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Deadlift: Where to look [Article]

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft

Jul 11, 2018 9:25:00 AM

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Deadlift: Where to look?


This question is one of the more debated among strength coaches and athletes. Generally speaking, you should look up to optimize performance at the cost of a higher injury risk. Head position is more important than eye positioning for this discussion. If you want to minimize injury risk look down. Keep your chin down to make it easier for your spine to be neutral. This article will outline the thought process behind this and provide further details by linking to other articles at the end.

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The question lacks context


Those who read my blog regularly can skip this part. The question "Deadlift where to look" lacks context as I don't know what you want to achieve with the deadlift. What I usually find in fitness are these three goals sets:


  • Looks
  • Health
  • Performance


To look better the deadlift might not be necessary. For the sake of this article, we define looking better as Men's health front cover. To achieve this diet plays a bigger role than exercise. So if you are researching because you want to look like a Greek god, spent your time on nutrition. Diet Doctor has a solid website for the keto way of living. I used the meal plans to lose 10 kg before my wedding in 2017.  Paleo also seems to get good results, although I have not done it myself. Most diets get the desired result of weight loss if you stick to them. If you want to get ripped in the process protein-rich diets are the way to go.

If you are all about health the deadlift might also not be for you. Excessive deadlifting often leads to lower back pain and imbalances in your body. There is always a price to pay for the gains you make. If your main goal is to build muscle after an injury keep close with your Physiotherapist or General practitioner. Alternatives to the barbell deadlift are the trap bar deadlift, kettlebell deadlift or several machines in the gym. I would personally put the barbell deadlift in the highest risk bracket to injure yourself. This is based on the fact that the most severe injury in my training stems from deadlifting.

Performance-oriented athletes will find a friend in the barbell deadlift. Anyone who wants to get very strong finds good value for time in the barbell deadlift. If you want to optimize your game to improve your one repetition maximum or power output it is a great exercise. 


Why should you know where to look?


To increase performance you need confidence and optimal movement patterns. To achieve this it is important that you practice perfectly and automate the optimal movement pattern. Once the movement pattern that is best for you has been established and automated you start to load it. Rinse and repeat. This is the theory and your aim is to come as close as possible in practice. This is why it is important that you pick a place to look and not think about it every time you step to the plate. Imagine a quarterback thinking about how much spin the ball needs for every throw. He will be sacked before he even throws the ball. Pick a head position and line of sight that works best for you and automate it.


Head position vs. Line of sight


Often head placement and line of sight are used as synonyms. For a performance-related deadlift, the head position is more relevant than your line of sight. You can still wander with your eyes while your head stays in one place. It will help to have a standard for both but the line of sight is less important for the argument "Deadlift where to look" than head position.


Keep your chin up vs. keep your chin down


There are two main lines of argument around the deadlift. One camp is in favor of keeping your chin up during the deadlift while the other argues you should keep your chin down to keep a neutral spine. Both arguments are valid for different reasons. Keeping your chin down for a neutral spine is the argument for more safety and control. Keeping your chin up is usually the argument to increase performance and lift more weight. 

If you have a look at top performing deadlifters you will quickly realize that most of them keep their chin up. Examples are Andy Bolton, Ed Coan, and Chad Wesley Smith. I encourage you to test a deadlift lockout with your chin up or down at 70% of your max. I am very confident that you will find it easier to lock out the same weight while your chin is up.

As performance oriented athletes willingly take the risk of injury to get better this is often the better option. In addition, it has been proven to work to mimic competition as close as possible in training. This concept is also known as "Perfect practice". Powerlifters and weightlifters will, therefore, generally keep their chin up. Some will deviate based on their personal style.

A prominent advocate of keeping your chin down is Mark Rippetoe. In his excellent book "Starting strength" he makes this point. The advantage is here that the spine will be kept more neutral. For beginners, it makes sense to emphasize safety over performance. Still, I think there are better ways of protecting the spine and lower back from injury when building strength with the deadlift.

The trap bar deadlift is a good alternative which makes it easier to keep the spine neutral. It can also be heavily loaded. If you do not have to compete using a barbell this is a good alternative. The barbell work needed for explosiveness is usually lighter and not as taxing on the spine. Track and field and football athletes can, therefore, use the trap bar deadlift to build muscle and strength in the back. Especially when they already express pain in these areas. For explosiveness, the power clean has been shown to be a good tool.

Doing this will eliminate the question of where to look during the deadlift. Generally, if performance is not the main concern on the deadlift, keeping your chin down is very likely to make you less prone to injury. 




If you want to pull as much as possible looking up is the way to go in most cases. If you want to minimize injury risk during the deadlift keep your chin down. If you do not compete with a barbell remember that coaches do not look to kindly on injuries derived from excessive strength training. If you want to take risks, do it for your team on the field or in competition, not in the lifting room. I have always gotten the best results and got my worst injury from training on the deadlift with my chin up. 

Further reading 


Topics: Deadlift, Strength