Overcoming Weaknesses in Your Deadlift

The problem: After early success and rapid gains on your deadlift, you’ve hit a plateau and progress has stalled. Your regular personal records (PRs) have slowed or stopped.

The solution: Identify and overcome the weak link in your deadlift power – being able to lock out 500lbs doesn’t do you a bit of good if you can’t break it from the floor. As I have previously done with the Bench Press here I tear your deadlift down into the potential problem areas and recommend approaches to overcome them. It is possible that these strategies may overlap.

Training Maturity: To effectively eliminate weakness in your deadlift, you should be at a relatively mature level as a lifter. Before you start working on your deadlift weaknesses:

  1. Perfect your deadlift technique. You will have the greatest gains, and slightest chance of hurting yourself if you first focus on deadlifting properly. The deadlift is one of the most effective exercises on the books, but performed incorrectly it can have the greatest potential for injury.
  2. Build a solid foundation of strength. Before correcting weaknesses, develop the sufficient level of pulling strength. Work on your fundamental deadlift strength until you are at least an intermediate level on the deadlift with proper technique. You can find a good Strength Standards for Deadlift at http://www.exrx.net/Testing/WeightLifting/DeadliftStandards.html.

Deadlift Demonstration

The two common deadlift weak points:

Now that your technique is fundamentally sound, and you have a solid strength base, let’s look at where your weak points may lie and how to improve them.

  1. Weak off the floor
  2. Difficulty locking out

Weak off the Floor:

Breaking the bar slowly off the floor does not necessarily indicate significant weakness. However, more explosive power off the floor inevitably leads to bigger pulls.

Key Technique Points: To improve your power off the floor, perfect your setup technique.

    • Don’t waste time setting up. Once your hands are on the bar you should be dropping your hips to the starting position then pulling without hesitation. I see far too many people pause at the bottom thinking about the lift before pulling (far too many = almost all). Nothing good can happen here:
      • By thinking about the pull you are talking yourself out of it.
      • You cannot fully fill your lungs with air with you core compressed at the bottom of the lift.
    • Fill your lungs fully with air before dropping into the starting position. Big air in your lungs will provide intra-abdominal pressure protecting your spine, and giving you great stability.

Demonstration of Big Air

  • Tighten your upper back. Squeeze your shoulder blades tightly and drive them downward. Think about tucking them down into your back pockets.
  • There is no stretch reflex in your first deadlift repetition. Work on creating a stretch reflex by dropping your hips quickly into the starting position, and immediately pulling explosively back up.
  • Don’t squat to the bar (characterized by your knees coming forward as you drop your hips down), this leaves you loose at the bottom. Grab the bar and rock back bringing your hips down and your chest up. This allows you to stay tight and keep upward tension on the bar as you set up for the pull.
  • Drive your hips forward hard to engage you quads in the initial pull off the floor.

Strength Improvements and Training: Improving your strength in certain areas can help you build more power off the floor.

  • Quad strength: If you’ve properly built a solid foundation of strength this is likely not your primary issue but it bears mentioning. If your quads are weak initiating the pull off the floor may be more difficult.
  • Stretch reflex: Train every rep without the advantage of the stretch reflex; start every rep in training from a dead stop. I use a technique I call the 3 count setup.
  • Deficit deadlifts: Training your deadlifts from a low platform, or standing on 1 or 2 plates, can help you build low end power.
  • Pause deadlifts with a low pause: Pause deadlifts with a low end pause can help build low end power in your deadlift.
  • Pause squats and box squats: Building low end strength in your squats with pause and box squats can carry over to power off the floor in your deadlift.

Explosive Training: Improving the explosiveness in your lower body will help you to condition your body and central nervous system to engage all of your muscle fibers at once giving you a powerful initial pull. Concentrate on an explosive pull off the floor without ‘snatching’ or jerking the weight by pulling all the slack out between you and the bar and maintaining upward tension on the bar until you begin the pull.

  • Speed Deadlift: Include speed, or dynamic, work in your training program with some type of deadlift variety. The weight should be light enough so that you can drive the bar up explosively while maintaining perfect deadlift form. Condition yourself to start your pull off the floor with 100% of your muscle mass regardless of the actual weight you are pulling. For example if you are deadlifting 50% of your 1 rep max (1RM) the bar should move twice as fast as when you pull your 1RM.
  • Vertical Jumping: Vertical jumping varieties can help you generate the instantaneous explosive power you need to initiate a heavy pull. Jumping higher requires more power, so your goal over time is to increase the height of your vertical jumps. Some effective jumping exercises include:
    • Box Jumps
    • Depth Jumps
    • Box Squat Jumps
  • Accommodated Resistance: Using bands and chains in your deadlift training can help you build more power off the floor. Since the weight is lighter at the floor, you should concentrate on starting the pull off the floor with as much speed as possible, using this momentum to complete the lift as the weight increases.

