Training the Deadlift for Strength: Top 5 Mistakes

By Andrew Levings
(March 2015)

The deadlift has always been my favourite lift. Ever since I first did it, I recall the feeling of immense satisfaction from hauling a heavy (relatively) weight off the floor to lockout. Without a shadow of a doubt, the deadlift is probably the most primal lift you can do, along with perhaps overhead press.

When I first trained in a serious competitive old school bodybuilding gym, no one there deadlifted. Thanks to the popularity of many top bodybuilders (such as the famous Ronnie 800lb x 2 reps), utilising the deadlift has become more popular. Perhaps in recognition of the thickness it can give the entire upper torso and girdle, and perhaps due to their powerlifting background, deadlifts have seen a full resurgence.

Further, strength training and competitive powerlifting (particularly raw powerlifting) has gained exponential popularity over the last few years. I think Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength has a lot to do with this. On the flip side, the old saying 'what comes around, goes around' rings true; the deadlift was always be a foundation of training and was probably one of the first movements men did when they touched a barbell.

Training the Deadlift
Please note I am writing this with the view and background of a powerlifter. Whilst the deadlift ultimately has a place in bodybuilding or training for pure aesthetics, I have never really trained for hypertrophy or aesthetics and thus won't talk from a position of ignorance.

"Everything works but nothing works forever"

This is a key phrase to have in mind when training the deadlift, but also in training overall. What you do at the beginning of your training career (the first 1-3 years) will vary to what you do in the more advanced stages of your training.

Top Five deadlift mistakes I see all the time (and some I've been guilty of myself)

  1. Starting position. Where you start will determine the success of your deadlift training. There are no absolutes in powerlifting or strength training, as is true in every facet of training. But as a general rule, you want the bar somewhere around your mid laces. Most guys I know start out with the bar way too far in front of them, this is a key error to avoid. Watch a few top powerlifters and see their shins after pulling heavy- they are often bleeding! For this reason, long football socks are now necessary in IPF sanctioned competitions to avoid blood-borne infections!

    Also, no jerking at the bottom, you need to flex your triceps hard to keep your arms locked and squeeze the bar off the floor (again mechanics/physics).

    The reason for this? Well, it's basics physics. The person who I most look up to as a strength author/coach is Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell. He said the best book anyone can buy to understand basic strength training is a GCSE level Physics textbook. The straight line of motion is always the most efficient (ceteris paribus and I stand to be corrected for those here who know more physics than me: there are a lot, I'm sure).

  2. Improper understanding of the mechanism of the deadlift. The deadlift is not a squat; nor is it a stiff-leg deadlift; it is a deadlift. Sure, as I said previously, there are no absolutes in strength training or powerlifting, but you must study, study and study some more the technique of top lifters who match your body mechanics and limb length. Short and stocky? Look at Ed Coan who pulled 900lbs at 220lb. Tall and lighter boned, look at Tom Martin who I have personally witnessed pull 345kg at 83-85k like there were balloons at the end of the bar. Tom is over 6 feet tall and I consider him to be a phenomenon for the deadlift, not just in the UK but worldwide.
  3. Rep ranges. There's nothing wrong with high (and I consider anything above five high for powerlifting) reps when training for strength, occasionally. But the majority of your training needs to be done in the 80-85% range of your max, for multiple sets of doubles or triples. This is the manner popular with lifters from Europe and Eastern Europe who often pull the biggest. Like I said though, there's nothing wrong with doing things differently; experience is the best teacher, but you can fast-track your training by training consistently in the correct manner.
  4. Too slow on warmups. Louie Simmons advocates speed work for deadlifts, and personally I agree on this. You can't pull a heavy weight slowly. Every GCSE level physics student should be familiar with F=MxA (force = mass x acceleration). So basically, the faster you can move a bar, the stronger you will get in layman's terms.

    Personally, I've never had a pure 'speed' or 'dynamic effort' day for deadlifts. What I do is something I picked up from reading about Dr Fred Hatfield, who squatted 1000lbs to great depth in basic equipment way before many of us were born. He said to apply maximum force to every rep of every set. I did this religiously for two years and went from struggling to squat the bar to squatting 200kg+ in a belt only in my late teens (judged lift) at a very skinny 6 feet, 87kg.

    The deadlift is the same. Speed, speed, speed, and then some more speed; but always under control and always with proper technique in-tact.

  5. Not seeking out real life experience and teaching from top lifters. This one rings true on every aspect of training, but is often ignored. Want to be a good deadlifter? Then train with a bunch of guys pulling triple or double your max, and you'll again fast-track your progress.

Really, I love the deadlift so much it's difficult to decide what to leave out. For now, I hope this helps some of you; if it helps one person then I'll be happy. And remember:

"The (powerlifting) meet doesn't start until the bar hits the floor"!