Deadlift, Powerlifting

Doomed before you start – How to set up a good conventional deadlift – Gavin Laird

In this article, I’m going to look at a very common problem in the conventional Deadlift, and hopefully, offer some insight into why it occurs and how to help fix it. The problem I’m referring to is commonly called “hips up first”, “stiff legging”, “losing the arch” and many more things besides, but the essence of it is always the same.

The lifter sets up in a nice looking start position, then drives their butt up and back, away from the bar before the bar breaks the floor, leading to the upper (and sometimes even lower!) back going into flexion, the hips and knees looking very early and the lift being driven primarily by the lower back. Sometimes this is exacerbated by the initial starting position being too low, sometimes not.

With near maximal weight, this is something of an occupational hazard for competitive powerlifters, but for the lifter that does it habitually with even moderate load, it should be addressed.

Here are a few pics to demonstrate from Highland Barbell Club’s Martha Gates.

Pic 1: A reasonable low hip starting position.

Pic 2: Hips up first, loss of arch etc before bar has left the floor.

Pic 3: The end result – when the hips and knees are close to locked out the upper back is still in flexion and the lifter has to “roll through” the lockout – if they ever get the bar that high!


So why does this happen?

  1. Failure to set up with adequate tension from the start and / or setting up with the hips too low.
  2. Wrong movement pattern off the floor with all the knee extension occurring before hip extension.
  3. Weak hip extensors (hamstrings and glutes) leading to the body compensating by shortening the lever length of the spine in order to make it easier to extend the hips.

Today I’m going to cover the setup.

Here are the 10 cues I usually use when teaching the start position of the conventional deadlift, up to the point where the bar leaves the floor, with some explanatory notes for each.

Coaching Cues.

1 – Weight distribution.

This is simple – set up to deadlift then bring your big toe up to touch the material of your shoe/slipper. Immediately your weight will be put towards the rear of the foot and you won’t be able to transfer weight on to solely the ball/front of the foot. Feel where that is, then curl your toe back down into the floor and feel your weight come forward over the bar. Go back and forth a few times till you can easily feel your weight distribution over the foot, then aim for a “mid-foot” compromise or a little bias towards the heel. Which works best will vary but you never want the weight on the front of the foot.

2 – Shin Vertical or as close as possible to vertical.

Regardless of an individual lifters limbs lengths etc, when the bar breaks the floor and starts picking up speed you’ll see a vertical shin. The closer you can get to this at the point of set up, the better. How close to vertical you get will depend on your limb lengths relative to the length of your spine. What you don’t want is an exaggeratedly low hip with the knees pushed out miles over the bar.

3 – Highest hip possible whilst maintaining neutral or slightly arched lumbar spine.

I believe in setting the hip height high and then dipping slightly to initiate the lift. Done this way there is pre-stretch of the hamstrings AND a little scope for dipping down before initiating leg drive. Again, DON’T drop the hips low into a pseudo squat position! Get down to the bar by pushing your hips back and arching, like a Romanian deadlift, and once you get a little hamstring pre-stretch, then bend the knee to reach the bar. Done right you will maintain some hamstring pre-stretch.

4 – Abs are pushed into thighs.

Crouch over in a position similar to the deadlift start, but let your stomach rest on your thighs. Now take a small breath and violently “push out” to drive your belly down into your thighs/hip. Do this alongside cue 5.

5 – Small arch is created by –

Shoulder back and down – left shoulder into the right back pocket, right shoulder into left back pocket. Drive your shoulder blades DOWN towards the hips, not up or back like a rowing movement. This ties in with trying to bend the bar around the shins and externally rotate the shoulder. The two cues I use here and to bend the bar around the shins, and to rotate the elbows outwards.  Done right this will create a lot of tension in the upper back muscles, “lock” the upper back in place and produce a stiffer lever (the torso) for the muscles of the hips to act upon.

6 – Pack the neck

Again, set up as if you’re about to deadlift, then extend the neck, making it as long as possible, so your head is as far in front of the bar as it can be. Now shorten the neck back down, drawing the head in closer; just make the neck as short as you can without tucking the chin down or lifting it up.

7 – Neutral head

look at the ground in front of you – pick a spot on the floor as a point of focus. Don’t crane your head back and up any more than occurs naturally when you set the upper back tension.

8 – You and the bar are a see saw.

Everything behind the bar is on one side of the see saw. The bar and everything in front of it is on the other. Take the slack out of the bar and set final hip height with a “see saw” motion – hips back, chest high, then “rock” your weight back towards your mid-foot / heels and ARCH ARCH ARCH! Your hips will dip a tiny bit lower and you’ll feel your body get “behind” the bar. You’ll know you are in the right place because you will feel like you would fall on your ass if you were to let go of the bar. If possible video your pulls and see what happens to your bar path when you do this. For most lifters, this will stop them “scooping the knee” and lead to a bar path that is closer to vertical through most of the pull. *(By the way, Iron Path is a nice FREE app that lets you trace bar path on iPhone, I use it all the time to give lifters visual feedback.)

9 – Lock off and push the world away.

Start the lift by using all the upper back tension and hip tension you’ve generated to squeeze the bar up into the top edge of the plate holes, then push the feet into the floor. I like to imagine that the bar is going to stay still but I’m going to push the planet away instead.

10 – Hips through.

As early as possible we want the hips to be coming forward. Get the glutes, hamstrings and erectors maximally involved as early as possible.

A quick drill.

The drill I make the most use of for setting up is a Barbell Roll in against band tension. We use very light weight for these but will work up to a decent amount of band tension.

Pic 4. Setup with shoulders forward, hips too high, weight on the toes, etc.

Pic 5. Rolling the bar in and lowering the hips, using the above cues to build upper back tension, torso stability and hopefully some hamstring pre-stretch.

Pic 6. the end position with the bar pinned hard against your shins. Hold for a count of three then return to the start position.

In between sets take off the band tension and go through a couple of reps of deadlift, trying to mimic the tension you created in the banded setup drill before initiating the lift. For most lifters, this will be WAY more tension than they are accustomed to at set up, and it really ingrains the feeling of “tightness” that you want.

Next time I‘ll cover what happens after the bar comes off the floor, and discuss some more drills, cues and exercises I have found useful.

Gavin Laird is a gym owner, Powerlifting and strength coach based in Inverness, Scotland. For 20 years he has worked with individual clients and sports teams at all levels to improve their strength for a variety of sports.  Since returning to coaching Powerlifters in 2013 Gavin’s lifters have broken over 80 Scottish records, several British records and have represented Scotland or GB at the IPF Commonwealth, European and World championships and GPC European and World championships Members of his Forge Gym have also won Scotland’s Strongest Man (5 years running), Scotland’s Natural Strongest Man (2017) and competed at World’s Strongest Man. In 2016 Gavin was awarded the SportScotland Highland “High-Performance Coach of the Year” award.

Outside of Coaching and running the gym Gavin designs and manufactures gym equipment and develops the R-INOL system of monitoring training load.

You can contact The Forge Gym at

Highland Barbell Club at

And for coaching enquiries (1-1 only, no online coaching!) contact Gavin at

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