The barbell deadlift is one of the best exercises you can do to strengthen your posterior chain and build lower body muscle. The movement seems simple from the outset: pick up the weight from the floor, then put it back down. But it’s much more technical that that, and if you’re doing the foundational exercise wrong, you’re not going to see the benefits. Even worse, you’ll put yourself at risk of injury. That’s why Athlean-X founder Jeff Cavaliere C.S.C.S. is talking about some of the biggest red flags he sees when people attempt deadlifts, and how you can correct them.
“Either it doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to, or you’re getting stuck at some point in the lift,” he says. “Only two things cause problems with the deadlift: either you’ve learned wrong form and simply ingrained that over time and adding more and more weight to the bar on a foundation that was weak in the first place, or you just don’t have the muscle strength to do the deadlift right.”
Here are five red flags Cavaliere wants every lifter to keep in mind when they deadlift.
Red Flag 1: You struggle with maxing out your deadlift without compensating your good form.
If this is you, you likely have weak grip strength—and good grip strength is imperative to having a good deadlift. In order to improve your handle on the bar, Cavaliere relies on a few exercises. First, the weighted pullup, which also improves back strength. Don’t have the strength to do them just yet? Just do a weighted hang, which also helps with your shoulder stability. But his favorite move? The farmer’s carry, which Cavaliere says can be implemented into any program.
Red Flag 2: You struggle to “rip” the bar off the floor.
If this is you, you likely have weak quads.
“When you do the deadlift, pulling from the ground really means you have to have strong quads to break the bar off the ground,” says Cavaliere.
To strengthen your quads, Cavaliere likes the front squat, which hits the quads more than the glutes in a traditional back-loaded squat. He also likes the Bulgarian split squat which targets the quads unilaterally to expose any imbalances. Finally, you can also do reverse lunges with a barbell or dumbbells. Finally, you need to address the issue of your back strength. Target your lats and core with straight-arm pushdowns and even more carries (preferably unilateral carries, which challenge you to keep an upright posture).
Red Flag 3: You struggle to get the bar “to and through the knees” after getting it off the ground.
You may have weak hamstrings and a weak low back. If you struggle to get the bar to and through the knees after getting it off the ground, you may have weak hamstrings or lower back. To best train the hamstrings, you don’t want to train them from a flexed knee position, but more so from a flexed hip-straight knee position, allowing the hamstrings to focus on that secondary role of hip extension. To accomplish this, Cavaliere likes the RDL. Another move is a deficit deadlift, which increases the range of motion of the exercise while also increasing hamstring activation.
For the low back, he likes the weighted hyperextension, which allows you to put a weight across your chest and allow the hamstrings to operate out of an elongated state.
“We’re focused on the hamstrings as hip extenders, because that is what their role is during the deadlift,” says Cavaliere.
But you might also be struggling because you have weak traps. Cavaliere notes that if you see people caving in through the thoracic spine, they’re succumbing to the weight of the position because they don’t have the strength. Specifically, he notes weakness in the traps could be the issue. To strengthen those, the heavy shrug is a great exercise for building up the upper traps and supporting the bar and weight of the load. For the middle traps, he likes the row. Make surer your thoracic spine isn’t rounding. And if so, use lighter weights. And for the lower traps, try a face pull with an overhead element added at the end. These moves will provide more stability and rigidity so that you don’t succumb to the weight of the bar.
“The better you can fortify yourself by strengthening it, the more efficient this lift will become,” says Cavaliere.
Red Flag 4: You have the inability to “lock out” the lift.
Cavaliere notes this can be the most frustrating part of the deadlift. You’ve done all the work, but now you have to get those hips all the way through. The cause? Glute weakness. To work on this, Cavaliere recommends moves that work the glutes through the anterior-posterior motion. He loves the pull through, which isolates the hinge element of the deadlift and allows you to use the glutes as the main driver through the final stage of hip extension. He also like the kettlebell swing using a heavy kettlebell or the barbell hip thrust. Finally, you can also do the glute ham raise, which creates full glute extension and ties in all the low back functions.
Red Flag 5: You just have bad form.
Cavaliere points his viewers to another video that has an entire seven-step checklist of exactly what you need to do to accomplish perfect deadlift form. Want to learn more? Check out our own deadlift guide here and watch the video below:
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