Master the Movement: The Deadlift

December 16, 2020

Nicole Peyton

In the second installment of Master the Movement, we're tackling one of CrossFit's nine foundational movements: the deadlift.

In the lead-up to the 2021 CrossFit Games Open, we will be offering a series of carefully curated tips to help you master movements that commonly appear in Open programming. The Master the Movement series will provide expert advice from CrossFit Seminar Staff members on how you can bring your best self to this year’s competition.

The Open challenges the most elite athletes with tests of strength, skill, and endurance, while also challenging the newcomer who is still working toward mastering common CrossFit movements.

One movement that so far has shown up year after year is the deadlift. As one of CrossFit’s nine foundational movements, the deadlift is key to improving your fitness, mechanics, and strength. Whether you’re lifting a 300-lb. barbell, or a 25-lb. bag of dog food, learning to deadlift with sound form is an important life skill.

Check out the first installment of Master the Movement here.

Flowmaster Michele Mootz on the Deadlift

CrossFit Seminar Staff Flowmaster Michele Mootz says the deadlift transfers to any movement that originates with pulling a load from the ground.


“Gaining competence in movements such as the clean, snatch, sumo deadlift, sumo deadlift high pull, or picking anything up off the floor will mean proficiency in the deadlift in order to complete the movement patterns correctly,” Mootz says.

No barbell? No problem.

“The equipment that we use matters little,” Mootz says. “Dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, medicine balls are all fine as long as the mechanics are sound."

Points of Performance

Mootz identifies several key points of performance that need to be executed correctly to be successful in the deadlift:

  • Stance will vary based on leg and torso length. Feet should be somewhere between hips and shoulders.
  • Bar starts at mid-shin with the athlete gripping the bar outside the shins, and the bar in contact with the body.
  • Shoulders are higher than hips, and hips should be higher than the knees in the setup. This may change based on the height of the athlete. A taller athlete will have less incline between shoulders and hips in the setup.
  • Back should be braced and in a neutral position. This will translate to a rigid torso and no movement between the hips and shoulders through the lift. 
  • Shoulders and hips rise at the same time when initiating the lift.
  • Bar stays in contact with the body throughout the lift.
  • Drive through the heels on the initial pull as the knees move back and the chest lifts in unison. 
  • To reset, retrace the same path on the way down, pushing the hips back and regaining the rigid neutral position of the torso.
  • Once the bar has crossed the plane of the knees, the knees rebend and the bar returns to the starting position.

Dial in the Mechanics

When an athlete stalls while trying to get stronger in the deadlift, Mootz suggests taking notice of the mechanics.

“Not performing this lift correctly can result in faults that decrease the overall contribution of major muscle groups,” Mootz explains. “For example, an incorrect setup position where the athlete is too low (squatty) at the initiation of the pull decreases the amount of contribution from the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings) and instead relies heavily on the weaker structures of the quads and hip flexors.”

Lifting improperly can also lead to injury, Mootz adds.

“If an athlete continues to get injured performing a lift,” she says, “they are far less likely to spend the time under load needed to gain strength and capacity in that lift.”

Common Faults

One of the most common faults in the deadlift is starting with the hips too high or too low in the setup, Mootz says. 

“If the initial setup position of the deadlift is incorrect, it will be very difficult to correct anything that happens after that,” she says. 

“Ensuring that the spine is in a strong, braced, neutral position is imperative to the successful mechanics of this lift,” Mootz says. 

She recommends thinking of the torso as a block of cement to understand the amount of stability that is needed.

Timing is also a key component of the deadlift, and one with which athletes often miss the mark. 

“Correct timing of this lift requires that the knees are extending as the chest is lifting,” Mootz says. “A common fault is driving the knees back without lifting the chest. This will result in a straight-leg deadlift position. While that can be a valuable lift in and of itself, it is not the mechanics we are looking for in a traditional deadlift.”

“The opposing fault to the timing fault,” she continues, “is lifting the chest without pulling the knees back. This will result in the bar moving in an arced pattern around the knees rather than a straight path up the body.”

A major flaw in the deadlift, Mootz points out, is any change in the neutral spine.

“The spine remaining neutral and braced throughout this lift ensures the safety of our spine and therefore should be non-negotiable,” she says. 

Athletes should only lift loads that allow them to maintain this position, Mootz adds. 

To get the most bang for your buck in the deadlift, keep the bar close to your body.

“Keeping the load close to the body will result in the most muscular contribution in the most efficient movement pattern,” Mootz says. “This means that we need to maintain contact between the bar and their body throughout the lift.”

Getting Stronger

Simply put, “Gaining strength in any lift requires time under tension,” Mootz says. “Spending time working on improving mechanics as well as at increased loads will result in gaining overall strength in the lift.”

For other ways to gain strength, Mootz suggests resistance work with bands, deadlifts with odd objects, and sumo deadlifts, which can all be beneficial to gaining overall strength.  

Jumping on the GHD can help, too. 

“Working the muscle groups (used in the deadlift) in alternative settings can also add to overall strength gains,” Mootz says. “For example, increase time spent doing movements such as hip extensions, back extensions, GHD sit-ups, and static holds … in other words, do it all!”

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