This video is the example I'm talking about in particular. But outside this, I've heard of and seen people having trouble at the top of a deadlift while not having such trouble at the bottom.

To provide some background, I'm 6' 0" (183 cm) and 175 lbs (80 kg) at 18% bodyfat. This is my "fat weight". I have been working out for 15 months. I'm definitely on the weak side; my recent deadlift max is 315 totally raw. Of all the primitive movement patterns, I focus on the deadlift the most to aid in posture correction as well as building a strong base for future powerlifting or strongman.

I've seen a few deadlift here and there who have trouble at the top of a deadlift, yet not at the bottom. At the bottom such a lifter exhibits proper thoracic extension, but it decays before he reaches the top, typically by a flexed (kyphotic) upper thorax, or rolled-forward shoulders. It seems as if he fails to "lock" his shoulders back before it's too late to do so. I don't understand, because I would think upper thoracic extension would be the most difficult at the bottom of the lift.

Indeed, when I deadlift, I always have the highest difficulty until I have lifted the bar some eight inches (20 cm). I have a computer-nerd life background, so I tend toward a thoracic flexion (kyphosis) in my upper thorax that I still struggle with. I concentrate strongly on throacic extension particularly in my upper thorax, and especially at the bottom of the lift. But whatever I lift, I know if I can lift it 6-8 inches, I can grind through the rest of the movement, even if slowly, and complete the lift.

As always I have a buddy with years more experience than me spot my form during heavy lifts. For my heaviest lifts they say my thoracic extension (particularly the lordosis I put in my lumbar spine) degrades somewhat as I load my spine but it evens out, the weight moves, and my form remains pretty good for that lift.

Simply said, I don't understand how the top of a deadlift can be harder than the bottom. I also don't understand (as the short guy states in the above video) how one can deadlift more with a deficit than without. Can someone explain this to me?

1 Answer 1


When I was coached for the deadlift, I was advised that the first inch is the most important, followed by the distance up to the knee line. Past that you're generally in the clear. That's anecdotal, but it's been true for me and most people I've talked to. Answering your question showed me that at (or around) that point, the quads become less dominant and the load is transferred to the hamstrings and glutes.

If you look at exrx's page on the deadlift, they list a pile of muscles that are involved, and rightly so. But the recruitment and involvement changes as the bar moves north. This is a borrowed graph from a 1999 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showing the electromyograph results of a stiff-leg deadlift. The top box is the recruitment of the bicep femoris, the bottom is the semitendinosus (a.k.a. hamstrings). Each vertical line grid is half a second, so that's roughly a five second deadlift.

enter image description here

And then here's this from the June 2013 Journal of Exercise Physiology (VL being vastus lateralis, a.k.a. quads):

The VL muscle had a peak of activity during the first 20° of the ascent phase due to its role in knee extension and indirectly hip extension (in that the movement is a closed kinetic chain exercise).

This is graph is from the same study, but when reading it realize that the midpoint is the upright and completed deadlift, the far right end tracks the descent and placement of the weight back on the floor. It clearly shows that the VL (quads) are engaging heavily when the hip angle is widest (the first several inches), and tapers off.

enter image description here

So to answer your question, I think you need to realize that the muscle engagement is very different and shifts dramatically as the bar moves. Your glutes and hamstrings are working throughout the lift, but in the beginning it's your quads and lumbar as the primary movers. Knowing that it's an exercise that changes its primary movers (in a big way) throughout the lift, it makes complete sense that certain aspects of the lift are going to be more challenging than others.

From a safety prospective I still would advise anyone to focus on the first inch, if for no other reason than to lock in form and alignment.

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