5 Coaching Cues: Deadlift

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It’s no secret that I love deadlifts.  They rank right up there with Star Wars, my mom, oatmeal, and old GI Joe re-runs  And while I feel the deadlift is one of the more beneficial movements out there in terms of improving performance, muscle growth, and even posture….it’s still something that a lot of trainees have a hard time perfecting.

I give people all the credit in the world for doing them………

….it’s just many don’t do them properly.

Moreover, it can be a very intricate and complex movement to master, and as much as I try, attempting to cover every nook and cranny into one 1200 word blog post is about as easy as quantum physics.

That said, below are some of the more common coaching cues I gravitate towards when attempting to teach it to others. While it’s not an all encompassing list by any means, I do feel the ones highlighted serve as a solid foundation and work wonders in terms of “cleaning up ” technique.

Maybe even yours!

Push the Hips Back

Developing a proper hip hinge pattern can be a cumbersome endeavor for a lot of trainees, as many want to “squat” everything.  The conundrum, it seems, is that there are a lot of trainees and personal trainers (sadly), that feel deadlifts are the same thing as squats.

Einhorn is Finkle and Finkle is Einhorn!!!!!!

While I could sit here and write a five-page dissertation on why this is the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard, lets just agree on a few things:

1.  Squats are generally considered more “quad dominant,” while deadlifts on the other hand, are considered more “hip dominant.”  I’m not a huge fan of this distinction because you can easily make a squat more hip dominant in nature (think box squats), but for the sake of brevity, it’s a relevant talking point.

2. Squats generally start with an eccentric loading phase, while deadifts are almost purely concentric.

3.  And, most important of all, regarding trunk, hip, and knee angles, significant differences between the lifts are readily apparent.  In a nice summary titled Differences in the Squat and Deadlift in the Journal of Pure Power (V.5, Number 2, April 2010), the scientists noted that squats produced a more linear relationship between the hip and knee angles, “illustrating a more synergistic and simultaneous movement.”

The deadlift, however, showed three distinct phases defined by dominant joint action at the knees during lift off, the hips with the barbell at knee height, and both knees and hips during lockout.

So, in summary:  a deadlift IS NOT A SQUAT!!!!!!!

Capiche?  Good!

Back to the topic at hand:  the hip hinge.  This cue comes into play throughout the entire movement, from the set-up to the descent.

In terms of the set-up, I like to tell people to stand up right against the bar and to then push their hips back (as if there were a rope around their waist and someone was standing behind them pulling the rope back).  Essentially, one would be performing a romanian deadlift – feeling significant tension in the hamstrings – until their hands are able to grab the bar.

Many trainees make the mistake of breaking with their knees and “squatting” down to the bar. This is wrong.  Instead, think about pushing the hips back.

“Pull” the Chest Tall

Pulling the chest tall encourages the trainee to get into t-spine extension, which in turn demonstrates that he or she can resist shear loading of the spine.

Once someone’s hands get to the bar, I usually like to say “use the bar to pull your chest tall.”  Meaning, they’ll literally use the bar to set themselves into proper position.

Taking it a step further, if I’m standing directly in front of them and their shirt happens to have a logo of some sort – a team logo, a New Balance emblem, a picture of the Jonas Brothers (don’t worry, I won’t judge) – I want to see that logo when they set up.

The chest shouldn’t be parallel to the floor, but rather more upright.  An adjunct to this would be to think “chest tall, hips down.”  So, as one pulls their chest tall, the hips will come down simultaneously. From there, they’ll be in a solid position to pull.

“Stiffen” the Upper Back

This could arguably be the most crucial of the bunch.  As I noted above, resisting shear load is kind of important when deadlifting.

Pulling a bar off the ground with a rounded upper back is a recipe for disaster, but unfortunately, it’s par for the course whenever you walk into a commercial gym.

Using the cue “pull the chest tall” is often helpful, but sometimes trainees don’t have the kinesthetic awareness to “feel” what their back is doing.  You can tell someone to arch their back, and they’ll think they’re doing it, but it will still look similar to the picture to the right.

