No wonder people get confused by all the different exercise information out there: most of it is garbage. Take this common ‘How to Deadlift’ infographic for example, used widely around the internet to demonstrate how to perform ‘The King of All Exercises’.
The deadlift is indeed an amazing full-body exercise but if we are going to teach people to perform it we should at least make an attempt to teach it properly. I think the best way for me to demonstrate my frustration with this picture is to point out everything wrong with it:
1. Hips too low. This is perhaps the most common error when deadlifting. Most people are quad dominant, and thus it feels natural for them to set their hips lower during the deadlift to better utilise these stronger quad muscles in the front of their thighs. A deadlift, however, is a different movement pattern to a squat. It's a ‘hip hinge’ movement, meaning our hip movement should more closely resemble a 'forwards and backwards' motion more than the typical ‘up and down’ hip movement of a squat. The model’s start position here is far more similar to a classic squat position than a deadlift, which is obvious with a rudimentary side-by-side comparison:
Our deadlifting model has an almost identical back, hip, and knee position to the model on the right in her squat position. Deadlifting is a 'posterior chain' exercise, meaning the muscles doing most of the work should be our back, gluteals (butt) and hamstrings (back of thigh), but with her hips set too low the model on the left is using her quadriceps (front of thigh muscles) to take the majority of the load. This defeats the entire point of the deadlift so really I could stop my analysis here and call it a day, but I won’t.
2. Feet too wide. This relates back to my first point – the model doesn’t understand the difference between squat and deadlift mechanics. For optimal strength in a deadlift we want to drive our force straight down into the ground. A wider foot position means some of our power is dissipated sideways, reducing the amount of force we can generate vertically. The wider stance basically means we're leaking strength, and also leads to….
3. Elbows bent. A huge error in a deadlift, and can lead to bicep injury. A classic deadlift places our hands on the bar just outside our shins. A wide foot position means a wide knee position, which makes it awkward to keep our elbows straight when the barbell is on the floor. We can see the model here bending her elbows in her setup due to her wide knee placement, which is in turn due to her foot position. She also maintains a slight bend in her elbows at lockout in Figure B, which means her arms are unnecessarily taking the weight of the barbell. As we most commonly deadlift more weight than our biceps can support, to bend our elbows here risks overloading our arm muscles to the point where injury becomes likely. Don’t do this.
4. Shoulders forward. Shoulders should be externally rotated and retracted as much as possible to provide tension throughout our back. I often use the cue to 'screw your shoulders in' to develop muscle engagement and support during the movement. The model demonstrates none of that tension here. Interestingly it appears she has brought her shoulders forward in an attempt to counter her poor hip/knee position; her low hips have pushed her knees forward and affected her balance, putting her at risk of falling backwards. Rounding her shoulders forward is an intuitive attempt to adjust her centre of gravity to prevent losing balance entirely, but while it prevents her from falling it further compromises her setup position. Lifting her hips up higher and bringing her feet closer together would be a much better solution for all of these problems.
Here we can see the differences between the poor setup position and a more classic, or 'optimal' deadlift setup:
The easiest difference to spot is the height of the hips. We can can also see the figure on the right with a narrower foot position, flatter back angle and knees further back. The overall effect is dramatic: the figure on the right looks stronger, and it has nothing to do with muscle mass - she is in a mechanically stronger position and can lift a greater load with a lower chance of injury.
5. The plates on the barbell are too small. Using smaller plates means the bar is closer to the floor, which makes a good setup a lot less likely. There’s a reason we use big plates, even at very light weights.
6. Hex plates. Using 12-sided plates for deadlifting is a terrible idea. The shape of these plates means the bar will move unpredictably when it makes contact with the ground. Don’t use hex plates for deadlifting. Ever.
7. Poor choice of footwear. There is more to footwear selection than style and comfort. A typical running shoe has an elevated heel and is engineered to roll the foot forward on impact with the ground. The sole of a running shoe is also typically soft and spongy to cushion against the repeated heel-strike of distance running. All this is terrible for deadlifting - the cushioned surface creates instability under load and the elevated heel tends to push the knees forward, causing the hips to drop and compromising our setup position. Our 'optimal' deadlift model shows are far more sensible choice of footwear - a flat-soled shoe that has limited compression and foot-roll.
I'd still prefer to be barefoot, though.
Overall this is a pretty shocking demonstration of one of the world’s greatest lifts. I think we can be pretty confident this model doesn't include deadlifts in her programming and isn't in a position - literally - to teach it to others.