way, it’s important to keep the lower back arched and tight.
There are many ways to strengthen the lower back for this. Good mornings, reverse hypers, and arched back good mornings are a few. You can also use a band around your traps and feet for simulated good mornings. With this technique, you only use the bands and train for higher reps (in the 20 to 30 rep range) for local muscular endurance.
13. Pulling Your Shoulder Blades Together when You Deadlift
This is a mistake I made for years. Stand in a deadlift stance and pull your shoulder blades together. Take a look at where your fingertips are. Now if you let your shoulders relax and even round forward a little, you’ll see your fingertips are much lower. This is why we teach a rounding of the upper back. First, the bar has to travel a shorter distance. Second, there’s less stress on the shoulder region. It’ll also help keep your shoulder blades behind the bar.
14. Pull the slack out of the bar
Even if you are not using a texas deadlift bar, you still want to make an effort to pull the slack out of the bar before accelerating the bar to lockout. What this basically means is to begin pulling until you feel the bar get tight against the plates and begin to bend. Once you reach that point—where you feel the bar bending—THEN begin the pull off the floor, thinking of accelerating the speed more and more with every inch the bar moves.