Coach’s Corner: Troubleshooting The Deadlift

The deadlift is one of the most impactful exercises a runner can add to his or her weight training routine.

The deadlift is one of the most impactful exercises a runner can add to his or her weight training routine because it targets so many muscles. It helps improve core stability and most importantly, it increases the strength of your glutes, hamstrings and quads. The deadlift can be an intimidating exercise that most gym-goers don’t really know how to perform. It looks painful on the back but if you perform the deadlift correctly, you will get stronger.

To be able to do a deadlift correctly, you need to be able to perform a hip hinge. This movement requires flexion at the hips with no change in the lumbar spine curve—it must remain neutral throughout the exercise. If you can’t perform a deadlift with a neutral spine, you shouldn’t be performing deadlifts.

Load a barbell so that it sits roughly 9 inches off the ground—45-pound plates or lighter bumper plates (they have the same diameter). To perform a conventional deadlift, stand with your feet hip-width apart. Crouch down and grab the bar with a double overhand grip to the outside of your shins. Keep most of the weight on your heels and push your hips back and chest out. Pin your shoulders back and feel a neutral curve in your low back. Roll the bar close to your shins, which should be almost vertical at this point. Brace your abs and tighten your upper back muscles (e.g. latissimus dorsi) to anchor your shoulders in place. Stand with the bar by simultaneously extending your knees and hips. Finish the lift by standing tall with your butt squeezed tight. Do not lean back excessively or hyperextend your lower back. Soften your knees, slide the bar down your thighs and once you pass your knees, sit the bar back to the floor. Place the bar on the ground and reset your body position in preparation for the next repetition.

If you cannot achieve the neutral spine position, you might have to widen your stance. Try standing with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep all the cues the same as in the previous set up (conventional deadlift), but grab the bar on the inside of your knees. If you still cannot achieve a neutral spine with that stance (medium sumo deadlift), widen your feet even more—just over double shoulder-width apart (called sumo stance). This time however, turn your feet roughly 45 degrees laterally and push your knees out. The remaining cues are the same.

If you’ve tried all three stances, raise the bar closer to your hips. First try placing the bar on thick plates (about 2-3 inches). Try the conventional, medium sumo and sumo stances and see if anything works. If you still can’t achieve the neutral spine position, you need to start with the bar even higher. Go into a squat rack and place the barbell just below knee height. Attempt all three stances again and see what works for you.

I recommend 5 repetitions or less for one set of deadlifts. Perform 3-5 sets, slowly adding weight to each set. Runners should deadlift once a week. Good luck!


About The Author:

Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc, CSCS is a runner, strength coach and owner of JKConditioning in St. John’s, NL, Canada. Jon specializes in strength training distance runners and is currently in the middle of preparing a strength training resource for runners. Stay in touch by checking out and