I hate deadlifting. Going the rest of my life without doing another pull would be fine by me. The reason for this is that since my first competition back in 1983, my deadlift has been a struggle. It was nothing like the squat and bench press, which are my strong lifts, and I’ve tried everything to fix it. From deadlifting three times per week, to twice per week, to once a week, to once a month, and (my favorite) not deadlifting at all. However, I never gave up and eventually I was able to build my pull to a point where it became my “means to a total,” and I still look for new ways to build bigger deadlifts today. The difference is now I really don’t care about my own pull but do care about how I can help others pull more. This article is about helping you improve your deadlift. The deadlift is surprisingly complex. While it’s cool to say “just walk up to the fucking bar and lift” that’s not enough—I laugh every time I hear that. If only it was that simple. It certainly won’t cut it if you’re stuck in a plateau—and a deadlifting plateau can be the worst you’ll ever come across.

3 Things

Like the bench press and squat, a deadlift plateau is due to one of three issues:

  1. Physical – programming, flexibility, strengthening weaker muscles and movements.
  2. Mental – level of arousal/over-arousal.
  3. Technical – exercise technique and execution.

Most lifters think their deadlifting slump is due to physical issues. So they ask, “What exercises should I do?” or “How do I tweak my programming? Do I pull every four days or every five?” They got it all wrong. In my experience, only 20% of deadlifting slumps are due to physical issues or programming flaws. Technical or technique problems represent a full 70% of lifters’ challenges, with mental issues making up the final 10%.

Note: These tips are based around increasing maximal strength in the deadlift, my particular area of expertise. It’s not about tweaking the pull for a bigger back or programming for a greater hypertrophic response. To accomplish that, I’d defer to a true expert in that realm, namely someone like John Meadows.

Mental: 10%

The deadlift is getting popular. It’s weird, considering it’s such a shitty experience, at least in my opinion. While not nearing the fan appeal of the squat or bench press, the gap is definitely closing, which I’ll concede is a good thing. As a result, you now hear guys spouting that the deadlift is the “true” measure of strength. I must be in bizarro world. Ten years ago the argument was the squat or the bench press was the true measure or strength, as too many otherwise weak people can sport above average deadlifts just by having the right leverages. Here’s the thing. Whatever a lifter is strongest at will always influence the “best strength indicator” debate. So every 600-pound raw bencher is going to say that the bench press is the true measure of strength, just as every 1000-pound squatter will say the same thing about the squat. The fact is, its what you’re shitty at that really measures ability. So in my case, perhaps the deadlift is the true measure of strength. Lucky me.

Most mental issues in the deadlift pertain to arousal—about 50% of lifters need to be extremely aroused to pull a lot of weight. You’ve seen them—they pace around, smack heads with their training partners, scare old ladies, etc. The other half is the opposite. Like me, they need to be more relaxed. When I got too aroused all hell broke loose. I screwed up either the setup or execution. So for mental issues, the first thing you need to do is identify the type of lifter you are. If you aren’t a hyper-arousal type, don’t chase those methods. You’ll just make any other underlying issues worse. The nature of the deadlift also contributes to its potential for mental fuck-ups. Unlike the squat or bench press, in the deadlift there’s no pre-load. You can’t unrack the weight and “feel it out” and adjust your mental state accordingly, whereas in the squat or bench you can tell right away if the lift is going to be cake or if you need to get your shit correct. Furthermore, in the deadlift there’s no eccentric loading and therefore no stretch reflex to take advantage of. So unlike the squat or bench, you go in blind and completely on your own.

Note: There are some ways to get some stretch reflex but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

All that adds up to guys showing up on meet day and failing to budge their 3RM weights. They mentally fuck themselves out of the lift before they even get up there. Let’s not forget all the cues. Coaches use different cues to accomplish basically the same thing—“Keep the shoulders in line with the bar” versus “Chest up” for example—however, depending on the lifter, one may be too much information and the other not enough. This is true with all lifts and all sport skills for that matter. So if you have doubt, ask what the end result should be, or look for it in the cuing being used. Don’t let a confusing cue knock you out of your most natural lifting pattern.

