How to Fix Your Deadlift Weakness
The deadlift is one of the most beneficial barbell exercises an athlete can utilize in their exercise rotation. Depending on how this exercise is programmed, the deadlift can help an athlete develop absolute strength, explosive power, muscular endurance, or muscle mass. Out of the big three barbell lifts (squat, bench, deadlift), the deadlift may be the most useful, considering its ability to target lower and upper body muscle groups.
Most importantly, the deadlift is an excellent posterior chain strength and endurance developer. The muscle groups that make up the posterior chain play a tremendous role in overall sports performance and injury resistance. By using this exercise to enhance absolute strength, explosive power, and muscle mass, the athlete becomes more athletic and increasingly protected from ankle, knee, and spine pain or injury.
Nowadays, many strength and conditioning coaches get lost in speed training, failing to realize the importance of brute strength and toughness. While speed training is undoubtedly important, we must train to develop all special strengths, especially absolute strength. The deadlift is the perfect exercise to do just that - create brutally strong and tough athletes.
However, no matter how strong, powerful, or tough an athlete may be, there will be times when weakness begins to affect progress. With the deadlift, weakness shows itself by causing issues either off the floor, at the knees, or lockout.
Weakness off the floor will often cause the hips to rise, causing an improper hinge and placing the athlete at a disadvantage and the lumbar spine at risk. Weakness at the knee level will cause the athlete to "hitch" the barbell on the upper legs, placing the lumbar spine at risk. Weakness at lockout will prevent the athlete from bringing the pelvis through to finish the lift, resulting in missed lifts and putting the thoracic spine at risk.
This article will discuss eliminating these commonly encountered weaknesses to help take your deadlift strength to the next level.
The Importance of Developing Deadlift Strength
The deadlift is a lift that challenges the entire posterior chain, placing specific emphasis on the back, glutes, and hamstrings. The trunk, hips, and quads also play a role in the deadlift, so there is an anterior chain aspect to the movement. As you gain deadlift strength, the corresponding muscle groups improve in strength and size. This creates a more powerful and resilient athlete.
At Westside, we know that the stronger we can make an athlete's posterior chain, specifically the hamstrings, the less likely that athlete is to experience a knee injury. Add the glute and back strength gained, and athletes become less susceptible to hip and back injuries. If you want to attack the posterior chain and create durable athletes, the deadlift is likely the right choice.
Continuous development of deadlift strength requires you to understand the different ways to attack common weaknesses associated with specific sticking points in the movement. No matter how strong or durable an athlete is, it is likely that at some point, the athlete will struggle with their deadlift off the floor, at the knees, or lockout.
Here is how to fix each of the abovementioned deadlift weaknesses.
Weak Off of the Floor
Weak glutes and hamstrings most commonly cause weakness off of the floor during the deadlift. As we begin the deadlift, we want to lower the hips and establish a proper hinge position, then shorten the hamstrings to create the initial force necessary to break the barbell's contact with the floor.
If the glutes and hamstrings are too weak to move the weight properly, the athlete will lose their hinge position, the hips will rise, and the athlete will be at an extreme joint angle disadvantage in a stiff-leg deadlift position. This causes a missed lift at best, or a low back strain at worst.
In this situation, the Conjugate Method affords us a few different ways to address the issue. First, we can adjust our main exercise selection for max effort lower training to focus on improving glute and hamstring strength. This means we will begin selecting exercises such as the 2-4" deficit deadlift, giant cambered bar squat, giant cambered bar box squat, and a few good morning variations. Deadlift and squat variations will be performed for max effort sets of 1-3 reps, while good morning variations will be performed for max effort sets of 3-5 reps.
Next, we can adjust our dynamic effort lower exercise selection. At Westside, we perform three-week squat and deadlift waves using specialty barbells. We often use the giant cambered bar and low bar position during dynamic effort squats if an athlete has a posterior chain weakness. During DE deadlifts, we can choose to use a 2" deficit.
