Deadlifting is an unforgiving game of physics — a true battle of you versus gravity. Missing a rep can be absolutely devastating. Sometimes the bar seems cemented to the floor, or even worse, the universe decides to mock you by putting on the brakes a few inches from lockout. You’ve gotten the bar off the ground — what could possibly have gone wrong at your deadlift lockout?
Your hands are chalked, your PR song is cued. Then all of a sudden, you’re stuck in an unwinnable game of tug-of-war with gravity. All is not lost. It is possible to improve your deadlift lockout so that next time you’re going for a big one-rep max, you’re not left without gas when it matters most.
Common Deadlift Lockout Problems (And Solutions)
You don’t want to waste precious training time and energy strengthening your perfectly adequate grip when the real problem are lagging lats. Before you can go about fixing any aspect of your lift, you need to know what’s wrong with it. Diagnosing the issue is a big part of breaking through your deadlift plateau — including a stalled lockout.
Below are some of the most common deadlift lockout problems — along with suggestions to address each one.
- Your Head Isn’t Positioned Correctly
- Your Back Isn’t Engaged
- Your Grip Breaks Down
- You Have Weak Hips
- You’re Too Slow
- You Lack Confidence
- You Need a Programming Refresh
Head and neck positioning may seem fairly minor in the grand scheme of lifting hundreds of pounds off the ground. But in reality, everything comes down to physics. During the deadlift, you start at a disadvantage because the bar is always placed in front of your shins. This means that in order to stay balanced, you will constantly be battling the barbell pulling you forward as you lift.
Keep Your Head and Neck Packed
Because of the balance issue, the trap bar deadlift can be much easier than a barbell deadlift. Balance is also why you can typically pull a lot more weight with a trap bar. You’re able to stand directly in between the weight, completely balanced. Because of this, you might find that your head and neck are in different positions during the trap bar deadlift versus the barbell deadlift.
You need to properly leverage your body to counter the weight of the deadlift from pulling you forward. The position of the trap bar makes this process pretty automatic — so it becomes a useful tool for spotting a problem. You want to make sure your head and neck are packed (drawn back using the upper back muscles) to align them in a neutral spine position. This way, you’re not leaking added leverage throughout the lift by keeping your face jutting out in front of the bar.
If you suspect your head and neck may be out of alignment and throwing off your deadlift lockout, try filming yourself performing the trap bar lift and the barbell lift to detect a difference. Get familiar with the packed position that’s easier to maintain with the trap bar. Then, focus on carrying that position over into your barbell lift.
Another physics-related miss is the degree of tension you’re able to maintain in your lats and traps during the deadlift. Keeping your torso and core tight is extremely important for keeping your spine safe. But engaging your upper back is just as important.
As your deadlift begins to grind, the bar may drift out in front of you. Or, your back might begin to slightly bow. When this happens, you slowly lose leverage and the bar starts to feel heavier. The challenge against your glutes and torso will increase, making it more difficult to overcome the weight of the bar.
Cue Your Upper Back
Check in with yourself about whether you’re maintaining tension in your upper back during your deadlift setup. If you’re not intentionally pulling the slack out the bar to start the lift, chances are your lats and traps might not be tense enough to help at lockout. Practice that cue — or one like “pack your shoulders” or “shoulders away from ears” — to help yourself get your lats and traps engaged from the beginning.
To maintain that lat tension throughout the lift — and through lockout — imagine driving the bar into your body as you lift. You can think to yourself “drive the bar,” or you can imagine that you’re performing a straight-arm pulldown toward the top of the lift.
If you’re missing your deadlift at lockout because you can’t hold onto the bar, your grip is the most glaring issue. This can mean employing the obvious strategy of strengthening your grip by focusing on your forearm training and even finger strength and wrist health. But there are also some less obvious ways of addressing grip as your deadlift lockout’s limiting factor.
When your grip begins to break down, many other prongs of the deadlift might, too. That’s because of the irradiation effect — the ability to influence general full body tension. Loss of irradiating tension from your grip can cascade into a loss of back tension and other form-related errors. Feeling your grip start to slip can also psychologically make you rush your rep. But trying to beat your grip the punch often sacrifices other key aspects of the deadlift — and may actually cause you to miss your lift.
Improve Your Grip Technique
Grip security is a hugely important factor in locking out your deadlift. Improving your grip’s technique can provide security throughout heavy singles and high-rep sets alike. If your grip is consistently failing you — and you’re consistently working to strengthen it — assess whether your grip style is working for you.
If you’re working with a hook grip, for example, is your thumb becoming too uncomfortable as you near the end of your rep? Try lightening the load slightly and getting more high-quality hook grip reps in so you can get more comfortable with that technique. You might also consider investing in thumb tape for added security and less pain. Is your normally reliable mixed grip failing at the top of your rep? Add some chalk to the mix — and keep practicing those reps.
