Ask top trainers which muscles most people need to strengthen and they’ll probably say the hamstrings and glutes. And one of most effective ways they’ll teach you to fire up your backside is with a deadlift. “The deadlift is a functional move for anyone who has to regularly lift things,” says Jason Li, a personal trainer at Soho Strength Lab in New York City. Translation: It’s good for everyone. “When done correctly, it’s also a great posture-correcting exercise. It works everything in the back, plus the legs, too.”
The deadlift, in its simplest form, sounds quite easy: Just stand up. But having poor posture and adding weight can cause a few problems to pop up. So what are the dos and don’ts of the conventional barbell deadlift? Li breaks down the basics so you can score a stronger (and straighter) backside, sans aches or injuries.
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7 Tips for Nailing Perfect Deadlift Form
1. Set up a solid base.
Start standing about two inches away from the bar, feet hip-width apart. Aim to keep your shins vertical (or perpendicular to the floor) as you bend down and grab the barbell just outside your shoulders — about one hand-width wider. You should have a slight bend in your knees. This is your ideal starting point.
2. Be mindful of your back.
The most important part: Roll your shoulders down and back, away from your ears and flatten your back. “You want to look for a natural position in your spine,” says Li. “You don’t want to be balled up in a cannon ball or overly arching.” If you skip the flat back adjustment — a common mistake — you could feel lower back pain creep in later.
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3. Keep your knees bent.
How you initiate the deadlift movement is just as important as the set-up. Many people tend to straighten their legs too early, says Li, which shows they’re not driving through their lower half. To make sure you do, maintain a slight bend in your knees until you’ve almost reached the top. This will stop you from letting your butt come up before the bar. Then, keep your weight in your heels and focus on using the power of your legs to stand for a better, more fluid movement.
4. Remember to breathe and squeeze.
Another big misstep people make is forgetting to engage their core. So how do you make sure that’s not you? Just breathe. “Take a big breath in through the nose [before you pick up the bar] and breathe it in through the shoulder girdle to the pelvis,” Li says. This ensures nothing in your midsection is moving as you execute the exercise. Then, when you come to the top of your stance, exhale. (It’s totally OK if it’s deliberate and loud.) Tighten your abs and keep your core stable the entire time to help take pressure off your low back.
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5. Skip the hip thrust.
As mentioned, the deadlift movement simply involves standing up from a hip hinge. “The upper extremities are rigid and static, as your lower body pushes and extends,” Li explains. When you reach your full extension, you don’t want to push your hips forward. After all, that’s not what you would do in your normal routine. Keep them in line with your shoulders to relieve stress on your lower spine.
6. Glance ahead.
Looking down at the floor or up at the ceiling is an easy way to break proper alignment. Instead, take your gaze forward so your neck and spine can easily stay in one straight line from head to feet.
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7. Recognize when you’re not ready.
It’s OK to start with a barbell or dumbbells on an elevated surface, rather than the floor. If you can’t reach beyond your knees without overarching or fully rounding your back, then it’s best to take a step back and reassess the movement. Li suggests trying a cable pull through (with the cable coming right in between your legs as you practice the hip hinge) and then progressing to a deadlift with a trap bar, which has a hexagonal shape.