The deadlift and squat are often considered to be the king and queen of all strength training exercises – and for good reason. These two lifts target most of the major muscle groups in the human body, boost the production of growth-enhancing hormones, and can help lower the risk of osteoporosis, bone fractures, and a wide range of musculoskeletal disorders. Unfortunately, a lot of people perform the deadlift and squat with poor technique and therefore fail to harvest the many benefits these multi-joint exercises can provide.
Over the years I’ve helped hundreds – if not thousands – of people learn the squat and deadlift. One of the things I’ve learned from this process, as well as from spending long hours in the gym watching people lift weights, is that only a very small minority of gym goers perform the squat and deadlift with good technique. Even among coaches/trainers (myself included) and advanced lifters, there’s always room for improvements.
The 8 tips in this article are largely based on my experience as a personal trainer and strength coach, as well as the knowledge I’ve acquired during the years I’ve been lifting weights myself. While I think everyone can benefit from these tips, it’s important to note that there are many different ways to perform the squat and deadlift. Other coaches/trainers may have somewhat different opinions regarding how these lifts should be taught.
While many of the same technical principles apply to both the squat and deadlift, there are some important differences between these two lifts. In this article I’ve primarily included strategies that I’ve found to be effective for improving the technique of both exercises. However, it’s important to note that not all of the elements mentioned in this article are equally important for both lifts.
1. Learn the hip hinge pattern and strengthen the posterior chain
One of the main reasons a lot of people display poor technique in the squat and deadlift is that they have a weak posterior chain (particularly glutes). My experience is that if I instruct a new client to perform a squat, without first giving him any technical instructions, chances are he’s going to perform a quad-dominant movement, failing to properly activate his glutes and posterior chain.
In some instances, technical instruction is sufficient to remedy the problem. Oftentimes, however, the problem is more deeply rooted and additional steps are required to fix the situation. Typically, the client has to strengthen the posterior chain (particularly the glutes) and work on improving his movement pattern before he can move on to heavy squatting. Usually, these two things go hand-in-hand, because many of the best exercises and drills for learning a good squat pattern also strengthen the backside.
The cable pull-through is one of my favorite exercises to use in these types of cases, because it forces the trainee to push his hips back, rather than bending his knees and sitting down. Moreover, it’s an excellent exercise for learning the hip hinge pattern. Another good exercise for achieving the present objective is the box squat, performed with almost vertical shins.
2. Correct muscle imbalance patterns
The two most common muscle imbalance patterns I’ve encountered in my work with clients over the years are Lower Crossed Syndrome (LCS), which is typically characterized by excessive anterior pelvic tilt and a protruding abdomen, and Upper Crossed Syndrome (UCS), which is usually characterized by rounded shoulders and “hunchback posture”. These two conditions are extremely common.
It’s important to be aware of and able to correct these types of muscle imbalance patterns, as they set the stage for poor exercise technique, compensation patterns, injuries, lower back pain, impaired physical performance, and in some cases, disorders such as osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease. Moreover, poor posture generally isn’t aesthetically appealing.
My experience is that individuals with LCS often overextend their spine during the squat, deadlift, and other similar exercises. Moreover, they generally fail to properly activate their glutes and get into a good movement pattern. When it comes to UCS, the problem is typically that the lifter flexes his upper spine and fails to retract the scapulae.
3. Spread the floor apart!
It wasn’t until I had worked as a coach for many years that I started implementing this cue into my own training and that of my clients. It didn’t take me long to realise that I had been missing out, in the sense that this tip was a game changer for my own and my clients’ squat and deadlift technique.
The reason this strategy is so effective is that it promotes a “ripple effect” throughout the body, forcing you into a good movement pattern.
- It forces you to push the knees apart
- It helps you maintain a neutral spine
- It forces you to keep the weight on the back of the foot
- It helps you distribute the load correctly
4. Drive through the heels
One of the most common mistakes people make when performing the squat and deadlift is that they let their knees travel forward (excessively), something that results in a concentric movement that is driven through the balls of the feet, rather than through the heels. This is a big mistake, as it puts excessive strain on the knees and back and shifts the load from the posterior chain over to the quads and lower back.
One way to avoid this problem is to focus on spreading the floor apart (item 3 in this list) and pushing through the heels. You may also consider lifting the toes and starting out with box squats, rather than conventional squats. If you still have trouble distributing the load correctly, you may be using too much weight and/or you may need to work on learning the hip hinge pattern and strengthening the posterior chain.
