Build the Perfect Deadlift: 7 Expert Coaches Share Their Favorite Cue

By Justin Ochoa
If I could only do one single exercise for the rest of my life, it would undoubtedly be some sort of Deadlift variation. The Deadlift is an application of the hip hinge pattern that’s foundational to athletics, general health and pretty much any fitness goal you can imagine.

The many benefits of the Deadlift can be negated or even reversed by performing the exercise with less than stellar form. It’s far from a dangerous exercise, but it’s one of the more meticulous lifts out there so there are many opportunities to mess up if you aren’t careful.

To give you an idea of what a really solid Deadlift will look and feel like, I asked some of the industry leaders to provide their best cues and tips for building a perfect Deadlift. Since the Deadlift is a total-body exercise, I’ve asked each coach to focus on one area of the body each—feet, hips, spine, lats, upper extremities and head—because they all play such a vital role in optimizing the lift. Here’s what they had to say.

1. Spread the Floor

This cue comes from elite strength and conditioning coach Dr. Joel Seedman and focuses on optimal foot and ankle mechanics. Similar to a Squat, it’s impossible to Deadlift correctly without proper foot and ankle activation and alignment. That’s because the feet have direct impact on hip positioning, which in turn impacts spinal alignment.

When performing Deadlifts the feet need to be screwed down into the ground by pushing more of your weight to the outside of the feet, sitting back slightly on your heels and pushing your big toes into the floor. This not only creates a solid foundation and base of support to push from but it also directly affects your hip and knee mechanics. When you push to the outside of your feet and ankles as you should, this also causes the hips and knees to spread out laterally.

Most coaches familiar with the concept of pushing the knees out during Squats often utilize the “spread the floor cue.” This same cue, while slightly more subtle on the deadlift, is just as critical.

Here’s what that should look like:

Once the hips are opened up and the knees and ankles are pushed (all while maintaining a relatively straight foot position), the lifter will immediately notice they can more easily set their spine into a neutral position and handle heavier loads. One of the main reasons lifters struggle to set their spine into neutral while deadlifting is because they can’t position their hips properly due largely to poor foot and ankle mechanics. Learn to activate your feet and ankles with proper mechanics and you’ll notice your deadlift strength skyrocket. In addition, you’ll substantially reduce your risk of injury as the appropriate muscles are firing correctly and taking stress off the joints.

It’s easier to utilize proper foot and ankle mechanics on Deadlifts if you perform them while wearing minimal shoes or socks or simply going barefoot. Traditional shoes (including weightlifting shoes) act as a crutch that allow your feet and ankles muscles to shut down and fall asleep. If you want your feet to function as they were meant to you’ll need to pull in barefoot or minimalist conditions.

2. Load Hips & Finish Hips

This cue comes from elite FTS athlete and coach Julia Ladewski and focuses on hip activation. The starting position of the Deadlift is critical to getting a strong pull off the floor. If the hips are too low, you’ll have nothing to push with. If your hips are too high, you’ll end up doing a stiff leg deadlift and probably round your low back excessively.

Typically the hips will be at a position where the thigh is about 45 degrees. While that is a general guideline, the key is in loading the hips and finding that sweet spot. You know you’re in the right position if your shoulders are over the bar and you have tension in the hamstrings. Loading the hips means to apply some tension to the bar and into the ground prior to the big pull. This ensures that you don’t jerk the bar and lose position. As the bar rises you’ll finish with the hips to the bar. There is no need to excessively lean back, but think about driving the hips toward the bar to finish like an arrow being show out of a bow.

To learn more about optimizing your deadlift numbers, check out Julia’s coaching logs and coaching services here.

3. Take a Punch and Shorten Your Core

This cue comes from strength coach and physical therapist Tim DiFrancesco and focuses on proper spinal alignment.

Prior to your pull, imagine you’re about to take a punch to the stomach. This will help you to engage the core, find a neutral pelvis position and protect your low back. Think of a line between your belly button and your rib cage. One end is attached to the ribs while the other is attached to your belly button. Keeping this line short will help you to avoid anterior pelvic tilt as you lift. One of the great benefits of the Deadlift is that, when done correctly, it helps to create a stable and healthy spine. You need to train in proper postures to get the maximum benefit of any exercise and this is especially true with the hip hinge pattern.

