Home Blog How to Know You’re Not a Deadlift Beginner Anymore

How to Know You’re Not a Deadlift Beginner Anymore

Written on September 6, 2013 at 8:22 pm, by Eric Cressey

Today, we've got an outstanding guest post from Dave Dellanave, author of the awesome new resource, Off the Floor: A Manual for Deadlift Domination.

There is a lot of really fantastic deadlift information available on the internet. To be fair, there’s a lot of bad information, too, but that’s another post. The only downside is that it seems like every article falls into one of two camps: either it’s for raw beginners, or for advanced lifters. This is great if you’re just getting started, or tweaking your program to find a few more pounds, but if you’re just on the cusp of surpassing beginner status, it might leave you scratching your head.

Next to people simply lifting too much weight, the most common “mistake” I see from beginners is that they’re afraid to add weight to the bar or to shift to a better starting position. Usually these are people who have diligently put in a fair amount of practice reps, have been reading all the right authors online, and have a desire to do things properly. Whether for fear of injury, or simply because of the desire to do it “right,” they hesitate to make the leap. I’ll come back to what those changes might be in a moment.

My good friend Bret Contreras and I had a long conversation about this in a call we did for Off The Floor. Ultimately, the conclusion we came to on the call is that you’d do well to connect with a qualified coach and get an evaluation. That way, they can see how you move in general and how you deadlift, and hopefully give you the green light to add weight without further hesitation. If you’re not ready, they can tell you what to work on or fix to get there.


Upon thinking about this question more, I stand by my original answer, but I think with the visual aid of some stills stolen from YouTube, I can offer a good rule of thumb for when you can take the next step. First, let’s talk about the two big changes that people need to make when they transition from “beginner form” to more “advanced deadlifter form.”

The first big change is starting from a higher hip position. The way most people are taught to deadlift (and this is how I teach clients at my gym) is to start with the hips very low, chest and shoulders “high” relative to the hips and to “squat” the weight up for the initial portion of the lift, and then finish by extending the hips. This is good because it keeps the back in a nice neutral or slightly extended position throughout the hardest part of the lift on the back. This allows a beginner with a relatively weak back to strengthen it. If you look at the form of the very strongest deadlifters in the world, however (Bret did a great post on this with tons of still frames), you will see that every single one of them starts with a higher hip position. At some point you, too, are likely to need to make this change.

Here’s a guy who has (unsuccessfully) made the transition from a higher starting position. He loses position more and more throughout the lift. Luckily for him, he knows it’s bad so presumably he’ll drop the weight and work on getting stronger.

405 Dead Lift (Form Check_ Bad) - YouTube

The second change is the actual addition of more weight to the bar. It sounds simple, but I have added 50 or more pounds to a person’s best deadlift in one training session in the past. As much as I’d like to take credit for that as “trainer mojo,” the reality is that they had never even come close to even approaching their limits in the past. Now, keep in mind, I’m not advocating that everyone go out and explore their outer limits — in fact, I am a staunch advocate of always working within your limits. However, if you could potentially lift 350 pounds and you’ve never lifted more than 250 pounds because you were hesitant, you don’t have to get even near your limit to lift 300.

Things start to feel different when you get closer to your limit, and that sometimes makes people uneasy. The fact is, the lift does change. A fantastic 2011 study by Swinton et al. tracked the path of the bar from the floor to lockout at weights ranging from 10 percent to 80 percent of one-rep max. In theory, the path of the bar is a straight line. In reality, there is about a 7-centimeter (nearly 3 inches) difference in the path from the lightest of weights to 80 percent of max, with the heavier weight drifting farther away. If that doesn’t seem like a lot, try deadlifting with the bar 3 inches away from your shins — on second thought, don’t do that and just take my word for it. Changing the bar path by that much changes everything about how the lift feels. And that’s not even 90 or 100 percent.


(Source: Swinton, PA et al. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jul;25(7):2000-9.)

These two changes are not independent of one another, either. At some point, to be able to lift more weight, you will need to make changes that put you in a more favorable position to lift bigger loads.

Here is someone who has clearly put in the time to hone his technique, but he needs to put more weight on the bar and possibly even start with a higher hip position. Either way, he’s ready for more weight.

