Every lifter will have a different point of failure in the deadlift. You’ll start to recognize these points when you’re getting close to your fatigue limit or the load gets heavier. These are often called “sticking points” or “weak points” within the range of motion.
So what should you do if your deadlift is weak at the knees? If you’re weak at the knees in the deadlift it means that you have a hard time transferring the loading demands from your knees to the hips. As such, you should implement hip-dominant exercises into your training program, such as banded deadlifts, pause deadlifts, and block deadlifts.
In addition to targeting the muscle groups that are responsible for a specific deadlift weakness at the knee, you need to ensure you have proper technique and positioning to maximize your efficiency in the mid-range of the movement.
We’ll cover the proper deadlift technique along with 5 actionable tips that you can start right away in your training to build strength at the knees. Let’s get started!
I wrote a similar article to this if you find that your sticking point is at the start of the deadlift. Check out Is Your Deadlift Weak Off The Floor?
Why Is Your Deadlift Weak At The Knees?
Assessing your deadlift weaknesses are pretty simple.
There are only 2 reasons why you would have a sticking point at the knee in the deadlift:
1. The muscles responsible for strength in the mid-range are underdeveloped
2. The technique in the mid-range is not optimal for producing efficient amounts of force
Once you’ve identified the root of the problem, whether weak muscles, weak technique, or both, you can start implementing fixes that will help you build strength in the areas that matter the most.
Let’s cover these two reasons in more detail.
Weak Muscles In The Deadlift: Mid-Range
If you don’t know which muscles are responsible throughout the different phases of the deadlift then I highly encourage you to read my article on What Muscles Are Used In The Deadlift.
In short, the deadlift muscles you use at the bottom vs mid vs top-end range of motion are very different.
At the start of the movement, the quads will need to work the hardest in order to extend the knee and get the barbell to the mid-range. However, once the barbell is at the knee, the loading demand shifts from the knee extensors (quads) to the hip extensors (glutes).
You can think of the muscle activation in the deadlift as a sliding scale from more quads in the bottom and more glutes at the top. So as you pull the barbell up there is less quad activation and more and more glute activation.
As the loading demands shift to the hip extensors at the knees, if your glutes are weak, then you will have a hard time maintaining the speed of the barbell through the mid-range.
Takeaway: If you’re weak at the knee in the deadlift it may be due to having underdeveloped glute muscles.
Weak Technique In The Deadlift: Mid Range
There are several aspects to your deadlift technique that can contribute to making the lift difficult at the knees.
No matter if you’re built a certain way, whether you’re tall or short, have long arms or short arms, there are technical principles that every lifter needs to follow if you want to be in the most optimal position to produce force at the knees in the deadlift.
Related Article: Deadlifting With Shorts Arms: 4 Tricks For Bigger Pulls
Let’s review those technical principles now!
Don’t Grip The Barbell Too Wide
If you grip the barbell too wide then you are automatically pulling the barbell extra distance than necessary.
The greater the distance the barbell needs to travel to complete the movement, the more work you will have to perform (Work = Force X Distance).
If you can shorten the range of motion, then your sticking point at the knee won’t be as drastic. So it’s to your benefit to try to optimize this point of leverage as much as you can.
Takeaway: So where should your grip width be on the deadlift? You should grip the barbell no greater than shoulder-width apart.
Read my article on How To Grip The Bar In The Deadlift
Adjust Your Stance Width
Similar to the technique point above, if your stance is too wide then you will be pulling the barbell extra distance.
This is a common fault of most beginners. They stand with their feet outside of shoulder-width, which adds several inches to the deadlift range of motion.
Additionally, when you stand in a wide stance, your glutes need to work a lot harder in the bottom-end of the deadlift in order to handle the greater external hip rotation demands that are now required.
As such, you are fatiguing your glutes unnecessarily in the bottom of the movement, so by the time you get to the mid-range they are already fatigued and may not be strong enough to lock-out the deadlift.
Takeaway: For most lifters, you should stand with your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly inside this width.
Keep The Barbell On You
If the barbell breaks contact with your body in the mid-range then you will find yourself losing stability and balance.
Rather than solely focused on producing vertical force, bringing the barbell straight up, you now have to deal with horizontal force, preventing the barbell from pulling you forward.
This force imbalance will make the lift exceptionally difficult at the knees. It would be similar to driving a car and having your foot on the gas (vertical force), but at the same time having part of your foot on the break (horizontal force).
Takeaway: Keep the barbell on your shins and thighs throughout the entire range of motion.
Back Should Not Be Parallel To The Floor
When you get to the mid-range, spend some time analyzing your torso position. What you want to avoid is a torso position that has your back parallel to the floor when the barbell is at the knee..
If your back is parallel to the floor it might be because your hips were rising too quickly at the start of the movement. In other words, they popped up too quickly, which left your knees relatively straight by the time you got to the mid-range.
If you’re in a position where your torso is parallel to the floor and your legs are near straight, then you’ll be placing a lot of loading demand on your low back and hamstrings in the mid-range versus your glutes.
Takeaway: Having your torso angle closer to 45-degrees will allow your glutes to work properly once the barbell reaches the knee.
Read more on the optimal hip position and torso angle in my article on What Is The Best Deadlift Back Angle?
Back Shouldn’t Be Rounded
While there are some exceptions to back rounding in the deadlift, which I explain in my article on the Round Back Deadlift, most lifters need to strive for having a neutral spine while lifting.
If your back is rounded during the mid-range of the deadlift, especially your low or mid-back, your spinal erectors are getting a lot of stress in this position.
So even if your glutes are strong enough in the mid-range to handle the loading demands, your back might give out before your glutes have a chance to perform properly.