To “stiffen” the upper back, I may just tell them to place their shoulder blades in their back pocket and to “set” their shoulders in place.  Truth be told, this cue often works in unison with pulling the chest tall.

As a pair, those two cues should place an individual in a solid starting position to pull (see pic above in the previous section).

Tuck the Chin

Too, as much as we’re concerned with keeping the entire backside in a neutral (arched) position, we also need to be cognizant of neck position.

If you watch a vast majority of people set up to deadlift, you’ll invariably see them end up looking up or straight ahead, cranking their neck into hyper-extension, kinda like this:

Please, stop doing this.

I like to tell people to find a spot that’s roughly 10-15 feet in front of them, and to keep their eyes fixated on that point throughout the entire set.

Another cue I like to use in this instance is “your head should follow the hinge.”  In other words, during the set-up, your entire back side – from head to sacrum – should make a straight line.  Oftentimes, during the lockout, people will still think I want them to look straight down, which isn’t the case at all.

During lockout your head should be upright and your entire backside should still make a straight line (you’re looking 10-15 feet a head of you).  Then, on the descent, your head will follow the hinge.  As you push your hips back, your head/neck will still stay in line with the actual hinge.

I think that makes sense. If it doesn’t, too bad……;o)

Hump the Bar (Hips Through)

Another common mistake that many trainees make is not “finishing” the movement.  At lockout, you’ll often see one of two scenarios:

1.  No hip extension what-so-ever, and they don’t squeeze their glutes at the top.

2.  HYPER extension – because they’re not using their glutes, they substitute lumbar extension for hip extension……….and their spine cries.

***Photo courtesy of David Lasnier

It’s a double edged sword in both scenarios, because in each instance the glutes don’t come into play at all.

Luckily there’s an easy fix. As one comes to lockout, simply tell them to squeeze their glutes and “hump the bar.”

For those in the former (no hip extension), this will serve as a vital cue to use.  Squeezing the glutes at the top will provide more posterior pelvic tilt and help to finish in a more optimal position.

For those in the latter, however (hyper extension), because their glutes don’t fire properly and they’re compensating with excessive lumbar extension, you may need to take a more of hands-on approach and show them where to stop.

Either way, in both cases, squeezing the glutes (humping the bar) will bode in their favor.

And Now You’re (Hopefully) Less Sucky

There are numerous cues I like to use when teaching the deadlift, but these five tend to be the ones that stick out the most.  Sure, we can talk about taking slack out of the bar, foot placement, not destroying the back of your pants, and other more pertinent cues…..but like I noted above, the five above serve as a fantastic foundation and will set a lot trainees up for success.

Have your own cues you find useful?  Share them below in the comments section!

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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  • Lauren

    Ace Ventura pet detective!

    • TonyGentilcore

      Winner!

      • Dmtrainer11

         You gun is digging into my hip!!

  • http://www.saycoperformance.com/ Info

    Well Done with the Video, Tony.  Keep it up. I shot some video a month or so ago and it was awkward as hell. It’s not as easy as it looks. Nicely done.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks Info – appreciate the kind words. Definitely not as easy at looks (not that I make it look easy).

      • Tad

        PS.  Info = Tad. Doh! Computer fail.

  • Barath

    As a physicist, I can vouch that quantum mechanics is way easier than mastering the deadlift :)

    Nice article, as usual Tony!

    • TonyGentilcore

      HA! That wad funny Barath! And, lets give credit where credit is due. As a physicist, you’ve probably got a better deadlift than 99% of them out there.

  • RS

    Tony,

    I’m guessing that, because of the timing of this piece, you were at gym earlier and saw the ONE guy who was man (or Beautiful Badass) enough to deadlift but who was eating up his spine with gross hyperextension. Great (and needed) post. Maybe I should print and post all of your blogs in my gym, for trainers and gym-goers alike.

    RS

    • TonyGentilcore

      Actually, I just came up with the idea of this post yesterday while eating steak. Totally not kidding.