Deadlift form check - YouTube

So, how do you know when it’s time? Here are two questions you can use to make the call:

  1. Can you maintain your back position throughout the lift up to the heaviest weights with which you’re comfortable? If your back rounds or arches more and more as you lift the weight, you need a stronger back. A lift at 80 or 90 percent of your current max should look the same as 40 percent of your max.  Nearly everyone has a phone with video capabilities now, so shoot a video from the side and compare. If your form is significantly changing as the weight rises, you’re adding too much weight. If your form doesn’t change – it’s time to put more weight on the bar.
  2. Can you lift 1.5x your bodyweight (for men) or 1x your bodyweight (for women) with form that looks the same as half that? If so, you have probably laid enough of a strength foundation to move on to a more favorable starting position with higher hips. When you do so, keep in mind that you still want to keep a good, solid back position that doesn’t go anywhere near end range of motion in either flexion or extension.

Look, these heuristics aren’t perfect — remember I said your best bet is a good coach — but if that isn’t an option then you have a few guidelines to help you move forward. Work within your limits, respect them, and listen to the feedback your body gives you. If it hurts, don’t do it. But if you’ve built a solid base of strength, you can’t get any stronger without moving forward.

Looking for more insights like these on the deadlift – as well as a great program to help you improve your pull?  Be sure to check out Dave's new product, Off the Floor: A Manual for Deadlift Domination, which is on sale at a great price until Saturday at midnight. I've read it beginning to end, and it's fantastic.

About the Author

David Dellanave is a lifter, coach, and owner of The Movement Minneapolis in the Twin Cities. He implements biofeedback techniques, teaching his clients, ranging from athletes to general population, to truly understand what their bodies are telling them. He writes articles to make you stronger, look better naked, and definitely deadlift more at http://www.dellanave.com/. You can follow him on Twitter at @ddn.

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8 Responses to “How to Know You’re Not a Deadlift Beginner Anymore”

  1. Steve Lantner Says:

    Thanks Eric. As always your blog post addresses the exact thing I’m thinking about. With your help I’m now past 2X body weight in a year without testing my 1RM. This post gives me the motivation to bump things up.

  2. Douglas Says:

    Great article – one of the best yet, for me personally. I’ve been wrestling with the fact that so many videos say your hips should be a$$-to-grass and your shins vertical, while I’m much more comfortable with my hips above 90 degrees and my shins angled out over the bar. This helped me understand what’s going on.

  3. Frank Says:

    Great article Dave thanks! I have a question about this topic. The higher hip position your talking about is where deadlifts really start to look different than the olympic lifts because olympic lifts need the lever and powerlifts try to reduce the lever, if I’m not mistaken. Anyhow while moving toward a higher hip position will help add weight to the bar, will it continue to help with explosiveness outside of the gym?

    The reason I ask this is that when my form starts to significantly change I can feel the difference playing basketball, jumping and cutting, explosive movements start to feel muddy. I’m all for adding weight to the bar but I don’t want to lose athleticism. What are your thoughts on this?

    Thanks, Frank

  4. Matt Says:

    As always, scientific while being concise. Brilliant article and I’ll take these tips into when I’m teaching my clients. Thanks Mr Cressey. 🙂

  5. Michele G Rogers Says:

    I’d like to add that many beginners (&even intermediate) lifters do not have the ability to properly activate the right muscles pertinent to a lift. You can’t just tell someone who loses neutral spine during a deadline to “get a stronger back”. Truly, it had more to do with weak core engagement. The spine has to remain stable (in neutrality) to not bear the brunt of a heavy lift. The gluts should be doing most of it, especially in a higher hip position. When I start clients out with lower body movements I make sure first they know how to activate the transverse abdominus to stabilize the spine, & then how to connect to glut activation, in order to hinge properly in the hips. This process is generally overlooked, especially by trainers & coaches who have lifted a long time & don’t even know its possible for someone to not neurally connect to a muscle because it comes so easily to them. You gotta reach baby to crawl before he can walk.

  6. andy s Says:

    Michelle – thanks for your comment. Helped me more than the article did.

  7. David Dellanave Says:


    When I say “get a stronger back” it’s sort of a colloquialism for regressing in whatever way you need to enable improvement. Very rarely does someone lose alignment in the same movement with little or no weight, rather it happens when the weight gets heavier. This isn’t an activation issue, it’s a movement issue. I hope that the take-away from the article is that you’re not ready to move forward until you can do that. How to do that is the purview of beginner deadlift articles.


    Opinions differ in that regard. I would say this: if you care more about basketball than you do your deadlift numbers, make sure that everything you do makes your basketball playing better. If you find that something makes you slower or feel slower, then don’t do it.

  8. Adam Says:

    You are misinterpreting the chart from the Swinton study. The bar moved closer to the lofter at higher loads, not further away.

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