How to Analyse Your Deadlift: Check Your Technique & Flexibility!

10 min read.

The Deadlift is one of the greatest lifts in the world, one that everyone loves to talk about and one of my personal favourites!
 

It’s a famous exercise, there’s no doubt about that, but advice on how to do one safely often comes from ‘gym bro’s saying, “Watch your form” or “Keep your back straight” ... helpful... There’s more to it than that!

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This blog is going to show you how to assess your own deadlift form, plus some things you can look out for long term! All you need is your phone!
(I’m going to assume your phone can take videos, if not hopefully you have a friend that can help you out!).
 

For the straight bar deadlift there are two important angles to record from to spot issues: 

·        Directly side on
·        Directly in front

(If you want something that looks sexy for your social media, try a low-down diagonal angle to make your barbell look massive and hide a plethora of nasty technique …But that’s not what we’re after today!)

 

What to look out for: Side On


The Set Up: "hinging"

Firstly, we need to see if you can achieve what is called the “hinge” position. This is the ability to send your hips back far enough to engage your hamstrings while keeping your lower back (lumbar spine) straight, with your hands on the bar. 
If you rely on rounding your lower back to reach the barbell, you’ll get away with it for so long before your lower back starts to hate you – over time your lower back will tighten up, while your hamstrings stay weak and you’ll almost certainly end up injured.
So, film yourself setting up and see if you can keep your back straight as you sit back into your hips to reach the bar. If you don’t get it right straight away, try having a wiggle around to get your spine into a flat position; you might have the mobility required, but you’re not very aware of your hamstrings, so by default you round your back instead.
 

If there’s just no way you can flatten out your back, then it would point to a hip mobility issue and not just hamstring awareness. If your hip flexion is limited this will seriously hinder your ability to basically “sit in” to your own hips and subsequently generate power from your posterior chain (glutes/hamstrings), which is the primary mover in your deadlift not your lower back. To work on this issue, I highly recommend SMM.
 

In inability to keep your back straight (or lack of awareness when it is/isn’t) is an incredibly important focus point for your overall development as a lifter. Not only does it allow you to lift more weight with the Deadlift but hinging and engaging the hamstrings properly is crucial for movement inside & outside of the gym, and essential for avoiding lower back pain.

 
The Set Up: Forward Knees

Finally, another common compensation for a lack of hinge is sitting forwards into your knees.

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Borrowing mobility from your ankles is ok if you’re using a hex bar due to the weight being towards the centre of your body, but, doing this using a straight bar will once again cause issues for your poor lower back. If you can’t keep your shins fairly vertical, you’ll need to move the bar around the knees as you stand – simple lever mechanics dictates that the further away from your body the weight is, the “heavier” it gets, and your lower back is the one who has to deal with this extra stress.
 

Set Up Checklist:

[   ]  Is my lower back completely straight in the start position?     
[   ]  Am I sat back into my hips and not forwards into my knees? (i.e. shins fairly vertical)  

 

The Pull: Controlling your back

The “pull” is when you begin to move the weight. Assuming you can achieve the right starting position, do you use your muscles in the correct order?


Like the set up, we want you to use your hamstrings and not your lower back to pull the bar. So, watch yourself closely as you start to lift (even film yourself in slow-motion if possible) and check the movement of your lower back.
If your lower back moves before the bar does, then you haven’t engaged your hamstrings correctly. It’s all well and good achieving the start position but if you cannot maintain it during the movement it’s not helpful.
 

A nice way to make sure you “catch” the hamstrings before the pull is:

-          Set up normally, holding the bar.
 
-          Without letting go of the bar, lift your hips and push your knees back slightly until your hamstrings feel “stretch”
(something I like to imagine here is a grappling hook shooting out from behind your knees and hooking on to your pelvis).
 
-          Then, “make the rope tight” by pulling your hips back down into the start position simultaneously flattening your back.
 
-          If you’re comfortable doing that, you can also combine this with a bracing breath into your belly and engaging your lats by pulling your shoulders down your torso.
 

You should feel like your body is one solid unit and you NEED to lift. If you try this with a light weight you might find that the bar lifts off the floor before you even start the pull! 
 

Everyone should practice this regularly to make sure they engage their hamstrings properly. Even the most seasoned lifters develop lazy habits over time and forget to check because they still appear “strong”.
 

Video yourself again and see if this eliminates the initial lower back movement. You want your torso to lift the weight as a unit, without rounding or arching.

