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3 Coaching Cues for Strength and Conditioning Programs – Deadlift Technique Edition

Written on November 8, 2012 at 7:46 am, by Eric Cressey

Today marks the third installment of a series that looks at the coaching cues we use to optimize training technique at Cressey Performance. Today, we’ll focus specifically on deadlift technique coaching cues.  Additionally, if you really want to learn how to deadlift from scratch, I’d encourage you to subscribe to my free newsletter, as you’ll receive a video deadlift technique tutorial when you do so.

1. Touch your butt to an imaginary wall a foot behind you.

“Hips back” is a cue that works great for many people when it comes to coaching deadlift variations, box squats, toe touch progressions, and a host of other exercises requiring a good hip hinge.  For those with less-than-stellar “movement awareness,” I prefer to give a slightly different reference point.

You see, “hips back” is an internal focus coaching cue; it focuses on the athlete moving part of his/her body.  The imaginary wall, on the other hand, is an external focus cue; it’s just an inanimate object that serves as a reference point for the athlete.  With the “touch your butt to an imaginary wall a foot behind you” cue, you give an athlete both internal and external focus options, so it’s more likely that one of them will register.  Plus, “butt” may register a bit more with folks who can’t don’t understand how to dissociate the hips from the lower back.

2. Show me the logo on your shirt.

Also on the deadlifting front, many individuals simply don’t grasp the concept of “chest up” when they’re in the bottom position of a deadlift and want to go hunchback on you.  However, I haven’t met a lifter yet who doesn’t understand what I mean when I stand in front of them and say, “Show me the logo on your shirt.”  Again, “me” is an external cue that helps to fix things up.

Take note of the New Balance logo on the front of my shirt during this deadlift; is there ever a point during the lift that you don’t see it?

This isn’t just for singles, either.  You’ll see the logo on Tony’s shirt on every rep on this set of eight reps.

Now, let’s compare two heavier lifts – one that was awful on this front, and two that were significantly better.  This first one was taken in August of 2007.  Notice how the logo disappears, and my spine looks like it’s going to explode?

Now, compare that to the deadlifts (1:40 mark through the end) in my mock/impromptu powerlifting meet two weeks ago.  You’ll notice that you never lose sight of the logo on my shirt.

3. Don’t just lift; put force into the ground.

I’ve found that folks often get so caught up in the moment when they approach heavy weights on the deadlift that they will simply do anything it takes to get the bar up (reference my ugly August 2007 deadlift from above).  However, what they fail to realize is that they’ll be stronger if they put themselves in the most biomechanically correct position possible.

In the context of the deadlift, this means not allowing the bar to get too far away from the body.  If you do, it’s like sitting on a seesaw opposite someone, but letting them move further away from the center point; you’ve made them feel heavier without actually changing the weight.  In other words, crushing big weights on the deadlift is about keeping the bar close to the primary axis of movement: the hips.  It’s why most lifters will be slightly stronger on a trap bar deadlift than a conventional deadlift; the weight is positioned closer to the hips. And, it’s also why folks with long femurs usually can lift more weight with sumo deadlifts (and do so more safely).

Regardless of the deadlift variation in question, I’ve found that more advanced lifters can really benefit from thinking more about just putting force into the ground. This doesn’t mean you have to stomp your heels down (I actually used to do that, but don’t any longer), but rather just engaging your posterior chain to take tension out of the bar and ensure that the bar starts out in the right path: close to you.  Some cues that go hand-in-hand with this are #2 from above (show logo) and “pull back, not up.”

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  • http://CarlosMendezLeo(Facebook) Carlos Mendez Leo

    Thank you, well thought ideas and concise.

  • http://CarlosMendezLeo(Facebook) Carlos Mendez Leo

    It would be great for me if you could do the same article format on Power Cleans (“3 Cues for more strength on your Power Clean”).

    I always ready your articles on this subject at Testosterone Nation but it would still be awesome.

    Thanks again.

  • http://www.buffalopersonaltraining.com Brian Meisenburg

    Great article. I think the Deadlift is a great exercise and I tend to have most of my capable clients do it (or a modification).

