Originally published at Gustrength.com, April 16, 2009
What is this thing with hip position in deadlifting? Why is it so hard for people to figure out where their hips should be without a qualified coach laying on hands and forcing them into the best position?
Prodigious effort has been made by so many to demystify this very simple concept. Notably by Mark Rippetoe in Starting Strength, whom despite my not being a big fan of his training methods, has done a great job of teaching basic technique in his writings (if not his videos).
Yet every time I turn around some guy is talking about trying to get his butt lower or being told that his butt is too low and his back should be parallel to the floor. I think it was Jim Schmitz who said the butt (i.e. hips) should be higher than the knees and lower than the shoulders. That sums it up. Where your hips end up is somewhat unique to you.
So I started looking around at instructional deadlift pieces and I found some good instruction, up to a point, then I found out the writer is not really getting it either as they begin to give some type of formula for hip position based on parallel or “straight back” or another cue.
They get that the shins should be damned close to the bar so that the bar is about midfoot over the feet. Good. They get that the shoulders should be forward of the bar so that the bar and the scapula are in a vertical line..in other words, the bar is underneath the shoulder blades. Good. They get that the shoulders should be up and the back set in a tight natural arch..
But they still can’t produce the proper position. So I studied images from people who seem to “get it” but still don’t get it and I found one factor being the biggest culprit. More often then not, the hips are TOO FAR FROM THE BAR. I take it that this is due to the cue “bring the hips back” (meaning to bring the butt back and use hip flexion rather than lumbar flexion). This is translating into the butt ending up a thousand miles from the bar. It won’t work. Try it. Reproduce all the factors discussed above except mentally cue yourself to “bring your hips back”. If it feels like a hamstring stretch rather than a deadlift you’ll get what I’m talking about.
Sure it’s okay to approach the bar by bringing the hips back, and this may be necessary as many lifters try to pull themselves down to the bar or think that they must squat down. But bringing your hips back is only part of the setup.
What happens is that people approach the bar correctly. If the shoulders and feet are in the right place and the shoulders are up and locked back the hips should be in place. But then they tend to allow the hips to drift back upon initiating the lift. This is a habit that reinforces weak hip drive thus locking in this faulty technique. So when I say to get the hips as close to the bar as possible that is a technique reinforcement to get you to plant the hips and pull UP on the bar rather than back.
The deadlift is NOT a ‘squat where you pick the bar off the floor’! But it is also not the exact opposite. The trick is that the hips need to be as close to the bar as possible while maintaining all those other factors. It’s actually simpler than it sounds. But mental cues won’t do it. While your focusing on one ‘cue’ you make that more important than the next ‘cue’.
When I say mental cues I mean stuff like “my butt should be just lower than my parallel squat”. Instead, focus on benchmarks. In this case, the bar is the best benchmark. You find your position relative to the bar not relative to some mental picture of another movement such as the squat. If you notice in the above example all the positions of every part of the body were found relative to the bar but then when it came to the hips suddenly this tried and true formula was abandoned for mental cueing. Always stick to something you can see, feel, and touch.
In this way, we use a “frame of reference”. Using your hips as a frame of reference is more complicated since they are moving RELATIVE to the bar. Using the BAR as a frame of reference is simpler. The bar is stationary on the floor.
Proper Deadlift Setup
The typical instruction on how to set up for a deadlift tells a trainee to simply bring the hips back and let the knees bend naturally while keeping the lower back in its natural arch. The idea here is that you slowly move down in this fashion until your hands are able to grab onto the bar, and bang, you are in the “perfect” position for the deadlift. There is one problem with this method. Nobody does it. That is, lots of people teach it but hardly anybody practices it in real training.
The problem is that this method does not produce the same efficient position for everyone. It is in itself a mobility test. Depending on your mobility, you may or may not reach the bar while maintaining the lumbar in neutral. You may have to set the bar higher and then slowly move it closer to the floor until you develop the mobility to initiate the lift this way. Once you do that, you will likely find that you need to unlearn some of the positional habits that you learned along the way.
What we are told, then, is that this method is the “basic” position and then you should raise or lower the hips according to what part of the body you want to emphasize or what “kind” of deadlift you want to do! See the problem? Here again, nobody seems to know where is the right place to put the hips. Those so-called strength coaches who do not know how to deadlift or how to teach a deadlift, then invent alternate deadlift methods based on silly bodybuilder or other concepts, simply to disguise the fact that they themselves do not know a deadlift from a hole in the head.
There is ONE optimal position for YOU to place your hips in when you deadlift. Once you dial in that position and progress to very heavy weights, I guarantee nobody will be able to convince you to adopt a butt down position to emphasize the quadriceps, or to do a “clean style deadlift” to keep yourself safe. There are a lot of easier ways to build up your quadriceps and glutes than inventing new deadlift versions. On the other hand, lifting the heaviest weight possible from the floor to waist height, that is just plain fun, not to imagine a lot more immediately satisfying. Meanwhile, you can’t build a heavy deadlift, in any position, without building a lot of muscle that, should you keep your diet in check, will look good at the beach.
