Deadlifts can be intimidating. If you’re the type to overthink the details when you’re anxious, then, you’ve probably studied everything about the deadlift—except for one technique that you can’t see so much as feel. That is: pulling the slack out of the bar.
Some people will tell you that there isn’t any “slack” in the bar until you load it really, really heavy. They’re referring to the idea that the barbell bends when you have a lot of weight plates on either end. And while this may be technically true, “pulling the slack out” isn’t just about metal bending.
What does it mean to pull the slack out of the bar?
A barbell can’t leave the floor until a few things happen. If there’s any bend in the bar, it has to bend. But there are other places that need tension. To name a few: the sleeves of the bar have to contact the inside of the plates, your arms have to be straight, and the muscles of your legs need to be under enough tension that they’re not going to bend or collapse when you apply force.
If any of those points leave some wiggle room, the bar isn’t ready to come off the floor. And if you walk up to a bar that’s just sitting on the floor and suddenly yank it upwards, all those wiggly bits are going to get pulled into place all at the same time. That is not a good thing. Your body probably isn’t perfectly balanced; you’ll get pulled over. Your hips might be too low; they’ll shoot up. This sudden lurching movement isn’t good for your back, nor is it good for your hopes of pulling a nice, smooth, heavy rep.
But you can fix this situation by generating tension between your body, the floor, and the bar before the bar leaves the ground. If you do it right, the bar will be almost hovering; then all you have to do is stand up.
In fact, “pulling the slack out of the bar” is as much about pulling the slack out of yourself. Once you learn how to do it, you may notice a lot of your deadlift technique issues disappear: no more sudden yank, no more inefficient positioning of your shoulders or hips that suddenly have to change position. You’ll be able to lift more, and do it more comfortably.
How to generate tension
The setup for a lift is always going to be a personal thing. People will disagree about their preferred order of the steps involved, or they’ll describe the cues they’re thinking about in different ways. Here are three videos that I think are all pretty good descriptions of the same process, but they all describe it differently.
This video from John Paul Cauci describes a three-step process. First, you breathe in and pull the bar upwards until you hear the click where the bar meets the plates. Next, you hold that tension while moving your hips into position. Finally, you begin the lift immediately upon reaching that start position.
In this video from Juggernaut (part of a series on deadlift technique), Marisa Inda flexes her triceps to keep her arms long, takes a big breath in, and then engages her lats (the muscles at the sides of the back) until the bar feels like it’s hovering off the ground.
This video from Kabuki has you push your feet into the floor, pull your shoulders back, and finally “wedge” your hips into the chain of tension by bringing them forward until you feel tension in your legs.
Your own setup may feel like one of these, or like a mix. Or perhaps there’s another video or technique out there that speaks to you better. Whatever the specific steps, the idea is for your body and the bar to form a strong connection between the floor (where your feet push down) and the plates (which will be pulled upward by the bar). Then you begin the lift.
Think of towing something with a rope: you don’t want to yank suddenly on a loose rope. Instead, you want to pull the rope taut until you can feel that the two ends are connected; only then will you start pulling for real. In a deadlift, this might seem like a waste of effort (why pull before you pull?) but it actually saves energy in the end, because everything is lined up and ready to go.
How to know you’re pulling the slack out the right way
The simplest way to figure out how to generate tension, in my opinion, is the one-inch pull. Set up in the best way you know how, then lift the bar just one inch off the ground. Put it back down.
It’s helpful to record yourself doing this. How different does your body position look when you think you’ve set up properly, versus when the bar actually leaves the ground? Use these differences as clues for how to actually set up properly. If your hips are low in your setup but the bar won’t leave the ground until they’re higher, then try that higher hip position in your setup in the first place.
Sometimes I help people work on this by pausing every rep of their deadlifts after the weight leaves the floor: pull, pause, then continue the lift. Once they get the hang of that, we pause “at the click” (when the bar makes that clicking sound against the inside of the weight plate, but before it leaves the ground). That’s essentially the same thing as pulling the slack out, but it’s sometimes easier to think of it as a pause in a larger lift rather than a separate step.
Ultimately, the transition from getting tension to actually lifting the bar should feel like a smooth but quick ramping up of force, not like a lackadaisical setup followed by a sudden yank. It will take time to dial in your own technique for setting up and generating tension, but it’s time well spent.
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