There’s probably no better way to build a strong back than the deadlift.
Eight-hundred-pound deadlifts helped Ronnie Coleman—arguably the greatest bodybuilder to ever walk the face of the earth—built the biggest back of all time, and in the process won the crown of Mr. Olympia eight times. Bill Kazmaier, the strongest man in recorded history, said “strong back equals strong man.” Mark Rippetoe, a fabled strength coach, said, “It’s very hard to imagine a more useful application of strength than picking heavy sh*t off the ground.”
Bottom line: Whether your goal is simply aesthetic or to be the last man standing in a melee at the corner bar, deadlifts can help you.
Unfortunately, many guys performing this great strength-training exercise are doing it wrong. Here are five all-too-common mistakes that ruin deadlifts for rookie lifters—and what you can do to pull yourself out of that rut.
1. Your ass is too low
The deadlift is not a squat. Do not attempt to start in a full squat position. Your hips should be higher, closer to a half-squat position, with your shoulder blades over the barbell at the start. If you start too low, the barbell will end up too far in front of your body (not good for your back) and put you in a much weaker position.
2. Your feet are too wide
Unless you weigh 500 pounds and can barely get down to the bar to deadlift, odds are you don’t need your feet six inches wider than shoulder width. A good starting point is the stance you would use to do a standing vertical jump; generally, this is shoulder-width or closer. For many, it is hip-width.
3. You’re curling the weight
We have yet to meet the person that can curl more than they can deadlift. We also have yet to see a person—at any of the hundreds of powerlifting meets we’ve coached and participated in—sustain a back injury that required surgery from a heavy deadlift gone wrong.
We have, however, seen a dozen or so bicep tears. Think of your arms as hooks that hold on to the weight: Any bending to attempt to help the deadlift with your biceps is inefficient and greatly exacerbates the chance of injury.
4. You’re wearing gloves
Not only do gloves rob you of callous formation, they actually make the bar thicker (harder to grip). Most importantly, you can’t “feel” the bar. Knowing where the barbell is in relation to your body is huge for a deadlift. Mark Rippetoe said it best: “If you must wear gloves while lifting, make sure they match your purse.”
5. You’re warming up wrong
Exercise scientists have conclusively shown that static stretching can inhibit strength and power pre-workout. A dynamic warm-up is the way to go—but before a big deadlift workout, make sure the lion’s share of the warmup is deadlifting with lighter weights. Nothing warms you up for heavy deadlifts like lighter deadlifts.