A good deadlifter is an athlete that can maintain a clean and consistent bar path with every single rep.
What is the best deadlift bar path? The best deadlift bar path, regardless of whether you pull sumo or conventional, is a straight, vertical line that runs up and down, in line with the middle of the foot from start to finish.
Although this sounds fairly simple to achieve, there are several deadlifting mistakes that affect the bar path and can be seen in many beginners and even intermediates. Continuing to leave the bar path unaddressed will ultimately compromise the quality of your deadlift, your strength potential and maybe even put you at risk of injury.
In the article we will go through what the best bar path looks like, why it’s important for you, the common mistakes I see, as well as tips to fix those mistakes and get you on the road to a stronger pull.
Best Bar Path For Deadlifting
In short: the best bar path for deadlifting is when the bar is only moving upward.
Everything you do with your body during a deadlift is to accommodate the fact that the bar is going to be moving in a vertical line up your body. The bar doesn’t move out of the way for us, we move out of the way for it.
This principle does not change based on whether you are doing conventional or sumo deadlifts. The only thing that will change is the exact timing for when muscles fire, joints move, and to what degree each muscle is recruited.
A conventional deadlift places your shins and knees over the bar more so than in a sumo deadlift. Therefore, the degree of knee extension in order to maintain a straight bar path is greater with conventional. However, both lifts still require knee extension for a vertical bar path to be achieved.
Why Is It Important Keeping A Straight Bar Path For Deadlift
It’s important to keep a straight bar path for the deadlift because it keeps the movement as efficient as possible, fires the right muscles, keeps you stable, and will protect your lower back.
The point of lifting weight, especially as a powerlifter, is to move the most amount of weight up. In order to do that, you need to make things as easy as possible for yourself. Maintaining a vertical, straight bar path ensures your body does the bare minimum to get the weight up to lockout.
Additionally, while deviating from a straight bar path may not be significantly noticeable at lighter working weight, it may be what makes or breaks a 1 rep max or competition attempt.
Beyond just being efficient, having a vertical bar path is like a stamp of approval that you are engaging the right muscles at the right time. If your legs, back, or core are not focused on the task at hand, your bar path will reflect it.
Further, knowing that the right muscles are firing at the right time means you’re not placing undue stress on areas like your lower back. Many former novices, myself included, usually have a story of a back “tweak” or two from their earliest days of lifting and it usually stems from a poor setup which leads to a wonky bar path.
Finally, fixing your bar path can also reduce the amount of swaying or losing balance that can sometimes occur during deadlifts. When the bar is moving efficiently, it isn’t moving back into your body or away from it, resulting in a more stable deadlift.
I wrote an entire article on how to deadlift without hitting your knees, which in large part has to do with an improper bar path.
Therefore, if you’re looking to reach your potential with the deadlift and ensure longevity, taking the time to assess your bar path will be worthwhile.
Deadlift Bar Path Mistakes
Common mistakes with the bar path all stem from not firing the right muscles at the right time or setting up the deadlift incorrectly:
Deadlift Bar Path Mistake #1: Bar Starts Too Far Away From Body
Starting with the bar too far from your body is a mistake often seen in beginners and is usually the result of not setting up correctly over the midfoot. This mistake requires your bar to move both upward and then backwards into your body in order to lockout.
Deadlift Bar Path Mistake #2: Bar Moves Off Of Body After Pulling
Letting the bar move away from you during the deadlift is another common mistake especially with conventional. This comes from not engaging your lats and giving the shoulders too much freedom to move. This mistake takes what is supposed to be an upward path to be an upward, outward then backward bar path.
If you find that this happens to you, read my article on Do Pull-Ups Help Deadlifts where I explain how developing some upper back strength can transfer to a more optimal bar path.
Deadlift Bar Path Mistake #3: The Knees Don’t Extend At The Right Time
Not extending your knees at the right time or at all will affect your deadlift bar path and is a result of not firing your quads and moving your shins and knees out of the way. Or alternatively, extending your knees too quickly and turning the deadlift into a stiff leg deadlift.
If you look at the start position of a proper deadlift, you’ll notice that a straight line up and down would cross directly through your knee joint. Meaning that unless your knees move out of the way at some point you’ll either hit them or you’ll compromise your bar path by moving around them.
