The deadlift has long been a hallmark of strength sports, existing as possibly the purest test of raw power. Virtually every muscle in the body is used, and there's a special emphasis on the biggest ones. Although the deadlift is ranked among the best barbell lifts when it comes to building (and testing) absolute strength, it is unique from it's peers in it's ability to take more from you than it gives back. When progress in the deadlift stalls, all too many lifters think breaking through a plateau is simply a matter of taking their intensity to an 11. But if continued progress of training is a goal, especially in the context of a whole, healthy body, then training smarter, not harder, is the way to go.
Two Clear Phases: Below the Knee and Above
The existence of the knee is the primary hassle surrounding a deadlift, and the reason that side handle pulls are so much more friendly. You see, leverage is optimized when the load (barbell) is closest to the pivot point (hips). Since your knees have to track forward at the start of the pull, taking your pesky shins with them, the bar is forced further in front of you than simple physics would like. For this reason, the movement of the bar up to the knee is distinctly different than locking it out once the knees are out of the way.
Often times, a weak deadlift lockout is the result of some other glaring problem that unnecessarily exhausted you by the time the bar got over your knees. There will be plenty to write about in the future on the subject of weak upper backs, poor deadlift setups, and slow acceleration off the floor. Here, we are specifically talking about the muscles and movement patterns that occur once the bar is over the knee and how to make them better.
Aside from the first part of the deadlift being a complete disaster, there are two main reasons that lifters fail at lockout: a.) weak muscles or b.) poor patterning. These are the 5 best ways to fix both.
1. Don't Pull Up: Push Forward
As soon as the bar is over the knee, the primary objective is to slide the hips forward into the bar. To do this, the supportive musculature of the torso (abs, erectors, upper back) must be strong enough to maintain position while the the primary hip extensors (glutes and hamstrings) provide enough force to physically push the hips through. No amount of technique work will make up for glutes that are disproportionately small or an upper back that can't maintain posture over 75%.
The fact is, however, that lifters with a flagrant disparity between main movers are somewhat rare. More common is the simple issue of 'patterning'. This will be a theme in future articles, since optimal movement efficiency assumes that the muscles are communicating properly and firing in a specific pattern. More often than most seasoned lifters would like to admit, they are not. What appears at first sight to be a lagging muscle group can just as easily be a strong muscle group that is not being utilized appropriately. This is a common issue with abdominal strength and the big lifts: the guy that can do 50 straight ghd situps can't brace his midsection properly throughout a 225lb squat.
The lockout is mechanically the strongest position in the deadlift ; again, assuming a horrible setup didn't leave you rounded and bent completely over with the bar dangling a foot in front of your knee. Once the bar is over your knee, it can quickly be brought back close to the hips, giving much greater leverage than was had at any other point during the lift. As a powerlifting veteran of the 70s and 80s once told me, “Once the bar gets to your knees, the lift is over”.
The quickest way to drill in proper patterning in the deadlift lockout is to make sure you know how you are supposed to stand up with the weight. The entire setup begins with an aggressive pull vertically off the ground and it is easy to think of continuing this 'pull up' to complete the lift. But in reality, the most efficient way to lock the bar out from the knee is to push your hips directly forward without any concern for moving the bar another inch. Once the bar is to the knee, drag it back into you as hard as possible and push your pelivs forward aggressively. I'm reminded of all of the football coaches that would scream 'pecker to the pad!' during sled drills to cue full hip extension when hitting: substitue 'pad' for 'bar' and they weren't far off.
For further inspiration, look at how Eric Lilliebridge and Tom Martin exaggerate the hip extension on their deadlift warmups.
2. Isolate the Lockout
Movement selection to improve poor patterning will either emphasize movements that cause the glutes to fully contract where they are disadvantaged the most (greater moment arm) or that isolate hip extension at the highest point of the deadlift. The former includes movements like glute bridges or horizontal back extensions. In both of these movements, the glutes have to work the hardest at the point they are fully contracted, a bodybuilding principle called peak contraction. If you've never felt your glutes work during a session, perform either variation with a 3 second hold at full extension and get back to me.
The power shrug is a great exercise for fixing sub-par patterning by isolating the lockout portion of the deadlift. The bar is set a few inches above the knee and the lifter stands up explosively as they shrug the bar, returning it down to the pins and repeating. Quickly, the lifter will realize that moving quicker with the hips allows for a faster shrug, meaning more weight and more reps. As the glutes acclimate to moving the hips into the bar quickly, weight in a power shrug will routinely overshadow previous deadlift maxes. Once you can explosively stand up and shrug with a recent one rep deadlift max, you can be sure that your lockout is no longer the limiting factor.
3. Build The Glutes and Upper Back
If the individual muscles are really too weak to fire no matter how perfect the movement mechanics, then efforts must switch to building size and strength. For specific lockout work, movements that tax the glutes while simultaneously reinforcing proper patterning should take priority. Isolation should consist of horizontal back extensions and glute bridges, with slow eccentrics and a pronounced pause at the top. Other deadlift variations that increase tensions on the glutes for longer periods of time should also be included, since this is the quickest way to build size and strength.
