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At the top of the deadlift (i.e., when you have picked up the barbell), are you supposed to roll your shoulders back? Or are the shoulders supposed to remain the way they were when you grabbed the bar at the bottom position?

In this video — In Depth on the Deadlift with Mark Rippetoe (Starting Strength) — Mark corrects the performer's ending position in the fifth step by telling her to lift her chest, and then he pulls back her shoulders (click the link above).

I am a beginner. I am wondering if that is the right thing to do. I am asking this because I have heard that we are supposed to stay tight and not lose tension anywhere in the body when performing the deadlift and the squat. When I tried to roll back my shoulders as instructed by Mark, I suddenly felt all the weight of the barbell (+ the weights) fall directly on my upper back. This weight shift was so drastic and uncomfortable that I stopped rolling my shoulders back like he said. I don't have a problem with sticking my chest out (or driving my hips into the bar). But that shoulder roll was so bad it felt like the weights were bending me backwards, if that even makes sense. No, I wasn't using heavy weights; I don't have any problem with how much weight I am lifting. Everything was fine and tight and firm, until the moment I rolled my shoulders back like the performer.

From the video, you can see here and here that the performer rolls her shoulders back and she seems a bit uncomfortable doing that. I mean the rolling of the shoulders does not look like a fluid motion. When we grab the bar at the bottom position, our shoulders are internally rotated (i.e., our palms face our shins). It seems to me that Mark is asking us to rotate back our shoulders (and that would naturally cause our palms to face inwards touching the side of our legs). But since we are holding on to the barbell, our palms still face backwards. And for some reason that seems to be one of the source of the discomfort. The other being that rolling the shoulders may lead to losing some tension or tightness, which is what happened to me I guess.

I know Mark's Starting Strength is like a bible; this answer here has it listed at the top for a beginner's guide to the deadlift. I want to know if anyone else here has faced the same problem, i.e., rolling back the shoulders puts a lot of sudden pressure on the upper back. I want to know if one can avoid rolling the shoulders and perform the lift.

I am following some of Alan Thrall's videos on deadlifts and squats. He too follows the 5 steps of Starting Strength. But unlike Mark and the performer, Alan does not readjust his shoulders at the top of the deadlift. He simply sticks his chest out, and does not roll back his shoulders.

So which is correct? Should we roll the shoulders or not?

Edit:

In this video, Quick Deadlift Tip : Shoulder Position / Tight Lats, Alan Thrall explains exactly what I am referring to. It's a very short video; please have a look. Here is what he says:

Today I want to talk about a mistake that I often see when people are setting up for the deadlift. When setting up for the deadlift, the correct shoulder position is down, not shrugged up, and not back. While standing tall with your arms at your side, drive your fingertips down towards the ground. This is where gravity wants your shoulder to be. Grab a pair of heavy dumbbells and stand up tall. Pay attention to where your shoulder-blades want to settle — down — not shrugged up and not pulled back. Setting your shoulder blades down before pulling the weight off of the floor will tighten and engage your lats. Correct shoulder position can be achieved by pulling the slack out of the barbell and pulling the slack out of your setup. ... Failing to engage your lats during the deadlift might be causing your back to round over as you pull. Rolling the shoulders at the top of the deadlift to try and emphasize lockout is an indicator that someone is not setting their shoulders before they pull. This shoulder roll is unnecessary and counterproductive. Set your shoulders in the correct position at the bottom and you will automatically be in the correct position once you get to the top."

Here is a picture from How to Deadlift with Proper Form: The Definitive Guide

enter image description here My lockout position looks like the fourth position. But Mark is saying to have the shoulders farther back like in the second. Doing that after the lockout hurts a bit.

The blog says:

Shrugging or rolling your shoulders at the top is unnecessary. Your traps already work hard to keep your shoulders in position when you Deadlift. There’s no need to add a contraction at the top, and doing it anyway is bad for your shoulders. Let your shoulders hang at the top.

