You Can’t Cheat the Deadlift
You can bounce the bar off your chest and kid yourself that your bench press rep counted.
You can squat to questionable depth and fool yourself that it was a solid rep.
But when it comes to the deadlift, you’re either strong enough to rip the bar off the floor…or you’re not.
It’s a true test of raw strength and power that’s as black and white as it comes – you either make the lift, or you don’t.
If you want to improve your chances of executing that monster lift, there are a number of ways you can streamline your technique to maximize your performance at the bar.
12 Ways To Improve Your Deadlift
Here are 12 ways to improve your deadlift technique from the trainers at Ultimate Performance Los Angeles…
#1. Centre the bar
Setting up is vital when it comes to the deadlift – the bar needs to start in the middle of the foot.
To land a deadlift PB, you need to keep the bar as close to the body as possible during the lift and ensure the bar travels the shortest distance possible
What we mean by this is that any slight deviation the bar makes from this ‘centre line’ will result in less overall weight lifted.
Sticking to this centre line means the bar should start through the centre of the foot when you’re setting up.
A common mistake to avoid is putting the bar in the middle of the forefoot, rather than the middle of the whole foot.
You want the bar to bisect the arches of the foot. With the right set up, your shins will be just a few inches away from the bar before you bend and grip it.
#2. Enhance your grip
A strong grip begets a strong deadlift. You will find that without a strong grip, your nervous system won’t recruit the maximum amount of muscle mass.
Your brain understands that if you can’t firmly hold onto a weight with your grip, then there’s no way you should be trying to lift it off the floor.
So, if you don’t have a vice-like grip locked onto the bar, it’s going to be nigh on impossible to lift.
A simple way to test if your grip strength is holding you back on the deadlift is by using straps.
Try lifting a weight you’ve hit failure on while using straps; if you can lift it with relative ease, you know it was your grip rather than your overall strength that was the weak link in the chain.
Once this is singled out, you can work on building it up and thus improving your deadlift.
#3. Squat big
Build a bigger squat and you will likely improve your deadlifting prowess.
Focusing on forging a big squat will help you hit bigger numbers in the other major lifts too.
This is because squatting requires so much strength and stability through every major joint that it carries over into your performance on other big lifts.
It will help strengthen everywhere from your upper and lower back to your glutes and hamstrings.
Building that big squat means developing solidity and stability through your entire body and this supreme strength translates over to the deadlifting plaftform.
Stick 20kg onto your squat, and your deadlift will likely improve without even deadlifting a single bar.
#4. Pin the bar to you
Getting that PB-busting deadlift means keeping the bar as close to you as possible.
What this means is keeping the bar in constant contact with your shins and legs on the way up.
Yes, shin scraps may happen if you’re keeping the bar close enough – but it’s a price you’ll pay for hitting numbers you’ve never hit before.
Even if the bar errs slightly forward of the body and leave contact with the legs, this can place considerable forces on the lower back – this is something you not only want to avoid to prevent injury, but also to stop you failing on the lift when approaching maximal weights.
#5. Employ chains training
When you look at the movement, a deadlift’s hardest point should be when the weight is just leaving the floor and it should get easier towards the top.
With this in mind, attaching chains to the bar can help bust plateaus.
Why? Sticking short chains onto the bar will mean it’s lighter at the start of the movement (where it’s most difficult) as the chains’ weight rests on the floor.
But this weight gets increasingly heavier as the bar comes off the floor and the chains lift off with it.
The technical term for this is ‘accommodating resistance’.
#6. Deadlift less frequently
When you squat more, you often benefit from the increase in frequency. The same isn’t true for the deadlift, however.
Discovering the right frequency is important to progress faster on the big lifts like the deadlift – but everyone is different, so test it for yourself.
Some people progress bests with as few as five days between deadlifting sessions, while others may fare better with 10 day gaps between deadlifts.
Overall, though, you’ll be deadlifting less frequently that the other big lifts.
One way to test what works best for you is to try leaving 4-5 days between workouts, then when you subsequently lift, note how fresh you feel and how well you’re moving the weight.
Has the weight increased? Do you feel stronger? Has the speed of the bar increased?
If the answer is ‘no’, try leaving it 6-7 days next time and measure your performance again.
To assess, try leaving four or five days between workouts and next time you lift, pay attention to how fresh you feel and how well the weight is moving. Have you increased weight? Do you feel stronger with tighter form? Is the bar going up faster? If not, leave it six days next time and repeat as needed.
When you’ve had the right degree of recovery between sessions, you’ll feel a noticeable difference and the weights will often fly up far easier.
