The Deadlift – Execution, Common Errors and Adaptations

Exercise Instruction, Exercise Tutorial, Gym Fitness

You know that song by Nicki Minaj that says “Oh my God, look at her butt”? You just sang it didn’t you? Legend has it the person she wrote that about had just been doing Deadlifts. So yeah! If you want a rock solid, shapely, strong and song worthy backside you need to DEADLIFT.

The Deadlift is a hip hinge exercise. Hinging from the hips involves a maximum hip bend with minimal knee bend. It is a hip dominant movement focusing on the big muscles in the hip namely the Glutes, and Hamstrings. It involves, however, many more muscles than just those two. The muscles in the shoulder, upper/mid/lower back and lower leg will also work extremely hard during the Deadlift. These muscles are collectively known as the “Posterior Chain” and is illustrated in the picture below.

Pic Credit:

Not to be confused with a squatting pattern which involves a maximum hip bend with a maximum knee bend. It is a knee dominant exercise focusing on the front of the thigh, the Quadriceps. See the pictures below to illustrate the differences in both movements.

Hinge Pattern Minimal Knee Bend, Max Hip Bend
Squat Pattern Max Hip Bend, Max Knee Bend


How to perform a safe and effective Deadlift step by step:

  • Place the bar directly over the mid-foot (about an inch from the shin) with feet directly under the hips.
  • Push your hips to the rear and lower the hands to grip the bar. Your chest should be facing the floor.
  • Keep knee bend to a minimum. The bar can be raised if unable to maintain a neutral spine when gripping the bar (covered below).
  • Lock the shoulder blades down (think armpits in back pockets) to engages Lats and create tension for spinal stability.
  • Pull the chest tall, take the slack from the bar (covered below).
  • Brace the core and inhale.
  • Pull the bar from the floor driving the hips forward while exhaling.
  • Lock-out by pushing the hips into the bar by sqeezing the Glutes hard (covered below).
  • Lower under control until the bar touches the floor.
  • Allow the floor to take the weight. Re-grip if necessary and repeat.


Deadlift Set-Up 

When the bar is set too low, coupled with poor Thoracic (upper back) mobility and/or limited hip/ankle mobility it can lead to an arched back prior to the lift. Not good. A recipe for injury to be exact.

Elevating the bar on steps/blocks/other plates can provide a lifter with a safer starting point and a much stronger position to pull from as the spine is more stable.

P.S. I’m not exaggerating the arch in the right picture. With no warm-up/mobility work prior, for my upper back, to taking these pictures this was the best I could muster. Warming up should be specific to the workout, but that’s a whole other post.


Here’s a barbell hinge drill to “groove” the movement pattern. Being able to maintain a hinge position while performing this drill would indicate a lack of proprioception (positional awareness) and not a lack of mobility.This can also be used as a warm-up drill prior to performing Deadlifts if completed for 10-15 repetitions. Glancing in the mirror or asking a trainer/coach will also benefit a lifter new to Deadlifting.

Taking the slack from the bar.

Prior to actually lifting the weight from the floor it’s important to create maximum tension in your body. Taking the slack from the bar allows you to do that. In the first clip I simply pull straight from the floor which can jar or jerk the elbows and shoulder and can be a recipe for injury.

You’ll hear in the second clip a “clink” just before I lift. This is the bar contacting the inside of the plates and the slack being taken out. This prevents a jerking in the movement which does 2 things:

>> Reduces the risk of injury
>> Enables greater tension for heavier lifts

Both of which are VERY good thing when Deadlifting.

Deadlift Lock-Out

At the top of a Deadlift, the hips need to be extended. In other words, the Glutes (big muscles in the ass), need to be fully contracted. Many lifters will mistake this for extending the lower back or arching (see pic below). DON’T DO THIS.

This puts your lower back in a very vulnerable position. Instead, “hump the bar” by pushing the HIPS into the bar by squeezing the Glutes and avoid over extending the lumbar spine and maintaining a neutral core position.


Shrugging the Bar

Another common error we see with a Deadlift is lifters shrugging the bar or lifting with the shoulders/arms at the top of the lift. Ensure that the shoulders are locked down (think armpits in back pockets) throughout the lift to keep spinal stability and to avoid fatigue in the Upper Traps. This can also be a by product of leaning back and arching.

Keep your posture tall and shoulders locked in position. Lift through he hips, not the arms and shoulders.


As a complete beginner, the Deadlift can be a complex exercise to master. There are adaptations (ways of making it easier) that can be applied for novices. A good place to start is a Kettlebell Deadlift. Why is this easier I hear you say?

The “bell” provides a centred weight distribution i.e. the weight is directly under the grip. This provides less effort on the core musculature to resist rotation. A barbell has weight on either end, almost 2ft from your grip, meaning core strength must be adequate to avoid rotation. It can also be performed from a raised surface such as a step or block as alluded to earlier in this post if mobility may compromise the lift. Here’s a video of a KB DL being performed from the a step.

A Sumo Deadlift is characterised by the wider stance, bringing you (and your hips) lower to the floor and closer to the bar. This is an option for those who have short arms, poor hip mobility of a mixture of both! You still maintain a hinge position and drive the hips into the bar at the top of the movement.

As with any adaptation is is dependant on your limitations, lifting and injury history and your personal preferences. Here’s a clip of a Sumo Deadlift being performed.

A Trap Bar Deadlift is another variation that combines aspects of the Sumo and Kettlebell lifts that make it a staple for beginner or novice lifters. Much like the weight distribution of the Kettlebell is centred and requires little to no anti-rotation from the core, the trap bar handles are gripped by your side, not in front of the body as in the straight bar Deadlift which reduces stress on the spine. The raised handles elevate the grips reducing the distance the bar needs to travel from the floor to lock-out (the same theory applies in the Sumo but YOU go closer to the bar by spreading your stance.


The Deadlift should be utilised in any strength training program to target, not only the Glutes and Hamsteings, but the entire posterior chain of muscles. It is best utilised in rep ranges from 3-12 for strength and hypertrophy improvements. The variation you use will be dependant on many factors that an experienced trainer can decide in collaboration with you when designing your program.

There are more variations and assistance exercises that I could have gone into more detail on but I reckon what has been covered is a very good starting point to get started with your Deadlifting career.

Feel free to ask any questions on our Facebook page or share this post with friends you may benefit from reading this.

Now sing with me “Oh my God, look at my butt”…..

Mark Caulfield

Mark Caulfield PT Personal Trainer and Neuromuscular Physical Therapist based in Waterford, Ireland