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!

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