#7. Get low to the ground
Remove your running shoes; go bare foot. You can add a significant amount of weight to your deadlift just by removing your soft-soled shoes.
Firstly, there’s less distance to move the weight as you’re closer to the ground – some training shoes can add several centimetres of extra distance that you have to pull the weight over.
When you’re dealing with maximal weights, this can make a big difference.
Secondly, these training shows absorb some of the force you’re driving the lift up with (they’re designed to be soft to absorb force while running).
Thirdly, it comes down to stability. You can easily lose balance in a soft-soled shoes if your weight shifts during the lift and an area of the shoe collapses.
Having a stable base means greater potential to lift more.
Just look at some of the best deadlifters on the planet – you’ll see them lifting barefoot or with trainers with low, flat soles.
#8. Don’t ‘squat’ your deadlift
One common mistake many beginner lifters make is squatting the deadlift.
Senior PT Chris Gregor from UP London believes:
“It probably comes from knowing that you should ‘keep your back straight’ while being instructed to ‘lift with your legs’.
What happens as they try to stay as upright as possible is they squat down to the bar; the bend comes from the knees rather than the hips.”
But it’s important to remember, the more your knees bend, the further from the bar must then travel to get around the kneecaps.
This often results in the bar coming away from that golden centre line and this adding stress to the lower back.
Don’t bend the knees as much, keep the hips back and this will put less stress on the back.
#9. Pause on the floor
If you’re going for reps on the deadlift, it can be so tempting to use the slight bounce to make the rep easier with momentum.
But actually you’ll get greater benefit from putting the weight down, pausing, then resetting your body position.
When you bounce reps off the floor, you rob yourself of the maximum stimulus.
Controlled, paused reps that momentarily stop on the floor helps eliminate weakness at the portion of the lift from the ground.
It also means you can work on improving your set up and getting the requisite tightness throughout your body.
Working on overcoming the inertia of moving the stationary bar is something that can only benefit your strength and deadlifting ability.
#10. Do more sub-maximal reps
To improve your deadlifting, you need to drill the technique. If you’re not practicing, you’re not improving.
As the saying goes, practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect.
You’re not going to be able to garner perfect technique performing ultra heavy reps all the time.
That’s where sub-maximal reps come in. Just because you’re not going for a one-rep max every week, doesn’t mean you’re not going to be able to build strength.
Any lift above 70% of your one-rep max will likely improve your strength. So if your 1RM is 140kg, you can perform reps with 98kg and still get stronger while honing your deadlift technique.
Lifting at 70% normally means you can work at higher rep ranges. But with the deadlift, you often fatigue quicker, even though the weights are lighter.
So you’re actually better off going for lower reps with the lighter weight, stopping well before technique breakdown and failure.
Reduce your rest between sets. You can perform, for example, six sets of three reps around 70-80% of your one-rep max with just 60 seconds between sets.
#11. Film your lift
It’s easy to spot someone in your gym lifting with terrible form. Everyone has cringed at someone wrestling a barbell up with absolutely no technique.
But when it comes to your own form, is it perfect? It can be hard to tell unless you measure and observe it from the outside.
If you want to change something, you must first measure it. You always track the weights, sets and reps you have lifted at the gym – but do we track and record what those reps actually looked like?
Improving your deadlift is just down to how much weight you move, but also how you move that weight. Making your lifting technique better will allow you to lift more weight and help you progress safely.
Filming your lifts is a useful way of tracking your progress and how objectively assessing your technique.
It was highlight areas you need to improve far better than just going off how a lift feels.
It’s always best to film at an angle perpendicular to the lift. Having the camera at a 45-degree angle, or positioning it too high or low, makes it tough to properly assess your lift.
#12. Hold your breath
When deadlifting, you need a considerable amount of intra-abdominal pressure and stability.
As you’re about to lift, you should take a deep breath like you’re trying to fill your stomach with air.
Next you need to lock the abdominal muscles tight against this air. What this does is serve to increase trunk pressure and keep you tighter during the lift.
Don’t exhale until you’ve completely locked the shoulders back at the top of the movement.
To understand the importance of breathing, have a go at the following:
Breathe out forcefully until you’ve emptied your lungs. It’s likely that your shoulders collapsed forward, right?
Well, the opposite happens when you breath air in – your shoulders naturally pull back, your chest expands and your head comes up.
This is the exact posture we’re looking for when deadlifting. So, before you lift, breathe in, expand your chest and hold it.
The Bottom Line
Mastering the deadlift and getting the most out of this fantastic exercise takes practice and perseverance. If you want to improve your chances of executing the deadlift, the tips we’ve covered here should have you lifting like a champion on no time. Take your time, practice, and you will persevere!