Bad Deadlift Form: Avoid these 4 Major Issues

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
January 9, 2023

Because of the fact that the deadlift is likely one of the heaviest and most intense exercises a lifter will ever perform, doing so with bad form is also considered to be one of the biggest mistakes anyone can make in the gym - something that will result in injuries and generally poor results.

Fortunately, the majority of common errors made in deadlift form are relatively easy to correct, and will likely not result in injury if corrected within an early enough time frame.

Most deadlift form issues revolve around improper bracing or positioning of the back, though other problems like issues in starting stance or improper contraction of certain muscle groups must also be corrected so as to consider a deadlift repetition “good” in terms of form.

What is the Deadlift?

The deadlift is a free weight compound movement considered to be the heaviest of the “big three” compound movements, wherein it is performed with a barbell and set of weight plates for the purposes of conditioning the entirety of the body as well as directly inducing training stimulus in the back and posterior chain.

barbell deadlift movement

The deadlift is considered to be an intermediate level exercise due to the complexity of its form as well as the endurance required to perform it for multiple repetitions, and is a vital component of any serious powerlifting or strength-focused training program.

Deadlift Volume Range

Deadlifts will recruit practically every skeletal muscle group in the body, but will place the greatest amount of direct training stimulus on the muscles of the lower portion of the posterior chain; mainly the gluteus muscle group, the hamstrings, and the lower back.

As such, in order to mitigate central nervous system fatigue from such a wide-spread contraction - as well as to reduce the incidence of fatigue-induced risk of injury - the majority of intermediate and advanced level training programs will program the deadlift between 3 and 8 repetitions, with a set of 5 repetitions being the most common.

Depending on the presence of other heavy compound movements within the same workout session, the deadlift may be performed for as many as 5 sets within a single workout - something highly taxing when performed between 80-95% of the lifter’s maximal load.

Deadlift Variations

Just like the squat or bench press, the deadlift is altered in a variety of ways so as to address certain training needs or issues that a lifter may have with the deadlift itself - with these subsequent changes in the deadlift being referred to as “variations” in the exercise.

The most frequently encountered deadlift variation is the sumo deadlift, wherein the lifter will place their arms within the space of their legs, rather than outside of it.

sumo deadlift

This significantly alters the mechanics of the movement, and is often used interchangeably with the conventional deadlift in cases where the lifter is more compatible with one or the other.

Further variations may be stiff-legged deadlifts, deadlifts performed with different equipment like the trap bar deadlift, or even deadlifts with a variable range of motion in order to improve technical execution, such as the block deadlift or deficit deadlift.

Why is Good Form Important for the Deadlift?

Because of the sheer intensity and amount of weight used during a deadlift repetition, good form is especially important as failing to adhere to proper form can result in serious injuries or a wasting of the lifter’s effort due to misplaced training stimulus.

Even if the risk of injury or loss of proper training stimulus is not an issue for you, it is still vital to perform exercises with correct form, as failing to do so (even during warm-up sets) can lead to bad movement or lifting habits later in life, resulting in ineffective workouts and generally poor soft tissue health.

Major Errors in Deadlift Form and Execution

Quite a number of errors may be made while performing a deadlift repetition, but not all are equally of the same risks - the following are the most important issues to avoid, as making one or multiple major errors can easily result in serious injuries that can take months to rehabilitate.

1. Rounding of the Back or “Cat Back”

Perhaps the most frequently made yet most dangerous error in deadlift form is rounding of the back.

To be more specific, it is improper curvature of the thoracic and lumbar portions of the spinal column that present the greatest risk of injury when performing the deadlift incorrectly, as the amount of pressure and shear force placed on the spine can cause a host of physiological issues when in a non-neutral curve.

deadlift lower back rounding

Slipped spinal discs, fused or compressed spinal discs, compressed or pinched nerves and soft tissue injuries of the middle and lower back can all be caused by “cat backing” during the deadlift.

To remedy this, the lifter must learn to properly brace their core in a manner that maintains lower back neutrality, as well as ensure that their initial stance is perfected and stable so as to avoid pulling the spine out of its advantageous alignment.

2. Bending the Arms or Using an Underhand Grip Frequently

Another major injury caused by incorrect deadlift form is a torn or otherwise damaged biceps brachii - a soft tissue injury caused by utilizing the biceps brachii in a non-isometric capacity during the deadlift.

