I don't know a strength athlete worth their salt that doesn't love a heavy deadlift. And I'm not just talking bros, either – we have more than a handful of ladies in our gym that love heavy pulls! However, all's not rosy in the deadlifting world, as not nearly enough trainees respect proper deadlifting technique. I'm all for the "grip & rip" approach, but ultimately there comes a point when that maxes out.
I was a big believer in "grip & rip" for a long time – get as psyched up as you can, have your boy smack you in the head, hit an ammonia cap, and fucking get after it. That approach took me to a 505-pound deadlift within my first year and a half of serious training, so there's definitely merit to it. But to get to bigger weights while keeping myself in one piece, I had to dial in my technique.
Let's start with what I consider to be ideal deadlift technique, and then we'll discuss the cues from there.
Coach Mike's Ideal Deadlift Technique
My goal is to help you lift heavy while simultaneously keeping you as healthy as possible.
Call me crazy, but I actually want you to be able to lift heavy things for an extended period – not just when you're in your teens, 20's, and early 30's. Are there technical tweaks you can make to move heavier weights, with the sole purpose of adding 10-20 pounds to the bar or hitting a PR? Absolutely.
But the technique I'm going to describe transcends both getting strong and not beating your body into oblivion.
Let's get into it.
When people are warming up, their deadlifts often look pretty solid. The hips are down, the spine is in good alignment, and the timing looks right. However, as the weight gets heavier, it looks more like this:
- The hips shoot up in the air.
- The bar drifts away from the body.
- The chest caves.
- They lose their upper and lower back position.
- The neck hyperextends to counteract the loss of position.
- There's no synergy in finishing the lift between the hips and back. Quite simply, the timing is off.
- With the hips in a horrible position (and the knees damn near locked), the back is forced to finish the lift.
In a perfect deadlift (one that keeps the spine relatively healthy), it looks like this:
- The hips are down and the spine is neutral top to bottom.
- The lift is initiated by a blending of a rock solid and stable spine, coupled with leg and hip drive.
- As the bar comes up, it stays tight to the body/shins.
- To finish the lift, there's a seamless transition between the torso becoming more upright and the hips extending.
You can argue with some of the nuances, but the preceding explains solid deadlift technique in 70 words.
With that in mind, here are 5 tips that I guarantee can make a difference in your deadlift training and performance.
1. Lead With the Chest
Watch people deadlift from warm-up to Max Effort and this is the progression you'll see:
- For the first couple warm-ups the technique is dialed in – the chest is up, hips are down, and everything looks great.
- As the weight gets heavy, you'll see the hips shooting up increasingly faster, which essentially throws all the stress and load onto the lower back.
- Not only is this not the most efficient way to deadlift; it'll also wreak havoc on your spine!
For athletes that follow this pattern, I use the cue "lead with your chest." When you lead with your chest, you get out of the pattern where your ass shoots straight up, and the lift is more smooth and balanced between the legs and the back.
So don't just think "pickit up," especially when the weight gets heavy – think "lead with the chest" to keep the back in a good position, and the hips and thighs doing at least some portion of the work.
2. Weld Your Spine
Another common issue I see is athletes using their spine like a whip to get the weight up. Look, I'm a realist, and I've done my fair share of heavy lifting. I know every lift isn't going to be a work of art.
But if you're constantly using your spine (and the muscles around it) as a power generator, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but your days of lifting heavy shit are seriously numbered.
Instead, I like to use the cue, "weld your spine from top to bottom."
This is a very powerful cue, and when combined with slapping a PVC pipe on your back, gives you (or your athlete) a ton of feedback very quickly. When you weld your spine, your goal is to literally lock the spine down from top to bottom. And once locked down, it does not move!
This cue (and the visualization it provides) makes for a much cleaner lift as it forces more hip and leg drive.
3. Hips Down
Hips down is another cue that I have to pull out more times than not, and it often goes hand in hand with the first tip.
There are two occasions when the hips need to "get down":
- At the start/when setting up.
- At the initiation of the lift.
Let's discuss both.
People with weak hips/thighs/quads and strong lower backs love using their lower back to deadlift. And while I'm not necessarily against this, I can make you even stronger if I can get some leg drive to complement that super-strong back.