Check out my article on the hips rising too fast in the deadlift and what to do about it if you experience this problem.
Deadlift Bar Path Mistake #4: Back Angle And Hip Height Are Off
Not choosing the right back angle, or hip height will significantly limit the amount of strength you can harness because your bar path will be inefficient since you’re recruiting the wrong muscles at the wrong time, resulting in your low back taking far too much stress than needed.
Check out my other article discussing the most optimal back angle for deadlifts, which will help you keep the right bar path.
11 Tips For Achieving The Right Deadlift Bar Path
Here are my 11 tips for maintaining the right bar path for deadlifts:
- Engage your lats
- Push the floor
- Start with shins close to the bar
- Keep your chest over the bar
- Keep your arms long
- Adjust your back angle
- Look for scraping or use baby powder
- Record your lifts
- Look for movement or strength deficiencies
- Wear proper shoes
- Improve lower body mobility
1. Engage Your Lats
Engage your lats, shoulders down, protect your pits.
Whichever version of this cue makes more sense to you, it doesn’t matter, just don’t ignore your lats in the deadlift. Your lats are responsible for depressing your scapula and subsequently keeping the barbell close to your body throughout the lift.
The cue of “protect the pits,” is a common one in the powerlifting community because it’s a simple way to help the lifter visualize needing to cover their armpits thereby depressing the shoulder blade and engaging the lats.
Read more about deadlifting cues that you can use to improve your technique.
2. Push the Floor
In order to pull with a vertical bar path, your knees and shins have to move out of the way.
The best way to get your knees out of the way is to think about literally pushing the ground as if it’s a leg press machine. A common sign that you’re not doing this correctly, especially with conventional deadlifts, is scraping or bruising your shins, knocking the bar into your knees or even ending with soft knees at the top.
While a deadlift is often referred to as a “pull,” the right way to initiate the lift is by creating tension through your legs and pushing down into the ground and moving out of the way of the moving bar.
If you do scrape your shins excessively, I recommend getting a pair of deadlift shin guards. Check out my article that reviews the top shin guards.
3. Start with Shins Close to the Bar
If you start far from the bar, you will stay far from the bar.
Before even contemplating pulling the bar up, make sure your shins are in contact with the barbell. They will eventually move out of the way (see tip 2), but in order to have a vertical bar path, the bar must start in the same position it will end, which is right over the middle of your foot.
If the bar is several inches in front of your shins to start it means you are starting with the bar over your toes instead of midfoot. Therefore, to lock out the deadlift you’ll be forced to move the bar back toward your body at some point and consequently have an inefficient bar path.
4. Keep Your Chest over the Bar (Conventional)
If you try to straighten your back before your legs have done their job you will end up with a wonky bar path and an inefficient lift.
This tip applies more for those who pull conventional since the back angle in the sumo stance doesn’t change nearly as much throughout the lift.
If you do not keep your chest over the bar you’ll pull it into your body prematurely and take it off course and result in the deadlift looking more like a squat than a deadlift.
In order to keep the bar traveling up your legs in a straight line, you can’t rush, rather wait until the bar has cleared your knees and you’re ready to lockout to straighten out.
5. Keep Your Arms “long”
When deadlifting, your arms are there to hold the bar and remain motionless, keeping your arms “long” will prevent any swaying away from the vertical bar path.
If you’re noticing shrugging of the shoulders or rolling back of the shoulders at the top of the deadlift, your arms are doing too much. This issue will add extra unnecessary movement to your bar path and even put you at risk of injury.
While this may not be the solution for everyone, switching from a double overhand or mixed grip to a hook grip entirely eliminated this problem for me.
If hook grip hurts and you aren’t keen on making the switch, try thinking of having super long arms, so long that you can visualize them dislocating.
This cue may sound exaggerated, but when paired with keeping your lats engaged (see tip 1), it will ensure your upper body is in the most optimal position to prevent the bar from straying away.
If your hips are shifting in the deadlift as well, then check out my article How To Fix Hip Shift In The Deadlift (10 Tips).
6. Adjust Your Back Angle
The underlying cause for a poor bar path or movement pattern may be because your hips are simply in the wrong starting position.
Anecdotally I’ve struggled with deadlifts for many years because I was unable to find the sweet spot for my hips, either going too low or too high.