Technical: 70%


The keys of proper deadlift setup are things I learned as a young lifter from Bob Wahl, Louie, Ricky Crane, Steve Goggins, and Ed Coan. Honestly, I can’t remember whom I learned what aspect from, so I want to make sure they all get credit. That’s a pretty esteemed list of teachers, and it’s for a reason—my deadlift sucked so I consulted with the best.


Foot position is much ado about nothing. Here’s how you figure out your ideal width: Hang from a chin-up bar and drop to the floor. Note your foot position when you land. That’s the right conventional deadlifting stance for you. I think I first learned this from Fred Hatfield, but have used it many times over the years with lifters, as well as with run of the mill personal training clients.


This can vary from right against the bar to six inches or more away from it. I think mid-foot distance is an optimal starting point but it really depends on quad size. Someone with huge quads will need the bar further away so it doesn’t ride up and hit the quads—meaning if you have Meadows-like quads the bar will be stuck under them and you’ll have to pull over and around them—while someone with skinny quads and no teardrop can start much closer. Again, mid-foot is a great starting place. Some lifters like to lift the toes to get the weight moving backwards while others find twisting the feet (meaning the action of doing this, your actual foot doesn’t move) helps activate the glutes. I like the most natural position to start. This lets me keep an “ace in the hole” so if I find it sticking mid-lift, I can turn my toes (twist). This will further contract my glutes, which may be enough to keep the weight moving. If I did this from the start, the glutes would already be firing all-out at the sticking point and as such couldn’t be “called in” to assist. This is what I mean by always keeping something in the tank.


I prefer a slight, not extreme, arch in the lower back. The upper back should be rounded and somewhat relaxed, the shoulders slightly slumped. This improves leverage and shortens the distance of the pull. At no point during the pull should you allow the spine to enter into over-flexion.


To set up, I normally coach guys to just drop the arms straight down and grab the bar, although a bigger, heavier guy with broad shoulders will need to be a bit wider. Keep the arms straight but relaxed. There’s no need to flex the triceps unless in extreme situations. If the hand position is correct then the hips should be where they need to be. We don’t want the hips to be in the squat position (too low) or in a Romanian deadlift position (too high). The best descriptor would be like a quarter squat. This allows for the ideal hinge and posterior chain recruitment. Also, there’s knurling on the bar for a reason so if you need to grip one finger wider to use it then do so. The biggest mistakes I see with grip are holding the bar way too close on a sumo deadlift and too wide with a conventional. Of course there will always be deviations from the norm, but if you shoot for keeping the arms in a straight line you’ll probably end up in a good position.

Note: If you’re a powerlifter, I suggest using a mixed grip as this is how you’ll compete. If you aren’t a competitive lifter I “normally” suggest not using a mixed grip (and if you need straps then use them) but this depends on what you’re training for and what the deadlift has been put into the program to enhance.


The idea is to drive the head back into the traps, not just look up. The excessive head cranked up towards the ceiling thing you see today is completely unnecessary. It’s also counterproductive. The head follows the body, so you want to drive the head back, not up. For the same reason, looking down is a surefire way to miss a lift. Find a spot on the wall that requires you to keep your head up and back into the traps and begin the pull from there. Another head position issue I find (working with powerlifters) is their traps and upper backs get so thick that they have a hard time keeping their heads up in the first place. I’ve seen guys so thick they can barely turn their heads to the side without having to rotate their torso. Telling them to look up will get you about as far as asking them to pick up a nickel they dropped on the floor. You can scream at them all day to get their heads up but if the structure won’t allow it they’ll just tune you out. However, they can and should drive their heads back into their traps and this is what you need to look for.