To do this requires some supplemental hip/thigh work in your programming. However, if I can get your hips down a smidge at the start to get the bar moving, it's going to be that much easier to finish the lift.
The second time your hips need to get down is at the initiation of the lift, and this goes hand-in-hand with my first point. If your hips shoot way up right off the bat, your legs have run out of room and they're no longer helping finish the lift.
Sorry pal, but if your back isn't on par with Andy Bolton, there's no way you're finishing this lift!
When you merge that first tip (lead with the chest) with a cue to keep the hips down, you have a lethal combination that's virtually guaranteed to pull your deadlift up.
Finally, if someone needs to keep their hips down when initiating the lift, cue them to "keep their hips underneath the bar." It's not perfect, but when I use this cue most people intuitively get where I'm going with it.
4. Push the Knees Out
For deadlift tip #4, I need to give credit to my old employer, Dr. Michael Hartle.
After spending some time at a powerlifting meet with some of the Swedes (a nation known for its deadlifting prowess), Dr. Mike told me that on sumo deadlifts their goal wasn't to shift their weight back, but rather to push the knees out as hard as possible to get down to the bar.
Stand up and try this for a second:
Set-up for a sumo deadlift like you normally would, and shove your hips back to load your posterior chain. If possible, look at yourself in a mirror while doing this.
You can see your hips are really far away from the bar, and there's considerable incline to your torso.
It's not a bad starting position, but it's not necessarily optimal, either. Furthermore, you'll be great at starting lifts but will probably struggle to finish them.
Now, go back up to the top and try staying really tall and upright (relatively speaking), and simply shove your knees out as hard to the side as you can; or, as Dave Tate so eloquently puts it, think about "dropping your nut-sack on the bar."
In this position, your hips and thighs are spring-loaded and ready to go to work.
Here's the rub – getting weights off the floor can be a struggle, especially if your back is far stronger than your hips/thighs, but if you can bring that hip and thigh strength up, you'll have a serious reward.
When you set-up in this position with an appropriate amount of hip and thigh strength, anything that you can break from the floor, you'll be able to lock out. I used this for a while back in the day, but got away from it for some reason.
Switching back made a huge difference for me. It took some time, but I'm not only stronger now, but it doesn't take me 3-4 days to recover from a deadlifting workout, either.
And that's what I call a win-win!
5. Ribs Down
I've saved the best for last.
Every strength coach that's done this at a high level for 10, 15 or 20+ years has used the cue "chest up". It's a great cue, as many athletes have a tendency to get caved over when squatting and pulling.
Unfortunately, athletes (field, court, and strength alike) love to use hyperextension to create stability in their spine. If you cue someone to "get their chest up," and their only source of stability is to hyperextend and crush the lumbar spine, this is not a good thing.
Instead, try this one on for size:
You can still use chest up, but add the cue ribs down.
Without getting into a 3000-word diatribe on proper core stability patterns, suffice it to say that I'd rather rely on muscle versus joints to create stability.
When you rely excessively on joints, you increase the amount of wear and tear and the likelihood of injury. But when you get your ribs down, you preserve that "canister" where your diaphragm is facing your pelvic floor. This canister allows you to create an incredible amount of intra-abdominal pressure, and thus core/lumbar spine stability.
Here's a practical example for you:
In June, I was kind of half-assing my workouts (sorry folks, I'm not a cyborg like Eric Cressey). I got serious about using this cue, and really worked to get the ribs down and then take a big, deep breath before deadlifting.
My previous best deadlift against bands was 455 pounds, and that was when I was training seriously for a powerlifting meet.
With some half-assed training and an improved set-up, I hit 485 that day for a 30-pound PR.
And according to my boy "Lil'" Stevie Gabrielsen, that's well over 600 pounds at the top – not too shabby for a washed up, old, "corrective" guy.
Always More To Learn
Deadlifting is a warrior's art. There's beauty not only in the sheer, raw strength that it unveils, but also in the subtleties and nuances of the technique. Use one (or all) of the tips I've provided above, and I expect some serious PR's next time you're in the gym!