The whole point of the deadlift is to utilize as many muscles as possible in order to lift the heaviest weight the body can handle with proper form for a certain number of repetitions. And when you do this correctly with varying volume and intensity, the deadlift produces generous gains in muscle strength and hypertrophy.
We already know that the deadlift is too good an exercise with too many benefits, and that it is the King of all exercises as it works the most muscles compared to any other exercise. So we’re going to skip the part where we convince you to deadlift since you’re probably already hooked considering you’ve wandered into this guide.
But what most lifters do not know is that while the Deadlift may seem like a very simple exercise (and it is), it is not that easy to get the cues right to optimize the way you pull. Macroscopic-ally, you just pick heavy weight off the floor and put it back. But remember, that’s not the goal, the goal is to “train” the deadlift. You are training, not just lifting heavy things, even if the latter adds to the satisfaction.
Whether the goal is to get bigger, stronger, increase the weight on the bar, or to beef up your nervous system, you need to strategically approach (“train”) the deadlift to actually make these goals happen.
In this post, we’ve outlined 10 deadlift coaching cues that will effectively help you achieve this. These cues will make sure you’re doing the lift properly and recruiting the right muscles to ensure optimal progress on the deadlift. So don’t just walk to the bar and pull the heck out of it – follow these cues!
1 – Mental Fortitude: Put your head in the lift
Before anything else, the most important cue is to put your head in the lift. You need to be able to concentrate and focus hard enough and say to yourself that you can lift it.
It is common to have “fear of deadlifts”. Even the best powerlifters have this when approaching maximal weights. But you need to minimize this fear during your training sessions.
The key is to think and believe that you can lift it successfully. Feel strong and pumped up and get the adrenaline rushing before you initialize your setup position. Put on your favorite pumping music if you have to. Keep doing this and over time you will thank yourself for having developed the mental fortitude and willpower to challenge untried weights.
2 – Point your nipples straight forward
Now that you’re pumped up and have convinced yourself that you can lift anything that comes your way, it is time to bend over and hold the bar to properly set up.
When setting up, make sure that your chest is up such that your nipples are pointing forward. Set up as if your chest had ammo and you had to fire a bullet at the obnoxious gym selfie king in front of you. Or similarly, if your shirt has a logo printed on the chest area, you should be able to flaunt and show it forward. You get the point.
The goal of this cue is to make sure your spine is neutral starting with the set up. Of course, also make sure to keep your spine neutral throughout the lift, not just during the setup. As a result, you should have a neutral spine with your chest up and hips adequately raised. The torso must not be too vertical as in the squat, nor too horizontal.
3 – Brace yourself (literally, physically brace your body)
Next, take a big breath into your belly and brace yourself. By “bracing yourself”, you should be tightening every major muscle in your body.
First, brace your core as if someone is about to punch you hard in the stomach. Second, brace and tighten your lats to provide yourself a solid foundation. A sub-cue for this is to let someone poke you in the lats – the resulting upright chest/lats combination from a poke is the correct position. Finally, try to tighten up the entire body especially in the quads to get the blood rushing from an isometric set up position.
Now that you’re rock solid, you’re almost all set to explode off the ground and complete the lift. You are to remain rock solid throughout the repetition.
4 – Hold an imaginary tennis ball under your chin
This cue is a very useful one. It is a corollary to cue #2 in that its goal is to further enable and ensure a neutral head and spine position.
All you have to do is imagine there’s a tennis ball in between your throat and chin and you have to tuck your chin just enough to hold it in there throughout the deadlift set. If you drop the ball, you lose. Heck, you can even use a real ball to practice this.
This ensures that your head is in the right position and is in line and parallel with the spine. Bending your head too forward or looking up too much during the deadlift can cause some serious neck disc herniation problems, so you want to make sure that your head position is spot on.
5 – Load the hips
The deadlift is all about the hips. In essence, it is a hip-hinge movement. “Loading the hips” is very important so that you do not end up placing any undue stress to other parts of the body.
Make sure the hips are raised high in proper position and ready to move. The hips are the primary moving joint in the deadlift, so you need to load them properly. By using the hip hinge correctly, you will ensure that your glutes are firing as opposed to the lower back taking the strain.
So remember, don’t be in the knees, or in the back, or anywhere else, be in the hips!
6 – Pull your chest up, push the floor down
Yes, the deadlift may be a pull. But pulling the weight off the ground is not the best way to think about it. One good mental cue is to imagine yourself pushing the floor down and simultaneously pulling your chest up. This creates a nice force pair that will make it easier to pull the weight.
The below illustration shows how this is done in the correct position. Check out this article for the detailed explanation of the mental cue.
7 – Suspend or “hang” the bar off your arms
The arms have a very, very important part to play in the deadlift. In fact, some lifters give them so much importance that they end up curling the weight and tearing their biceps. Sarcasm aside, the arms’ role is to not do anything, really.
They are just there to connect the bar to you. The cue here is to treat your arms as a rope on which the bar is suspended. This means that the arms should remain straight and long throughout the lift and should absolutely never bend. They just follow the rest of the motion but don’t initiate any movement. Remember, the hips is where you pull, so that’s what you load, not the arms.
8 – Push the earth, Spread the floor, Screw your feet
Next, this cue is all about pushing with the right mindset. Some helpful coaching cues are pushing the earth away from you, spreading or mashing the floor with your feet, or screwing your feet as you grind-push the floor.
You don’t need to use all of these, but try and test which ones work for you the best and stick to that cue. If you haven’t tried any of these in the past, consider the push the earth cue as it works best for most lifters. There are however some coaches who advocate the spread the floor cue more, claiming it gives you the balance needed.
9 – Squeeze the bar
This is to do with the grip. Don’t just hold the bar and pull. Squeeze it hard and grip the bar really tight to activate your nervous system even more.
Not only will this ensure that the bar doesn’t slip out of your hands as easily when dealing with heavy weights, but it will also activate the neighboring muscles more – the lats and core will be more engaged, for instance.
Also, by squeezing the bar during the pull, you’re giving your hands and forearms a great workout as well. Deadlifting this way will make you stronger outside the gym and will give you a desirable firm handshake too!
10 – Hump the bar to lock out
The cues above were all in the setup to push phase of the deadlift. This last one is for the lockout phase, so you can complete the lift like a boss.
It may sound odd, but a good cue to lockout correctly and explosively is to hump the bar at the top. That is to rapidly bring your pelvis and hips near to the bar in the final phase. Remember the bar travels in a straight line, but the hips move near to it as you lock out.
By doing this, you will correctly squeeze your back and glutes muscles at the top. In one sentence, hump the bar as you near the lockout, stand like a king, squeeze your glutes, and then feel the euphoria of a successful rep at the top. Only then go for the second rep.
So that’s a wrap. The deadlift is really a simple exercise if done with the right cues, so don’t complicate things, just master these cues and you’ll be pulling more and more iron happily ever after.