Are your hips strong enough to pull the bar to standing? Hip strength is one of the most important pieces of improving your deadlift lockout. Exercises like the block pull or heavy Romanian deadlifts can overload the deadlift’s upper range of motion to help strengthen your hips.
As you explore these overload techniques, remember that maintaining clean technique is paramount. Overloading a specific range of motion like the lockout won’t help if you don’t have the technique or positional strength to get the bar there in the first place.
The block pull helps target the hips in a big way. Since you’ll start by pulling from a block or a power rack, your range of motion will be shorter than pulling from the ground. Because of this, you can lift much heavier weights than you can in a conventional deadlift. And since your deadlifts are starting higher, you’ll reach the lockout position sooner — thus, you’re able to isolate that area more.
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This exposes your hips to very heavy loads. You’ll boost your brain and body’s confidence in being able to move huge weights while targeting your hips. Using the block pull to reinforce proper back tension while also strengthening your hips is a huge asset.
Heavy Romanian Deadlifts
With Romanian deadlifts, you start the initial pull from the floor. But the rest of your reps will limit the range of motion, because you’ll only bring the bar down to shin-level. Because of this, loading your RDLs nice and heavy can greatly benefit lockout strength. You’re putting your body in a very similar position as a grinding deadlift.
While the block pull reinforces dead-stop strength, lockouts occur more dynamically — as a part of a complete deadlift. The heavy RDL can more accurately mimic the challenges experienced during the deadlift lockout itself and carry over nicely to improve hip strength. Program these lifts to practice grinding through your lockout without hitting the ground between reps.
Velocity may be another issue in your deadlift lockout. Think about the bar moving nicely off the ground. Then, it slows past your knees. It grinds slower and slower until it comes to a complete halt at thigh-level. That’s got a lot to do with velocity.
When this is the case — and you’ve ironed out other potential issues — you can train to increase your rate of force development. In any exercise, you can either produce force in reaction to the bar weight, or you can attempt to produce as much force as possible on your own.
Called compensatory acceleration training (CAT), reaching maximal force production as fast as possible in the deadlift can help prevent grinding through reps for longer than necessary. Spending less time in a tough position leaves less likelihood of missing your lift. Deficit deadlifts and speed deadlifts are two excellent options for training when velocity is an issue.
In the deficit deadlift, you will stand on a slightly elevated surface. This can be as subtle as one inch — but even in a small deficit, there can be big changes to your leverages. What this does is place a greater emphasis on quad drive off of the floor. That’s because your technique must change to accommodate a lower starting position.
This increased quad drive can translate to a more powerful starting strength in the main deadlift, producing a greater rate of force development in the process. In other words, deficit deadlifts can make you faster and more powerful off the floor. That might be exactly what you need to blast through your lockout.
Training with the express intent of moving quickly is another way to improve your rate of force development. With speed pulls, use a relatively light weight for your deadlift. Start somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 60 percent of your one-rep max. Complete several sets of two to three repetitions.
You’ll keep the weight light and the reps low — an unusual combination — because technique is paramount. The intent is to complete technically perfect, but very explosive, repetitions. This will build your velocity in a way that is less likely to injure you or damage your form.
Sometimes, you’re just plain lifting heavy. Your body will have to acclimate to the process of picking a very heavy bar off the ground. But then, you’ll also have to adjust to bringing that bar up to standing. That means more time under tension — and it means fighting through some major mental hurdles.
Training with accommodating resistance can help you gain confidence in your deadlift lockout. How? Accommodating resistance means working with bands or chains to maintain consistent tension throughout the entire lift. You’ll move less weight on the bar, but the added chains or bands will make the lift harder the closer you get to lockout. That means you’ll be able to psychologically adjust to the lift feeling harder the higher you go — and you’ll practice getting through that physical and mental hurdle.
Block pulls can also be helpful here — you’ll be picking up a lot of weight and gaining confidence in it. But if you want to boost your confidence all the way off the ground, you might opt for bands and chains. Accommodating resistance will teach you not to stop grinding if you hit a two or three second stall toward the top — you’ll learn how to keep pulling, with excellent form, until you’re standing (or reach true failure).
The issue you’re likely to encounter is that a deadlift has to be light enough to pull from the floor in order to challenge the lockout range of motion. But it also has to be heavy enough at lockout to stimulate a strength increase. Accommodating resistance techniques can let you choose a lighter bar weight for easier pulls from the ground. But then, you can progressively increase the challenge throughout the range of motion.
You can add chains to each side of the bar. These chains will be de-loaded on the ground during your initial pull. But, as the bar ascends through the range of motion, more chainlinks will leave the ground. As this happens, they will then contribute more weight to the deadlift right around the range of motion that you’re looking to overload (lockout). This means you can focus entirely on your lockout.