Read more https://stronglifts.com/deadlift/

  • pretty sure this is a duplicate – user33930 Aug 24 at 10:06
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    In Alan Thrall's video he is also finishing in the same position, he just didn't need to pull his shoulders back as an extra step, he was already there. – C. Lange Aug 24 at 14:41
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    The two responses below are both good, but I think that it should be emphasised, also, that the shoulders are not ‘rolled back’, but rather the thoracic is extended fully and shoulders retracted to their natural position—that is, not protracted by the force of the load. And it is that final position that Rippetoe describes as having the chest ‘lifted’. – POD Aug 24 at 22:15
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    "Mark [Rippetoe] is saying to have the shoulders farther back like in the second" – I don't agree. There are four pics: leaning back, overextending, shrugging, neutral. Rippetoe is saying to avoid the unpictured forward hunch, which requires moving the shoulders back to neutral. Ideally the shoulders were there the whole time. When working very close to maximum, that may not be possible, so some shoulder movement at the top is necessary to complete thoracic extension. – Dave Liepmann Aug 25 at 7:09
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    RoundHouse, if your end position looks like Alan's then there is no extra step: that's the end of the rep. If you finish with your shoulders hunched forward, then you need to bring them to neutral. You shouldn't aim to finish the rep with shoulders forward and then roll back, your goal should be to finish with them in the neutral position. The lifter in Mark's video seems to forget this each time and it makes it look like an extra step. If done smoothly, you shouldn't notice. I also think they're exaggerating the steps a bit for the teaching aspect. – C. Lange Aug 25 at 15:58
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Yes, it's the right thing to do. Your shoulders should be retracted at the end of a deadlift rep.

Those videos have the answer. The deadlift is not finished until you achieve full (but not over-) extension, and that includes thoracic extension. "You can't cheat the [deadlift] by leaving your shoulders forward" is exactly correct.

I don't agree that the person demonstrating the deadlift is uncomfortable finishing the thoracic extension part of the deadlift.

If this feels uncomfortable for you, I wonder whether your set-up is correct (i.e. perhaps you are allowing your upper back to round), I suspect your upper back could be weak, and I worry that you – like many many modern people with sedentary jobs – have some trouble with kyphosis. That is, I worry that your shoulders are excessively forward in your everyday posture. Or, maybe you are over-exaggerating the movement into global spinal hyper-extension. These are all possibilities to check out.

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  • Hi Dave, thanks for the answer. Would you mind looking at my edit, please? I linked a short video. I don't find it a problem when I set up with my shoulders and lats engaged at the bottom like Alan did, and then come up and lockout. It is when I lockout after completing step 5, and then roll or pull back my shoulders (is this step 6?). – RoundHouse Aug 24 at 21:20
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    Two things: (1) The video in your added edit tells you not to "lift then roll", but instead to have the shoulders back automatically at the end of the lift: The last two lifts in the video are the way that he recommends, and the 2 lifts before that are demonstrations of what not to do. I personally never had to roll back my shoulders as a separate movement at the end of a deadlift, to get them into the proper position. (2) Even though the video recommends not to do the roll back as a separate movement at the end of a lift, it's not supposed to be as uncomfortable as you're describing. – Nike Dattani Aug 24 at 23:33
  • @RoundHouse None of us can tell if you need to retract your shoulderblades at the top of your deadlift or not, because we aren't watching you deadlift, which we would have to do to see if your shoulders are still rounded forward at the top. Maybe you need to finish extending your thoracic spine at the top, maybe you kept it extended through the lift and so you don't need to further pull them back. A form check video would help. I will note that the cue that helped me was from Oly lifting: "put your shoulderblades in your back pockets". Not back but down. – Dave Liepmann Aug 25 at 7:12
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    I agree with all of Nike's comments, though I have personally had to roll my shoulders back at the end of some 1RM or 2RM deadlifts. What's important is really understanding what correct finished position is and what bad position is, and being able to feel it as you do it. – Dave Liepmann Aug 25 at 7:13
  • @DaveLiepmann Thanks. In this comment I mentioned that a roll back of the shoulders on a 1RM is not to be considered unusual. – Nike Dattani Aug 25 at 17:18
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The 2019 IPF Technical Rules Book includes these items which will lead to your deadlift being disqualified in a competition (see Page 9 of this PDF):

  • "Failure to lock the knees straight at the completion of the lift."
  • "Failure to stand erect with the shoulders back."

You describe a severe amount of agony in ending the deadlift with your shoulders back. That is okay. It just means that you have some weaknesses in certain muscles, especially at the top of the deadlift.

I was a competitive powerlifter for years, and deadlift was my best (and favorite) lift. In 2011, I deadlifted 2.5kg more than the national record for my age and weight category in Canada and the UK, so I have deadlifted a lot in my life, and more weight than most people ever do.

The "lockout" was never a major problem for me on the deadlift (though everyone has their own share of problems: mine for a long time was simply being able to get the bar high enough off the ground when the weight got extremely heavy, and not being able to keep my back from rounding a lot .. once I managed to get the bar high enough off the ground, it was usually not too hard to "finish" and "lockout").

