Ultimate Guide: Powerlifting Deadlift Form

WRITTEN BY Martijn Koevoets

A bad deadlift is a bad deadlift. Whether it’s a deadlift in average Joe’s gym or a powerlifting deadlift. 

A while back I was doing a deadlift form analysis for someone. He sent me a video of him doing sets of 140kg.

When I was watching the video I noticed a few things that needed to be improved.

He wasn’t preparing for a powerlifting meet or anything.

In short, his lower back was rounding quite badly and he was stiff legging the weight for the most part.

Both are quite common and I’ll show you how to solve these issues later in this blog. Along with some other common problems. Like not being able locking out.

One thing is sure: Deadlifting is hard!Sure, it’s a simple movement but there is no easy way to pick up a heavy barbell.

Sure, it’s a simple movement but there is no easy way to pick up a heavy barbell.

So before we starting fixing all you deadlift woes, we need to take a look at how to do a deadlift properly.How can your deadlift be perfect if your setup isn’t?

How can your deadlift be perfect if your setup isn’t?

So if you want to deadlift more then read the next section on deadlift setup. I’ll tell you how I set up to deadlift 500lbs, which is more than 3x my own bodyweight.

Deadlift Setup

Personally I use a top down setup. It’s just most natural to me.  There are a few more option to set up for a powerlifting deadlift but most of them are imperfect.

There is only one other deadlift setup that you can also use. A lot of strongman use this setup.

It’s the knees forward setup. Where you start on your knees in front of the bar. Strongman athletes do it so they can wrap their straps around the bar.

Here’s my Dutch pal Niels Gordijn lifting 420kg / 926 lbs. Look at his deadlift setup.

But like I said. I use a top down approach, so that’s what we’ll talk about in this blog.

A great description of deadlift setup can be found in Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. This is should be a staple in your powerlifting library.

But I’ll give you some of the cliff notes infused with my own personal experiences as a competitive powerlifter and powerlifting coach.

Everytime I step up to the bar to deadlift there are quite a few things to pay attention to.

Roughly they are:

  1. Deadlift stance
  2. Grabbing the bar
  3. Loading your hips, hamstrings and lower back
  4. Lift The Bar

Let’s dive into each step more.

Deadlift Stance

Your deadlift stance should be the same or at least almost the as your jumping stance or running stance.

The bar should be over the middle of your whole foot. If the bar is around 1 to 1.5 inch from your shins, you probably have the bar right over the middle of the foot already.

Next create ‘sticky’ feet by ‘screwing’ your feet into the ground. Then raise your arms and pull your shoulders back.

It’s almost time “to shut up  and lift”. But it’s not a matter of just  bending forward and grabbing the bar!

Grabbing The Bar

Take your grip on the bar by hinging forward. Bend over at the waist and hips and try not to lower your hips.

Most important at this point and for the following steps is that you DO NOT MOVE THE BAR.

Grab the bar with 1 hand at a time. Grab as close as possible without your hands touching your thighs while you are pulling the bar.

For most people a thumb’s length removed from your legs is a good start.

I prefer a mix grip instead of a hook grip. I’ll explain both grips in a minute. For now, just use your normal deadlift grip.

Loading Your Hips, Hamstrings & Lower Back

After you grabbed the bar, you’re probably lost some tension in your body. Your back is probably a bit roundover because you need to grab the bar.

You will need to load your hips, hamstrings and lower back again to get tight again.

If you don’t you’re running the risk of lifting the bar with a round back. No bueno amigo.

There 2 ways to do this. The first method is the one Rippetoe talks about in Starting Strength. But I actually prefer the second one.

  1. The first method is to ‘simply’ put your chest out. Kind of like standing to attention like you would to in the army. Ít’s the same principle as when you are laying down and are getting ready to bench press. Don’t over extend and don’t pull your shoulders back. You can’t maintain that position lifting heavy weights.
  2. Raise your hips a bit and push your knees back.. Kind of like you’re going to do a stiff leg deadlift.Now drop your hips a bit. And at the same time try to pull the bar a little bit. Just pull the slack out of it, don’t lift it off the ground yet.

The reason why I prefer this last option when getting ready to deadlift is because it’s easier for me to feel if my hips are in the right position.

But try both out for yourself and see what works for you.

Shut Up & Deadlift

Now it’s time to ‘shut up and lift’. Take a deep breath and start pulling the bar. While you are pulling you should keep the bar as close to your body as possible.

That means dragging the bar across your legs and that means bloody shins. Nobody likes that.

Squeeze your glutes as you start to lockout. If you can’t lockout then I have a few tips for you later on in this blog.

Don’t overextend or lean back at the top and don’t try to shrug your shoulders.

If you’re at at meet, then wait for the head referee to give you the down sign and then gently SLAM the bar on the ground.

If you’re at Planet Fitness, then do the perfect opposite of when  you were deadlifting the bar from the floor. If they let you deadlift at all at Planet Fitness that is of course.

Deadlift Grip

When we talked about grabbing the bar at bit earlier, I promised you more on deadlift grip.

You probably know about mix grip, or over/under hand grip and about the hook grip. You probably know that the hookgrip hurts like hell too.

Hook Grip

With a conventional grip your thumb will be over your finger. But with a hook grip you put the middle finger on top of the thumbnail as you wrap your hands around the bar.

The bar will settle into the bottom of the “hook” made by the fingers. This lock prevents the bar from rolling out of your hand.

The hook grip is a technique commonly taught to Olympic lifters because it goes well with exercises like the clean and snatch.