      As always, thanks for chiming in Ronell. Keep spreading the good word my man!

  • Mike A.

    TG, 

    What cue do you find helpful for someone executing the Stripper Deadlift? (hips shooting up before the chest). I find this to be a pretty common faux pas in the deadlifting world.

    Thanks.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I just try to tell them that the hips and shoulders should more simultaneously. Also, just making a concerted effort to sloooooooow them down would help. Oftentimes, people try to be too explosive, and it doesn’t help matters.

      Stripper deadlift??? Never would have thought of that name. I’m stealing it!

  • LanceGoyke

    I say, “Einhorn is Finkle. Finkle is Einhorn,” ALL THE TIME. Now, I’m going to think of you every time. Haha.

  • Nick

    Do you cue any of your clients to go into excessive lumbar ext ie: arch the lower back hard?

  • Todd Bumgardner

    Great cues, Tony!

  • http://twitter.com/BangkokTrainer Bangkok Trainer

    Nice breakdown

  • http://twitter.com/BangkokTrainer Bangkok Trainer

    Great cues for a solid deadlift. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/sangita.borgave Sangita Borgave

    Nice! Specially the one about the neck for me…guilty as charged! Now to memorize the article and remember everything simultaneously while actually doing the dead-lift. You are wrong Mr Gentilcore…its harder than quantum physics!                                                                                                    P.S I sometimes post as Sangita b..

  • Mikael Jansson

    Good luck pulling a deadlift with any sort _real_ weights without rounding your upper back. Also, pulling back your shoulders? What’s that about.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Mikael –

      Here’s 570 lbs. Pretty sure I didn’t round my back either: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VLYA0OpEVHU&feature=related

      Now, I’m not saying that rounding your back isn’t to be expected when you’re pulling significant weight, but it’s definitely something I try to avoid with most trainees who are learning the lift.

      Also, with regards to the “pulling back” the shoulders: it’s not so much I want them retracted, just more “depressed” and “set” into place……this provides a bit more stiffness to the upper back/

      • Noah

        It actually does look like your upper back is rounding there. Plus that video is a terrible angle for proving your point (unless your point was “I’ve got a bigger pull than you”)

  • http://twitter.com/moving4wellness Bobby Fernandez

    Ever read any Serge Garcovetsky? I came across an article that suggested that a kyphotic lifting posture may indeed be safer to protect from extreme compressive forces. http://www.drweitz.com/scientific/posture.htm I'm still deadlifting in T-spine extension but I thought it was an interesting take on the seemingly “natural” lifting posture we all default to when not coached.

    BTW, thanks for that neck flexion part. Drives me nuts especially when people are diving down in to the downswing with a kettlebell and trying to look at themselves in the mirror the entire time.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Hmmm, never read any of this stuff. Thanks for sharing and will definitely check it out!

  • Nicholas St John Rheault

    TG, great stuff….  There is this expression “a million ways to skin a cat”, but there are very few ways to do it correctly.  great tips/info to make doing the lift the “right way”

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks Nicholas. Glad you found it useful.

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  • James

    I tried deadlifting yesterday using these tips and although my form was better than usual I still round my upper back (I think due to tight hamstrings / hips). Would you advise pulling off mats or alike until I can improve my mobility / flexibility?

  • http://twitter.com/FitTwinCities Fit Twin Cities

    Best instructional video for the deadlift I have seen. Thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/FitTwinCities Fit Twin Cities

    Best deadlift instructional video I have seen. Thank you!

  • Rip

    The only problem with “pulling your chest tall” is that many people are going to use their already tight hip flexors to pull their lumbar into hyperextension as they pull themselves to the bar. This will make their thoracic spine appear to be extended in relation to their torso, but in reality they have really just taken their glutes out of the movement, and loaded the psoas first, which may cause a problem at lockout, as the psoas will tend to fight hip extension at the top.

    Tony, your DL form is as perfect as any that I’ve ever seen, but I think that cue may not work with someone who doesn’t share your mobility/expertise.