Locking out at the top:

Let’s start with the proper definition of a deadlift lockout: standing fully upright, chest up and shoulders back, hips and knees fully extended (locked out). A strong lockout requires a strong posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, and lower back), and powerful grip.

Key Technique Points: Lockout technique in the deadlift requires you to be able to keep your chest up and drive your hips forward once the bar passes your knees.

  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together tightly and keep your head and chest up.
  • Engage your glutes at the end of the pull to lock your hips and knees out to finish the pull powerfully.
  • Grip: Once your grip begins to slip, your body will tendency to stop pulling even if you had the strength to complete the lift. Here are a couple of techniques to improve your grip on the bar.
      • Alternating over/under grip: Over-Under Grip: Grip the bar with one hand pronated (overhand) and one hand supinated (underhand). Which hand you use is your preference, but generally speaking it’s more effective gripping with your dominant hand pronated. Using the over-under grip prevents the bar from rolling out of your grip.
      • Hook grip: Grip the bar with both hands pronated. Instead of wrapping your thumbs around the bar, lie them along the bar and wrap your fingers around your thumbs. This is a very effective grip, locking the bar in and preventing it from rolling or slipping out of your grip, but it can be exceptionally painful.

    Hook Grip Demonstration

    • Chalk: Be generous with the chalk, its usefulness cannot be underestimated. Every surface of your hand that touches the bar should be coated with chalk (and preferably only the surfaces of your hand, not the bench, the floor, the mirror…). Once you’ve chalked your hand nothing touches your hands except the bar! If your gym does not allow chalk, try liquid chalk.
    • Gloves: The bar slides relatively easily across the surface of your pretty gloves. It does not slide easily across the surface of a well chalked hand (without taking chalk, skin and calluses along with it).
    • Wrist straps: No

Strength Improvements and Training: The muscles in your posterior chain are the primary movers to lock out your deadlift. With proper training you’ll find your deadlift actually accelerating once the bar crosses your knees.

  • Posterior Chain: The posterior chain is greatly overlooked aspect of your training plan – yes, yourtraining plan. Your glutes and hamstrings should get just as much attention as your pecs and your quads (they don’t, do they?). My rule of thumb for glute and ham training volume is 8-12 sets per week depending, of course, on where I’m at in my training cycle. The most effective posterior chain lifts I’ve found are:

You don’t need a GHR bench to incorporate this effective exercise

  • Hip thrusters
  • Pull-throughs
  • Grip Strength: Have you ever shaken a great deadlifter’s hand? Chances are they crushed your mortal hand. If you want a strong deadlift, you need a strong grip.
    • Deadlifts: Use double overhand grip as you warm up until you cannot hold the bar any longer. Then use alternating grip without chalk until you absolutely need the chalk.
    • Farmer walks: In addition to some great conditioning, farmers walks can do wonders for building your grip.
    • Wrist straps: No

There are other implements aimed at helping you build your grip strength, but my preference is grabbing a bar and holding on to it as you work through your training.

  • Upper Back Strength: Although your upper back is not actively involved in the pull, statically it needs to be strong enough to support the weight. As with your posterior chain, your back should get as much attention as your pecs in your weekly training plan. I also like to balance my training volume in the frontal or vertical plane (ie pull-ups) with volume in the sagittal or horizontal plane (ie barbell rows).
    • Pull-ups: If you can complete more than 5-7 pull-ups, do them weighted.
    • Lat Pull-downs: One of the few machines regularly in my training plan.
    • Barbell rows
    • Dumbbell rows

For more on back training, check out my Back Workout of the Week.

  • Lockout specific strength: You may want to include lifts in your program that directly train your lockout strength:
  • Accommodated Resistance: Using bands and chains in your deadlift training can help you overload your deadlift lockout. Since the weight is lighter at the floor, you can lift weights that are heavier at lockout than you would normally be capable of.
  • Rest: You will find that deadlifts work your entire body. You, therefore, use your entire body when deadlifting. If you are not allowing yourself sufficient recovery, and not promoting proper recovery (ie rest, diet, supplementation), your deadlift strength will suffer. If you find yourself struggling with a rep weight, back off, recover, and come back stronger.

Take action: Assess where you have the greatest potential for improvement. Rework your training program with a strategy to eliminate weak links in your pulls, and get your deadlift progress back on track.

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