By Jim Smith
In my first article of this series – Deadlift 101 – I took you through each critical component of the deadlift setup and showed you how to pull the perfect rep every time. I shared the foundation of how you can pull big weights safely, covering everything from your body position to your grip. For some people, that’s all it will take to set new PR’s in the gym. But for others, more coaching is needed.
That’s why I compiled this list of the best coaching cues that will help you build a bigger deadlift and stay injury free. These are the tips I’ve learned throughout my career through experience and learning from some of the best coaches in the world. You might want to take out a pen and paper because deadlifting class is now in session.
Top – Down Training Approach
I prefer a top-down training approach when teaching the deadlift. It allows me to control the range of motion for each athlete and keep the lift within their individual capabilities. You should also only work through a range where your technique is precise and you can maintain good positions; a straight torso, hips back, core tight and braced.
You must earn the right to deadlift off the floor, i.e., through the full range of motion of the lift.
Here is a simple progression for to work toward the full execution of the deadlift.
Top-Down Training Progression for Deadlift
Fundamental Exercise 1: Kettlebell swing
Fundamental Exercise 2: Kettlebell RDL
Range of motion 1: Barbell Rack Pull – mid-quad
Range of motion 2: Barbell Rack Pull – below knees
Range of motion 3: Barbell Rack Pull – mid-shin
Range of motion 4: Full Deadlift off of the floor
If you are able to demonstrate a good hip hinge pattern for fundamental movements like the kettlebell swing or kettlebell RDL, then you can progress to barbell rack pulls at various heights; mid-quad, below the knees, and mid-shin. This progression will allow you to continue drilling good form and work within your capabilities. It is critical to continue building stability in these positions along the bar path because it will allow you to successfully link the movements together into one smooth sequence and the ultimate goal - pulling from the floor.
The Simple Top-Down Training Progression
Additional Notes on the Top-Down Training Progression
Note 1: Mats, a power rack, or even boxes can used to raise the bar up to different positions along the bar path.
Note 2: A very useful technique utilized by Olympic lifters can also help us here. You will grab the racked bar from the power cage at waist height and take one step back with each foot until they are in parallel alignment. From this locked position, you will slide back into a hip hinge movement and perform a 3-5 second isometric holds at each position previously discussed; mid-quad, below the knees, and mid-shin. Pull the bar back up to lockout and repeat the sequence for 5 repetitions. This will bulletproof your lower back, create muscular endurance in the posterior chain, and build stability along the bar path for the full-range deadlift off the floor.
Keep the Bar Close
Deadlifting big weight is all about improving your mechanical advantage. The closer you keep the bar’s center of mass to your own center of mass, the better leverage you’ll have throughout the exercise.
Watch the next time you deadlift. Does the bar get away from you out in front, or are you actively engaging your lats and pulling the bar close to your body?
For the first repetition in video, the bar floats away from the lifter. They terminate the set and repeat the rep with the bar in a better starting position.
Keeping the Bar Close
One of the best coaching cues I’ve ever received, that made the biggest impact on how I coach deadlifts, was from Kelly Starrett (mobilityWOD.com). Pulling yourself down into position by taking the slack out of the bar is only one component of creating tension for the start. Yes, the lats and core become tight and braced, but what about the hips?
If you’ve ever listened to Kelly speak, he often talks about torque at the shoulders and at the hips. The more torque you can create, the more stable the joint is and the stronger you’ll be. Unfortunately, most lifters ‘blow off torque’ at the hips due to immobility in their hips and ankles. This can be seen when they turn their feet outward at an extreme angle when they try to setup on the bar.
Engaging and creating tension at the hips can be as easy as moving your feet back to a more neutral position and then driving your knees outward. You will not believe the stability and strength you’ll have when you make this simple correction. Tension and torque will load across your hips and make you very stable and strong in your setup.
Notice in the video how the first rep has a more straight knee position while the second rep loads and creates torque at the hips.
How to Create Torque at the Hips
Important Considerations for Deadlifting
What’s on Your Shirt?
I sent a video of a recent deadlift session to Mark Bell (owner of Supertraining Gym and the POWER magazine) for his critique. My chest was down at the start of the pull and he told me to move my feet in and get my chest up higher. Eric Cressey (cresseyperformance.com) has an easy way to cue this by simply stating, “I want to see the writing on your shirt.”
Think about it. If your chest is too low, your shoulders will be in front of the bar and, at some point, you’ll have to use your upper body to finish the lockout. If you can get hips back behind the bar and your chest up, you will have a much stronger leg drive off of the floor and a straighter bar path.
Keep Your Chest Up
Wearing a Belt
I’ve heard it stated that a weightlifting belt, when used correctly, could add as much as 50 lbs to your deadlift. This is just an approximation, but everyone knows you can lift more with a belt.
But, the get the most out of your belt, you’ll need to know how to learn to use it the right way.
Using a belt correctly involves taking in a deep breath into your belly – trying to get your entire lower torso to expand outward in all directions (i.e., circumferential expansion) – and then holding that breath while you tense your core tightly against the resistance of the belt.
Once you take in the biggest breath possible and your belly is fully extended and braced, don’t hesitate, get into your setup and go.
How to Brace Using a Belt
Because the goal of my athlete’s program is full body strength – which is dependent upon them developing a high level of core strength and stability – I have always recommended pushing off the use of a belt as long as possible.
For most lifters, this means leaving their belt in the bag until they hit 80-85% or above of the maximum weight they can deadlift. While this is a good rule of thumb, Mark Bell offers another great perspective.
Mark suggested that if you’re always putting off using a belt, you forget how to actually use the belt. Cycling in a weightlifting belt during earlier ramp-up sets will get you accustomed to the ‘feel’ and the higher level of bracing a belt provides. This is a great point!
Use the belt as a learning tool and then use it only when you need it.
Yes, Straps are OK
For high rep deadlift sets or for deadlifts variations with a snatch grip, straps are fine. Much like wearing a belt though, you don’t want to rely on them all of the time. Lifting heavier weights is needed to get you stronger, so don’t let your workout suffer when your grip fails. Continue to work on building your grip strength and use straps when your grip is the delimiting factor for your primary goal of the workout.
Typical barbells you’ll find in a commercial gym aren’t the best type of bar to pull a big deadlift. These cheaper bars are usually pretty rigid and most have center knurling.
They, in fact, make bars specifically for deadlifting – called Texas deadlift bars.
Texas deadlift bars have no center knurling, they are slightly longer (to accommodate a sumo deadlift stance), and they have a ‘whip’ to the bar. The whip is actually a springiness that causes a sequential loading of the weight. What this means is that as you start the 1st pull off of the floor, the bar bends slightly – maybe 1-2” – before the weights begin to come off the floor. This can be advantageous for a lifter who has trouble starting the lift.
In my previous article – Deadlift 101 - I provided a step-by-step guide where we take all of these coaching cues and show you how to pull the perfect deadlift every rep. Once you combine everything you’ve learned, you’ll undoubtedly be on the way to a bigger, stronger body.
How to Deadlift
Deadlift 101 – How to Deadlift the Right Way (with video instruction)
How to Deadlift - Comprehensive Guide to Help You Deadlift Better
How to Squat - Comprehensive Guide to Help You Squat Better
How to Bench Press - Comprehensive Guide to Help You Bench Better
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim is a proud Dad, strength coach, and entrepreneur. Co-author of the best selling Athletic Development Training system and co-founder of the CPPS certification for coaches, Jim has been recognized as one of the ‘most innovative coaches’ in the fitness industry. Jim is regularly featured in Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness.
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