The 5 Biggest Deadlift Fails

…and How to Fix Them

Weak off the floor? Can’t lock it out? Puny grip? Here’s how to find your weak points and strengthen them for bigger, smoother PRs.

Listen to What the Deadlift Tells You

The deadlift can build extraordinary strength and size, but it’s also a great diagnostic tool. It can tell you what you need to work on and which exercises to use in your program. It can also tell you what muscles or range of motion need to be the focus of your program to ensure continual progress. Here’s how to quickly self-diagnose your deadlift.

Keep in mind that the problems here could also be technical, but for the sake of the article we’ll assume that you know what you’re doing!

1. Weight Shifts Forward

The first cause of this is either weak hamstrings or tight hip flexors.

The telltale sign of this is the weight shifting to the toes. If it happens at the very beginning of the lift, it likely indicates weak hamstrings or tight hip flexors.

When you initiate the deadlift with a forward weight shift, it’s because your body wants to break the barbell off the floor using only the quads, which takes the hamstrings out of the equation. It could also be the result of hip flexor tightness that prevents you from using your posterior chain properly at the start of the movement.

Solution: Strengthen your hamstrings in the stretched position and work on hip flexor elasticity if needed.

Prescribed Exercises:

  • Romanian deadlift with the front of the feet elevated
  • Reverse hyper
  • Good morning with the front of the feet elevated
  • Long-step walking lunge

Toes Elevated RDL

The second possible cause is weak lats.

If you feel yourself shifting forward anywhere from mid-shins to about an inch above the knees, it could be because weak lats are preventing you from keeping the bar close. It could also be a result of not being able to engage the lats properly when deadlifting.

Solution: Strengthen the lats in their shoulder extension function.

Prescribed Exercises:

  • Snatch-grip deadlift
  • Straight-arm pulldown
  • Pullover
  • Sweeping deadlift

A third possible cause is weak glutes.

The forward weight shift can also occur during the last portion of the lift. Note that when this happens you’ll also perform an inadvertent hitch where you almost stop the movement and move the knees forward and under the bar before finishing the lift. This indicates weak glutes. The body shifts forward and hitches to put your body in a position to use the quads to compensate for the lack of glute strength.

Solution: Strengthen the glutes.

Prescribed Exercises:

2. Weak Off the Floor

One problem here is a lack of core rigidity.

If your problem is breaking the barbell from the floor – being weak for the first inch of the movement– it’s usually a problem of core rigidity. In other words, you can’t stay tight enough from the start and you lose force-transfer into the bar. People with this problem are much stronger with a belt, another clue that there’s a problem.

Solution: Increase the strength of your abs and lower back. More importantly, increase the capacity to keep everything tight in a static action.

Prescribed Exercises:

Another issue here may be quad strength.

If you can break the barbell off the floor just fine but struggle mid-shin, the problem is likely weak quads. That portion of the movement includes a lot of leg extension, and weak quads will obviously be a problem.

Solution: Strengthen the quads.

Prescribed Exercises:

  • Squat from pins starting at a 90-100 degree knee angle
  • Front squat
  • Leg press
  • Partial deadlift (from 1 inch off the ground to the knees)

3. Weak When Passing the Knees

This is often caused by weak hamstrings.

As we saw earlier, this could be caused by the weight shifting forward. In that case, refer to the earlier section. However, if you don’t feel your weight shifting forward, then the problem is weak hams.

Passing the knees and initiating the raising of the torso happens by switching from primarily a knee extension action to a hip extension action. The initiation of that movement is done mostly by the hamstrings.

Solution: Strengthen the hams in their hip extension function.

Prescribed Exercises:

  • Below-the-knees pin pull
  • Romanian deadlift
  • Arched-back good morning
  • Reverse hyper

You could also be losing your upper back tightness.

Visually, your upper back will start to get rounded, giving you that “fishing rod” deadlift style. This indicates a weakness in the upper back, likely the rhomboids, rear deltoids, and external rotators.

Note: Some good deadlifters use a rounded-back style. However, their upper back starts in that position; it doesn’t move into it during the lift. I still don’t recommend that pulling style, though.

Solution: Strengthen the upper back.

Prescribed Exercises:

  • Bent-over row
  • Chest-supported row
  • Bent-over lateral raise
  • Seated cable row
  • Duffin upright row

4. Finishing the Pull

The issue may be weak glutes.

If the sticking point is at about mid-thigh or a tad lower, the cause is likely weak glutes, or you simply might not be using them properly. When you pass the knees, you should use your glutes to push the hips forward. That will bring them almost under the bar. Many people don’t use their glutes to finish the pull. As a result, they have to compensate by doing a back hyperextension to reach the finish position.

Solution: Strengthen your glutes in the hip extension function.

Prescribed Exercises:

Your low back may also be weak.

If your problem is an inability to bring your torso up so that it’s perpendicular to the floor, the problem is most likely lower back strength. This is rarely the limiting factor in the deadlift, but it happens.

Solution: Strengthen the lower back.

Prescribed Exercises:

  • Back extension
  • Reverse hyper
  • Seated good morning (contrast version shown below)
  • Rounded-back good morning
  • Jefferson curl

5. Losing the Bar

If the bar is slipping out of your hands, your grip isn’t strong enough. Note that you could have grip issues even if you don’t feel yourself losing your grip. A weaker grip leads to less force transfer to the bar, which will limit the amount of weight you can move.

There are two ways to diagnose this. First, if you can use 10-15% more weight with straps than without straps, your grip is weak. Likewise, if you always pull slowly when the weights get above 80%, your grip is weak.

Solution: Strengthen your grip.

Prescribed Exercises:

  • Barbell hold for time (thick or regular bar)
  • Hanging from a pull-up bar (shoot for 15-20 seconds, add weight if it’s easy)
  • Farmer’s walk
  • Pinch-grip deadlift