Keep Your Head Up: Deadlift Neck Positions

The head position in the deadlift has been a big debate in the strength world for the last couple of years.  Recently, I have been hearing more and more coaches teaching to “pack the neck” and look down to tuck the chin.  I don’t know where this came from but I am telling you: it is completely wrong.  One of the most common mistakes I see in the deadlift is the hips shooting up too soon.  Once the hips come up, the knees lockout, and the lower back has to finish the pull rather than engaging your glutes.  Now the packing of the neck is supposed to fix a weak lockout, from what I’ve heard.  However I cannot see any logical reason why it would.  You want the bar to move in a straight path up your body, so look up to keep your chest up and your hips rising at the same time.  Typically when I see beginners tuck their chin while setting up for the deadlift it results in their hips rising up too soon, causing a weak lockout – which is the opposite of what this “pack the neck” method is supposed to accomplish.

I’ve tested this theory out many times myself when deadlifting.  Immediately I had a problem keeping my hips down, and even came off my heels to a degree.  This is my 750lb deadlift:

I’m always open to trying new techniques but from the setup of this lift you can see the mistakes I made.  The first one is having my head down and looking at the floor.  Once I took the slack out of the bar and dropped my hips in positon, I was in a good starting position.  However, having my head down caused my hips to shoot up first, losing leg drive to get the bar moving.  Once my hips were too high the lockout becomes extremely difficult.  Most experienced lifters know where their strength and weak points are on every main lift.  For me, the deadlift it is always hardest off the floor while the lockout is the easiest part, which is why I excel at raised deadlifts in strongman.  In this case, the lockout was the hardest part of the lift because of my hips being too high.  I also came off my heels which I never do on a deadlift, but once I got on my toes I was barely able to finish this lift.  Now let’s take a look at my current best pull in a meet:

I understand this is a sumo pull BUT the rules still apply to having your head up.  I first take the slack out of the bar and lower my hips in position.  My head is now up, and as I initiate the pull, my hips rise along with my chest making the lockout much easier.

When it comes to a sumo deadlift I always recommend the head being up.  I’m not necessarily saying you should look straight up but it should be at an upward angle.  Like most lifts, this is going to vary, so play around with it.  I also want to use the example of Kim Walford who I think is one of the best deadlifters of all time.  Here she is pulling an amazing 530lbs in the 72kg class (158.4).

Kim is a perfect example for this as she has her hips slightly higher than most, but her head is still up the entire time.  As the bar gets to knee level you see her raise her head even more, and her eyes go to the ceiling until she completes the lift.  Around knee level can be a huge sticking point for some people on the deadlift.  Kim raises her head to continue pulling the bar straight up.  If her head was down like mine was in the first video, she would also risk falling forward getting off her heels.

Next, let’s take a look at an extreme technique like Orlando “Maximus” Green’s.  Pay attention to his pull as he starts with his eyes looking down and how it raises up through the lift.

Although I would never teach form like his, at 865lbs it obviously works for him.  When he grabs the bar his chin is still lifted so he still does not have a “packed neck”.  In Orlando’s case since he starts with his hips so high, initially he cannot have his head up.  Once the bar breaks the floor his head pops up, especially through the lockout, just like Kim’s did.

There are of course exceptions to every rule, so before anyone argues with me I am saying MOST of the time you should have your head up on the set up of the deadlift. The only exception there is to looking down and tucking your chin is if you have a neck injury.  If having your head up causes any pain, then of course don’t do it.  I will stress for anyone else you should be at least raising your head throughout the pull as you lock it out.  There is one absolute with keeping your head up during a deadlift and that is when you are pulling sumo.  Your head should ALWAYS be up.  Here’s one of my favorite sumo deadlifters to watch, Dan Green pulling 881lbs.  Also make note of how is set up is exactly the same on all of his sets, so by the time he gets to his max pull, his form stays perfect.

Based on my personal experience with this method along with studying the form of the strongest deadlifters in the nation I just haven’t seen a strong deadlifter pull with their head down and chin tucked.  Whenever I’ve seen this taught, it’s by someone who has never lifted any significant weight. Anyone that has actually maxed out on a lift knows that weight will change your form.  Sure, I can pull 405 all day with a packed neck, double chin b.s., but work up to a true max and you will run into problems.  Also please don’t cite Mark Rippetoe for the packed neck crowd.  I’ve never seen Mark lift any serious weight nor have I seen him train any truly strong lifter.  Now that I’ve pissed off all the “functional” trainers out there that probably squat on bosu balls do your deadlift a favor and keep your head up!

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