Almost on cue with my recent venture into a Smolov program of hyper-intense deadlifting (which involves me hating life while wearing out my calluses in pursuit of a 500 pound deadlift for the next 12 weeks), people have been asking me about some of the finer points in deadlift coaching and cueing.
I’m cool with that, so I figured I’d answer everyone in bulk with a little blog post, first because I’m walking the line between lazy and efficient these days, and second because I needed to put up some golden content today anyways, so it’s a win-win idea that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy like moccasins and a fireplace.
While I’ll admit that I don’t know everything about the finer points of deadlifts, and am always learning new stuff, I have been able to figure out a few key things to use with people to get them to sit in the hole and drive through the hips instead of their back.
First, we’ll start with the obvious. A deadlift is a hip exercise. As such your low back shouldn’t be sore after doing a set. If it is, you’re doing them wrong and aren’t getting your low back solid and stable, and are probably using it to get some of the extension that your hips aren’t able to get on their own. I know, saying a deadlift isn’t a back exercise pretty much makes most people give me this face:
While the deadlift doesn’t involve the low back creating motion through the vertebral joints per se, the muscles that line the spine are still working overtime to prevent you from collapsing into a puddling of fail and desperation in the corner of the gym while everyone looks on with a mixture of contempt, anger and hunger for tacos. Therefore while the back isn’t producing motion, it’s still involved, so all the exercise grammer-nazis out there can calm down, because I will admit that the spine will inevitably go through extension which makes the deadlift a back exercise, but the main driver is the hips. Capiche? You can now turn off the ticking packages you’re planning to send me, m’kay??
The muscles that cause the deadlift to be the deadliest mass builder in the entire gym-going repertoire are the extensors of the hips, the glutes and the hamstrings. The major difference between most deadlift techniques is how much knee bend should be involved. There are super-strong people who use both a fairly straight knee version, similar to Andy Bolton, and those who do more of a “squat-style” deadlift, similar to Benedikt Magnusson. You can see the difference in this short video fo the two as they collectively lift the weight of the SuperDome.
Bolton’s deadlift is almost a Romanian deadlift, where the entire movement comes from the hips. Either way, the first step to learning how to deadlift is getting a hip hinge. The easiest way to do this is to stand as tall as possible, then work on driving the butt straight back towards the opposing wall, as far as possible without letting the spine change position and without letting the knees unlock. This will produce one of the biggest hamstring stretches known to mankind.
Once you can get this basic movement down, we can progress to a form of deadlifting that I picked up from Charlie Weingroff, the Hardstyle deadlift using a kettlebell.
Using a kettlebell between your feet, go through your new hip hinge until you can’t get any more range. From there, press down onto the weight using only as much knee bend as necessary and preventing any kind of spinal flexion. When you get there, grab the bell so hard you feel like you’re going to get the handle oozing through your fingers like Play-Doh. Squeeze your shoulders down and get a crazy amount of tension around your armpits, and then drive the weight up by pushing your hips forward and keeping your knees vertical. Here’s a perfect example by Pat Flynn.
The goal is to maximize intramuscular and intermuscular tension, regardless of the weight, and create an ideal hip hinge that drives the work instead of creating an energy leak that results in the low back taking the brunt of the force.
if a lack of flexibility prevents you from getting to the bell without rounding your back, use a small step to raise the height of the bell so you can get to it effectively, and then work on getting the hips to actively loosen up by doing the hinge for reps.
Once you can master this movement, we can progress to using the exact same concepts with a bar. The setup is still the same: The spine is locked, the shoulders are tensed, the hips and hamstrings are charged and tense like springs waiting to unleash hellfire on an unsuspecting pile of weight, and the only option is to throw around more plates than a dishwasher at Dennys.
Notice the spinal position through the movement doesn’t change. I know a lot of elite powerlifters tend to gravitate towards a rounded thoracic spine when they pull, but for me that range results in stupid shooting pains through my low back and SI joint, so I can’t get there. Also, the entire movement is a balancing act between hip and knee extension, with the hip extending at a rate of roughly 2 degrees for every degree of extension at the knee.
So those are the cues I use for deadlifting:
- locked and tall spine
- hip hinge
- shoulders down and tight
- drive the hips forward to stand up
- keep the knees vertical
These five basic parameters can be incredibly simple to see, and incredibly complex to master when you have a maximum lift in your grip. Much like the concept of shooting a free throw is a simple one, the act takes constant practice, and it’s no matter what you’ve done in the past, simply a matter of the current rep being perfect.
Speaking of Andy Bolton, he and the kettlebell master, Pavel Tsatsouline, released their e-book Deadlift Dynamite a little while ago, and it’s definitely a must-read for anyone interested in taking their lift to the next level. Whether your competitive or just looking to build a beefy set of cheeks to rest a drink on, this will help give you an edge to bigger strength,which will result in a greater possibility to build a better booty. You can get your copy of Deadlift Dynamite by clicking HERE.