Pull The Slack

The first thing to do after the setup is to pull the slack out of the bar. Reach down and grab a loaded barbell. Hear that clicking sound? That’s the sleeve of the barbell connecting with the collars. You want to remove that play before you initiate your pull. That’s what guys mean when they say to pull the slack out of the bar. Doing this initial “pre-pull” allows the hips to drop down slightly. Although this step is subtle, if skipped, the hips will slide out of position once you really start to pull, which is when the weights break from the floor.


Wear your belt as tight as you can. I always cinch mine at least 1 or 2 holes tighter than where I have it when I squat or bench. It’s so tight I basically can’t breathe, meaning I can only draw in about 50% of the air I can normally draw in.

Less air in the lungs helps keep everything—the lungs, the chest—lower, making it easier to hit the lockout position. If you don’t wear a belt, just remember to draw in 50% of your lung capacity, brace your torso, and keep everything tight.

Notes on Sumo Setup

Sumo is obviously a wider setup, with the hips closer to the bar. From the side, a good sumo deadlift should look almost like a leg press in that the torso doesn’t move much. The rules for pulling sumo really aren’t much different from what’s been presented above except for how you get into the start position. Your stance will be based (again) off what you “feel” works best. Sumo can go from modified to ultra wide—whatever allows for the best pulling position and bar path is the one to use. Once this is determined, you want to drive your feet apart (spreading the floor) while trying to keep your knees in line with the ankles. This keeps the hips closer to the bar. When I teach the sumo pull I tell people to get their starting position so their crotch is over the bar i.e., “Balls over Bar.” For some the easiest way to do this is to start in a standing position and squat down. Others find it easier to bend over, get the grip, and then pull the chest up to bring the hips forward. Go with what works best, but I will say that from teaching hundreds if not thousands of lifters it’s easier to teach them to get the position by squatting down. Even if they change later they’ll get the feel what the start should feel like.

Sticking Points

Weak off the floor

If you’re weak off the floor, it’s typically one of two things:

  1. The weight is too heavy. Duh. Take some weight off the bar.
  2. You’re overtrained. Look back in your log. How often have you been deadlifting? The deadlift, especially heavy deadlifting, is extremely taxing. You may need a two-week break followed by a few weeks of lighter pulling sessions performed multiple times a week. This can help build work capacity.

If that doesn’t help and you’re still weak off the floor, here are your fixes:

Deficit Deadlifts

The key here is not to use too much of a deficit—two or three quarter-inch rubber mats is plenty. An excessive deficit turns the lift into a quad-dominant movement and takes stress off the posterior chain.

Upper Back Work

Chest supported rows are ideal. Barbell rows are the hardcore choice but they involve too much erectors for my taste. We’re training the upper back here. If you want to train the lower back, do Romanian deadlifts.


Do a variety of movements that work both origin and insertion.

Weak at the Shin

This is due to a lack of acceleration, or not pulling fast enough once the bar has broken the floor. Your fixes are:

Speed deadlifts

Do these at 55-60% of 1RM for 8-10 singles. Do them on squat day, either before or after you squat, depending on your priorities. The trick is to do two single reps in a row with a distinct pause in between. No bouncing. If you do a double with a bounce, the second rep has benefited from momentum. You’ll know cause the second rep will look better than the first. The goal is to eliminate the bounce, reset properly, and make the first rep look better than the second.

Weak at the Knee

First, make sure the glutes are fully engaged. Now this is not glute activation that you read so much about. I think much of that is bullshit. If you can perform the range of motion, your muscles will be “activated.” I’ve torn both my glute and my hamstring on separate occasions—trust me, you know they’re not involved. They can however, not be contributing as much as you need. To remedy this from occurring at the top end, I recommend pin pulls and deadlifts off blocks. I prefer pulling off blocks. Pin pulls are brutal to recover from as the arms are forced to absorb much of the force from the barbell smashing into the pins. Too much grip-intensive work is hard enough to recover form; pin pulls magnify this. Pulling off blocks, while a pain to set up, is a far more natural pull. And unlike pin pulls, they reinforce all the good things you’re trying to do in a perfect deadlift. I don’t hate pin pulls (provided you’re not doing them in my gym with 800 pounds loaded on a $1000 dollar competition bar). Just do them less frequently. Also, with either pin pulls or pulls off blocks, don’t pull from too high. Too high will affect your hinge and turn the movement into a quad exercise. Finally, any pin or pull off a block should be done conventional. Sumo versions of these are useless.

