If there’s a single lift that deserves to be heavy, it’s your deadlift. That’s because a big pull with proper form means your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back are well-developed — and the stronger those muscles are, the less likely you are to develop lower-back pain or injury. But if you're failing on your heavy lifts, don't get discouraged. Try these seven tips next time to step up to the barbell.
Brace Your Abs
Keeping a tight midsection is like wearing internal armor: It helps prevent injury, specifically to the low back, because it keeps you from rounding your spine. Second, it will help you lift more. When it comes to lifting heavy things off the floor, the tighter your body stays, the more weight you’ll be able to lift. To brace your abs properly, take a deep breath in right before the lift and push out on the abs for the whole rep. It should feel like you’re trying to take a dump (just don't, you know, do that).
Lock in Your Lats
Surprisingly, the lats, those big wings that make up most of your upper back, play an important role in maintaining a good form during deadlifts. To engage them, stand in front of your barbell, grab the bar with one hand, and pull up just enough so you can feel tension on the bar (you’ll hear the barbell ping, which lets you know there’s no more slack in the bar). Reach down with the opposite hand and do the same. Your lats and upper back should be tight, so that when you begin your lift, there's no wiggle room, which could throw off your movement.
Squeeze Your Glutes
Your glutes are responsible for hip extension, which is the function you want at the top of your deadlift. Thus, a stronger butt means being able to finish the full range of motion. To activate your glutes, concentrate on squeezing your butt as hard as possible with each rep. Imagine firing your hips forward, much like you would with a kettlebell swing.
Control On the Way Down
Dropping the barbell from the top of the deadlift is for competitive lifting, not your workout. When you drop the bar, you’re missing out on the negative half of the lift, which is where you develop bar control. Just make sure you maintain tight form on the way down, too. Releasing your core and rounding your back with serious poundage on the bar is a recipe for disaster.
Ramp Up Before Your Rep Work
Having patience is one of the toughest skills in deadlifting. If you’re working up to a 400lb deadlift for the day, make sure to pull 135 pounds, 225 pounds, and 315 pounds on your way up — don’t make 200-pound jumps. These ramp-up sets allow you to warm up properly, practice the movement pattern, and add volume to the workout.
Use Different Variations
Different versions of the deadlift can be a great way to target your weak points. Struggle with pulling the weight off the floor, but crush the second half of the movement? Try deficit deadlifts by standing on a plate to increase the range of motion (only if you’re flexible, though). If you struggle with the lockout at the top of the deadlift, try rack pulls by placing the bar in a squat rack on the pins or on blocks at a higher starting position than the floor, and lifting from there.
Treat Every Rep the Same
Watch any elite powerlifter train the deadlift and you’ll notice something: They treat 135 pounds the same way they treat 800 pounds. That's for good reason: It teaches your body good habits. Just as most things in sports are skill-based, the more your practice the deadlift, the better you’ll get at acing the form. After all, strength has a lot to do with your nervous system, which is why small guys can still lift serious weight. But you don't get that kind of strength without perfect form.