 

The Pull: Timing

Lastly, from the side we can check the timing of your pull: do your legs & back work together. Sometimes, when you’re really trying to get that lift, you put so much energy into your legs that your hips just shoot up – your legs are practically straight by the time the bar begins to lift.
Ultimately what this does is turn what should be a single, smooth, full body movement into two separate ones: legs straight, then back lifts. Not an efficient or safe way to lift. 
 

If you see that you’re doing this, try starting with your hips in a slightly different place, maybe slightly higher or lower. Your leg/torso/arm proportions have a big effect on your ideal starting position, so don’t be worried about trying something slightly different to your training buddy or someone you follow online; chances are you have different anatomy considerations.


As well as this, you should actively consider the deadlift a full body movement, with your upper body playing a role as well. As you grip the bar in your start position, engage your core and lats like we mentioned earlier in the “catching” the hamstrings set up. By creating a solid torso, it will be more inclined to lift the bar alongside your legs, not just wait until it absolutely must catch up.
 

Pulling Checklist:

[   ]  Does my lower back stay solid as the weight lifts off the floor?       
[   ]  Does my bar & body move at the same speed? (Hips don’t “shoot up”)   
 

Once you have the hamstrings caught and your bracing technique nailed and can maintain your back position while going through the lift you are then good to go!! (Provided you pass the front angle tests too…)
 

 

What to look out for: Front


Balance & Symmetry

Front on we get to see your best “eating a sour watermelon whole” face. But we get a good look at alignment issues.


As you pull do you notice:

-          One leg pushing more than the other? (May look like you’re pulling up to one side)
-          Your body appearing to rotate?
 

These issues can point to strength imbalances in your hips or core. It might only be subtle at lighter weights, but if it’s happening at all, the more weight you add the more dominant your favoured side will become. Overall, you’ll just be strengthening an imbalance and that does not favour the deadlift which relies symmetry to generate the most force safely.
 

If you ignore this, carry on lifting and don’t figure out what is causing it then your lifting career will be cut short. The easiest way to assess and address these issues is with The Simplistic Mobility Method.
 

Balance checklist:

[   ]   Does my torso stay straight as I lift? Without leaning or rotating?
[   ]   Do I push off both legs evenly?

 

Ignoring bad technique or burying your head in the sand over imbalance issues is a sure-fire way for you to become one of those people who rant about how bad deadlifting is for you. With proper and regular attention to your form, the deadlift is a big bang-for-your-buck exercise for complete body strength, muscle building and core strength.


The correct development of the hinge position and having strong hamstrings and glutes is what your lower back craves. When your spine feels safe and your core is properly challenged, you’ll feel like you can flip a car… sloppy form will make you feel like you have been hit by a car.
 

Use your phone as a training tool to develop better body awareness and not just for selfies.

 

Your Complete Deadlifting Checklist:


Side angle:

[   ]   Is my lower back completely straight in the start position?
[   ]   Am I sat back into my hips and not forwards into my knees? (i.e. shins fairly vertical)
[   ]   Does my lower back stay solid as the weight lifts off the floor?
[   ]   Does my bar & body move at the same speed? (Hips don’t “shoot up”)
 

Front Angle:

[   ]   Does my torso stay straight as I lift? Without leaning or rotating?
[   ]   Do I push off both legs evenly?
 

Is it ok for your form to deviate on really heavy lifts?


Hesitant to answer this as don’t want to be misinterpreted… but ONLY when you’ve been building your deadlift for a year minimum, with zero issues of back tightness or pain should you try a 1RM (1 Rep Max). Hitting your ultimate max won’t be pretty. If it is, it’s probably not your max. 
 

To be honest, if you’re not competing in Powerlifting, or have specific 1RM Deadlift goals, then I’d only recommend going as heavy as your technique allows. As soon as you notice any changes in your lift then call that your “technical max” and stop. This number will be fine to use for percentage-based programs, and probably will serve you better in the long term.
 

Try never to fall into the one rep max obsession. I never want to stop anyone from doing what they want, but always keep a little sensible voice in the back of your head that considers the 'risk-reward ratio' as you start putting more and more fractional plates on a bar. Consistency over a long period of time will build more strength than an amazing 1RM once, that stops you training for a month because your back hurts.
 

If it’s your passion and you live for it cool, but just keep in mind your long-term priorities.

Jenni, 141kg (310lb) Deadlift

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Tom, 200kg (440lb) Deadlift

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