    Thanks again,

    Brian

  • Barath

    Thanks for the article Eric! I seem to have developed a problem of rounding the back which makes heavier lifts (which for me is around the 380 lbs mark) very difficult. As I progress in weight toward the high end, I find that I lose all tightness in my lats and back as I grab the bar, so inevitably I end up rounding my back. My form is pretty good till about 315-325 ish. Could you suggest what might be leading to this? Should I spend more time warming up with lesser weights, or less? I am at a loss!

  • Patrick O’Flaherty

    Eric,

    Approximately what % weight increase can one expect when using the high handle versus the low handle with hex bar deadlifts?

    Thanks,

    Patrick

  • Chris

    Love the young EC showing off the guns during the DL!

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Patrick,

    Maybe 6-8%?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey
  • Nicholas St John Rheault

    What makes you guys at CP exceptional is that you were able to show through your articles & videos progressions of how you learn as individuals on a constant basis!!! Proud to learn from some of the Best of the Best – Nick

  • http://www.facebook.com/sammsings Sammy

    I have Eric and Tony tips/cues printed and kept in my training journal,and I give them a quick once-over at the beginning of every deadlift day.

  • Jason

    Thanks for the article, Eric. A couple bodybuilder friends of mine were doing deadlifts strangely and I wanted to get your opinion. they were starting with the weight up on a stand so that they began fully erect and then they would lower the weight to a point several inches from the floor before extending up again. They said something about “safety” and I couldn’t properly argue why this approach was all wrong. Help!

  • Patrick O’Flaherty

    Eric,

    My girlfriend did an extra 15% with the higher grip but her poundages were < 200lbs. So wasn't sure if she was an aberration or the norm?

    Patrick

  • http://www.toxic-fat.com Seth

    This is way more direct and descriptive than my “think of an ape” explanation. Totally stealing it for use with clients!

  • http://www.jamescipriani.com James Cipriani

    Great cues!

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Patrick,

    She’s probably quad dominant; the trap bar will inflate numbers a bit more in those folks.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Jason,

    It’s just a RDL. Different exercise, maybe slightly safer – although I’d argue that walking a weight out can be pretty unsafe, too.

  • Kinsen

    Quick question about heels on the ground. Do you not do it anymore because you’re used to pushing thru your heels and therefore don’t need to. Or is it because you think people should not do it due to ______ ?

    I ask because I started to lift my heels (after watching some of your videos) just a bit to remind me to push thru my heels and it has definitely helped me.

  • Jason

    Thanks for the response, Eric. I never thought of it as an RDL because I always do and see RDLs stiff-legged. I suppose where you lose out on building power with an RDL you make up for in building rigidity (in the right places, of course).

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Kinsen,

    Are you referring to the heel stomp? Can’t quite understand your question.

  • Aby

    My cues for the Deadlifts are

    Chest Out
    Shoulders Back
    Drive with the heels

  • Dani Broncano

    Thanks from Spain Eric!!! You are our guru at CY Gym in Malaga. Best wishes for CP.

  • http://www.kettlebellen.com Ellen Stein

    you mean like this? LOL…this was my latest…

    http://youtu.be/1TTTMhqvzzU

  • http://www.kettlebellen.com Ellen Stein

    oh and by the way this neck packing thing has been really working for me…I am telling all my clients to do it….my DL’s are flying off the floor….

  • Kevin

    Question for cue #2

    When I hear the logo cue I think of thoracic spine hyper extension. Is this the position you want the t/spine in during the deadlift?

    I believe the spine in it’s ‘neutral’ posture is more efficient and should be able to pull or push more weight. Too much flexion and you put the posterior ligaments and facet joint capsules in a lengthened position but too much extension and you narrow the interforaminal space for the nerve roots.

    I often have to cue patients to keep out of thoracic hyper extension when performing any scapula retraction resisted motion. And sometimes use a PVC pipe attached to them so they maintain contact with it at their lumbosacral junction, mid thoracic spine and occiput.

  • Kinsen

    My apologies for being unclear, yes I was referring to the heel stomp.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Kinsen,

    For me, it just got to the point that it was a LOT of moving parts. I wanted to simplify my technique so that it would be more repeatable without practicing it 3-4x/week!

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Kevin,

    I’d say that it’s a cue from flexion to neutral, not into thoracic hyperextension. I agree with you that too much would be problematic.


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