In a properly executed deadlift repetition, the biceps muscles are meant to only act in a stabilizing manner, meaning that contracting them dynamically by bending the elbow or otherwise accidentally recruiting the biceps during an underhanded deadlift repetition can easily lead to these delicate muscles being torn from the humerus bone.

For this reason, it is best to perform very heavy deadlift repetitions with an overhand or mixed grip, as well as to ensure that the arms remain fully extended beneath the torso throughout the entire deadlift movement.

3. Knees Collapsing Inwards or “Knee Valgus”

Though more frequently encountered during a squat, the knees collapsing inwards while performing the initial pull of the deadlift is nonetheless also a major issue that can result in injury - especially of the quadriceps muscles, where tendinopathy or knee tissue damage is a major risk.

In order to prevent knee valgus from occurring, the lifter should perform sufficient mobility work of the posterior chain and hips, as well as ensure that they are performing the deadlift in such a way that the quadriceps are in an advantageous and stable position.

4. Initial Stance is Too High or Legs are Fully Extended

Beginning the deadlift in such a way that the hips are placed at an excessively elevated position will result in the aforementioned rounding of the back, or otherwise a host of other form issues that can lead to severe injury.

deadlift hips too high

This is often due to the lifer failing to bend their legs sufficiently low enough to maintain proper hip positioning, especially during the initial pull of the exercise where the hips must dip slightly so as to produce greater counter-force from the posterior chain.

While performing the deadlift with fully extended legs is an entirely different exercise in its own right, making this mistake with the conventional deadlift will lead to damage relating to the lower back, spine and hamstring muscles - meaning it must be corrected as soon as possible.

To do so, work on proper hip and posterior chain mobility through dynamic stretching, and ensure that the hip crease is approximately within a parallel plane with the top of the knees during the starting stance of the exercise.

Major Errors in Deadlift Programming, Set-Up or Recovery

Not to be confused with errors in deadlift form, issues relating to the programming, stance or post-workout methodology of the deadlift are also just as likely to result in poor muscular development and injuries - thereby necessitating that these problems be corrected, especially if they are directly affecting execution of the exercise as well.

Excessive Weight, Frequency, or Volume

Though the majority of lifters have some idea of overtraining or the concept of a working load, the specifics are actually lesser known and are a frequently encountered group of programming errors, especially when speaking of the deadlift.

The usage of excessive weight can easily result in a breakdown in form as the muscles are overloaded beyond their safe force output, but so too can excessive training volume result in this effect - as well as other physiological issues like chronic overuse injuries and tendon inflammation.

Furthermore, at a larger scale, performing the deadlift with too great a frequency - that is, through multiple succeeding workouts at a high intensity - will lead to accumulated fatigue and result in overtraining, poor muscular development, central nervous system fatigue and a host of soft-tissue injuries due to a failure to allow the body sufficient time with which to recover in.

As such, outside of specific short-term elite training programs, the majority of workout routines will only involve the deadlift in a workout session once or twice within a given training week, as well as a deload week or deload session somewhere within their month to month programming.

Pulling Bar From Too Far Away Due to Stance

One of the most frequently encountered stance issues of the deadlift can be seen during the initial pull of the movement, where the lifter will enter a state of lower back hyperextension due to the barbell being too far away from the legs.

deadlift barbell too far forward

This will not only affect the curvature of their back, but also greatly reduce how much weight they will be able to lift as they must strain further forward and reduce the translation of force from their legs to their torso.

In order to remedy this stance issue, the lifter need only roll the bar closer to their shins - approximately over the arch of their feet - so as to create the most advantageous and stable beginning stance possible.

Lifters with less flexible posterior chains or shorter arm proportions may wish to draw the bar even closer, but doing so can run the risk of dragging the barbell into the shins, causing discomfort and potentially scraping the skin.

Uneven Load Distribution Because of Stance

Due to an uneven or unbalanced deadlift stance, the distribution of weight across the various structures of the body may become skewed - either towards one section or one side, thereby increasing the lifters risk of injury and reducing maximum volume within the workout due to once side of the body becoming fatigued before the other.

Correcting this particular stance error can be difficult, as quite a few underlying causes can lead to a deadlift stance becoming uneven. 

The more serious factors that may result in such a stance are large-scale muscular imbalances, scoliosis or similar conditions, poor conscious bodily control or simply uneven flooring causing one side of the body to be higher than the other.

If the lifter has extensively attempted to fix their uneven deadlift through isolation exercise, rehabilitation and multiple form corrections, yet the problem still persists - it may be time to contact a medical professional, as underlying medical conditions may actually be present.

