If 7 years of teaching people to pick things up and put them down again has taught me anything, it’s that outside of elite circles the majority of bad or missed dealifts failed before the bar even left the floor. Once the bar comes off the ground, technique is pretty straightforward: drive your hips forward and drive your shoulders back. Do that until you lock out, and a deadlift that started good will probably stay good and finish good.
Even if your form is good in the set up, that’s still not enough. Setting up with good form but bad technique will still lead to any number of classic deadlift errors, the worst offenders being arms that try to do all the work, lower backs that round out like a camel and knees that go in all the wrong directions.
The trick is not just to set up with a good position, but to then create the right tension and take the slack out of the bar.
All barbells have some capacity to bend. A good barbell will bend slightly under a heavy load and return to straight when unloaded. Taking the slack out of the bar is taking advantage of this natural tendency of the bar to bend under load. This creates both a stronger rep and a safer rep. We’re all about lifting heavy weights safely, so taking the slack out gets a full seal of approval.
To do this, we can’t just get into position and then pull the bar off the ground. That won’t work. Instead, we’re going to pull ourselves into the bar and push the ground away.
If you’ve already learned the basics of how to deadlift, you should already be setting up with your lower back in extension and the bar against your shins. As you pull yourself into the bar, your lower back should remain in neutral extension and your whole body should become tight. Keep your arms locked, generate tension in the glutes and hamstrings, and try to get your upper back as high as possible before the plates leave the ground. To do this, you’re going to have to bend the bar. Depending on how flexible the bar is and how much weight is on each end, expect the middle of the bar to raise 1-2cm without the plates coming up at all.
As soon as the bar is maximally bent, the slack has been taken out. Push the floor away with your heels, drive your hips forward and drive your shoulders back until you lock out.
When you deadlift this way, a few things happen, aside from reducing the range of motion by 1-2cm. Because the whole body gets tight, you are bracing, which will help you to maintain a good back position. You’re pushing with your legs, which will help you to keep your knees from going in any funny directions, and it will help you to keep your arms locked. You will be peeling the bar off the floor rather than yanking it off the floor, which will give you the safest conditions for your strongest lift.
I’ll close with this old video from the first time I deadlifted 180kg. If you look closely, you can see that when I swing myself into the bar (which you don’t have to do, but I feel better deadlifting this way) I’m not just throwing myself about for the lols. I’m actually creating tension as I swing into it, and the first thing the bar does is bend at the start of each rep. This is what we’re aiming for, and it will help make the remainder of the rep go smoothly.