When you deadlift, you want to lift the weight off the floor as efficiently as possible. A problem you might come across is having the barbell hit your knee caps on the way up, which will force you to lose momentum and have a hard time locking the weight out.
So, how do you deadlift without hitting your knees? To stop a barbell from hitting your knees in the deadlift, you need to keep your armpits above the bar in the start position and ensure your knees extend first during the bottom half of the lift, rather than your hips. You may also need exercises to reinforce good positioning like the paused deadlift.
In this article, I will take you through everything you need to know about this technique issue. You will learn about whether it is even a problem, why it happens and get a list of possible solutions for this occurrence.
Is Hitting Your Knees A Problem When You Deadlift?
Yes, hitting your knees is a problem when you deadlift. You should be concerned with this technique if it starts to occur and make it a priority to correct. Hitting your knees can:
- Make it harder to lockout
- Cause soft tissue damage to the knee structure
- Force certain muscle groups to work harder than necessary
- Cause skin abrasions leading to bruising or bleeding
When you deadlift, you need to understand that you want to make this movement as efficient as possible and minimize any unnecessary difficulty with it. The deadlift requires picking up a barbell and fighting against the force of gravity.
When the barbell hits your knee cap, you gain extra friction between the barbell and the legs. This friction means you need to pull even harder than necessary.
Want to improve your deadlift technique?
Why Are You Hitting Your Knees When Deadlifting? (4 Reasons)
The barbell hitting the knees during the deadlift can happen for several reasons.
It happens when the bar is no longer travelling along the surface of the legs, but rather into the leg. It can also happen due to your body not being in the right position at the right times throughout the movement or weaknesses in certain muscles.
The 4 reasons why you might be hitting your knees when deadlifting are:
- Misunderstanding correct positioning
- Sitting back too much
- Thinking about “pulling” too soon
- Poor posterior chain strength
Misunderstanding correct positioning
Understanding where the shoulders need to be can be a little confusing when people say having the shoulders above the bar or shoulders over the bar.
The arms will act like a rope that is attached to the bar during deadlifts. If the shoulders are behind the barbell, the barbell will act like a pendulum and lean into the leg and consequently lean into the knee cap.
What the correct position should look like from the side view is that the armpit crease should be directly above the bar and that the front of the shoulder should be slightly over and in front of the bar.
If you nail this position, you’ll drastically reduce the chance the barbell hits your kneecaps. The struggle a lot of lifters have is that they can usually perform the first rep with shoulder positioning, but as they cycle through reps become less consistent.
The key is to ensure that every time the barbell returns to the floor, you actively place your shoulders in the correct position in relation to the barbell. This is why I’m not a fan of touch and go deadlifts.
Sitting back too much
The nature of the deadlift involves holding onto a weight that pulls your bodyweight forward, so naturally we may try and lever ourselves to lean back slightly.
The problem with this is that during execution, if a cueing attempt to sit back is too excessive, we bring our shoulders behind the bar and kick our knees forward. When we do this, the barbell can no longer go up in a straight line and the knees will kick into the barbell.
In other words, don’t treat the deadlift like a squat. The hips should always be above the plane of the knee.
If you sit back too much, you'll also have other issues, such as an improper deadlift bar path.
Thinking about “pulling” too soon
The range of motion for the deadlift can be broken down into two portions: the bottom half and the top half.
The bottom half refers to the range of motion from the floor to the knees and the top half refers to the range of motion from the knees to lockout.
Throughout the range of motion the hips and knees are extending together simultaneously. During the bottom half, there is more leg extension and more of a “pushing” type execution, and the top half is more of a “pulling” type execution.
I like to teach my athletes to “push the floor away” in the start by using the quad muscles, and then to finish the lift by “pulling the hips to the barbell” by using the glute muscles.
If the lifter thinks about “pulling” too soon before the barbell has passed the knee cap, they may end up pulling the barbell into the knees on the way up. The solution to this is to be patient and finish with the hips only when the barbell has passed the knee cap.
