The Seven Deadly Deadlift Sins

Barbell squats are referred to as the king of all resistance training exercises. This may very well be true, but the deadlift flips my switch. I love this movement.

It's raw and primal; the ultimate test of brute strength. There is something extremely satisfying about fighting gravity and ripping a loaded barbell off the gym floor.

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Guess what? I'm old. 50 years old. I've been lifting for over 32 years now, but for the first 21 years, I never deadlifted. The deadlift wasn't featured much in the bodybuilding magazines of the 80s.

So it remained far off my radar.

In 2007 I ripped my first barbell off the ground, and it felt good. By 2009 my deadlift was close to 600 pounds. I competed in powerlifting between the years of 2011 and 2015 and pulled 672.5 pounds as an SHW and 660 pounds at a bodyweight of 258.

To say I've become obsessed with the deadlift over the course of the last 11 years is an understatement. It's become my favorite lift to teach and coach.

Now, while there are many mistakes trainees can make when tugging on the old barbell. Here are some of the big ones. This isn't a comprehensive list, but it is an important list.

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7 Important Deadlift Mistakes

Sin #1 - Pulling Too Heavy

The best way to build a heavy deadlift isn't to train it heavy. What does heavy mean? I advocate that most lifters avoid deadlifting with a weight at 90% of their one rep max or above.

You're probably wondering why? There is very little ROI - return on investment.

Very heavy deadlifts are taxing. I find them to be difficult to recover from, and a little too punishing on the lower back in general.

Beyond this, I have never found that heavy pulling was especially good for building strength. The lifters I have coached - and it's been more than a few - respond well to progressive overload in the 70 to 85% range.

So, if your deadlift max is 400, avoid pulling at 360 or above. If your deadlift max is 500, there is no need to tug a barbell with 450 pounds or more.

Sin #2 - Pulling Too Frequently

This tip goes hand-in-hand with the desire to deadlift very heavy. Frequent pulling is typically a counterproductive venture.

Many programs recommend squatting two to three times per week. While frequent squatting can be an excellent way to build strength and leg size, frequent deadlifting usually comes with a cumulative fatigue penalty.

I see no reason at all to pull from the floor more than once per week. In fact, for intermediate lifters, it may be best to only deadlift from the floor every other week. Rotate between floor pulls and block/rack pulls from three to five inches.

The stress placed upon the body from frequent deadlifting just isn't worth it. You'll find it more difficult to recover, and deadlift weight will likely start to feel heavier and heavier.

It's a far better investment of time to build your squat, increase your quads strength, improve your back strength to insane levels, and to be able to power shrug mountains of mass for reps.

Sin #3 - Pulling Instead of Standing Up

The deadlift is referred to as "the pull." That's actually an awful way for most of us to view this lift.

A pull is almost like a mutated barbell row. It doesn't place the required focus on the main movers of the deadlift - the hips, glutes, and legs. "Pulling" also tends to encourage sub-par form.

Think of it like this...

The body knows how to stand up. It's a natural movement. By driving your head up you are working with the body's desired movement pattern. On the other hand, when deadlifters "pull" they tend to mess up their natural leverages.

You see hips flying up, lower backs rounding, and all other forms of vile shenanigans.

When you think "stand up" it's very difficult for your hips to fly up, and for you to end up in an awkward leverage position. The very act of standing up encourages you to drive your head up and hips forward. "Standing up" also helps you to keep a tight and braced lower back, maximizing your strength and helping to reduce lower back fatigue and injury.

Next time you deadlift, work with your body and think about standing up with the bar in your hands. Drive your head up towards the ceiling of the gym.

Sin #4 - Bent-Arm Jerking

If you're pulling/tugging on the bar, odds are you are also starting each rep with bent arms. Here's how a "bent arm" deadlift rep goes...

A lifter is aggressively seeking a monster deadlift effort. Rage-mode sets in. The lifter grabs the barbell with a death grip and proceeds to dip down slightly - bending his/her arms - before attempting a Herculean yank.

The arms bend at the elbows and then straighten up as the barbell fights against gravity. When your reps involve bent-arm jerking, two dangerously noteworthy things occur:

  1. You stress the biceps and create an environment that is conducive to biceps tears.
  2. The jerking that occurs as your arms straighten usually cause a chain reaction, resulting in a raising of the hips and rounding of the lower back. Again, you are jerking instead of trying to stand up. Bent-arm deadlift reps in concert with tugging instead of trying to stand up compound the foolery.

One final note. It's become a popular practice to roll the bar towards a lifter's shins before initiating the pull.

While this can be an acceptable method of deadlifting, it usually results in bent-arm deadlift reps. It often exaggerates other deadlift set-up weaknesses, such as a lack of tightness in the glutes, hips, and hamstrings.

Lifters may also transfer their weight forward without realizing it.

If you're going to deadlift using this method, make sure your arms are straight, you aren't hanging out over your toes, and that your posterior chain is braced and tight.

Sin #5 - No Hip, Glute, or Hammie Tightness

This is a very common sin. When I help a lifter improve their deadlift set-up, very few of them have any awareness of their hips, glutes, and hamstrings.

Here's my quick fix...

Once you have a solid grip (with arms locked), raise your butt and then pull your hips down until you reach a good leverage position. While you are pulling your hips down, make sure to tighten your glutes. This will help mentally and physically prep you for a more efficient and effective pull.

Make sure your hammies, glutes, AND hips feel braced.

Most lifters initiate the deadlift with loose hips, hammies, and glutes. This is a surefire way to transfer more stress to the lower back. This type of deadlifting rep also usually lack the lockout power of the glutes and hips, which we will discuss next.

Sin #6 - Not Locking Out With Hips

Are you letting your hips hang back during the deadlift lockout? Likely.

Ever see a really bad deadlift hitch rep? Notice that the lifter's hips and glutes remain back when they should be driving forward. This steals the power from your lockout. At this point, the only thing a deadlifter can do is to slink his knees under the bar.

This creates the hitch.

Once the barbell is around knee level, it's time to crush the lockout. You must be focusing on driving the hips forward and clenching the glutes. This is the source of your lockout power.

The first half of the deadlift involves an effort to stand up. The second half of the deadlift involves driving the hips and glutes forward. Never forget this.

This might sound crude, but it's a tip that will hopefully help you remember to drive your hips forward during the lockout. In the gym, we call it "humping the bar."

Sin #7 - Deadlifting on Your Toes

You have no idea you're doing this, but you are. Most of the time.

When your weight is over your toes, you'll initiate the pull just a hair forward. This slight leverage disadvantage can contribute to a nasty chain of events that may result in hips flying up and/or extra pressure being placed upon the lower back.

Here's a simple tip to cure this sin.

After pulling your hips down and tightening your posterior chain, raise your big toe immediately before deadlifting. There is no need to keep your big toe up during the pull, but by lifting it up you are assuring that your weight in on your heels.

This will help with leverage, and help keep your hammies, glutes, and hips as tight as possible.

Try this right now. Push your heels down on the gym floor. Notice how tight your hammies feel? Now rock your weight on to your toes. Notice how your hammies loosen?

That's the power of small tweaks.

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