I love the deadlift.
While I’ve transitioned from powerlifting to focusing more on hypertrophy, I still deadlift heavy. Why? Because I like it.
The deadlift is such a satisfying lift.
Even though I’ve been deadlifting seriously for nearly ten years, there are still some cues that I mentally go through in my head as I perform this exercise.
Below, I share my five favorite cues that I still use today. Some employ evocative metaphors that make them easy to remember and all are quite useful in ensuring you do the deadlift correctly.
If you’re looking for an in-depth guide to the deadlift, check out this comprehensive article.
To Set Your Back Right: Point Your Booty Hole at the Wall Behind You; Squeeze Oranges in Your Armpits
To keep your back strong and safe during a heavy deadlift, you want to maintain back extension during its setup and execution. When you deadlift with a rounded back, you increase the chances of injury.
Setting and maintaining your back in extension can be hard when bending over to grab a barbell. It’s not something that comes naturally. I picked up two cues from Barbell Logic owner Matt Reynolds that have helped me correctly set my back in extension over the years: point your booty hole at the wall behind you; squeeze oranges in your armpits.
“Point your booty hole at the wall” reminds me to keep my hips up. When you point your booty hole at the wall while you’re bent over and grabbing the barbell, it will naturally put your lower back into extension.
When Matt coached my then 10-year-old son Gus on how to deadlift, he played to his 10-year-old boy mentality and told him, “Imagine you’re going to have diarrhea. Point your butt so that the diarrhea sprays all over the wall behind you.”
But it worked. Thanks to that cue, Gus knows how to get his lower back into extension.
“Squeeze oranges in your armpits” is a cue that reminds me to keep my chest up during the setup and the lift. I just imagine I’ve got an orange in each armpit, and I need to keep them there during the lift. For some weird reason, that cue helps me lift my chest, which helps maintain back extension during the deadlift. “Chest up” never worked for me, but “squeeze oranges in your armpits” does.
If it feels uncomfortable, you’ll know your back is set in extension correctly. It should feel tight in your lower back.
To Prevent Knee Caving: Shove Your Knees Out to Your Elbows
If your knees tend to cave in during the deadlift, then as you set up, tell yourself, “Shove your knees out to your elbows.”
Besides preventing knee-cave, shoving your knees out so they touch your elbows will put your legs in external rotation, allowing you to bring your adductors into the deadlift. The deadlift just feels better when you shove your knees out.
To Prevent Jerking: Pull the Slack Out of the Bar
One of the issues I’ve had over the years with the deadlift is that I’ll work a lot to get into a good setup, only to let that setup relax right before I start to pull the barbell off the ground.
To counter that deadlift mishap, I tell myself, “Squeeze the slack out of the bar.”
Squeezing the slack out of the bar means pulling on the bar by extending your back and straightening your arms and wrists. When you squeeze the slack out of the bar, the plates don’t leave the ground, but the bar should feel heavy in your hands. You might even see the bar bend a bit as you squeeze the slack out of it.
Squeezing the slack out of the bar helps me maintain proper setup instead of letting things relax right before the lift.
To Keep Your Arms Straight: Use Your Arms As Towing Straps
A common mistake I see people make when deadlifting is that they’ll try to actively pull the bar with their arms. You do not pull the bar with your arms, in the sense of bending your elbows and pulling like you’re on a rowing machine or doing a pull-up. Any bend in your arms will be pulled straight as soon as you try to lift the barbell; in the process, some of the work of lifting the bar will be lost in this straightening that could have better contributed to the lift. Bent arms will also cause you to change position slightly as you start the pull.
To keep your arms straight throughout the lift, imagine that they’re towing straps. As you set up, take most of the weight of the barbell into your hands with your arms straight, creating tension against the barbell. With the barbell secured to your static arm “straps,” lift the barbell by raising your upper body.
To Start the Deadlift Right: Push the Earth Away With Your Feet
While the deadlift is considered a “pull” exercise, a useful cue to execute the lift properly is to also think of it as a push. When I’m ready to pull the barbell off the ground, I think, “Push the earth away with your feet.” A similar cue is “Leg press the earth with your feet.”
Starting the deadlift with a foot push will extend the knees, giving you some help from your quads. Starting your deadlift with a push movement will also ensure that your bar maintains a straight up-and-down path, making for a more efficient lift.
I always feel stronger when I think of my deadlift as a push instead of a pull. Give it a try. Maybe you will, too.