How to Improve Tension In the Deadlift
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.
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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: