There are two kinds of guys in the gym: one wants to get shredded and ripped and as lean as possible, the other wants to achieve godly levels of strength ala Hafthor Bjornsson (AKA The Mountain), and aesthetics takes a backseat. If you’re someone that feels at home in the latter camp, then you’ll be no stranger to one of the manliest lifts in existence – the deadlift.
On the surface, the deadlift is a simple exercise. You pick up the weight to shin height, straighten your back, then put it back down. Simple, right? But with people like Donald Trump Jr. showcasing pretty terrible form, the movement is a bit more technical than it seems.
If you want to get started on getting super strong without hurting yourself, then here’s a guide on how to deadlift properly. With a little practice, proper deadlift form, and lots of strength training, you’ll be echoing the famous words of Jon Pall Sigmarsson before you know it.
Deadlift Form and Mistakes To Avoid
Back pain when deadlifting is super common, but it’s not normal, says trainer Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., owner of CORE in Boston, Mass. In fact, it’s usually an indication you’re doing something wrong with your lift.
“It’s fine to feel a little fatigue or tiredness in your back the day after deadlifting,” Gentilcore says. “But if you wake up the next day and it’s affecting your day to day activity, like it’s hard to bend over and it’s hard to twist, or you are apprehensive to sit up and down or to roll over in bed, that would tell me that your technique needs a little work.”
Deadlift Mistake: You Don’t Fire Up Your Lats
“It stands to reason they’re going to be providing a lot of stability to the spine and upper back just to keep it in position when you’re deadlifting,” Gentilcore says.
If you neglect using your lats for the movement, you’re not going to have a stable, tight platform where force gets transferred through. This could lead to the rounding of your back which will eventually lead to pain.
“Pretend like you are trying to squeeze an orange in your armpit or squeeze a sponge in your armpit. When you do that, that’s going to get that area to fire,” Gentilcore says. “I can stand behind my clients and tap their lats, and you can feel them on—they’re not soft.” Hold this throughout the entire lift.
Deadlift Mistake: You Start With The Bar Too Far Away
“Often I hear people say, ‘Oh, my shins bleed when I deadlift. What am I doing wrong?’ I say, ‘Nothing,’”says Gentilcore. In fact, keeping it that close that you scrape them means the bar is close enough for you to not screw up your form.
If you start with the barbell too far away from you, you’re giving yourself a poor line of pull, he says. It can cause greater back strain and you won’t be deadlifting as efficiently as you won’t be using your legs as much.
“Start with the barbell like you’re going to cut your feet in half,” Gentilcore says. “So it should be right over mid foot.”
If you’re really hurting your shins badly, just wear high socks or sweatpants to protect your legs, Gentilcore says.
Deadlift Mistake: You Don’t Bend Your Knees Enough
“If you don’t bend your knees, you are just going to bend at the waist,” says Gentilcore. “You’re going to have straight legs, and that can crush your back.”
“It’s going to go right to the lower back,” Gentilcore says. “You are not going to have the proper hamstring tension.”
Deadlift Mistake: You Focus On Pulling The Weight Up
“If they initiate it as a pull, I see their hips come up too fast or their hips come up first,” Gentilcore says. “The hips and shoulder should be moving at the same time.”
Treat it as pushing yourself into the ground instead of pulling a weight up. Think about putting force in the ground through your feet, pushing yourself away from the ground as you pull the barbell up and back, he says.
There’s a chance that focusing on pulling will lead to less tension which will then lead to back pain.
Deadlift Mistake: You Overextend At The Top Of The Lift
“There should be a little oomph—you are finishing with your hips at the top—but you shouldn’t overextend to the point where you overarch your back,” Gentilcore says. “When you are overextending, that’s when the lower back comes into play.”You shouldn’t need to exaggerate the movement. Finish with your legs straight and squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement.
Deadlift Mistake: You Ignore Your Abs
Actually, most guys do a pretty good job engaging their abs at the beginning of the lift, Gentilcore says. It’s at the descent where it becomes problematic. Don’t just let the weight drop once you’ve completed the lift. Not only will you get dirty looks at the gym, there’s a chance you may mess up your form and strain your back as the weight pulls you down.
Bottom Line On Deadlifting And Back Pain
“The beauty of the deadlift is that it can be catered or modified to fit the mobility and stance of the lifter,” Gentilcore says. “We don’t have to do a square peg, round hole scenario.”
You can always try other variations of deadlifts to get around mobility issues, such as Romanian deadlifts and sumo deadlifts.
Deadlift Variation: Sumo Deadlift
Squat over the barbell with a stance that’s wider than shoulder width, and turn your toes out at about a 45-degree angle. Use a shoulder-width grip as you perform a deadlift. The upright stance afforded by the foot position of this variation means you get less hip and more inner-thigh work.
Advanced Deadlift Variation: Unilateral Deadlift
From the standard deadlift starting position, grab the bar with your nondominant hand and perform a deadlift, taking extra care to keep your shoulders and hips from leaning in one direction or the other. Return to the starting position. Finish the set with that side, then repeat with the other.
Advanced Deadlift Variation: Suitcase Deadlift
Set the barbell lengthwise outside your nondominant foot, with the middle of the bar next to your leg. Grab it with your nondominant hand and perform a unilateral deadlift as described above. Keep your posture as upright as possible. Return to the starting position. Finish the set with that side, then repeat with the other.
Start: Grab the barbell with an overhand, shoulder-width grip, and stand holding it at arm’s length in front of your thighs. Set your feet shoulder-width apart with a very slight bend in your knees. Pull your shoulders back.
Finish: Bend over at the hips to lower the bar down your legs, toward the floor. Stop when your torso is parallel to the floor or when you can’t go lower without rounding your back. Pause, then push down with your heels to return to the starting position. Keep your knees bent at the same angle and your shoulder blades pulled back throughout.
Advanced Deadlift Variation: Unilateral Romanian Deadlift
If your balance is good, increase the challenge by lifting your dominant foot a few inches off the floor and keeping it there as you do the movement with your nondominant leg. Finish the set with that side, then repeat with the other.
Advanced Deadlift Variation: Snatch-Grip Romanian Deadlift
Widen your grip to twice shoulder width.
By Gilbert Wong, Men’s Health Content Producer / Additional text by Christa Sgobba