Rack Pulls/Block Deadlifts are possibly my favorite barbell staple. The bar should start high enough that the movement can be overloaded, but low enough that it can simulate body position mid deadlift in addition to working through a substantial range of motion. The 13”-16” range, or mid-shin, tends to be about right. Frequent rack pulls will subject the upper back and glutes to substantial overload that can't be reproduced from the floor while lowering the technical barriers that full range deadlifts have. Basically, it's much easier to start with a neutral spine and isolate the movement of the hips in a rack pull. Several months of these should result in working weights that trump your old maxes from the floor.
Side handle deadlifts provide a unique stress on the glutes and upper back; trap bar and farmer walk handles usually start much higher than the floor and, since their center of mass is in line with the hips, leverage allow for maximum load. And since the bar is no longer a limiting factor, the hips can slide through unabated which will condition a quick and aggressive lockout. Once again, heavy weight in a partial range of motion leads to superior stabilization through the torso by means of a stronger back and more rigid midsection. This is a true overload movment and will quickly train the hips to come through at the soonest possible opportunity, while also adding size.
4. Accommodating Resistance
The previous list of deadlift variations allow for more weight and an emphasis on the actual extension of the hips at lockout, but they still don't take advantage of how much stronger the lifter is at the very last inches of the lift. Accomodating resistance in the form of bands or chains is a way of loading the bar more with each inch that it moves up. Typically overused by most new lifters that get their hands on them, bands and chains can be devastatingly effective when used specifically to cure a struggling lockout.
The main reason that a lockout weakness can exist despite the lifter being in such a mechanical advantage is that straight weight on the bar will always be determined by the weakest link in the chain, preventing the very top end from ever being fully taxed. The term 'accommodating resistance' literally refers to accommodating the stronger ranges of motion with more resistance. Strap a pair of thick bands around a bar set at 16” and hammer away with sets of 5 until you find a max. Then drop 10% in bar weight and do 5 more sets. If this doesn't put your hip extensors out of commission for 4 days or more, then the bands weren't tight enough.
5. Train Like a Strongman
It's no accident that the strongest deadlifters in the world are all WSM competitors. Eddie Hall, Brian Shaw, Hafthor Bjornsson, Benedikt Magnusson, and Jerry Pritchet are all 1000lb pullers, while the only true powerlifter to achieve that feat before them was Andy Bolton over a decade ago. Training for the sport revolves around short heavy hip extensions like elevated deadlifts and farmer picks, which favor the lockout by means we have already covered. But what we haven't covered is the role of carry and load type activities which are undoubtedly the main contributor to this deadlift dominance.
The gluteus maximus is more developed on humans than quadripeds because it works to keep us upright. Moving under a load while upright exploits this fact to tax the glutes and upper back in a way that static movements cannot.
Awkward carries require more effort from the upper back muscles to stabilize, and can tax them throroughly for longer than a typical set of rows will last. And don't forget, the glutes are more developed on humans than our 4 legged counterparts because we use them to stay upright; so it stands to reason that staying upright with a bunch of weight is a good way to build them further. A sandbag medley or hussafelt stone carry can last up to 90 seconds, which is much more time under tension with much more load than any other gym counterpart can replicate.
Stone loading is initiated by a violent 'scoop' of the hips forward, a movement that substantially builds the glutes while also reinforcing the forward hip motion in a deadlift lockout.
And then there's loading. Whether it's putting a stone on a platform or getting a log to your shoulders, the rapid hip action that moves a dense round object from your lap to anywhere else is sure to demolish the glutes while conditioning the pattern of scooping the hips forward into the load.
To this day, the most my ass has ever hurt came from a keg loading marathon, where a 220lb keg was picked up, pinned to my lap, and violently thrown over a yoke bar for half a dozen sets. As the reps climbed into double digits, each desperate attempt to get enough height on the keg resulted in a burn deep in my glutes that 15 years of deadlifting and squatting has never produced. The moral of this story? If any part of your pull is struggling, especially the lockout, I can guarantee that carries and loads have not made their way into your training.
As valuable as this list is when put into practice, do not rewrite your beginner program to incorporate every mode of lockout training under the sun at the expense of good, solid setup work from the floor. It's rare for even seasoned lifters to perform more than 2 deadlift analogs in the same session, and most of the time they are rotated out week to week and block to block. Assuming you start the workout with pulls from the floor, 3 weeks of heavy block pulls at 5 sets of 4 can follow your deads and can lead into a 3 week block of high trap bar deadlifts against bands at 3 sets of 6. Finish each workout with weighted back extensions with a 3 second pause at the top or heavy glute bridges for sets of 15 and your lockout weakness will soon be a memory.