I get a lot of deadlift-specific questions, and I understand why: it can be a really frustrating lift! That’s especially true when you suffer from a stubborn sticking point. If you’re not already familiar with the term, a sticking point refers to a certain part of the range of motion where the bar tends to really slow down – or even stop completely. For most raw lifters, that’s out of the hole on the squat and off the chest on the bench press.
When it comes to the deadlift, though, the sticking point can either be off the floor, or right above the knees. Those two different sticking points have vastly different remedies, and if you don’t train properly to overcome them, you’re in for a bad time!
I recently posted about this myself on Instagram, but I’d like to take the opportunity to investigate the question a little more closely.
The Importance of Technique
I want to preface the rest of the article by mentioning the importance of sound technique. In the majority of cases where I help athletes improve their deadlifting strength, we start with technique, and for a good reason. Oftentimes, sticking points can be resolved very quickly by adjusting the starting position of the lift.
For example, take a lifter who uses a bit of a rounded back to break the bar off the floor – like my fiancée, Staci:
Notice how, for the first few reps, she’s got her back very flat in the starting position, and the bar path is almost perfectly straight. Towards the end of the set, when she’s more fatigued, her upper back starts to round just a bit, and she really has to pull back after the bar passes her knees in order to lock out.
As a result, the lockout is much slower. This is even more evident when working at higher percentages of a one-rep max:
Now, that technique works for Staci – but for many lifters with different leverages, starting with even a slightly rounded back will make the lift much easier off the floor, but much harder at lockout. Some athletes attempt to compensate for this by training partials (like rack or block pulls), but I find it is far more effective to simply learn to break the bar off the floor with a flat back.
Other examples where technique might come into play:
- The lifter who struggles off the floor because they use more of a stiff-legged style and therefore lack sufficient quad engagement.
- The lifter who struggles at lockout because they fail to hinge at the hips to initiate a sumo deadlift.
- The lifter who misses entirely because they try to grip-and-rip rather than setting up deliberately.
If you suspect that technique might be the source of your sticking point, I encourage you to download my free deadlift ebook tutorial here.
When It’s Not About Technique
If technique isn’t the issue, then it’s time to look at muscular imbalances. Lifters who have very strong legs and a relatively weaker back are going to struggle differently than those who have a strong back and weak legs, so achieving a balance between your muscle groups is key.
You can address imbalances with isolation exercises, but I believe it’s more advantageous for strength athletes to use variations of the main lifts instead. Here are a few options you might try:
Weak Off the Floor
Typically, this is a sign of weak quads. Movements to improve your deadlift would then involve:
- Conventional deadlifts from an aggressive deficit (2-3 inches)
- Pause deadlifts, pausing as soon as the bar breaks the floor
- High bar and front squats
Of these, deficit pulls are by far my favorite. However, even if you pull sumo in competition, I do not recommend using a deficit on sumo deadlifts. Typically I find this puts far too much strain on the adductors and risks injury. Isolation exercises might also include leg extensions, split squats, and lunges.
Weak At Lockout
In many cases, this is a sign of a weak upper back. For lifters who struggle at lockout, I rarely recommend block or rack pulls, although they can certainly be useful. However, I find that the elevated bar height tends to change the movement pattern enough that carryover from these variations is limited compared to full range-of-motion equivalents.
My favorite accessory for a weak lockout is touch-and-go deadlifts.
By performing the lift using just a little bit of momentum off the floor, you can shift emphasis to the top end of the lift, without significantly changing the actual movement. Plus, many lifters can use a little more weight, which is helpful for confidence. Make sure to avoid excessive use of momentum like bouncing the bar off the floor. Proper touch-and-go deadlifts should still be controlled, like my training partner Brandon shows here:
Of course, your deadlift can be limited by other issues as well. Here are a few other strategies I have consistently found helpful:
- If your grip is weak, hold the last rep of every set at the top for a 5-count before lowering it to the floor.
- For those who lack aggression off the floor, practice pulling against very light band tension – no more than about 50 pounds of resistance at the top.
- Nearly everyone seems to benefit from training both sumo and conventional deadlifts, regardless of which style they use in competition.
Do you have your own sumo deadlift advice? If so, share it in the comments below!
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.