Legs are Too Far Apart/Close Together

Though not as serious as other major stance problems in this article, placing the legs too close or too far together can both sabotage the range of motion of the deadlift as well as place undue stress on certain joints along the lower body.

Generally, the feet and legs must be approximately hip-width apart when performing the conventional deadlift, though other variations of the standard deadlift may involve a wider stance or a more extended initial state, depending on the intentions of the variant.

The stances pictured below are both too wide and too narrow, proper stance width being somewhere in the middle for most individuals.

stance too wide or too narrow
Stance too wide and too narrow

Furthermore, it is generally good practice to draw the knees as vertically parallel over the ankles as possible, though lifters of greater tibial proportions may find this difficult without excessive mobility work.

To put it short - place the feet at hip-width apart, and the knees generally over the feet - though small deviations from this may be made for the sake of stability and comfort.

Failure to Perform a Mobility or Warm-Up Routine

Another major issue in programming is a failure of the lifter to perform adequate preparatory work prior to beginning their deadlift working sets.

Including a dynamic mobility routine specifically meant to target the hips, lower back and leg muscles is an excellent way of improving deadlift performance and reducing the risk of injury therein. 

This is also the case for warm-up sets, as it will allow the body to draw more blood and oxygen to the areas where it is needed, further improving performance.

Minor Errors in Deadlift Form

Though we’ve covered the most frequently encountered and serious errors relating to the deadlift and poor exercise practice, there are certain more minor issues relating to deadlift form that can nonetheless result in sub-optimal training stimulus or strength output if left unchecked.

Toes Pointing Inwards

Just as how the knees caving inwards is a sign of poor deadlift form, so too are the feet pointing inwards.

toes pointing inward

Whether it be due to poor stability or simply not being aware of the correct form cue, the toes pointing towards each other can result in the aforementioned knee valgus or generally poor stability of the lower body.

In order to fix this, the lifter simply needs to intentionally plant their feet at a neutral or outward angle, ensuring that they do not twist inwards as the lift is completed.

Poor Head, Neck, or Eye Positioning

Though somewhat less dangerous than poor lower back curvature, bending the upper spine through an unaligned head or neck can cause larger failures in form to otherwise occur, such as forward-rounded shoulders or the lifter being forced to compensate by bending the torso at the waist.

deadlift chest

As such, it is generally a good idea to keep the head and neck in a state of minor flexion, and the eyes fixed on a point several feet away.

Back Hyperextension at Lift Apex

A poor habit that many lifters will consciously execute is hyperextending the back as they reach the top of the lift - or what is otherwise known as bending somewhat backwards, likely in order to maximize the supposed range of motion of the deadlift.

This is largely unnecessary, and may place excessive pressure on the small discs that make up the spinal column, thereby increasing the risk of injury for little to no benefit. The lifter need only enter a state of spinal neutrality in order to complete the deadlift repetition, with no need for any sort of back hyperextension whatsoever.

How to Tell if Your Deadlift Form is Good

While there is truly no substitute for an expert’s opinion, it is relatively easy to tell whether your deadlift is being performed with the correct form and programming or not.

A repetition of the deadlift should be challenging, but not overly so - and result in no sharp pain or tingling whatsoever. While a dull pain in the muscles being trained can occasionally be encountered, it is not meant to be debilitating in intensity - or localized to a specific joint.

Furthermore, the lifter should not feel overly fatigued or excessively sore the day following a deadlifts workout - and their quality of life should not be affected by said workout as well.

If you are experiencing one or multiple instances of such effects, it is best to stop performing the deadlift temporarily and to reassess your programming and form, especially with the help of an experienced friend or athletic professional.

Final Thoughts

While the majority of errors in deadlift form are easily correctable and already present in this article, there are a few small and more specific issues that you may have overlooked - something that only the well-trained eye of a coach is equipped to diagnose.

And as always, remember that it is less about how much you lift and about how you perform said lift.

References

1. Bengtsson V, Berglund L, Aasa U. Narrative review of injuries in powerlifting with special reference to their association to the squat, bench press and deadlift. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2018 Jul 17;4(1):e000382. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2018-000382. PMID: 30057777; PMCID: PMC6059276.

2. McGuigan, Michael R.M.; Wilson, Barry D.. Biomechanical Analysis of the Deadlift. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 10(4):p 250-255, November 1996.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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