Should I Pull Sumo Or Conventional?

The answer is whichever version makes you feel stronger. If the beautiful simplicity of that response isn’t enough detail for you (imagine that) here are some general rules of thumb.

Torso Length

  • Short torso – You can pull conventional or sumo.
  • Average torso – Pull sumo.
  • Long torso – Pull sumo.

In other words, the longer your trunk, the more better off youll be pulling sumo.

Arm Length

Guys with short, T-Rex arms should pull sumo. Those with longer arms should pull conventional. How do you know if you have short arms? I get asked that all the time and it never fails to make me laugh. Do you have to roll your sleeves up all the time? Then you probably have short arms. Go try on a fucking dress shirt. If the sleeves are too long, congratulations, you just determined you have short arms. How do you know if you have long arms? Let's be honest. If you have long arms you’ll know. Does it seem to take you twice as long to bench press when comparing yourself to your partner who happens to be built like a fire hydrant? Keep in mind, this is all based on an average build. When a lifter gains weight, things can change dramatically. For example, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound lifter might have comparatively long arms. But if he gains weight and gets up to 280 pounds, he suddenly might have average-length arms. That’s because as someone gets bigger and wider, their proportions often change. So, when someone contacts me saying they “always” pulled a certain way but are noticing their lifts have gone to shit since bulking up, I usually tell them to switch styles. It often works. When I was 180 pounds I pulled conventional. As I got bigger and my deadlift started to suck, Ed Coan suggested I switch to sumo. It worked, and I stuck with sumo from 190 pounds up to 220 pounds and beyond. Once I reached 275 pounds, however, I had to go back to conventional. Obviously I didn’t get taller, just thicker and wider. As such, my proportions changed, meaning my deadlift had to change too.


Grip is tricky. Many guys screw it up. In terms of placement, your thumb should overlap the first one or two fingers. Your thumb shouldn’t be crushing all your fingers, just these two. But you should squeeze the shit out of them. Typically, when a grip fails, the little finger fails first. Ed Coan used to say you want to keep that finger breaking first, which meant strengthening the pinkie finger and ring finger. To accomplish this, buy one of those heavy black paper clips from an office supply store and do pinches against the thumb, first with the pinkie finger and then with the ring finger. I never had a grip issue. Louie would say it’s because I never pulled enough to develop a grip issue. Chuck Vogelpohl, however, is someone who did have one. He’d often lose pulls due to failing grip, which drove him crazy. What finally fixed it for him was single dumbbell holds using a hex dumbbell. Be careful not to let the fingers rest in the grooves where the numbers are stamped in.

The Overall Pull

A key point that often gets overlooked is that a deadlift, be it sumo or conventional, is less about pulling up and more about pulling back. You know you’re setting up right when the only thing preventing you from falling backward on your ass is the weight of the barbell. To understand why, think of the deadlift as a teeter-totter. Say you weigh 250 pounds—you want to get as much of your bodyweight helping you pull that weight as possible. This means less pulling up and more falling back. So, if you had 250 pounds on the barbell, your bodyweight alone should be enough to move the weight—without you exerting an ounce of force. You’ll know you’re doing this correctly when your warm-up sets seem to fly up from the floor like you were using a broomstick instead of a loaded barbell.

Dead to Rights

You don’t have to like every exercise you perform. And you won’t get any grief from me if you say you hate the deadlift. However, like it or not, you need to respect it. And if something is so important that you force yourself to do it despite hating it with every fiber of your being, then you might as well do it right. Give these tips a run and make your pull a thing of beauty.

Photos courtesy of Kenneth Richardson