Why do people shake during heavy deadlifts?

January 5th 2018

I have recently finished a deadlift workout and was wondering, why do people shake during heavy deadlifts?

I was curious about this as well since I have experienced shaking while deadlifting.

I found that because you are doing heavy deadlifts, your body has not adapted to that stress.

This could be due to your brain sending unsmooth signals to your motor neurons, which are attached to your muscles, and is causing an uneven distribution of muscles firing.

Other explanations could be that you are in a mechanically disadvantageous position, causing your body to work much harder or that you are not warming up your body enough for a heavy deadlift.

Deadlift shake

Sure, that is what is happening on a higher level. But what is happening on the cellular level?

I wanted to find more information about it and share it with you.

We have motor neutrons attached to our muscles, which make up a motor unit.

When we perform an exercise, like a deadlift, the brain sends signals to these motor neurons to activate our muscles.

As the weight gets heavier, our body will try to recruit more motor units in order to accomplish the task.

This is why lifters are able to get stronger and continue to chase PRs.

At the same time, as the weight gets heavier, your brain will sometimes not be able to send smooth signals to your motor neurons, causing an uneven distribution of muscles firing. This is one possible explanation of the deadlift shake.

A second explanation for the deadlift shake is improper mechanics.

This could be due to improper form. When you are deadlifting heavy, the weight could be in a mechanically disadvantageous position, causing your body to stress and quickly figure out how to overcome this obstacle.

A third explanation for the deadlift shake is that you are not warmed up properly.

Stephanie Cohen, a world-class powerlifter who has successfully deadlifted over four times her bodyweight, mentioned that she needs a thorough warm-up otherwise, she does not feel the neural connections between her muscles and brain are excited enough.

So, she will do what is necessary to get her body warm and ready for her workout.

Fatigue is another reason why someone could start shaking during a heavy deadlift. As you become fatigued, your individual motor units begin to lag behind. Once this happens, this creates an imbalance distribution of muscles firing, and will definitely cause you to start shaking if you are doing a heavy deadlift.

Knees wobble during the deadlift

There are numerous reasons why your knees wobble during a deadlift.

If you are doing heavy deadlift workout, there are several possible explanations for your knees shaking during a deadlift.

Your body could be adjusting to the new stimulus and is recruiting more motor units unsmoothly.

You could be in an improper position, causing your body to work much harder. You could also not be warmed up enough to get your neural connections between your brain and muscles excited enough.

First, you would want to make sure you are feeling no pain and discomfort.

If you are, there could be a bigger issue altogether. If you are just experiencing shaking during a deadlift and in no other lifts, I would narrow down the possibilities to either your body is in a mechanically disadvantageous position or your body is recruiting new motor units rapidly.

So, get someone to check your form and examine your bar path. See if you are putting your body in a bad position to work harder than it should.

If you are interested, I have worked on this article, about deadlift forms, for two days to make sure I have all the information to help you.

It contains information from world-class athletes and coaches about how to do a conventional deadlift and a sumo deadlift. If that interests you at all, you can check the article out here.

Knee Pain Powerlifting

Right off the bar, if you are experiencing pain while doing any powerlifting movements, it will affect your training.

The good news is it is not the end of the world.

The bad news is that you will need to be considerate of what exercises you are doing now.

So, the first thing you need to do is to identify which movements caused you pain?

Are you experiencing knee pain while you squatted at first and then it has gotten worse and you feel knee pain during the deadlift?

Do you only feel knee pain during the deadlift?

There are a million questions to ask but only you truly know which answers are necessary.

Once you identify the movements that caused you pain, the second step is to avoid those movements for the time being.

Instead, you need to focus on pain-free movements right now.

So, for example, let's say you are experiencing knee pain while squatting and it has affected your deadlifting as well.

Okay, for the next workout, do not do any squats and just deadlift.

Do you still experience any pain?

If the answer is no, great! You figured out the culprit.

Now, you must work your way back into squatting.

Can you leg press without pain?

Can you do box squats?

Can you do bodyweight squats?

Evaluate your circumstances and go from there.

A very good general rule of thumb is to never train through pain.

The pain is there for a reason. It is your body signaling to you that there is something wrong.

It would be unwise to ignore your body and let the problem get much worse than it should be.

Knee Pain From Squatting

So, you figured out that squatting is the initial reason why you experience knee pain.

It could be affecting your deadlift.

It might not.

But regardless, we need to tackle this issue.

First, examine your training history.

Are you a runner?

Training for a triathlon?

Are you just a beginner weightlifter?

This is important because your past training history can reveal if you have a balanced training program in the past or if you have overdeveloped certain muscle groups based on your lifestyle.

Next, consider your squat form.

The best squat form is something you feel comfortable with, along with incorporate some tips from the great squatters on maintaining a great squat form.

Here are some of the I found from legendary powerlifter Ed Coan.

  • Always be consistent with your form. Whether it is your warm-up or working set, you need to make sure you get under the bar, stay tight and do every rep perfectly.

This eliminates excess variables from being a program.

  • Point your toes at an angle to activate more glutes.

You can do this exercise to feel the difference:

Stand up and point your toes straight forward.

Now, point your toes slightly outward and you will feel your glutes begin to tighten.

  • If your knee caves inward or collapses, you need to practice more squats with perfect form.

Teach your body how to squat properly and with time, this issue will correct itself since you are strengthening your weak points and creating a correct motor unit pattern to do a pain-free squat

  • Keep a neutral head position.

If you keep your head back, your back is more upright.

If your head is too forward, your shoulders are rolled forward.

  • When finishing a squat, push with your legs and drive up with your leg.

One of the most common technique ques I hear is “Chest up.”

If you drive upward with your upper back and are consciously using your upper back every time you squat, your chest will stay up.

Many lifters will either have a weak upper back or are not aware of using the upper back during the squat.

As a result, you see many lifters come out of the squat hole with a deflated chest.

  • Assistance movements do not mean anything unless it has some sort of carryover to your main lifts.

So, if you do not know why you are doing certain leg accessories or you do not have any carryover to your squat max, drop the accessories.

Focus on building up your squats and pick new accessories to supplement your weaknesses

    • Paused squats - Learn to use your glutes, back and hamstrings to help push the weight upwards
    • High bar squats - Build more quad strength
  • Keep notes on your training cycle.

Analyze and dissect where your strength and weaknesses are.

And after a competition or your testing day, re-evaluate your training program and adjust to do better.

Address your weaknesses while acknowledging your strengths.

  • When making changes to your form, do not rush it.

Take your time and figure out what you need to do. For example, if you want to point your toes out more and it feels extremely uncomfortable, start by gradually angling your toes.

After a few days or weeks of a small change, increase your toe angle.

Within a few weeks, your toe angle will be exactly what you wanted it to be and all you had to do was be patient and continue to gradually ease into the movement


Overall, our body is trying to work together to help us accomplish any task.

As we continue to deadlift heavy, more motor unit recruitment occurs, allowing us to continue to lift heavy by recruiting more muscles to help us.

However, as we begin to fatigue, our individual motor units begin to lag behind, which will cause you to do the deadlift shake.

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