Lift heavier. Get stupid strong. Build mountains of muscle. In this series, Tony G. drops his best tips and cues for the world’s most primal lift.
Editor’s Note: Tony Gentilcore is a master deadlift coach. And the guy can yank a crap-ton of weight off the floor himself. Recently, he shot 30 day’s worth of easy to understand, practical, and immediately applicable videos on the deadlift. They were so good we asked him if we could publish them. Lucky for you, he agreed. Here are the first 10.
Success with the deadlift will always be tethered to having a masterful setup. If you start in a poor position, you’re probably going to have a poor deadlift. And no friends. It sucks.
When it comes to the setup, however, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. In this instance we’re all special snowflakes with varying limb lengths, torso lengths, and hip orientation… all of which will affect what will feel best and allow us to lift the most amount of weight.
That said, there are two tenets to the deadlift setup that applies to every lifter:
- Use the wedge. Popularized by Dr. Stuart McGill, it’s a foolproof way to set yourself up for success and protect your back. Basically, when you bend over to grab the barbell, you want to use it as a counterbalance to “pull” your chest up and get the hips down, “wedging” yourself between the bar and the floor.
- Now think, “Armpits over the bar, with maximal hamstring tension.”
We often think of the deadlift as a pulling exercise, and that’s true. But it’s also very much a pushing exercise.
You want to think about putting force into ground and pushing away, rather than just pulling the bar off the floor. Another option is to think about “pushing the ground away from you.” This subtle reframing has made a profound difference with many of the lifters I’ve worked with.
This is one of my all-time favorite cues, and one I use often because it accomplishes a lot when it comes to cleaning up deadlift technique:
- It promotes more full-body tension.
- It promotes more posterior tilt of scapulae, providing a smidge more of a biomechanical advantage. Hey, every little bit helps!
- It helps to engage the lats to higher degree, which aids in upper back tension and less chance of rounding.
- It evidently does NOT help in preventing me from being awkward AF at the end of this video.
“Home base” for most lifters can and should be the trap-bar deadlift. There, I said it. Come at me, internet trolls.
Due to improved mechanics with regards to the center of mass (you’re inside the barbell) and axis of rotation (hips closer), the trap-bar deadlift is a safer, more user-friendly variation.
Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter or weightlifter, you don’t HAVE to use a straight bar. It’s not cheating. Traditionalists can go f*ck themselves.
What the heck does that even mean? Well, in short, it refers to getting better leverage and “connectivity” before you initiate the pull.
Many lifters yank the bar off the ground, which in turn elicits a loud “clank” noise (barbell hitting inside of plates). Getting the slack out of the bar means using the barbell as a counterbalance to 1) gain leverage, and 2) get everything connected.
I like to tell my athletes to get two clicks: bend the bar (get the slack out), then pull.
This is a tricky question. We have to be cognizant of balancing what will likely help prevent injury (namely a bicep tendon tear), but also allow for optimal performance and turn you into a deadlifting Terminator.
My approach is pretty simple:
- Use a double overhand grip during your warm-up sets until it becomes a limiting factor or you’re unable to maintain your grip during your work sets.
- Switch to an alternate (under/over) grip to help keep the bar from rolling out of your hands.
- Alternate your alternate grip (left and right facing you or facing away) with every subsequent set.
Side note: Yes, person who will inevitably bring up the hook grip. That’s an option too. We get it: you’re better than us.
This is a hotly debated topic and I can appreciate both sides of the argument. Here’s my take and what has worked well for me and my clients. (I’m not saying I’m right, but I kinda am.)
Maintaining a “neutral” spine during a deadlift is paramount. It’s the first commandment of deadlifting. Neutral in this sense means “maintaining the spine’s natural lordotic (lower back) and kyphotic (upper back) curvature.”
Coaches will start hyperventilating into a paper bag if they see an athlete round his or her back during a deadlift. Okay, so why do we not hold the same standard to the cervical spine or neck? Is the neck not part of the spine?
I prefer people adopt a chin tucked or “packed” neck position:
- It reinforces the neutral spine, which the neck is part of. I understand the other side of the argument. There are many examples of people extending their head back during a deadlift (i.e. a not-packed neck) and they’ve been fine.
- But in the beginning stages, a packed neck is my preference. Then as someone grows more proficient with the movement they’re allotted more leeway. Besides, what often happens during a max effort attempt – extended neck, and yes, sometimes a rounded back – should not be held to the same standard as a sub-maximal attempt or to someone just learning the lift.
- In terms of how to cue the proper neck position, I like to have lifters stare at a target 10-15 feet in front of them on the floor. This helps with better neck position and actually helps increase full-body tension. Win-win.
To me, the conventional deadlift (feet closer together, hands outside knees) is the most advanced variation of the deadlift and likely not the best starting point for most lifters.
Whether it’s someone’s anatomy (short arms and/or long torso) or mobility deficits (hip flexion ROM, thoracic spine extension, or even ankle dorsiflexion) the conventional style deadlift might not be a great choice… for now.
A sumo-style deadlift (wider stance, hands inside the knees) may be the better option. It allows for a more upright torso, decreasing shearing forces on the spine, which can make things infinitely friendlier.
Stop being a slave to your ego and realize you don’t have to pull conventional all the time (or ever).
Spoiler alert: That’s a whole lotta nope.
You’ve heard these before: Chest up. Extend your T-spine. Create torque in your hips.
Those are cues which work well, but can sound like Elvish to many trainees, particularly when they’re new to deadlifting. Instead, get more acquainted with external cues which, contrast to their internal counterparts (which speak to what the body is doing in space), imply intent or direction.
These can be game changers when it comes to helping people better understand what you’re asking them to do as a coach.