Train, recover and nourish your body with Tim and his TD Athlete’s Edge coaching here.

4. Keep the Bar Close

This cue comes from physical preparation coach and powerlifter Jeremy Bell and focuses on maintaining great leverage throughout the exercise.

The common issue this cue addresses is the lack of sufficient tension created through the lats, shoulder girdle and core due to improper initial positioning of the shoulder. As a result, the bar drifts away from the lifter as it comes off the floor.

The lifter initiates the Deadlift from the floor and his/her back is flat initially, but their shoulder blades are not pulled down to recruit the lats and traps for stability. As the bar starts to leave the floor the lifter’s weight is shifted forward due to poor leverage and lack of tension through the trunk and shoulder. Then, we see the back round (spinal flexion) and the bar is not kept in consistent contact with the lower body, which makes the lift look much slower and harder than it should be. I like to call this a “Crane Back Deadlift.” This type of lift is cringeworthy, as it’s highly stressful to the structures of the spine and just looks ugly.

Understand that a failure to create sufficient tension through the shoulder and trunk via depression of the shoulder blade will place more stress on the lower back. The body will sense this additional stress, which will negatively impact force production, possibly resulting in a missed lift or injury. This error will also negatively impact the success of the lift as it will increase the bar travel distance from floor to finish and effectively make the load heavier by increasing the distance between the load and the lifter’s center of gravity.

Let’s look at how we can integrate the shoulder and core muscles to assist us in moving big weights. For one, ensure that the lifter sets up with shins in contact with the barbell (this will be different based on Deadlift variation being performed and individual limb lengths.) Second, their head is in line with shoulders and the lifter is making a “double chin” (this will ensure optimal shoulder girdle function). We should be able to draw a straight line from top of the head to the tailbone. Next, instruct the lifter “to drive their shoulder blades in their pockets” depressing their shoulder blades and creating stability from the shoulder down to the hips via the recruitment of the lats and traps and spinal erectors. In addition to this instruct the lifter as they depress their shoulder blades to also tense the muscles in their midsection ensuring we are utilizing every muscle that influences spinal stability. Finally, as the lift is initiated off the floor cue the lifter to “pull the bar in to their hips.” This will again help maintain the tension created at set up and keep the bar close to the lifter, optimizing leverage.

5. Squeeze the Life Out of the Bar

This cue comes from Next Level strength and conditioning head coach Michael Moon and focuses on creating tension through the lift.

Which grip do you typically use on your Deadlift? Overhand? Reverse? Hook? How you grip the bar has a direct correlation on success or failure in the Deadlift. Do your shoulders round as the bar breaks from the floor and you feel the lift searing your lower back? When you get set up to a bar you want to crush the bar, squeezing the life out of it as if you’re trying to put a dent in it. The stronger your grip and the harder you squeeze, the more tension you automatically create because grip is directly correlated to rotator cuff activation and shoulder stability. Two of the best ways to strengthen your grip include Deadlifting with an overhand grip and performing Farmer’s Walks with dumbbells, kettlebells or a hex bar.

You also want to pull the slack out of the bar, not by extending the hips and standing a little taller, but by creating tension in your lats by pulling your shoulder blades down into your back pockets. You want to pull the bar toward you and pull as much weight out of the bar as possible without actually breaking contact with the floor. From there, ease the bar off the ground rather than yank it which allows you to maintain that tension in your back and shoulders, which in turn, saves your lower back from trauma and allows for a successful lift. Two of the best ways to strengthen your lats for Deadlifts include RNT Deadlifts (a band or partner trying to pull the bar away from you as you hinge) and any horizontal Row variation, including Inverted Rows and Chest-Supported Rows.

6. Reset & Brace on Every Rep

This cue comes from Penfield High School strength coach Joe Aratari and focuses on great spinal positioning and protective tension.

