It’s easy to think you’re doing the right thing in the gym, but you may be dropping the ball. Certain exercises are more technically demanding than others, and learning their major cues just once may not cut it in the grand scheme of things. Getting “comfortable” with certain movements can sometimes allow a lifter to “slip” into form that’s less than perfect. Not to worry, we've got your back. The Rookie Mistakes series serves as a call to action for lifters of all experience levels to practice perfect form on the road to achieving fitness success.
The deadlift is arguably one of the most important moves for total body strength and muscle development, along with the squat. Skeptics point to lower-back “safety,” but they may not deadlifting correctly. Avoid these rookie mistakes and you’ll be pulling twice your body weight off the floor in no time.
Mistake 1: You’re wearing thick-soled running shoes.
Doing deadlifts in a pair of runners creates two disadvantages. First, you don’t have a firm, even surface to pull from. When pulling heavy weight, you want to avoid instability against the surface from which you’re pulling since it’ll prevent you from applying maximal force and may increase risk of an ankle or foot injury. Second, you’re taller with shoes on so the bar will be farther away from you, causing you to pull for a longer time and possibly place your back out of position.
The fix: Use a pair of minimalistic lifting shoes (I like Vibrams or New Balance Minimus designs), or just go in socks or barefoot—if your gym permits it.
Mistake 2: You’re always using a mixed grip.
The good thing about a mixed grip (one hand overhand, one hand underhand) while deadlifting is that it “torques” the bar and improves grip strength. The habit many lifters fall into, however, is using it too often. A mixed grip involves an uneven hand position so overusing it can lead to muscle imbalances and flexibility issues. Certain muscles on one side of the body will be slightly more (or differently) involved than those on the opposite side. Employ a mixed grip only when it’s absolutely necessary. Otherwise, stick with the classic double-overhand grip.
Mistake 3: Your stance and grip are too wide.
You’re selling yourself short if you're deadlifting using a shoulder-width stance and a grip placement that’s even wider. The wider you hold the bar, the farther you're going to be pulling it. Wide legs reinforce a “squat” position rather than a deadlift setup due to your low hip position. Bring your feet to “hip width.” For most people, this will be about two foot-widths apart. Place the hands directly outside the shins and grab tight. Press the shins out against the forearms when you’re getting ready to pull. This is the formula to the best (and easiest) pull you can make!
Mistake 4: You’re jerking the bar off the ground.
In every major barbell movement, tightness is key. “Winding up” before pulling a heavy load seems like a good way to generate power, but in actuality, you’re loosening your back muscles and risking injury. Your goal should be to make a silent pull. The arms should never bend at the elbow—not even before you start. As you’re about to do your first rep, pull the slack out of the bar as though you’re trying to bend it first. That tension will keep your body tight, and you’ll be ready for action.
Mistake 5: You’re forgetting the physics.
The bar needs to travel in a straight line when it comes off the floor. Ensure that you’re starting with a flat back and your shoulder blades placed over the bar. The shins need to be kept as vertical as possible. Visual learners would benefit by this quick tutorial video.