The 5 Mistakes of the Beginner Deadlift
#1: The “A-Frame”
This is ground zero for improper deadlift mechanics and undoubtedly one of the most common mistakes seen in lifters taking the deadlift on its maiden voyage. The “A-Frame” refers to a valgus angle at the knee. This basically means that the lifters’ knees do not track in line with the toes so that the angle to the hips creates the shape of the letter “A.”
The Risk: Not even factoring the limiting strength potential of the less than optimal starting point, this loaded knee angle can put you at risk of damaging your knees’ medial and anterior ligaments.
The Fix: Start with a narrower stance or externally rotate your hips so that your knees stay in the relative plane line of your toes.
#2: Center of Gravity
Beginners often attempt to initiate the deadlift with the bar rolled too far in front of their body. This forward starting position changes the mechanics of the deadlift and puts undue strain onto the lower back.
The Risk: Again, limiting strength potential is a big factor, but the risk of hurting your lower back is even greater. When you start with a more flexed lumbar spine due to the change in your body’s center of gravity, you could end your deadlifting days and limit your lifting days in general.
The Fix: Before initiating the deadlift, try flexing your triceps and bringing your elbow and shoulder into extension. This slight contraction should bring the bar in right over your forefoot.
#3: Asymmetrical Joint Speeds
Although the deadlift is the epitome of “I pick things up and put them down” when it comes to lifts in the gym, the subtle nuances of the lift when performed incorrectly can make it much more dangerous than it seems. One of the biggest biomechanical risks of the deadlift comes from an asymmetry in joint speeds. Ideally the knee and hip should finish their respective extensions at the same time as you complete the movement. But, with muscle imbalances and improper cueing, beginners will often have their knees fully extended while their hips remain in a high degree of flexion. This will leave the lifter no choice but to complete the rep using only the low back, as any potential strength from driving through the legs has been mitigated by the premature extension.
The Risk: As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, there are two usual consequences to executing the deadlift improperly: 1) decreased strength potential, and 2) susceptibility to injury. Improper joint timing is no different. If you extend your knees too early with a relatively flexed hip position, the load will shift from the glutes up into the spinal erectors and the muscles of the low back responsible for maintaining the lordotic curve of the lumbar spine.
The Fix: Oftentimes this early knee extension occurs due to an asymmetry in strength between the quads and the hamstrings. So focusing your accessory work on catching up lagging hamstrings, along with a focus on the symmetrical knee and hip extension, should alleviate this problem.
#4: The “Lockout”
You don’t need to be highly educated to take one look at this finishing position to know that something might not be right, but for whatever reason, common sense becomes a rare commodity when earning your deadlifting stripes. As you may already know, the bar path should follow a straight line. At no point should that straight line take a hard turn back as you hyperextend your low back.
The Risk: The risk of finishing your deadlift in this position could be the difference between you walking out of the gym or getting carried out of the gym. Loaded hyperextension could (in a worst case scenario) lead to a spondylolisthesis, usually at the spinal level L5-S1. This transition point in your spine—where your lumbar spine starts its lordosis and the sacrum starts its kyphosis—is an intersection between two curves with opposing apices. This extension can cause an anterior shift of the lumbar vertebra on the sacrum, which in plain English means you’ve done your last deadlift for a while.
The Fix: Well, the fix is easy. Don’t be an idiot. Once the bar path has reached its final destination and both the hips and knees have reached a natural angle in the standing position, slowly begin your descent back to the ground.
#5: The “Mic-Drop”
Congratulations, you just peeled your first 135lb deadlift off the ground, and guess what? You’re the only one who cares. So instead of dropping the weight in celebration like an amateur, use this moment at the top to help build some strength in your deadlift. The deadlift is the only powerlift that starts with the concentric motion first; squat and bench start with the “negative” portion of the rep first, then the demanding concentric to follow. It’s fairly common knowledge that you can build strength by training eccentric loading—this is often the justification for overloaded bench press “negatives”—but for whatever reason, this concept of eccentrically loading to build strength is lost in the deadlift. No one likes that guy who starts his touchdown dance before he enters the end zone, so don’t be that jackass who celebrates his new deadlift PR before bringing the weight back to the ground in a quiet and controlled manner.
The Risk: Besides the fact that you’re going to annoy everyone within ear-shot of your loaded bar crash-landing back into earth, you risk the toes of onlookers and passers by, and in some places, you risk losing your gym membership.
The Fix: Be the tortoise. Lower that bar down to the ground slowly and steadily, letting the plates return gently to their final resting place.