I’m not going to lie, I love the conventional deadlift. It’s by far my favorite movement to train and strongest lift on the platform by far, but unfortunately, it’s also the most taxing on my body. In a perfect world, I’d train it every day, yet that’s not reality. The reality is that I can train heavy conventional deadlifts really well once, and sometimes twice a week (if in caloric surplus) without accumulating too much fatigue.
The lower exposure not only helps me recover faster, but it makes me dedicate more time to my other lifts, which is actually a good thing, even though I want to deadlift all the time. Over the years, this lower training exposure on my conventional deadlift days has not only made me appreciate them more, but they’ve also help me dial in my efficiency.
After all, if you only train something once (maybe twice) a week and usually for lower reps, then every rep needs to count. This conundrum has helped me experiment and find the perfect set of cues to make each conventional deadlift (and sumo) count. Below are some of the traditional and non-traditional cues to assist with your conventional/sumo pulls.
Editor’s Note: This list is by no means meant to be taken as a definitive guide when cuing the deadlift, as every athlete and coach will have their own take on teaching and executing the lift. Also, a lot of these cues will be primarily focused on conventional deadlifts, as the sumo deadlift will require a much different setup and body position.
1. From the Floor
Spread the Floor
When it comes to creating a strong pull, the feet and their position are incredibly important, and often get overlooked by newer athletes. How the feet are positioned at the beginning of our pull can indirectly help dictate bar path, hip angles, and back angles. How exactly? Well, if our feet have a firm base, then more than likely we can create a stronger hip hinge and set back, which will keep the bar close to the body due to having better balance.
Similar to the squat cue of spreading the floor, the idea behind creating this mental to physical connection is to promote a slight external rotation of the hips. This slight rotation can help the glutes and hamstrings prepare for weight, and will put the body in a better means of pulling a load from the floor.
Traditional & Non-Traditional Feet Cues
- Spread the Floor
- Grip the Floor
- Screw the Feet Into the Floor
- Create Tripod Foot Position
Feet Cue Caveat
When it comes to cuing the feet in your setup and pull, there also comes one caveat to keep in mind, and that has to do with your stance width. Yes, angling the toes out can be great for creating a slight hip external rotation, but if it’s resulting in discomfort during the lift, then you may want to reevaluate your stance. Vice versa, if you like your feet straight, but find you’re going into valgus, aka there’s no stance that’s one-size-fits-all.
Check out the great video from powerlifter and coach Johnny Candito below that addresses different stance issues, and finding what will work best for you.
2. The Hips & Their Hinge
Push the Hips Back
More than likely, you’ve heard the cue push the hips back. The next and potentially biggest cue that comes with conventional deadlifts are the hips and how they hinge. For this article, we’ll talk about the hips at both the setup, descent, and concentric as they all are essential pieces to successfully pulling big weight.
Hips At the Setup
Hip height during the conventional deadlift setup is something often beginners struggle with, as they’ll often sit too low and treat their hip height similar toe a squat. This not only puts the body in a less than optimal position, but it takes away from the natural lever your hips create during conventional pulls.
When it comes to cuing the hips for the conventional deadlift setup, everyone’s position will be slightly different based on their height, limb lengths, and preferred pulling position. Below are a couple methods to cue hip positioning during the setup.
- Mid-Foot Under the Bar, Then Bring Your Shins to Contact the Bar (the hips will naturally go back)
- Mid-Foot Under the Bar, Then Push the Hips Back and Grab the Bar (the shins will come forward naturally)
Both of these methods are very similar, but they differ in how an athlete will assess their body’s patterning to create their perfect hip hinge. Some athletes work best thinking about their hips back to start, while others may find that bringing their shins forward first helps them get into position. The main point is that no two setups will look the same, so use cues that work best with your starting hip position.
At the end of the day, if you’re finding your hips in a similar position to a squat, and your shins are in excessive flexion, then chances are you may want to reevaluate your setup.
Hips During the Descent
The hips during the descent are one of the biggest factors to ensuring back health and proper bar path during conventional deadlifts. This is the act of maintaining your hip angle through the whole eccentric portion of the movement to ensure there’s not excessive torso flexion. Plus, this focus can help competitive powerlifters control weight without punching it to the floor.
When it comes to teaching a proper hinge at the top of the deadlift, you’ll typically hear the cue “push the hips back”. This concept is used to prevent athletes from performing excessive knee flexion before bringing the bar down, which would make the movement inefficient and cause the bar’s path to float away in front of them.