If you’re weak off the floor in the deadlift, check out my article that discusses 7 ways to fix it.
Poor posterior chain strength
The deadlift places a large demand on your posterior chain muscles.
These are the muscles that are behind you, for example, the glutes, hamstrings and back muscles.
When the barbell is around the knees, the muscles such as the hamstrings are when it is at its longest muscle length. If these muscles are weak, you will naturally avoid loading a position if those muscles cannot handle it.
What you might do as a result is to lean back and bend your knees to avoid too much tension on those posterior chain muscles. Consequently, your barbell will hit your knees.
We’ll discuss certain exercises to implement in the next section.
If you want to learn about which muscle groups are involved in different ranges of the deadlift, read my article on What Muscles Are Used In The Deadlift.
5 Tips To Deadlifting Without Hitting Your Knees
Different solutions may be more suited for the different reasons when you hit your knees during the deadlift. Here are 5 tips to deadlifting without hitting your knees:
- Think about pushing away from the floor
- Keep the shoulders over the bar
- Train romanian deadlifts
- Train paused deadlifts
- Train tempo eccentric deadlifts
Think about pushing away from the floor
The mental cue of pressing away from the floor encourages the knees to extend so they move backwards and out of the way for the bar to be able to travel up in a straight line without the knees getting in the way.
It is also helpful to think about pressing through the floor with your heels as people whose centre of gravity is too far over the toes often experience hitting the knees. This solution is good for those who think too much about “pulling” the bar or sitting back too much.
What to learn more about cues for the deadlift, then read my article on the Top 10 Deadlifting Cues.
Keep the shoulders over the bar
Making sure that the shoulder positioning is correct will ensure that the barbell will not act like a pendulum to swing into the legs and hit the knees on the way up.
The barbell should hang naturally below your shoulders without the barbell pressing into the legs.
To implement this, make sure to take videos of your deadlift from the side angle and then draw a straight line down from your shoulders to the barbel. You might be surprised about where your shoulders are in relation to the barbell.
Also monitor how your shoulder position changes as the weight gets heavier or as you get closer to your fatigue limit.
Train romanian deadlifts
The romanian deadlift is a very good exercise to train the posterior chain especially the hip extensors, which include the hamstrings and the glutes.
This exercise trains these muscles through a longer muscle length and so will give you the capacity to maintain good positioning when you need to during conventional deadlifts.
This solution fits those who try their best to maintain good positioning but struggle at higher intensities or more difficult sets. For more information, check out this article comparing the deadlift to the Romanian deadlift.
Train paused deadlifts
The paused deadlift is a good exercise variation where the barbell is paused momentarily at about 1 inch off the floor.
This exercise punishes you if you are not in a good position.
If your shoulders are in a bad position relative to the bar, then the barbell will do one of two things. Either the barbell digs into your shin at the pause meaning your shoulders are too far back or the barbell will drift away from the shin if the shoulders are too far in front.
This solution is useful for anyone who wants to reinforce where good technique needs to be and does not have any particularly weak muscle groups. For more details on how to execute this, check out our guide on the paused deadlift.
Train tempo eccentric deadlifts
Tempo eccentric deadlifts are when the lowering portion of the repetition is performed at a much slower pace than usual.
This increases time under tension for the movement and takes advantage of the fact that the eccentric portion of an exercise fatigues last.
A recommended time for the eccentric or lowering portion of the deadlift can be anywhere between 3 to 5 seconds.
This solution is a good alternative to the paused deadlift and equally trains the posterior chain if you find these muscle groups weak.
Hitting your knees in the deadlift may not be a catastrophic error in technique but it is a sign of inefficiency in the execution.
For optimal gains in performance, these are small issues that should be solved especially if you are a competitive powerlifter.
Choosing the cue solutions are the easiest and quickest to implement to see if it fixes the execution problem. If it does not, then it may be useful to implement some exercise variations to escalate the intervention.
About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach
Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com