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Deadlifting sticking points

Selecting the right exercises for progress

Last month I wrote an article in which I explained the concept of sticking points in the bench press, and what exercises work best for improving on them. Since then I've gotten quite some requests to break down some more major lifts, so I've decided to go ahead and come up with another instalment. This week's problem child to be slapped into submission: the deadlift. In this article I will discuss how to identify your weak points within this lift, and provide you with a range of exercises to effectively improve upon them.

photo by @wearebru

Deadlift mechanics 101

For the sake of this article I will stick to discussing the conventional deadlifting technique, although the sumo variation carries similar properties when it comes to defining sticking points and combating them (for a more in-depth analysis of the two techniques, read this blog).

The deadlift can be roughly divided into two movement phases: the leg drive, and the lockout. The leg drive phase regards the start of the lift (the 'push off') up until the barbell reaches about knee height, while the lockout considers the phase after the barbell has passed the knees up until standing fully erect. During the leg drive phase, movement is initiated by - surprise - the legs, so the quads and hamstrings are major players. During the lockout, the hips (mainly the glutes) finish the pull by thrusting forward and coming to full extension.

Although I have just defined two movement phases, there are three typical sticking points that you might encounter during your pulls: slow off the floor, stuck at the knee, and slow during lockout. Similar to dealing with bench pressing sticking points, being slow or weak in a particular phase means that training deadlifting variations which accentuate that particular phase will work wonders. Also, strengthening the muscles associated with that phase will naturally help.

Enough with the blabbering, and let's get down to why you are here:

Low sticking point (well below knee):

How to identify: Barbell comes off the floor slowly and accelerates past the knees. Usually accompanied by a relatively weak squat. Typically seems to pull effortlessly, or the barbell doesn't come off the floor at all ('floor magnets').

Weakness: Legs

Effective strategy: Pulls that increase range of motion and quad-dominant squats

Typical go-to's: Deficit deadlifts, wide grip deadlifts, stiff leg deadlifts, close stance squats with a high bar position, low box squats (with a safety barbell), good mornings off low pins, glute ham raises

Example lift for working on a low sticking point

Medium sticking point (at knee):

How to identify: Barbell stalls at the transitional phase between leg drive and lockout, just below the knee. Usually accompanied by loss of position/tension in the back (when the hips are farthest away from the barbell).

Weakness: Lower back (possibly abdominals)

Effective strategy: Pulls that require much forward lean or accentuate sticking point height, isolated back extensor work

Typical go-to's: Pin deadlifts (slightly below sticking point), paused deadlifts, good mornings, back extensions, reverse hypers, good mornings, static abdominal work. Did I mention good mornings?

Example lift for working on a medium sticking point

High sticking point (well above knee):

How to identify: Barbell typically flies off the floor, but slows down considerably above the knee. Often accompanied by hitching/thigh riding when the weight is sufficiently heavy.

Weakness: Hips

Effective strategy: Pulls that accentuate finishing of the lift, targeted hip extension work

Typical go-to's: Deadlifts off pins, deadlifts against bands or chains, box squats, bent leg good mornings, hip thrusts, back extensions

Example lift for working on a high sticking point

Alright, that should help get you going. Please note that these are very black and white examples, so not everyone will clearly belong to a particular category. However, a more thorough understanding of deadlifting mechanics will help you identify and categorize weaknesses in order to effectively target them. Strengthen your weak link in the chain, and gains will follow.

Happy pulling!

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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