Traditional & Non-Traditional Hip Hinge Cues
- Push the Hips Back
- Make a Hand Sandwich (squeeze hand between thigh & torso)
- Hips Tall and Back With Soft Knee Bend
- Pull the Bar Into You
- Don’t Let the Knee Track Forward
- Push the Hips Back and Maintain a Tall Chest
- Keep the Bar Close to the Body
If you’re struggling with the hip hinge concept, then practicing more Romanian Deadlifts and conventional pulls with light weight and longer eccentrics can promote proper mechanics. For those working their hinge and feel more stress in the lower back, then chances are you need reevaluate how you’re loading the posterior chain to displace force.
Hips During the Concentric
So, you’ve dialed in your hips at setup, and you have a firm grasp of the hinge, now it’s time to work on hip position during the concentric (aka physically lifting of weight). In my opinion, there are three major hip checkpoints to remember when thinking about the hips during the concentric portion of the deadlift.
First, avoid hip shoot at the initiation of the pull, aka the hips shooting up before moving the weight. This can not only decrease your power output by messing up your leverage, but can result in the lumbar being in an unsafe position.
Second, keeping the hips close to the bar. This is the idea of maintaining your leverage and power by maintaining bar position throughout the full lift. This in return will keep the hips in a position to produce the most amount of power. Third and lastly, getting the hips through the bar. This is the final hip cue I like to keep in mind because it reminds to produce a strong hip extension to complete the lift.
3. Upper Back & Torso
Engage the Lats
Throughout the full movement, you’ll often hear the cue engage the lats. The upper back and torso can be sleeper cells when it comes to successful conventional deadlifs (and sumo), especially at heavier weights. This area of the body is something that can be easily neglected until we truly need its support to maintain strong body positioning.
For example, without an upper back and torso that’s properly aligned, then we risk two things: Torso flexion (rounding of the back, lumbar more specifically), and a forward bar path. Almost always both of these are synonymous with one another, but there are rare occasions when they’re not.
In terms of cuing the lats, what exactly does this mean and look like? Think about when you see athletes setup for their deadlift, then press their arms back and down and grip the bar, that’s the act of engaging the lats. Check out the video below from Juggernaut Training Systems for an in-depth explanation on lat engagement.
Traditional & Non-Traditional Lat Cues
- Pull the lats back
- Put the scapula in your back pockets (Dave Tate has talked about this one)
- Tuck your elbows in (Jonnie Candito)
- Pinch a pencil between the scaps and push it down
- Flex your lats out and down
- Pull the bar into you
There are really no ”right’ or ‘wrong’ mental cues with the lats, what’s most important is finding something that works best for you. If you’re in doubt of your lat engagement, film a video from the side of your deadlift and pay close attention to A) your bar path and see if it’s moving forward, and B) upper torso flexion in the first half of the pull off the ground.
4. Pull the Slack Out of the Bar
The final cue is pulling the slack out of the bar. This cue should be used at the initiation of the deadlift, and I put it last in this list because without it everything we discussed earlier can be completely altered, and all the cures are connected to this concept. Physically pulling slack out of the bar can be one of the tougher concepts to grasp as a newer lifter.
The idea of pulling slack out of the bar is putting the body under tension without physically moving weight. I like to think it about it as our body preemptively telling itself, “Hey, there’s a bunch of weight down here, and you’re about to lift it, so get the hell ready”.
For newer athletes, I like to explain this cue using the example of a crane that’s taut and ready to lift weight. The arms/torso are the crane’s arm, your posterior chain is the anchor in the back maintaining the counterbalance, and the weight is whatever object is being lifted. Check out the video below from Barbell Brigade for a quick visual and explanation.
Traditional & Non-Traditional Cues
- Pull up on the bar (and make it bend, if applicable)
- Grip the bar, sink the hips, and squeeze the glutes (Barbell Brigade’s video)
- Grip the bar and get the chest tall
There are multiple ways to think about this cue, but the biggest takeaway is that this cue will pretty much be the summation of everything else. Your stance, hips, back, arms, and everything used to move weight will equate to your ability to find position while pulling slack out of the bar.
Is this article’s four deadlift cues set in stone? Not one bit. Would you make this list in a different order, or add another cue? Probably, and that’s completely okay. After all, this list isn’t intended to be an end all be all, but to help provide context into different areas on the deadlift that receive a ton of attention and get covered in cues, which can be confusing.
What’s most important is that you find a set of cues and way of looking at the deadlift, which helps you not only move more weight, but keeps you safe!
Related: Romanian Deadlift Proper Set Up
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.