Mixed Grip

I prefer the mix grip instead of the hook grip. I can lift more weight that way, and lifting the most possible weight is after all the game that is powerlifting.

With a double overhand grip the bar constantly wants to roll out of your hands and you will have to constantly fight this during the lift.

You could use straps, and although they are allowed in strongman competitions, they are not in powerlifting competitions.

This is where the mixed grip comes in.

Let me explain.

With the mixed grip, as the bar rolls out of one hand, it is rolling into the other hand.

There is nowhere to go for that bar. Either way it’s ending up in your hands.

Deadlift Fail

Right now we probably covered everything about powerlifting deadlift form.

Hopefully you got some valuable tips out of it and hopefully you’ll set a PR next time you’re deadlifting.

Regardless, you will fail at some point during the movement. You could fail to lockout the deadlift. Or maybe you can’t get the bar past your knees or off the ground.

Fret not my amigo! I’m not finished with the blog post yet…

Below are the most common sticking points in the deadlift and how to fix them.

(Note: the section below is an updated version of a guest blog that originally got posted on healthylivingheavylifting.com)

High Hip Deadlift

At the start of this blog post I told about starting with your hips to high. If you do this too then you probably need to change your technique.

On the other hand there are many lifters position their hips too low at the start of the deadlift, with the result that they raise their hips first and then they try to perform stiff leg the deadlift.

If you always miss your deadlifts because you can’t get it off the floor, you might fall in this category as well.

Now you shouldn’t try to squat the weight up. The deadlift is a pull, not a push.

One of the best things you can do in your case are deficit deadlifts. You’ll  learn how to use more leg drive, your ROM will be larger, and your grip will improve because your movement will take slightly more time than a regular deadlift.

Just stand on a raised surface of between 1” and 3”, like mats or plates.

Here’s Eric Lilliebridge doing 370kg / 815 lbs doing a deadlift off a 2” mat.

His best deadlift is 408kg / 900 lbs.

After a while when your technique has changed and you have become stronger in the right places, you will no longer stiff-leg your deadlifts.

Another option is to do the opposite. To do block pull deadlifts or rack pulls.

This enables you to practise your setup. It easier.

But I find that the lifting mechanics change to much when the weight gets heavy. Everybody tries to pull the weight no matter what, and then it’s not anything like normal deadlift technique.

It can work though. Dan Green proves that!

Just be honest to yourself and try to mimic the same technique as you would when deadlifting in that position.

Sumo Deadlift & Your Knees

Are your knees coming in during sumo deadlifts? If you answered ‘yes’ to that question, it’s either because your hips are too weak to push your feet and knees out.

Or because you actually are strong enough, but just don’t pay attention to pushing your knees and feet out when you start the lift.

To overcome this problem, you can practise ultra-wide deadlifts. Here’s Laure Phelps Sweatt deadlifting 510 lbs.

Or you can do box squats. You can read more about box squats in this article about troubleshooting the box squat over at EliteFTS.com.

Ultra-wide sumo deadlifts and box squats place great stress on your hip muscles and your hamstrings.

These are the exact muscles you should strengthen when your knees go inward during sumo deadlifts.

Another secret exercise is doing sumo deadlift while seated on a box or chair. Make sure the height is approximately the same height where your hips are when starting the sumo deadlift.

Here’s Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell in an instructional video of this lift. I believe he is the one who came up with this deadlift exercise. At least he’s the first one I heard talking about it.

This insider exercise builds enormous strength in the hips, just like box squats and ultra wide sumo deadlifts.

Seeing the trend with solution to this problem? Anything with a wide stance and a pause at the bottom will help.

So yes, that includes zercher squats off a box, bottom up squats, all that stuff!

Deadlift Lockout Fail

If you can’t lockout deadlifts, don’t be ashamed! It’s even rough for Schwarzenegger!

This is quite a common problem and it happens when that last inch just seems beyond your capabilities and reach.

The causes are most likely  weak glutes. If you suffer from being unable to lock out your deadlift, you should try the following exercises:

  • Rack pulls/block pulls from just below the knee (watch your starting position)
  • Deadlifts with bands or chains (particularly if you stall around the middle of your upper legs)
  • Shrugs for your upper back
  • Glute ham raises, Romanian deadlifts and good mornings for your glutes and hamstrings.

As you can see these all focus on the last part of the deadlift. But if you’re a member of the hip thrust crew, you can give those a shot too.

(Here’s a link to ‘Everything You Need To Know About The Hip Thrust” by Brett Contreras aka the Glute Guy)

Deadlift Fail At Knee Level

If you’re stalling at your knees, try paused deadlifts by holding your position for 1 second at your weak point.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

Wrapping it up

This should cover your most burning struggles with powerlifting deadlift form.

We covered the perfect deadlift form. And covered the most common points of failure and how to fix those.

(NOTE:  Want to build your own powerlifting program in just 5 simple steps? Yes… it’s really that simple! Get my personal simple 5 step formula here for free!)

If you enjoyed the Ultimate Guide: Powerlifting Deadlift Form blog post feel free to tag and share this with your friends. They will appreciate it.

Author: Martijn Koevoets
Martijn is head honcho of Powerlifting University, a powerlifter, author, blogger, online coach & extreme metal aficionado. He also loves a good whiskey. He has been featured on websites like EliteFTS, JTSStrength, JMAX Fitness and more.

Get your hands on my cheat sheet for setting up training programs that took a 132lbs. skinny weakling from not being able to bench the bar to deadlifting 3x his own body weight and winning silver at the nationals.

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