  • Rip

    Hey, T, I think my last comment may have sounded a little negative, sorry for that.  I think the adjunct cue that you mentioned, “chest tall, hips down” solves the potential issue that I mentioned.  The “hips down” part effectively keeps the lumbar spine in neutral, so the glutes can do their stuff.   

    That 570 looked pretty easy for you..:)
    I

    • TonyGentilcore

      No worries at all Rip – constructive criticism is always welcome. Thanks for your input, and I hope you contribute more in the future!

  • Andreas

    recently I had a female client doing deadlifts and one mistake was hyperextension of the lumbar spine. I just couldn’t say “hump the bar!” Any suggestions for a female version? seriously!

    • TonyGentilcore

      hahahahahaha. Point taken. I’d just go with something like “finish with the glutes,” or “get the hips through.” That should do the trick.

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  • chy12

    Franklin And Marshall  AJ?et Doreen?Hartman?se sont mariés en?Jewett City,?Connecticut.?Ils se sont déplacés?à Columbia?en 1950 et?étaient des membres actifs?de la communauté.?AJ?a enseigné l’histoire?à Hickman?High School,?puis développé?une entreprise de construction?/ développement.?AJ?a été propriétaire?/?courtier de?McRoberts et?Co., où?il a vendu résidentiel et?l’immobilier commercial.?Il s’est spécialisé dans?des propriétés h?telières 
     

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  • Niumt2009

    Thanks Tony! Because of this write up my shifty deadlift form is far less sucky now.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Glad I could help!

  • Paudulce28

    Awesome cues Tony! Just one question, what about the benefits of mixed grip versus overhand grip in a deadlift? What do you recommend for a beginner? Which is best for what? In the AskAthetes.com site there was a question answered about it,  http://www.askathletes.me/q/what-are-the-benefits-of-a-mixed-versus-overhand-grip-on-deadlifts but I just wanted to know what you think about the answer given and what is your take on it?

    • TonyGentilcore

      Well, I think once you get to a certain level of strength, using an overhand grip is going to be a limiting factor. I say use an overhand grip until the weight becomes too challenging, and then revert to a mixed grip. From there, just make sure you switch your grip (which hand is over, and which is under) with subsequent sets so that you don’t develop an imbalance.

      Hope that helps!

  • herpnderp

    I’ve been using this baseball cap cue for back alignment, which helps me remember to tuck my chin and make a big chest. It’s basically: imagine you’re wearing a backwards baseball cap. Push your head back so that the bill of the cap would be being pushed back, not up or down.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Ah, cool idea. We’ve had coaches in the past actually have kids bite their shirts – literally place their shirt in their mouth – to help keep their chin tucked. Whatever works!

      In the end, though, we can’t get too carried away. I mean, if the chin isn’t tucked on EVERY rep, it’s not the end of the world. Doubly so when going for more max effort attempts.

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  • Joe

    The fact that you felt it was okay to use the word “retarded” so freely puts an ignorant blemish on this otherwise informative, intelligent post.

  • Mike Cosme

    This video might be a little old but I wanted to personally thank you. This video has given me a perfect out look on correct form, timing, how to start and the finishing movement… A lot of useful information. And my deadlift looks immaculate now . I can’t tell you how many times someone at the gym was worried about having wheels on their bar. With the roundest back deadlifting 400+ Lol. Maybe I should tell them? I don’t wanna be a jerk though ugh.. Thanks again I will subscribe :)

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks Mike! Appreciate the kind words, and glad it helped!

  • Jay

    Thanks Tony. Your articles on deadlift setup, form, etc are the best ones I’ve found with Google. I’ve had tons of trouble with hips rising first. Your cue to maintain tension in the legs was the magic bullet for that. Maybe it has to do with anthropometry (6’3″, skinny with long long femurs). But yeah, keeping lots of tension in those long levers is exhausting but it seems to do the trick.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Yeah, tall(er) lifters are going to have a bit of trouble and the hips will inherently be a little higher compared to others. Glad the article helped though!