The deadlift is one of the highest ROI movements in the exercise bank. That’s because it’s one of few exercise that forces you to use your entire body throughout the movement, says professional strength coach Matthew Ibrahim, M.S.
Many exercises—we’re looking at you, bicep curls—only work one to two muscles at a time. But in activities outside of the gym, you rarely use just one or two muscles at a time. Instead, your body usually has to work as a complete system, even to do something as simple as taking out the trash or carrying bags of groceries into the house, says Sean De Wispleaere, master trainer at MBSC Thrive.
These full-body movements come with an added bonus: “When all of your muscles have to work in unison, it’s more taxing on your nervous system, which provokes a higher calorie burn,” says Ibrahim.
It’s no wonder deadlifting gets your heart pumping so hard. But if you’re not doing the move quite right, you may not be reaping all of the potential benefits—or making strength gains. Make sure none of these potential pitfalls are messing with your deadlift game, so you can shore up your strength, torch a few extra calories, and hit your next PR.
#1: You Can’t Touch Your Toes
Don’t move a muscle. If you can’t touch your toes with your feet together and your legs straight, you should not perform a traditional barbell deadlift, says De Wispleaere.
Not being able to reach the floor means your hamstrings are inflexible, and inflexible hamstrings sabotage your form. When you hinge at the hips during a deadlift, it pulls on your hamstrings, which absorb the majority of the weight you’re trying to move. If your tight hamstrings don’t allow you to properly hinge, your lower back and spine are forced to bear the brunt of the load, says De Wispelaere. Since the muscles in your back are not nearly as strong as those in your legs, this not only keeps you from lifting heavier, but also sets you up for potential injury.
The quick fix: To reap the benefits of a similar motion with less risk of injury, swap your deadlift for a hip thrust. Think of it as a deadlift on your back. “It’s a hip hinge, so it will hit the big fat-burning muscles that build strength and rev your metabolism, without the stress on your spine,” says De Wispelaere. The hip thrust will also help you build strength in the muscles you’ll need to rely on when you can graduate to the deadlift.
To perform the hip thrust, sit on the ground with your back against a bench—it should hit right at your shoulder blades—with your legs out in front of you. Roll a barbell over your legs and onto your hip crease. (You may want to cushion this with an extra towel or pad.) Then place your feet flat on the floor, with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Driving through your feet, push your hips up to the ceiling until your body forms a flat table-top. Pause, then lower down. That’s one rep.
The long-term solution: To increase the flexibility in your hammies, Ibrahim recommends doing this sequence during your warmup: Foam roll your hamstrings and glutes for 10 seconds each, and immediately follow that up with five reps of the single-leg lower on each side.
For the single-leg lowers, grab a resistance band and lay flat on the floor with your legs straight up in the air. (Your torso and legs should form a 90-degree angle.) Loop the band around the bottom of your right foot and hold the band so it’s taut and keeps your right leg from moving. Then, slowly lower your left leg until it hovers right above the floor. Pause, and bring it back to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Ibrahim recommends cycling through this warmup protocol three times before beginning your workout.
#2: Your Knees Bend Too Much
If your knees are flying way out over the bar when you’re setting up your deadlift, your hips are too low, according to De Wispelaere. This shifts the weight from your hamstrings to your quads—making the deadlift almost like an awkward squat. “This reduces the effectiveness of the movement by not stimulating your hamstrings and diminishing the total-body burn as a result,” he says.
Think of a hip hinge movement like a bow and arrow, says De Wispelaere. The further you pull the bow straight back, the more power it snaps forward with. But if you pull back and down, you create slack in the lower part of the string, reducing its potential force and downgrading the benefit of your deadlift.
The quick fix: When you’re setting up for the deadlift, push your hips back, like you’re trying to close a car door with your butt. This will maximize the bow and arrow effect of your hamstrings, so you can pull more weight.
The long-term solution: To really hammer home the hinge pattern, Ibrahim recommends adding the cable pull-through exercise to your routine. “When you repeat a movement pattern over and over, your brain can reference that feeling when it’s time to move bigger loads,” he says. In the pull-through, a cable machine or a band pulls you backwards, which forces you to hinge properly at the hips.
To perform the pull-through, lower a cable machine pulley (with the rope handle attachment) to the setting just above the floor. Stand with your back to the machine and your legs on either side of the cable handles, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Grab the handles and walk a few steps away from the machine. Keeping your back straight, your core tight, and your knees slightly bent, reach your hands through your legs until your back is parallel to the floor. Pause, and then use your hamstrings and glutes to extend your hips and stand upright. That’s one rep. Ibrahim recommends doing eight to 10 reps right before you deadlift. If you don’t have access to a cable machine, you can tie a moderate-resistance band low around a sturdy post instead.
Related: 3 Ways To Improve Your Squat
#3: Your Upper Back Rounds
“A rounded upper back usually means that your upper body is taking too much load away from your legs,” says De Wispelaere. “And this significantly reduces the amount you’re able to pull.” It also likely means that you’re crunching your shoulders up near your ears. And this kind of unnecessary muscle tension uses energy and detracts from what the rest of your body is able to do. While the effect is small, it can mean the difference between snagging that PR or missing it.
The quick fix: When you grip the bar, pretend like you’re trying to break it in half between your hands, recommends De Wispleaere. This will naturally lock your shoulders into a position that will prevent your upper back from rounding, making you stronger from head to toe.
The long-term solution: If you feel like your upper back is the weak link preventing you from reaching your next PR, reinforce it over time with the RKC plank, recommends Ibrahim. “By strengthening your core—specifically in this position—you’ll be better able to keep a neutral spine through all phases of the deadlift,” he says.
To do the RKC plank, get into plank position with your elbows on the floor and your body forming a straight line from your head to your toes. Clench your abs as if you’re bracing for a punch to the gut and try to pull your elbows to your toes. Squeeze and hold this position for 10 seconds. You should be shaking by the end. Perform two to three of these during your warmup to wake up your core before any workout.
“You can also do the RKC plank right before your deadlift to maximally activate your core right before the lift,” he says.