Deadlift Form: The Dirty Secret No One Tells You

An Engineer-Coach Cracks the Code

A Problem With Deadlift Form

Most of my athletes love deadlifts. The ones that don't love deadlifts actually do love them; they just don't know it yet. I've come to one certainty about the lift: Not all of them look the same.

Some of my clients' deadlifts were ugly. The ugliness occurred almost exclusively at the bottom. So I'd regress them to a Romanian deadlift while we worked on improving other factors. Then we'd go back to deadlifts and see how they look. It worked for some.

Sometimes we corrected the deadlift at one weight, but the ugly crept back in once the weight increased to a certain point. Nobody got injured, but some clients did complain of lingering low-back soreness. I could see why. The back was straight when they set up, but it looked like the first pull occurred in the lumbar region.

Then I tried something. I pulled out a pair of 10-pound bumper plates, put them flat on the floor, and set the loaded bar on top of them. For some lifters, the transformation was immediate. No more lingering low back soreness, and I could no longer see that first lumbar pull.

bar

For athletes where a 10-pound plate wasn't enough, I went with 25-pound bumpers and, in a couple of cases, 45s. One by one, the ugly deadlifts became swans. And all were performed without lingering low back soreness.

The success of these plate-on-the-floor adjustments led me to question the notion of pulling from the floor because "the floor" is determined by the diameter of a forty-five-pound weight plate. Of the big three lifts, the deadlift is the only one where the range of motion is determined by a manufacturing decision instead of by individual anatomy:

  • Bench press displacement is based on the length of your arms and the size of your chest.
  • Squat depth is the distance from your standing position to as low a squat as your body allows.
  • Deadlift depth is from 8.75" off the floor to standing.

My clients range from five feet nothing to 6'4", and they should all pull from 8.75"? What is that height even based on? The answer wasn't easy to find.

I got in touch with Dr. Jan Todd, who came to this conclusion: A bar loaded with standard 45-pound plates is 8.75" off the floor because the original manufacturers wanted there to be enough room so that if an Olympic lifter fell with the bar overhead, the plates would be tall enough so he wouldn't crush his head.

So, the diameter of a 45-pound plate is based on the diameter of Olympic plates, which are designed to prevent skulls from being crushed in a missed Olympic lift. As an engineer as well as a trainer, I'd say that's a great design decision... at least for Olympic lifting.

But what does it have to do with deadlifts? Is a one-skull deadlift really better than a 1.25 skull deadlift?

Once I learned that "from the floor" is an arbitrary designation with respect to deadlifts, I stopped being as concerned with getting my clients to the point where they can pull from the floor.

About 20% of my female clients and 40% of my male clients pull from the floor, while the others pull from one, two, three, or four inches off the floor. If four inches is still ugly, they do rack pulls.

This new information piqued some additional curiosity. I wanted to understand what differences affected my clients such that some could pull from the floor while others needed a one to four-inch rise. And why could some of them get into a high hip deadlift without trouble while others felt unnatural in anything but what looked to me like a squat-lift?

So I did what any decent engineer would do: I took some measurements. I measured the limb lengths of 27 of my clients from the following areas:

  • Shin (medial maleolis to tibial tuberosity)
  • Thigh (tibial tuberosity to anterior superior iliac spine, or ASIS)
  • Torso (ASIS to acromioclavicular, or AC joint)
  • Arm (AC joint to distal wrist crease)

I compiled the data and expressed the measurements as a percentage of height (represented by combined shin, thigh, and torso) to get relative limb lengths to see if I was just finding out who was taller.

  Shin:Height Thigh:Height Torso:Height Arm:Height
Min 0.23 0.37 0.31 0.39
Max 0.27 0.45 0.38 0.44
Avg 0.25 0.41 0.34 0.42
Spread% 14% 17% 18% 11%

An 18% difference between my short and long-torsoed clients is enough to affect how well they can lift something that's exactly 8.75 inches from the floor.

I also found two notable relationships between deadlift form and relative limb length:

  1. Longer torso and long arms = poor deadlift
  2. Long legs (shins and/or thighs) = good deadlift

This may explain why more of my male clients pull from the floor than do my female clients: men typically have relatively longer legs than do women.

I still wanted to understand the different positions I saw, so I input these numbers into Adobe Illustrator, where I created to-scale lines representing each limb. Then I tried to draw each person's deadlift using those to-scale lines.

By drawing them, I'd be able to see how each of these deadlift positions looked in the absence of any stability or mobility restriction. I'd effectively be able to see their deadlift position potential.

Some of the results surprised me. For some clients, I couldn't get their bones to fit together in a high-hip deadlift position without losing the "hip bone's connected to the thigh bone" integrity. It's not a stretch to suggest that if it's not possible on paper, it's not possible in person... or at least not without bending one or more of those line segments.

That was the moment when I became more open to the "squattier" deadlift position.

Graphs

The stick diagrams show what the deadlift setup can look like for three of my clients with very different limb lengths. I tried to make them all look the same, but I was unable to because the lines just wouldn't connect.

This exercise yielded one other interesting finding: Raising the deadlift bar didn't necessarily increase the ability to do a high-hip deadlift. It did improve the deadlift, but it did so by reducing the hip flexion range of motion the client needed to get into position at the bottom.

Raising the bar didn't mean I could now expect all of my clients to be able to deadlift from a high hip position; it just meant I could now expect all of my clients to get into a safe deadlift position.

If you can do it with great form and without low back pain, then yes. And if you're a competitive powerlifter, then you don't really have a choice.

If you're not able to do it with great form, or you're not able to do it without low back pain, then raise the bar by adding plates under the 45s. It isn't a sign of weakness; it's a sign of geometry.

  1. Seeman E. Growth in Bone Mass and Size - Are Racial and Gender Differences in Bone Mineral Density More Apparent than Real? J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1998 May;83(5):1414-9. PubMed.