Takeaway: Aim to keep your back straight while deadlifting, either by cueing your spine and hips to be in a neutral position or by strengthening your posterior chain muscles.
Read my article on How To Keep Your Back Straight While Deadlifting
5 Tips To Eliminate Weakness At The Knee In The Deadlift
Now that you have an idea of the muscles and technique that contribute to a weakness at the knee in the deadlift, let’s discuss practical tips for your training.
My 5 tips to stop being weak at the knees in the deadlift are:
• Do Glute-Dominant Deadlift Variations
• Master Your Hip Position
• Think About Accelerating Through the Movement
• Cue Flexing Your Armpits
• Increase Your Deadlift Frequency
Let’s go into these tips in greater detail.
1. Do Glute-Dominant Deadlift Variations
Since the glutes are the muscle responsible for producing force at the knee in the mid-range of the deadlift you should implement glute dominant exercise variations.
These are exercises where your hips are required to travel through a greater range of motion compared with any other joint angle. I suggest reading my article on the Best Deadlift Accessories to get a complete list of exercise ideas to target your glutes.
However, my top 3 exercises for building glute strength are:
Banded deadlifts are when you attached a band to the barbell, increasing the loading demand of the movement as you stand up.
This exercise will force you to drive harder through the mid-range of motion than you otherwise would without the band. As such, your glutes are activated to a greater extent.
Read my full guide on the Banded Deadlift.
Paused deadlifts are when you bring the barbell up and then pause it somewhere between the ankle and the knee for 1-2 seconds.
If you’re weak at the knee in the deadlift, then you will want to implement the pause at your sticking point. As such, you would pause just below the knee or at the knee. After the pause, the goal is to explode out of that position as fast as possible.
Block deadlifts are when you start with the barbell at the knees on blocks, eliminating the bottom end range of motion.
This will take away the role of the quads in the deadlift, and automatically force your glutes to produce force to bring the barbell off the blocks. If you don’t have blocks, you can substitute it with a rack pull.
Read my full guide on the Block Deadlift.
2. Master Your Hip Position
Your hips need to be in the right position by the time the barbell gets to the knee.
The hips should not be sitting too far down, or alternatively, they should not be too high up.
The optimal position for your hips to be in when the barbell is at the knee allows your shoulders to be stacked directly in line with the barbell and your torso angle as close to a 45-degree angle as possible.
This will allow you to transfer the loading demands from your knees to your hips in the most efficient manner, avoiding the overuse of your hamstrings and low back.
If you’ve never taken a video of your deadlift from a side angle before then I encourage you to do so. Stop the video when the barbell is at the knee and take a look at your hip position.
If you draw a line straight down from your shoulders does it connect with the barbell?
Is the angle of your torso halfway between vertical and parallel to the floor (45-degrees)?
Is there still a slight bend in your knees or are they completely locked?
Try and become consistent with this position, and over time, you’ll find yourself lifting the barbell more smoothly in the mid-range.
3. Think About Accelerating Through The Movement
A sticking point in the mid-range will be represented by a deceleration of the barbell around the knee.
What you need to understand is that if you can pull the barbell with more speed as you enter the sticking point, then you have greater potential to carry the bar further into the range of motion before reaching muscular failure.
For example, let’s say you have a 3-inch sticking point at the knee in the deadlift. If you pull slowly off the floor, and subsequently, slowly into the sticking point, then you may only get 1-inch into your sticking point before the bar slows down and you fail the lift.
However, if you pull explosively off the floor, and subsequently, as fast as possible into the sticking point, then you may get through the entire 3-inch sticking point before the bar slows down and stops.
As such, you should think about being as explosive as possible and accelerate through the entire range of motion. Don’t be lazy as you enter your sticking point. Apply maximum force at all times.
4. Cue “Flexing” Your Armpits
The cue of “flexing” your armpits is to ensure that your lats are tight throughout each stage of the movement, but in particular, the mid-range.
If your lats begin to lose tightness in the mid-range, then when the barbell gets to the knees it will have more potential to break contact with the body.
As I mentioned earlier, if the barbell breaks contact with your thighs then the load will want to pull you forward (the opposite of where you want the barbell to go in the deadlift).
Additionally, once the barbell leaves the body, your mid and low back are more likely to start rounding as they will be taking on a greater loading demand compared with your glutes. This will make it incredibly difficult to get the barbell passed your knees in the deadlift.
A lot of lifters like the cue “flex your armpits”, but if it doesn’t work for you, find something where the outcome is that your lats are as tight as possible. Other cues would be “tight lats” or “pull the lats down”.
Read my guide on the Top 10 Deadlift Cues. Cue #4 is where I talk about “flexing your armpits”.
5. Increase Your Deadlift Frequency
Some people choose to deadlift every day.
While I don’t recommend that sort of extreme programming, I would suggest increasing your deadlifting frequency, especially if you are only currently deadlifting once per week.
If that’s the case, you could consider upping your deadlifting workouts to 2-3 times per week.
You could breakdown those workouts in the following way:
• Workout #1: Heavy deadlift workout
• Workout #2: Moderate deadlift workout focused on a glute-dominant variation
• Workout #3: Light deadlift workout focused on technique and cueing
The benefit of structuring your training like this is that (1) you get more practice with the optimal deadlifting technique, and (2) you boost your training volume, which is a main driver of both muscle gain and strength.
If you’re weak at the knee in the deadlift it’s caused by two primary reasons: (1) you have weak contributing muscle groups, namely the glutes, and (2) you have inefficient technique.
You can improve your deadlift strength at the knees by focusing on deadlifting variations that target your glutes and working on your technique to improve your hip, torso, and shoulder positioning.
In addition, making programming changes, such as increasing deadlifting frequency may assist in breaking through sticking points at the knee.