Deadlift: Proper Form – Shoulder Packing - Upright Health

Deadlift: Proper Form – Shoulder Packing

Welcome to the "Deadlift: Proper Form" series! Maybe you've just started lifting weights. Maybe you're a trainer who wants to learn the nitty gritty about the deadlift. Whatever the case, welcome!

In this article, I'm going to focus on "shoulder packing" and its importance in proper deadlift form.

I'm going to explain:

  1. What shoulder packing is
  2. How I break down shoulder packing for my clients
  3. My current favorite exercises to improve a client’s shoulder packing

So what is shoulder packing?

Shoulder packing is a technique used to secure a weight held in your hands to the rest of your body.

Deadlift Proper Starting Position

In proper deadlift form, before the bar leaves the floor…

  1. Your hands grip the bar
  2. Your shoulders pull the bar in close to you
  3. Your rib cage glues itself to your shoulders
The above three steps can happen in any order. But all three must happen at some point before the bar leaves the floor, in proper deadlift form.

If you are by a barbell at the moment and would like to practice your active shoulder, check out JTS’s excellent tutorial on the matter.

I have independently come to the same conclusions regarding everything they have to say about the deadlift.

The rest of this article is to help you understand and troubleshoot your shoulder packing in greater detail.

How I break down shoulder packing in the deadlift

The most efficient way I’ve found to break down shoulder packing is to divide it into two parts.

  1. Scapular positioning
  2. Lat engagement

I’ll explain what those terms mean in a moment.

But the reason I divide shoulder packing into those two parts is because I’ve found that if a client can really nail those two parts…

Then everything else that is supposed to happen in shoulder packing tends to (though not always) fall into place by itself.

So I find it efficient to break it down that way, and keep in mind that (to teach shoulder packing) I’m always trying to reinforce those two parts in one way or another.

What is scapular positioning?

Scapular positioning is your ability to keep your shoulder blades (scapulae) and rib cage playing nice with each other.

Scapular positioning is the foundation of all upper body movement. So mastering this foundation is essential to mastering active shoulder.

Why is this?

Because your arms hang from your scapulae (shoulder blades).

And your scapulae sit on your rib cage.

Rib Cage Scapula Humerus

So that first connection to the rest of your body (your rib cage) needs to be set properly for the deadlift. Otherwise the rest of the pieces down the chain (your arms, your hands) can’t function optimally.

How do you achieve proper scapular positioning?

Make sure your spinal muscles know how to maneuver your rib cage into a “Goldilocks” shape on command.

A shape that's not excessively flat...

Flat Thoracic Spine Flared Rib Cage Scapular Instability

Nor excessively rounded...

Thoracic Kyphosis Rounded Upper Back Scapular Immobility

When your muscles can maneuver your rib cage towards a “Goldilocks” (just right!) shape on command…

Neutral Thoracic Spine Shoulder Girdle

...your scapular muscles can properly stabilize your scapulae on your rib cage.

And from there, the rest of your upper body can move properly. Which brings us to lat engagement.

What is lat engagement?

Lat engagement is the use of your lat muscles to prevent the bar from swinging away from you.

Why would the bar swing away from you?

To answer this, let's recall that your arms connect to your torso via your shoulder blades — NOT your shoulder sockets.

Posterior Shoulder Girdle Scapula Humerus Rib Cage

So when your arms are holding on to a heavy object (i.e. you are deadlifting)...

That object is hung off your torso via your shoulder blades — NOT your shoulder sockets.

Deadlift Start Position Scapula Over The Bar

The bar is hung from the shoulder blade

This means in the start position (of a proper deadlift), the centers of your shoulder BLADES begin directly over the bar -- that’s where the bar is hung from.

Deadlift Proper Start Position Shoulder Blades Bar

And because your shoulder BLADES must always start directly over the bar... this means your shoulder SOCKETS must always start slightly ahead of the bar.

Deadlift Shoulders Ahead of the Bar

Notice where the shoulder socket sits, relative to the center of the shoulder blade.

And because your shoulder SOCKETS must always start slightly ahead of the bar... your arms will always be at a slight angle to the floor for the start of a proper deadlift.

Ed Coan Deadlift Humerus Incline Angle Shoulder In Front of Bar

Due to this slight angle and the fact that gravity always pulls straight down… your arms (and thus the bar) will want to swing away from you.

Deadlift Lat Engagement Line of Pull

This, finally, is where your lat muscles come in, to maintain proper deadlift form.

During the bottom half of a deadlift, your lats prevent the bar from swinging away from you. Your lats are a pair of giant muscles that attach around:

  1. Your armpits
  2. Your lower back

When you squeeze your lats, your armpits (and thus arms) move closer to your lower back. And this prevents the bar from swinging away from you.

Lat Engagement Origin Insertion

And that’s what makes lat engagement a component of the active shoulder in proper deadlift form.

———

So to review:

Scapular positioning = get your rib cage and shoulder blades to play nice.

Why? Because they set the foundation for how well the rest of your upper body can move.

Lat engagement = prevent the bar from swinging away from you.

Why? Because controlling where the bar travels is key in proper deadlift form.

My favorite ways to improve shoulder packing

Now let’s say I’ve just finished coaching a client through shoulder packing.

Different people learn in different ways. So I may have to use different coaching cues for different people, to teach them to perform the same task.

However...

If it's clear to me that they're unable to perform a task due to muscle strength/flexibility/control issues... then there is no magic deadlift coaching cue that can resolve that.

In that case, to improve their active shoulder technique, I will prescribe supplemental work / corrective exercises.

For "scapular positioning" issues

My favorite exercise is the “butchers block”.

Butchers Block

However...

Due to the complexities of the human body, a client and I may need to explore additional courses of action to produce the desired results.

But whatever route we do explore, I still keep my eyes on the prize — getting their rib cage and scapulae to play nice with each other.

Why?

Because nobody gets to skip this piece of shoulder packing, if the end goal is proper deadlift form.

———

For "lat engagement" issues

My favorite exercise is the “lounge chair”.

Lounge Chair

However...

Due to the complexities of the human body, a client and I may need to explore additional courses of action to produce the desired results.

But whatever route we do explore, I still keep my eyes on the prize — getting them to be able to recruit and feel their lats at work.

Why?

Because nobody gets to skip this piece of shoulder packing either, if the end goal is proper deadlift form.

——————

That wraps up my approach to breaking down and improving the two parts of shoulder packing:

  • Scapular positioning
  • Lat engagement

For proper deadlift form.

Implement and enjoy.

vincent with back pain from the deadlift

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About the Author

Vincent's first passion is powerlifting. Over the years, his desire to master his body and mind have led him into deep explorations in stretching, mobility, and mindfulness.