Three Cues to Excel in the Deadlift

Most people who deadlift do so for the great strength and size-gaining benefits that accompany it. Packed in it though, is a great lesson on how to identify your center of gravity from a hinged or bent position. This has amazing benefits for the jiu jitsu fighter or anyone trying to improve their physical quality of life. Much has been written by masters of this lift, and it is one that has a lifetime's worth of detail and exploration. I consider it to be a real art and it is truly my favorite exercise. What follows are the most common cues and reminders I find myself giving when administering the deadlift.

 

Push the ground away

The most fundamentally misunderstood cue of the deadlift is that you somehow have to actively use your back to rip the bar from the ground and quite literally “pull.” I would absolutely call the deadlift a pulling lift, by virtue of it’s high demand on the posterior chain, but it’s an isometric “pull” from the upper body, with a lower body maximal effort from your posterior chain— effectively making it a “pulling motion.”

 

But a funny thing happens when we re-shift the emphasis a little: whenever I have someone who has difficulty deadlifting at a certain load, I cue them to think of their feet and imagine that on the upward portion (concentric phase) of the lift that they are pushing the ground away with their feet, while keeping the upper body rigid. Suddenly, muscles are properly cued that were underperforming earlier, their shoulders drop, traps pop, and they look like hinging perfection.  

 

It may be a pull, but you aren’t pulling with your upper body...

 

Expanding on the point above, the other massive deadlift miscue I see is that athletes will often look like they are trying to pull the bar off the ground with their back, and not using their legs to help at all until they stall with their back. Now, there is an unfolding and a bit of a pull with the back that does take place, but it must happen in conjunction with the legs “pushing you upwards” (as stated above). Moreover, those two things happening simultaneously must happen in a certain synchronicity to really effectively and expertly execute the deadlift.

RDL’s (Romanian Deadlifts) excluded, this is a huge mistake that could possibly end in injury, but more immediately, won’t do you any favors in truly reaping the benefits of the deadlift. 

Instead, take time to feel your lats, elevate your chest, brace your core, drop your shoulders, and take a few practice hinges holding this posture. This is how your upper body will remain as you deadlift. It is not a passive effort in the upper body, it’s quite active.

 

Sit on your heels

 

There’s so much of life that exists on our toes. Most sports, walking around town, and just about everything requires us to “lean in” a bit. This happens so much, that "leaning in" becomes how we are most comfortable balancing our bodies. Add to that the fact that shoes typically come with a heel (even minimalist sneakers sometimes), and you begin to see why people have trouble really getting in touch with being flat to the ground and sitting into their heels.

The problem with being too far on your toes during the deadlift is that the average deadlifter will be unable to properly cue their gluteus maximus and sit back in a nice deep hinge during the lift.   This “toe stance” has the effect of making you more likely to tilt your pelvis forward/under (posteriorly), and thus, killing a true hinge. The reason this happens is because your body is trying to get "under center" to its strong point at your center of gravity. Long term, I have seen this improper deadlift form sideline lifters for a very long time, as it has the effect of adding up to a lot of unnecessary tightness and damage to the anterior hip muscles. Even though in the moment you may feel stronger or more stable in your “toe stance,” long term it will bottom out and you’ll stall. Besides, it’s not correct anyway! 

So, avoid this at all costs by not getting your ego up or progressing too fast. Take time to practice your perfect hinge position, do support exercises, and be sure that the balance is in your heels. You also should keep the bar extremely close to your shins (almost touching, and it's okay if it does sometimes). That's the true way you keep the bar "under center." You’ll know you’re doing it properly when you can feel your glutes and the rest of your posterior chain.

 

Closing Thoughts

I find these three cues to be the most economical in recommendations, and find myself repeating them the most in the gym. These tips are very much aimed at the new deadlifter, but are very good evaluation and reflection questions an experienced powerlifter can ask themselves as well.  I included a video I often share with clients for quick reminders while deadlifting in the gym (see above). 

 

Be well.