Considering our dynamic effort training features a considerable amount of training volume, this work will help to address weakness in the glutes and hamstrings. No matter the exercise, we will follow standard DE lower set and rep ranges when performing these exercises.
Finally, we can adjust our lower body accessory exercise selection to begin focusing on the identified weak muscle groups. In this case, we would use exercises such as the Inverse Curl, hamstring curl, GHD, Romanian deadlift, good mornings, back attack machine, belt squat, and Reverse Hyper. These exercises would be performed for multiple sets, with rep ranges varying between 5-25 reps depending on the exercise and the prescribed intensity.
Weak at Knee Level
Another common deadlift weakness experienced by athletes is weakness at knee level. When an athlete is weak at knee level, this will cause the knees to fail to reach optimal extension after the athlete has broken the barbell from the floor. This causes the athlete to "hitch" the barbell over the knee and onto the quad to begin using momentum to allow the knees to continue extending and the lift to be completed.
If you are unfamiliar with what a deadlift "hitch" is, it is a technique that allows the athlete to lock out a deadlift by using momentum to achieve optimal joint angles to allow full joint extension and completion of the lift to be possible. While this is considered an illegal technique in the powerlifting world, the sport of strongman permits athletes to use the hitch technique in competition.
We recommend that all athletes strive to complete deadlifts utilizing powerlifting-legal deadlift form. In the sport of strongman, the athlete's goal is to move as much weight as possible by any means necessary. Additionally, strongman competitors are specifically trained to possess the strength and durability needed to move extreme weight under extreme circumstances. This allows these athletes to utilize a hitch technique during a heavy deadlift and typically remain uninjured.
Athletes who have yet to experience similar levels of preparation for such a task can easily injure their lower or mid back when utilizing the hitch technique while performing a heavy deadlift. If you are a powerlifter, hitching deadlifts will only establish poor habits and ultimately fail you in competition. If you are an athlete, the concern should be lifting optimal weight with optimal form, so hitching deadlifts should never enter the equation.
Weak glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and trunk typically cause weakness at the knee level. To address this issue, we can select max effort lower variations similar to the selections we made for weakness off the floor. However, we will add variations, such as the rack pull from mid-shin or knee level, Zercher squats, Anderson-style squats, and good mornings. When performing these exercises, we will work up to 1-3 reps with squats and deadlifts and 3-5 reps with good mornings.
To address these weaknesses during dynamic effort lower training days, we can squat using the giant cambered bar and perform deadlifts from a 2" deficit. We will follow standard dynamic set and rep schemes when performing these exercises.
Recommended accessory exercises include good morning variations, Inverse Curl, hamstring curl, Zercher squat, Anderson squat, rack pull, GHD, GHD sit-ups, leg raises, standing abs, and Reverse Hypers. We recommend performing these exercises for multiple sets of 5-25 reps, depending on the exercise and prescribed intensity.
Weak at Lockout
The final issue athletes commonly experience with the deadlift is weakness at lockout. A weak lockout means the athlete struggles or fails to properly lock out the knees and achieve a vertical torso position. This weakness is commonly caused by weak hips, quads, trunk, and glutes preventing the athlete from bringing the pelvis through the lift and achieving full extension.
As the athlete crosses the knee level, the hip flexors, quads, trunk, and glutes are essential in raising the torso and extending the hips. If you have weakness in one or multiple of these muscle groups, you can expect difficulty locking out max effort training weights. If these weaknesses are left unaddressed and missing at lockout becomes the norm, an athlete can be at significant risk for low or mid-back injury.
At Westside, we have a few ways to address issues with lockout strength in the deadlift. Our first option is to perform max effort exercises such as rack or block pulls with the barbell starting position slightly above knee level. This will allow us to focus on high-intensity training through the joint angles and range of motion that is most weak. We can also program Anderson-style good mornings with the barbell starting position elevated to place the torso at a similar angle as would be experienced during a failure at lockout.
Dynamic effort training will remain largely unchanged when an athlete deals with issues locking out heavy deadlifts. This is because we do not want to reduce the range of motion during our dynamic effort squats and deadlifts, so this will prevent us from working in effective ranges of motion when focusing on improving our deadlift lockout capabilities.
However, this does not mean that dynamic effort training cannot help solve deadlift lockout issues. Dynamic effort training seeks to improve an athlete's rate of force development, leading to greater amounts of force produced in a lesser amount of time. This increase in explosive power helps athletes move through movements more efficiently, particularly the deadlift. A more explosive deadlift off the floor means more energy on tap when the lockout portion of the lift begins.
Accessory exercise training offers another opportunity to focus on addressing the muscle groups responsible for a weak deadlift lockout. We will perform exercises such as belt squats, belt squat walks, Hip/Quad Developer, hack squats, goblet squats, and GHD sit-ups to focus on the hips, hip flexors, and quads. We will perform exercises such as standing abs, hanging leg raises, banded sit-ups, and weighted planks to focus on the trunk. We will program kettlebell swings, Reverse Hyper, back attack, and GHD back raises to focus on glute strength.
Similar to the accessory exercises listed above, these exercises should be performed for multiple sets of 5-25 reps depending on the movement and the prescribed intensity.
The deadlift is an exercise that combines technical execution with brute force. To be a great deadlifter, an athlete must be capable of executing to the best of their ability and possess a high level of absolute strength. While the suggestions above will help solve the issues with strength, it is important to address the problems with technique and execution that could keep athletes from progressing.
Here are some tips to help you improve your deadlift technique:
- Place your grip so your arms remain tight to your torso as you begin your setup. This extends the arms as much as possible.
- Once the grip has been properly established, it is time to set our hip hinge depth. To find the most optimal hip hinge position, we want to lower the hips to achieve as vertical of a starting torso position as possible.
- Once we decide where to set our hip hinge, we will begin lowering the hips into position while taking in air and expanding the trunk. The goal is to find an optimal hip hinge position while shortening the hamstrings as much as possible.
- Throughout the pull, we want to maintain a neutral torso position as much as possible. Some spinal flexion is expected. However, we want to avoid excessive spinal flexion or extension.
- If performing multiple repetitions, reset your form after each rep. Rushing through multi-rep deadlift sets can lead to missed weights or injury due to improper execution of the lift.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Can I use bands and chains to fix the above deadlift issues?
A: Aside from the normal use of bands and chains during dynamic effort lower training, you can add bands and chains to the max effort exercises listed above.
Q: Can grip weakness play a role in any of the abovementioned issues?
A: Yes, if athletes have issues with grip strength, they may also have issues at lockout.
Q: I fail right below the knees. Is my issue off of the floor or at the knees?
A: Commonly, failure in the deadlift below the knees is due to a lack of velocity off the floor.
Q: How many accessory exercises should we program for a specifically identified weakness?
A: We recommend programming 1-3 accessory exercises focused on specific weaknesses in each training session.
Q: How do I know if I have a specific weakness or an issue with excessive fatigue?
A: If you notice one of the above-listed issues occurring regularly during your training, it is safe to say you have identified a weakness. However, if the issue occurs infrequently, you are likely dealing with some problems with excess fatigue and will need to evaluate and adjust training accordingly.
Find Your Weakness
To become as strong as possible, you must always seek to identify and destroy all weaknesses. At Westside, we constantly evaluate our max, dynamic, and repeated effort training to find muscular weakness and technical errors. By being as critical with our training as possible, we can consistently improve year after year.
To become the best athlete you can be, you must learn to become your biggest critic. The ability to honestly self-evaluate yourself and your training will improve performance and technical capabilities. Athletes who become fans of themselves limit their potential; the athlete who leaves no stone unturned and strives to improve themselves at all times wins in the end.
Improvement depends on your ability to be honest with yourself and acknowledge your weaknesses in the gym. Once this is done, a plan of attack can be formulated to address the identified weaknesses. This becomes a pattern, and after some time, fewer and fewer weaknesses exist while sports performance continues to improve. Be honest with yourself and your training - always seek to find and destroy weaknesses.
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