Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Looking Up in the Deadlift

by Mark Rippetoe | November 15, 2018

eye gaze error in the deadlift

Over the past few years I have seen an odd development in powerlifting meets. The only lift that previously uncluttered the platform with spotters was the deadlift. In the decades I spent competing and announcing meets in the sport, I never saw a lifter lose a deadlift in a way that would have benefited from a spotter standing behind him during a pull. Assuming the spotter is there to catch a lifter falling back, I fail to understand how the lifter's crashing into a spotter standing behind helps either the lifter or the spotter.

I have seen hundreds of missed pulls due to a loss of grip that did not result in the need to rescue the lifter. And the only time I have seen the falling-backwards phenomenon was when the lifter was looking up. And this is why looking up is a very bad idea for every lift except the bench press.

Aside from the mechanics of the lifts – discussed in detail in the book – looking at a point somewhere on the floor is how humans lift things off the floor. An eye gaze directed at the floor is a stationary reference datum for your position in space. Try this for yourself: stand up balanced on both feet, stare at a point on the floor, and pick one foot up, remaining balanced on the other. Now try the same balance test while looking up at the ceiling. You'll immediately see the point of the demonstration.

The distance between your eyes and the point on the floor you're looking at tells your body about your position relative to that point – it's your positional feedback telemetry mechanism. You'll do this naturally in the garage or the barn because you know deep down in your heart that you can get off-balance with the box of parts or the hay bale if your eyes are waving around in the air over your head, giving you no information about your relationship to the load and the floor. But when you go to the gym, you are suddenly okay with a “coach” telling you to look up at the ceiling for some odd reason he cannot explain? “Look up to go up!” is not an explanation – it's just what lots of people say who haven't thought about things very hard.

The deadlift, as well as the squat and the press, and the snatch and the clean & jerk, are most efficiently performed with an eye gaze fixed on a stationary object, the nature of which is dependent on the average position of the neck and head during the lift. The deadlift and the squat feature a non-vertical back angle, and therefore a non-vertical non-overextended neck angle and a natural eye gaze directed at the floor in front of you. Looking up at the ceiling while standing on the floor requires placing your neck in anatomical overextension, and is a bad idea while lifting heavy weights.

Therefore, plan to look at a point on the floor during the squat and pull. A little higher fixed gaze point works best for the snatch and the clean, due to the longer ROM of the lifts. The press uses a mostly vertical back and neck angle, so the eye gaze is directed forward at a fixed position on the wall, and the jerk needs the same gaze point as a press. A neutral neck position is best for your shoulders, your cervical musculature, the rest of your spinal anatomy, and your balance.

Some variation occurs for individual preference. But looking up is never useful unless you're bench pressing. If your eye gaze direction changes during a clean or a snatch – if the eyes follow the change in back angle during the pull, starting low and moving upward during the pull – a “loop” in the bar path is the usual outcome, along with more variation in the bar path than you'll display with a fixed gaze.

If you have been looking up in the deadlift and squat, look at a point on the floor next time you train and see how much it helps. Your hip and back mechanics will improve, and your balance will become a tool you can control rather than a problem to worry about.

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