How to Deadlift Correctly

I remember before I was a physio, I was terrified of the deadlift. I kept hearing that I would ‘throw my back out’, don’t bother with it, just use the leg press and that is just as good as the deadlift. Wrong. There is a lot of merit to the deadlift. It is a great way to gain mass, and it’s an important movement pattern. It doesn’t get much more functional than being able to correctly pick up something from the ground. However, it is a skill like any other complex movement. Take the time to learn it correctly.

First off, let’s talk shoe ware. You don’t need supportive shoes that do the work for you. You want something flat like chuck taylors, zero drop shoes, or just barefoot.

Then decide on on your grip. Double over hand, or alternate grip. The whole point of the alternate grip is so the bar doesn’t roll in your hands. It’s probably best to do your warm-ups with double over hand and then switch to alternate for your heavy lifts. Or you can alternate the alternate grip between sets.

The set up:

Feet straight, shins close to the bar, nearly touching the bar. Put your weight in the center of your foot, or in your heels, not in your toes. Push you big toe down into the ground to create an arch if you are flat footed. Screw your feet outward (picture you are trying to turn your feet out but the floor is stopping you). That will create an external rotational moment in your femurs and create mild torsion in your hip rotators. Before you touch the bar, you want to engage your core. Stiffen your abdomen (squeeze core), and keep your chin tucked. Looking up is a common cue but it is incorrect. When you look up, you put a kink in your cervical spine which will actually reduce neural outflow and you will lose muscular power.

The movement:

Hinge at the hips keeping your back and neck straight. For those with tight hip flexors, make sure your low back is not arched. Grab the bar, pick up the slack in the bar before lifting. Pull straight up (basically stand up), the path of the bar would be vertical if you were looking at it from the side. The bar should graze your shins. Don’t just stop when your knees are straight. Actually squeeze your glutes and push your hips forward slightly. When lowering, initiate again with the hip hinge.

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Mobility requirements:

You need a certain amount of ankle dorsiflexion and hamstring length to perform the hinge without compensation. If you have tight calves or capsular stiffness, it may prevent you from being able to dorsiflex fully. Tight hamstrings will either cause you to round your back or translate your knees forward. In either case, you can modify by getting the bar off the ground a bit by either using bumper plates, or putting plates under the weights on the bar. Alternatively, you can utilize the sumo deadlift. Regardless, don’t just force your way through it, your body will compensate somehow and you will set yourself up for injury. Plan on gaining mobility in these areas so you can get into the correct position without modifying. To fix your mobility issues I’d recommending spending time in this position at the lowest depth you can tolerate. With no weight, or very light weight, get down into the bottom of your hip hinge and spend a minute just holding that position. Perhaps sets of 1 minute holds for several sets a day. Keep repping that out until you can get lower and lower and then slowly start loading that position. Gastroc and hamstring stretches will help with range of motion needs. If you are having a pinching sensation in the front of your ankle, it could indicate capsular stiffness. For capsular stiffness, it is best to see a physical therapist for joint mobility.


There is a time and a place for compensating, it’s competition. There is no other reason you should be training like that besides to get that number you need for a powerlifting competition. Your form should be perfect while training, and if you compensate during a competition, know the risks. The problem with rounding your back is that you place a lot of posterior pressure on the disc, in other words you increase your risk for disc herniation. See below:

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As the spine flexes, the nucleus pulposus (inner disc contents) pushes backwards. This is the mechanism for disc herniation.

Here is an example of what not to do:

Before I was a physical therapist and knew better, I was preparing for a powerlifting competition. Notice that I start in a sumo pose (I have tight hamstrings). Even in my setup, I’m already mildly rounded. I have my head up so my cervical spine is kinked. As I begin the lift, I initiate by lifting my butt up. I got away with it probably because I had a belt on limiting maximum spinal flexion. Don’t do it. Start light, perfect form, and slowly build from there. You won’t care about the fact that you deadlifted if you herniate your disc and now you can’t lift your leg up at all.

Christopher EllisComment