Hips that are too low will make your deadlift feel like a leg-only, squat exercise while hips that are too high turn into a back-only exercise akin to a stiff leg deadlift or Romanian deadlift.
The right angle or spot for your hips will depend on your personal anatomy as well as whether you are performing a sumo or conventional deadlift, to find out more check out our article here.
7. Look for Scraping or Use Baby Powder
If recording your lifts isn’t giving you enough clues as to where the bar is traveling, look for bruising or scraping to tell you exactly where the bar has made contact with your body.
Bruised and scraped shins but clear thighs? You’re likely not extending your knees early enough (see tip 2). Clear shins and clear thighs? The bar has likely strayed too far from your body and you need to keep it closer.
Clear shins, but scraping on your thighs? You’re likely maintaining a good bar path.
A visual way you can check for this is by using baby powder on the front of your legs and checking where and if any of it is being wiped off during the set. Visualizing wiping baby powder off your thighs may also be a useful cue!
I wrote an entire article on why powerlifters use baby powder in the deadlifts, so if this is the first time you’re hearing about it then check out my other post.
8. Record Your Lifts
Thinking and repeating cues is great, but to know whether you’re actually executing on the changes is key.
Recording is a great way to see where your bar is currently tracking. You can take a look at both how the bar and your body are moving throughout.
If your phone offers a slow motion recording feature this could help pinpoint trouble areas; Alternatively, there are apps available, like the “Iron Path” which draws your bar path for you on screen.
Tip: make sure your camera is always recording from a side angle (90 degrees to your body) and isn’t slightly positioned in front or behind you because you won’t be able to assess as accurately.
9. Address Strength Deficiencies
While you may rationally know what a good deadlift set up looks like, you may have strength deficiencies holding you back from expressing the ideal form.
Some signs of strength deficiencies that can affect your bar path include: the hips shooting up at the start of the lift, knees still bent or “soft” in the top half of the lift, knees straightening out too soon or shoulders not staying depressed.
These problems can appear from learning to do the deadlift incorrectly, but they can also appear because of a relative weakness in a key area.
For example, hips rising too early can be from having a relative weakness in your quads and shoulders shifting in the deadlift may be a lat muscle weakness
To address strength issues add exercises that focus on your weak areas like deficit deadlifts or paused deadlifts for your legs, try snatch-grip deadlifts for your back and straight arm pulldowns for your lats.
10. Wear Proper Shoes
Lifting starts in the feet and your choice of footwear will either help or hurt you in the long run.
If you deadlift in squat shoes you are running the risk of being pitched too far over the bar and increasing your range of motion. Additionally, if you are in regular running shoes your feet are not able to plant into the ground well enough and you’ll be unstable throughout the lift causing small movements of the bar.
When I first started learning how to lift I would wear my heeled squat shoes to deadlift thinking it was a smart decision when in reality it was making the deadlift harder than it needed to be.
For deadlifts the goal is for your foot to be as close to barefoot which I now achieve by wearing Sabo deadlift shoes (click to read my full review of this shoe). Or, check out my article on the Best Shoes for Deadlifts.
11. Improve Lower Body Mobility
If you’re finding it uncomfortable to lift with good positioning you may need to address your mobility or flexibility.
In conventional, it will likely be the hamstrings that will give you grief and in sumo, it will likely be the hips. It’s also possible for tight calves to limit you in both variations if you’re finding you can’t get your shins to the bar comfortably at the start.
If there is just some discomfort you may be able to fix the issue with a more tailored warm-up routine for the trouble area. A combination of foam rolling the hamstrings, calves and hips as well as dynamic stretching and activation of the muscles may be enough to get you comfortable.
If you have a bigger issue than can be fixed with a comprehensive warm-up, you may want to switch deadlift variations in the short term while you incorporate more exercises and drills into your routine to improve your mobility.
Some exercise examples could include:
- Romanian deadlifts for the hamstrings
- Sumo stance goblet squats for the hips
- Slow eccentric calf raises for the calves
A deadlift is a lift where the bar starts over the midfoot and ends over the midfoot with no deviations between point A and B.
Assessing your bar path comes down to perfecting your set-up and the way you fire your muscles during the pull. However, once you identify the issue and practice it enough times you’re sure to see your confidence rise along with your overall strength.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.