We cannot understate how important breathing actually is. As something the average human does 6-8 million times per year, we better have a grasp on how to properly breath and brace, especially while Deadlifting. Rule 1 of the strength coach is to do no harm. Often even after people have been coached through from the feet up and have solid form, they still fall victim to low-back pain due to Deadlifts. One possible reason for this could be due to a lack of breathing and bracing. What we want during the Deadlift is for the spine to remain in a neutral position. When we cognitively think about breathing and bracing after every rep, our rate of injuries goes down while the weight on the bar can go up.

I think it’s important to first educate your athlete/clients that it is OK to “reset” after every rep. Often, when athletes load up the bar, they tend to bounce the weight off the floor between each rep. When they do this, they tend to lose all the previous cues we’ve mentioned! In addition, they forget to breathe as they’re focused on simply finishing the set. We have all seen that kid crushing Deadlifts with an unbraced body and head so red it’s going to burst—it’s not a pretty sight. I encourage beginners to set the bar down after each rep to reset and focus on each part of their body, including breathing and bracing. Over time, our athletes are able to go through this reset process much more efficiently between each rep.

One common drill is to get someone to lie on their back with their legs bent at 90 degrees against a wall. During this drill, we ask athletes to focus on inhaling and exhaling. To effectively create a brace, we must focus on the whole core, not just the anterior. By placing an athlete on the ground, they are able to feel their breathing against the back side as well when they are doing it correctly. A progression from this involves using a weightlifting belt during their Deadlift setup. Whether you want your athletes to use a belt or not, I still find the belt a great tool to teach athletes about bracing. Have your athlete wear a belt and get in the bottom position of a Deadlift as if they were going to pick up the bar. From there, have your athletes go through reps of inhaling/exhaling to create a brace. As your athletes take a deep breath in, instruct them to “break the belt.” Athletes should feel the belt in their front, side and back as they create pressure against it. Doing a set of 6-8 reps of inhaling/exhaling with the belt on prior to actually lifting the bar is a great drill to prep your athletes.

Prior to Deadlifts, using exercises such as Planks and Farmer’s Walks are a great way to teach athletes to brace and breathe properly. While Planking or doing a Farmer’s Walk, I’ll often tell athletes to “brace as though so and so (mention the most jacked kid in the gym) is going to punch you in the stomach.” Although it may seem silly, it often gets athletes to think about creating tension throughout their body. From here we can easily connect the dots and transfer this over to Deadlifts.

7. Find the Variation For You

All the coaches above just dropped some serious knowledge bombs. I do want to chime in and add my two cents as an umbrella hovering over all those great cues above.

When it comes to Deadlifting, my biggest advice is to find a variation that works for YOU. Not everyone has to, can, or should, Barbell Deadlift from the floor. The Deadlift is simply a loaded hip hinge movement pattern, so if there is a certain Deadlift that’s not beneficial for you, find a new way to load the hip hinge to get a similar or greater adaptation. Whether it’s an anatomical disadvantage, an injury (past or present) or equipment limitations, there is virtually no excuse for not loading a hip hinge—you just have to find the best way for you.

Here are a number of different variables you can utilize to help you find and best apply these coaching cues.

Different Stances

  • Feet hip width
  • Feet hip width, toes slightly out
  • Squat stance
  • Sumo stance
  • Staggered stance
  • Single leg
  • Tall kneeling

Different Implements

  • Barbell
  • Trap Bar
  • Dumbbell(s)
  • Kettlebell(s)
  • Pit Shark
  • Band
  • Cable
  • Sand Bag
  • kBox
  • Smith Machine
  • Medicine Ball
  • Weight plates

Different Ranges of Motion

  • Full, floor to hips
  • RDL, hip to knee
  • Half, floor to knee
  • Rack, various heights to hip

Use these variables and cues to dial in your best options and take your performance up a notch with a strong and resilient body!

Photo Credit: Neustockimages/iStock

Justin Ochoa is the owner of PACE Fitness Academy in Indianapolis, IN where he works with clients & athletes of all ages and experience levels. Aside from training in the gym, Justin works with basketball players on skill development, publishes content for various fitness resources and loves to spend time with his family. Follow Ochoa on Twitter, Instagram & Facebook for daily training tips for athletic performance and general health.

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