Why did I never have a problem with finishing with my shoulders back? We will probably never know the exact reason, but I loved to do "shrugs" with heavy weights for years before I started deadlifting. Often the first thing I did when I walked in the gym, was a set of shrugs with the heaviest dumbbells I could hold, and I would try to increase the weight every week or so. This is a quick exercise, it's easy, it uses barely any energy and doesn't make you tired, and it lets you look strong because you can likely use dumbbells much heavier than what most people ever dream of touching for other exercises (I was a skinny and whimpy looking guy, so this exercise helped me feel good about myself, which I'm not ashamed to say). I progressed faster through the weight sizes on this exercise, than on any other exercise I can remember, until I started using the heaviest dumbbells in the gym (where it actually starts to become quite a grip-strengthening exercise). Here's the beginning and ending positions for the exercise:

enter image description here

I didn't notice, but I got comments from friends saying that I had "huge traps" (referring to the "trapezius muscle"), which was quite nice to hear since I was the skinniest guy in my class for far too long. Shrugs are for most people the first exercise for which they reach the highest dumbbell weight in their gym, at which point it's time to switch to the bar (where we can put more weight):

These pictures do not depict the exact movement that you need to strengthen at the top of your deadlift, but:

  • This exercise will strengthen your trapezius muscle, which will help you with your problem,
  • Some people when they do shrugs, don't just move their shoulders up but move them up and back, which is exactly what will help you to be able to keep your shoulders back at the top of a deadlift,
  • I credit my love for this exercise during my early years in the gym, for the fact that I never had major problems "locking out" at the top of my deadlift in the way that you describe.

Concluding remarks:

Dave's answer, C. Lang's comment, and the IPF rules confirm what all the videos in your question say: it is not improper to end your deadlift with your shoulders back.

Your description of what it feels like for you to do this, even when you say "I wasn't using heavy weights; I don't have any problem with how much weight I am lifting" tell us that you just have a weakness in certain muscles (quite possible your traps and shoulders) which I think can be improved by doing the right exercises (if you already regularly do barbbell "shrugs" with weight much heavier than what you're deadlifting, which is possible if you start the bar at an elevated position by using the side bars of a squat rack, then perhaps your problem is elsewhere and you may which to do a shoulder exercise such as the Arnold Press).

Finally: It is not unusual for you to have "no problem" deadlifting the weight, but have serious problems locking out, or with some portion of the lift. This happens all the time in many different lifts, when for example someone is "leg dominant" or "arm dominant" or has some muscle group that is stronger (relatively) than another. Your job now is to get your shoulders and traps strengthened so that they are not longer stopping you from deadlifting the way you want. This often (perhaps unfortunately) means dropping your deadlift weight and increasing it only once you're able to do it exactly the way you want: but if you do this and you increase the weight patiently, you are less likely to get injured and more likely to be able to lift more in the long run. Feel free to comment 6 months from now, as I'd be keen to see how you progress!

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  • Hello Nike, I really appreciate the detailed answer. Would you mind taking a look at the edit I made in my question, please. I don't seem to have a problem with locking out at the top, just when I lock out and then roll my shoulders farther behind. I don't know if that is what Mark is trying to say in the video. Is the shoulder roll essentially a step 6? Or do we actually set the shoulders that way when we are setting up the lift at the bottom? – RoundHouse Aug 24 at 21:16
  • If this is the case, I don't find it uncomfortable. I don't see anyone rotate their shoulders at the top as in the one-two step shown by Mark (first pull up into a forward shoulder and then roll back). – RoundHouse Aug 24 at 21:16
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    I've seen a lot of people do the 2-step lift where they roll the shoulders back at the end. This is why I say in my comment on the other answer, that it's not supposed to be so uncomfortable as you describe (many people do it just fine). The 2-step process might come in handy in competitions where you are doing a PB (personal best), which means you are lifting the absolute most you can possibly do for 1 rep: In such a lift, you might not be able to keep your shoulders back during the lift, because you're at the extreme end of what you can do, so you roll back your shoulders so the lift counts. – Nike Dattani Aug 24 at 23:37
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    The deadlift does have to appear as "one fluid motion" though, so the "2-step" process can't have any pauses in it. If you do shrugs (with also the roll back) using weight bigger than what you can deadlift (and you can work up to being able to do this thanks to the technique of starting from the bar elevated on the squat rack as I described in my answer), the rollback at the end will be possible for you. – Nike Dattani Aug 24 at 23:39

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