When doing strength exercises the load should always be kept on the mid-back of the feet – never on the ball of the feet or toes! (A couple of exceptions exist)
5. Push the hips back and the knees apart
A common mistake in the squat is to initiate the movement by sitting down, rather than back, and letting the knees drift forward. As for the deadlift, many lifters fail to attain a good starting position, in the sense that their back is too vertical. This is a recipe for disaster, as it leads to many of the problems discussed in the section above.
Getting the hips back is particularly important in the deadlift, as this exercise is supposed to be performed with a hip-dominant movement pattern. I typically prefer to instruct clients to push their hips back when doing the squat as well, because excessive knee drift and quad-dominant lifting are very common issues in this exercise. That said, it’s important to note that there are many different versions of the squat. While an olympic squat is performed with a very vertical back angle, a powerlifting squat is performed with a more horizontal back position.
There’s some disagreement among strength coaches regarding the use of the “knees out!” cue. Personally, I’ve found that the knees out position helps support good exercise technique. I usually prefer to tell the trainee to “push against the outside of the heels” (item 3 on the list), which is something that will get the knees out as well.
6. Keep the bar in a vertical line over the mid-foot
A lot of gym goers perform the squat and deadlift in such a way that the bar travels in a line over the toes, rather than over the mid-foot. Oftentimes, the bar path is also very uneven, in the sense that the bar is not travelling in a straight line. This is problematic, as an incorrect bar path is a sign that the lifter is not distributing the load correctly. Moreover, it decreases stability and makes the lifter more prone to injuries.
The bar should ideally travel in an almost vertical line over the mid-foot. If you adhere to the principles outlined in this article, the bar should naturally get into the correct path. If that’s not sufficient to ensure good technique, you may consider envisioning the path in your mind and then focus on that image when you perform the exercise. In the deadlift, the bar should travel close to the shins and thighs.
7. Aim for a smooth and controlled movement
Many lifters fail to attain the full benefits the squat and deadlift can offer because they are not performing the exercises in a smooth and controlled fashion. In the deadlift, they jerk the bar off the ground, rather than apply tension through the system before pulling the weight in a controlled movement. This can result in a range of problems, including torn biceps, head and neck issues, and increased lumbar spinal shear stresses.
As for the squat, a lot of lifters try to bounce as fast as they can out of the hole. While a little “bounce” in the bottom position is a natural part of the squat, it has to be done the right way. Rather than thinking about making yourself bounce, the bounce should come naturally as a result of the tension and compression that is built up in the body.
8. Maintain a neutral spine
This is something “every” lifter knows, but few gets right. If you watch one hundred people at your local gym perform the squat or deadlift, chances are most of them either flex or overextend their spine when performing these exercises.
There’s a lot of discussion in the strength & conditioning community regarding the importance of maintaining a neutral spine in the deadlift and squat. While some coaches will tell you that it’s no problem to perform these lifts with a somewhat flexed spine, others will tell you to always strive for straight, nice back position.
Personally, when I teach the deadlift and squat to beginners, I’ll always have them strive for a neutral back position. Not because I’m overly concerned about the potential dangers associated with having a flexed spine when lifting, but rather because I’ve found that it’s much easier for the trainee to get into a good movement pattern, avoid putting excessive load on his lower back, and get his glutes working correctly if he lifts with a neutral spine.
The best strategy for achieving this position varies from person to person. For someone with a normal (neutral/slight anterior pelvic tilt) or posteriorly tilted pelvis, it is often useful to think about arching the back or perhaps even better, pulling the chest tall. For someone with excessive anterior pelvic tilt, getting the chest up is still important, but focusing on arching the back may be a mistake, as this can quickly lead to overextension of the lumbar spine.
As for the position of the neck/head, tucking the chin and maintaining a neutral neck position is always a safe tip, That said, many of the strongest deadlifters and squatters in the world look straight ahead when performing these lifts. Some coaches argue that you’re strongest when lifting with a neutral neck position, but if there really is an advantage to this position, then it’s probably quite small.
In my own training, I strive to maintain a neutral back position when doing exercises such as the squat and deadlift. However, if I stack on the weight, a little spinal flexion may occur.
Now I want to hear from you: Did you find the tips in this article useful? Do you have any additional strategies to add to the list?
Note: A previous version of this article of mine was published for the Personal Trainer Development Center (ThePTDC.com), an independent organization built to improve the reputation of the fitness industry and ensure that smart, passionate trainers have amazing careers that are both personally and financially satisfying.