How to Improve Tension In the Deadlift

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My former editor at T-Nation, Bryan Krahn, used to cringe sometimes when I sent him an article. It seemed every other article I sent him would hover around the topic of deadlifts.

Photo Credit: Andrey [M4IN]

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Every now and then I’d get a note back…

“Dude, enough with the deadlift articles! If I have to read another word on the hip hinge I’m going postal!”

I’d take the subtle hint and lay low on the deadlift content for a few months. But inevitably I’d revert back to my old ways.

As it happens, THREE of my articles (including four of Eric’s) made T-Nation’s list of 22 Most Popular Deadlift Articles.

I’m like, so popular.

I feel like I should pat myself on the back. It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything specific about the deadlift on this site. That’s right on par with Food Babe going a few days without fear mongering us to death and telling us drinking Pumpkin Spice will give us a third nipple or Carrie Bradshaw going more the five minutes without talking about shoes!

Alas, I’m Talking Bout Deadlifts Today

More to the point, I want to take a few moments to talk about TENSION!!!! Getting (and maintaining) tension throughout a set is one of the keys to solid deadlift technique. It’s the key to technique for A LOT of movements, but today I’m going to focus on the deadlift.

I’ve discussed this point in the past, but it bears repeating: One of the dead giveaways that someone lacks tension during their pull is if 1) their upper back rounds1 and 2) their hips come up too early.  Like this:

In both scenarios I’ll almost always attack lat activation/engagement and upper back tension.

With regards to the lats I’ll approach it in a few ways:

1. I’ll have the lifter assume their starting stance in the bottom position and then kinda poke a prod their armpits/lats and tell them to “get tight/stiff here.” That’s pretty easy. Hopefully they’re not too ticklish.

2. Once I have that, I’ll then tell them to “pretend like you’re squeezing an orange in your armpit during the entire rep and you’re trying to make orange juice.” Again this helps to fire the lats more effectively (external cues usually work a lot better than internal cues), which in turn helps transfer force more efficiently as well as provide a ton more spinal stability.

If neither of those two cues work, a simple drill I like to use is this:

Band Lat Activation w/ Hip Hinge

NOTE: with beginners with poor kinesthetic awareness, before I have them touch a barbell I’ll start them off with this drill so I can kill two bird with one stone. I’m getting to feel what it’s like to engage their lats WHILE grooving a hip hinge.

With regards to the upper back there’s a little more to things than just telling someone to “get your back tight!” Moreover, some lifters make the mistake of literally pinching their scapulae (shoulder blades) together in an effort to get “tight.”

This is wrong. And will actually work against you.

Instead I’ll tell trainees to “set their shoulders,” and to think about placing their shoulder blades in their back pocket. What this does is posteriorly tilt the scapulae (NOT retract). Retracting the shoulder blades makes your arms shorter which will make it harder to get to the bar.

Additionally, the preferred cue helps to elicit more upper back tension.

Watch this video to see what I mean:


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  1. it should also be noted here that the reason the upper back is rounding is because the weight is too heavy. No need to over-think things here. Take some weight off. Seriously

  • Dave Scott-McDowell

    I Like that band drill.. i find some of my athletes have a tough time maintaining tension.. i will give this one a try for sure.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I like it too (obviously). Let me know if you like it.

  • ronellsmith

    Tony, I NEVER get tired of your deadlift content. The lat cue is one of the toughest for people to get. They want to lift, not engage. However, when folks do get it, the game changes. Chin tucked, chest up, elbows taut, tension on the bar, heels through the floor becomes so much more natural.

    Or maybe it’s just that I’ve listened to you and Eric too much 🙂


    • TonyGentilcore

      Tension is the key to lifting big weight. Can’t debate that, right?

  • Josh Jolly

    !!! That cue with the oranges was awesome – when I acquire my first trainee I’ll make sure to use the band too 🙂 Thanks matey

    • TonyGentilcore

      Glad you liked it. I stole it from Dean Somerset.

  • Clement

    Hey tony, thanks for lat activation exercise and please keep flooding T-Nation with articles. They’re the only ones I read, anyway.

    I’d like to read more about addressing lumbar flexion in the deadlift.

    I myself am trying out round-back deadlifting (slightly) but making sure my back doesn’t move any more into flexion just to see how it feels and because I can’t seem to keep my lower back flat when the weights get heavy but when I start in a rounded position I’m somehow able to maintain my back position all the way.

    • TonyGentilcore

      There are some elite level deadlifting who DL with a rounded back. The key point, though, is that they flex in the mid/upper back and NOT their lumbar spine.

      You can make the case that rounded back DLs shorten the spine which decreases torque, which allows some people to lift heavier loads.

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  • Shane Mclean

    Squeeze an orange in the armpit cue. Like that one…..will steal. Thanks Tony.

    • TonyGentilcore

      By all means, steal away!

  • Norma Arthur

    i love it. keep it up . i was searching for such a stuff over 2 weeks. now my search is completed . 🙂 visitr

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  • replacement

    Do you use the same lat activation cues for trap bar deadlifts? Without the barbell there, I have a tendency to get the bar too far back on the way up when I really make an effort to engage my lats. Nothing drastic — the bar moves back maybe an inch or so during the bottom half of the concentric move. But, this makes the sequencing look a bit off and full lockout harder since the center of mass is a touch too far back. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks for your time and appreciate all the great info!

    • TonyGentilcore

      It’s a bit less drastic, but I still cue lat activation with the trap bar. You still want to use the handles and the weight to act as a counterbalance to “pull” the chest up and “set” the lats. Think: squeeze oranges in your armpits.