You’ll gain confidence through lifting the bar off the ground with relative ease. Then, you’ll be able to enter the lift’s problem area with that boost of esteem — and focus on the tough lockout area with focus and precision.
Similar to chains, bands can be added to both sides of the deadlift. Also like chains, bands will challenge the exact part of the lift you need when you’re trying to train your lockout. The major difference is that a band has elastic tension. So, while the premise of increasing weight through the range of motion holds true, it’s a different experience than chains.
Chains are straight weight — meaning, what they weigh is what they weigh. The band, however, increases in difficulty in a non-linear fashion. The more they stretch, the more challenge they will produce. Respect the challenge of band tension. Reduce the bar weight significantly and find the right resistance for you.
As with chains, bands can help increase your confidence at the lockout. This is because you’ll learn to grind above your knees with the confidence that comes from feeling good off the ground. This can translate into better pulling mechanics and an improved mindset for locking out even more challenging weights.
An often overlooked method of improving a deadlift lockout is to address any flaws in your programming. Two straight-forward ways to use your programming are to simply repeat a week or to alter your training around breaking the plateau.
The simplest of the simple strategies is to take an additional week or two using the same load on the bar. If the deadlift lockout is where you struggle, the solution might be as easy as allowing your program more time to do its job. Repeating a week or two using the same load and repetition prescriptions could be effective enough at taking your lockout to the next level.
Periodize Around Weak Point
On the other hand, if lockout strength seems to be a chronic problem, periodizing your solutions for a few blocks might be necessary. Select any of the potential deadlift lockout fixes and weave them into your program gradually. They can replace the deadlift itself as the prioritized exercise or become a main accessory lift — just make sure you’re programming it with the intent to break through a plateau.
Types of Deadlifts
Several deadlift variations can help improve specific goals such as lockout strength in their own right. The major variations include the conventional deadlift, sumo deadlift, stiff-leg deadlift, Romanian deadlift, and deficit deadlift.
The conventional deadlift draws on the muscles of the quads, hips, hamstrings, and back to varying degrees to pull the bar from the ground. Classic features of the conventional deadlift include a narrow-to-moderate width stance, hands positioned outside of the legs, and a hinge dominant set-up.
The sumo deadlift is a more specialized, highly skilled stance that assumes a much wider foot position than its conventional counterpart.
There is a greater demand on hip strength to keep your knees in the proper position throughout the lift. The foot stance is wide with the toes turned out, the grip placed comfortably between the legs, and a more upright posture. (And no, it’s not cheating.)
The stiff-leg deadlift is a variation of the conventional deadlift stance. Instead of dropping into a more balanced hip and knee position, the stiff-leg deadlift assumes only a soft bend in the knee.
This way, your hamstrings are placed in a much more challenging position. You’re largely taking your quads out of the equation. With this in mind, the stiff-leg deadlift tends to lift much less weight than conventional or sumo stances.
The Romanian deadlift is a partial range-of-motion style of conventional deadlift. The RDL usually starts from a standing position before descending only to approximately knee or shin height.
This variation also trains the hips, back, and hamstrings, with less emphasis on the quads.
The deficit deadlift draws on a similar set-up as the conventional deadlift but places you on an elevated surface. The deadlift bar itself stays on the ground, which forces you into a longer range of motion. Since you are elevated, you have to bend your knees more to maintain a neutral spine.
This means you’re training your quad drive from the floor in a big way.
How to Conventional Deadlift
To figure out how to break through a deadlift plateau or lockout problem, first make sure you’re performing the lift correctly. Here’s a brief run-down of how to do it:
- Find a stance that is comfortable and strong, you can start around hip-to-shoulder width apart. Make sure you line up about an inch away from the bar to allow your knees to come forward a bit during the rest of the set up.
- Without moving your feet, grip the bar evenly on either side of your body (outside of your legs).
- Bend your knees slightly until your shins come in light contact with the bar. Simultaneously drive your chest up to pull the slack out of the bar. This should lower the hips and align your torso into a neutral spine.
- Sit back slightly to establish tension in your hamstrings and glutes, rebalancing your bodyweight perfectly into the middle of your feet.
- Create a rigid torso brace by contracting the traps, lats, and abdominals as one unit.
- Establish full body tension by contracting your body, like performing a maximal tension plank. Complete the deadlift by powerfully driving your legs — think the leg press — and driving the hips through once the bar passes the knees.
- To prevent hyperextending, think of standing tall instead of rocking back.
It’s not uncommon to develop sticking points or plateaus while training, especially during a multi-joint exercise such as the deadlift. Although it can be frustrating, breaking through tough patches in training isn’t as elusive as you’d think. From technique tweaks, targeting muscles, or specific ranges of motion, or programming, there are a ton of effective strategies to keep your deadlift cruising. Attack the problem with as much intensity as the deadlift itself and never miss a lockout again.
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