Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

The Deadlift Set-up

by Phil Meggers, SSC | April 06, 2021

deadlift start position

You’re a new lifter, but you’ve done your homework. You’ve read The Blue Book and watched the videos, so when it comes to setting up for your deadlift, you’re prepared, and you know the five step setup:

  1. Take a narrow stance with your shins one inch from the bar.
  2. Bend at the waist and take a narrow grip on the bar.
  3. Bend your knees to bring your shins to the bar.
  4. Squeeze your chest up.
  5. Drag the bar up your legs.

The purpose of step four is to set the back in rigid extension – to turn the back into a straight and immovable segment capable of efficiently transferring force. However, with new lifters, there can often be some confusion between back extension, both lower and thoracic (which we want), and shoulder retraction (which we don’t want).

correct deadlift start position vs error due to retracted scapulas

Joy setting up with good thoracic extension on the left. Joy setting up incorrectly with shoulder retracting on the right. 

Retracting your shoulders, i.e., trying to pull your scapulas back behind you, is a waste of effort in the deadlift for a number of reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly, retracted shoulders do not contribute to back extension. Second, when pulling a heavy deadlift, your shoulders will not remain retracted anyway (you’re welcome to try, and good luck to you), which means you’ve simply introduced unnecessary slack into your setup. Finally, when you retract your shoulders, you effectively make your arms shorter, and while short arms may be an advantage in the bench press, they most certainly are not an advantage when setting up to pull a heavy weight off the floor.

If you pull your scapulas back when setting up to pull, the solution here is to stop trying to do anything at all with your shoulders when setting up to pull. Not surprisingly, the word “shoulders” is never mentioned in the five step setup. Simply squeeze your chest up to flatten your back, and then drag the bar up your shins. Keep it simple and don’t introduce any unnecessary variables into your setup process. Your deadlift will thank you.

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