No strength-training program would be complete without deadlifts, which recruit several major muscle groups, including the back, shoulders, arms, abdominals, glutes, and legs. “This makes them extremely time-efficient—and a great exercise to include in your strength-training routine,” says John Gardner, C.P.T., CEO of personal training app Kickoff. (That multiple-muscle action also means more calories burned per rep, by the way.)
To see any benefits from deadlifts, though, you have to do them with proper form. Getting this somewhat technical movement wrong not only makes the exercise less effective but also increases your odds of injury.
Luckily, the most common deadlift form mistakes are pretty easy to spot and correct. Look out for these form flubs to make sure you’re reaping the rewards of pulling that weight up off the floor.
Performing a deadlift is very different from lifting a barbell of dumbbell, says kinesiologist Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., owner of AIM Athletic in British Columbia. And just thinking about lifting makes it more likely that you’ll pull with your back instead of using your bigger hip muscles to drive the weight up off the floor, which can increase your risk of back injuries, warns physical therapist Sarah Ruthenburg, D.P.T., owner of Evolve Movement Specialists.
Fix it: If you notice that your lower back tightens up throughout your set, focus instead on driving your feet through the floor as hard as you can in order to move the weight. Try imagining that instead of lifting the weight up off the floor, you’re actually pushing the floor away from the weight, Harcoff suggests. This cue alone can help you avoid one of the biggest deadlift form mistakes in the game.
“It’s not uncommon to see lifters deadlift on days when training their back is the focus,” Harcoff says. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it can be troublesome if you treat deadlifts like just another back exercise.
Deadlifts do require tension in all the muscles in your posterior chain (a.k.a. the muscles along the back of your body, including your back muscles). However, your back muscles should always be secondary movers to your glutes and hamstrings, which truly power a proper deadlift. “Using deadlifts to train the back is akin to using chin-ups or rows to train your biceps,” Harcoff says.
There are a few reasons why it’s a bad idea.
If you assume the deadlift is targeting your back, you may not think to warm up your hips. And if you overlook the hips in your warm-up, your risk of getting injured while deadlifting increases, Harcoff explains.
Programming deadlifts into a back-focused workout may lead you to overtrain your hips and legs if you don’t take them into account when planning your leg-focused workouts, Harcoff says. If you do deadlifts in your back workout on Mondays, for example, think twice about programming a leg workout for Tuesday. Otherwise, you won’t give your glutes and hamstrings the time they need to recover and grow back bigger and stronger before being challenged again.
Fix it: Recognize that deadlifts are more of a lower-body exercise than an upper-body exercise. You should finish every set of deadlifts feeling your glutes and hamstrings more than your lower or upper back. If that’s not happening for you, get to work on nailing your hip hinge movement pattern. One cue Harcoff often uses that might help: As you bend over to grab your weight, imagine you’re closing a car door with your butt.
Ideally, you’ll use your abdominals and the deep muscles in your back to keep your spine neutral during deadlifts. If you lack core strength or awareness, however, your back will either round or arch to compensate. Not good.
Rounding or arching your back puts extra pressure on the spine, which can cause injuries like a herniated disc or muscle strain, Harcoff warns.
Fix it: Teaching your body to stabilize and create tension through your core is a must for safe, effective deadlifts. To do this, Harcoff suggests incorporating exercises like planks or dead bugs into your weekly routine.
Your initial set-up can also encourage better deadlift posture. Pull tight against the barbell (or other weight) and draw your shoulder blades back to open up your chest—and try to maintain this position throughout the exercise, suggests trainer T.J. Mentus, C.P.T., expert reviewer for Garage Gym Reviews.
“If you struggle to maintain this posture, you may be lifting more weight than your upper back can support,” he says. Lighten the load and incorporate more rowing exercises into your routine to help strengthen your upper back.
It’s pretty common to see people squatting their deadlifts—especially if they’re still learning the exercise.
The thing is, squats and deadlifts call for different movement patterns: “When squatting, you bend your knees and send your hips back as you lower them toward the ground,” Gardner says. When performing a deadlift, though, you bend your knees only slightly and hinge forward from the hips.
Because they struggle to grab hold of the weight from a hinge position, some people default to squatting. This might be the result of poor mobility or even limb length. “Due to the height of weight plates, the barbell will always start in the same position, whether the lifter is six-foot-four or five-feet tall,” Harcoff says. Inevitably, this position will be easier for some lifters to reach than others.
Read More: 3 Ways To Improve Your Squat
Squatting your deadlift may increase your risk of injury and you won’t work the right muscles, Harcoff explains. Squats primarily target the quads, whereas deadlifts engage the glutes and hamstrings.
Fix it: If the issue is that you haven’t gotten the hang of hinging yet, keep Harcoff’s cue about reaching your hips back and imagining that you’re closing a car door with your butt during the movement.
If the problem is related to the length of your limbs (particularly if you’ve got long legs), though, Harcoff suggests switching to a Romanian deadlift variation. Or, use blocks or sturdy plyo boxes to elevate your weight to a higher starting position.
Finally, if the culprit is lack of mobility, Ruthenburg recommends incorporating the downward dog yoga pose into your weekly routine to loosen any stiffness in the hamstrings. Hip-opening stretches like pigeon pose and frogger stretch are also key. A quick test to evaluate your mobility: Hold a dowel or broomstick along your back so it touches the back of your head, upper back, and hips. Then, hinge forward as though performing a deadlift. If you can’t hinge all the way while keeping the dowel or broomstick in contact with all three body points, consider it a sign to improve your mobility, Harcoff says.