1. Butt up or butt down. One of the most frequent cues you hear in deadlifting is to “get your butt higher” or “get your butt lower”. To me, this one of the WORST ways to cue a deadlift. For purposes of discussion, we will assume that hips and butt is the same thing. When someone tells you to simply move your butt up and down they are having you focus on a MOBILE benchmark and then telling you to move it around! You’ll have to have someone tell you where to put your hips about a thousand times before it finally sinks in. So we want to start with something that is not moving and maintain our setup relative to THAT.
2. Drive the feet into the floor. Another big miscue, in my opinion, is focusing on the feet or the floor for closed chain movements like this. What you hear are things like “drive your heels into the floor” and “try to push down on the floor”. It seems like a good idea but the problem is that focusing on the feet and the floor makes your body want to move down. You are NOT pushing down the floor. You are pulling UP the bar. Although it will require a lot of pushing into the floor to move the bar the action that really results in the bar being pulled up is a very powerful hip extension.
Hip Dominant Instead of Knee Dominant
Deadlifts are a “hip dominant” movement, not a “knee dominant” movement. To illustrate this to yourself there is a very simple but very powerful test which is similar to doing a jump. Do this right now as you are reading this.
1. Stand up and get yourself into a sort of deadlifting position. Bring your hips back and place your weight onto your heels.
2. Now VERY SLIGHTLY “push” your heels into the floor. Your weight should be on your heels and your hips should be flexed so that your torso is slightly inclined. Basically, you should be able to jump forward from this position. So push your heels into the ground just enough so that you feel your glutes and hamstrings engage. You may actually feel as if you can “tense” these muscles a whole lot without actually extending your knees or hips at all.
3. NOW, do something different. Get into the same position as step two. Weight on the heels. But do not push your heels into the floor. Instead, concentrate on driving your hips and butt forward very slightly and easily. In other words, just try to slightly extend (straighten) your hips.
4. If you do this correctly you should notice a marvelous thing. In step two, you will probably be able to generate a lot of muscular tension in your legs and really feel as if you are pushing that floor but without actually generating any movement. Yet, in step three you should find it pretty much impossible to try to extend the hips and not end up standing straight up! If your degree of effort is pretty much the same for both things that should tell you something about the relative efficiency of both movements!
The reality is that both efforts SHOULD result in the same thing. But the first method is able to generate a whole lot of muscle tension with no movement whereas the second method results in powerful and fluid movement without a lot of static muscle tension.
With that being said, there MAY be something to say for first driving the heels and then performing a violent hip extension…which is what most people do. Because you generate that tension in the extensors and then you “let it rip”. However, I have never personally found it to be more efficient.
Yes, with a heavy deadlift you generate a lot of muscular tension. But that does not mean that “high tension techniques” are more efficient. If I could guess as to why this is so I’d say that generating the excessive and unneeded tension limits efficient joint movement. In that vane, you may notice that step two if you allow movement, causes a more herky-jerky movement, whereas step three, as I said before, causes a fluid movement, and what’s more you can hardly avoid this movement occurring with only the slightest application of effort. I explained the problems with excess muscle tension a bit more in-depth in the Zone series.
Pulling Too Much: Lifting with the Shoulders
The other mistake that people make is to take the word “pulling” to literally. This is another reason why focusing on hip drive is so important. What people do is they simply attempt to “pull” the bar off the floor with their shoulders. So it is as they are doing the movement from the top down. In extreme cases, this results in the “scared cat deadlift” that we see SO often. Top-down pulling is of course not the only thing that causes the scared cat deadlift but it is one thing that can lead to it.
Your Guidelines for a Proper Deadlift Setup
1. Stand with your shins about an inch from the bar with about a hip width stance or slightly wider depending on what works best for you.
2. Look down at the barbell and imagine that there is a vertical line coming up through it so that the line of the barbell is part of an imaginary plane. The barbell and this imaginary line is your reference point or benchmark. You will use this to orient your body. Remember this if for visualization purposes only.
3. After you grab the bar you will bring your shoulders in front of the bar so that the imaginary line intersects your scapula. In other words, the bar is in line with your scapula. Keeping your shoulders forward of the bar in this position, bring your chest up and shoulders back and locked. Scapula retracted.
4. Hips/Butt: Now that your feet are in the right place and your shoulders are in the right place the trick is to get your hips as close to this imaginary LINE as possible while maintaining your shoulder position. You are NOT bringing your hips down toward the bar…you are bringing them forward toward the line coming up through the bar. WITHOUT moving your shoulders back.
All the while the chest must stay OUT and the shoulders back. The lower back must remain in it’s tightly set natural arch.
Really, once you hit step three and you are maintaining a good deadlifting position with your lumbar set you are pretty much there. Step 4 is a very subtle adjustment. If you move your hips down the shoulders drift behind the bar. If you move your hips too far up the shoulder sink. So “just right” is in between. Correct, as has been said before, means your butt is below your shoulders but above your knees. This may seem simplistic and smarmy but since we see people try to deadlift with their butt below their knees in the “deadlift as squat” position or with their butt pretty much level with their shoulders…it needs to be said, apparently.