How to Coach a Bigger Deadlift

Want to coach your clients to bigger numbers in the deadlift?

Silly question, right? To help you create coaching success in the deadlift, we’ve collected great information from some of our contributors:

  • Gray Cook’s favorite suggestions and techniques for deadlift instruction
  • How to use the FMS Active Straight Leg Raise to identify possible problems in the deadlift
  • Stuart McGill teaching the deadlift
  • What your clients must be able to do before deadlifting
  • Two drills to help teach proper deadlift technique
  • Which is better for an athlete: the squat or the deadlift? (and how are they different)?
  • Trap bar deadlifts for athletes
  • Teaching women to hinge properly
  • Maintaining deadlift strength without deadlifting
  • How strong do your clients need to be in the deadlift?
  • What deadlift variations are available?

Gray Cook’s favorite suggestions and techniques for deadlift instruction

In Key Functional Exercises You Should Know, Gray demonstrates some of his favorite suggestions and techniques for quality deadlift instruction:

Using the FMS Active Straight Leg Raise to identify possible problems in the deadlift

The FMS Active Straight Leg Raise can be used as a tool to identify suitable entry points for coaching the deadlift.

The Active Straight Leg Raise is a quick and easily reproducible way of learning how a person’s pelvis ‘splits’—that is, how one side can flex without the other extending. When people are able to flex one hip without the other extending, they won’t get thrown forward when they’re deadlifting.

If they can’t, the brain will be resisting the deadlift movement before they even start.

Stuart McGill teaching the deadlift

In the following video from Assessing Movement, world-renowned spine biomechanics researcher Dr. Stuart McGill teaches the deadlift:

What your clients must be able to do before deadlifting

Adapted from Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Continuums

[Gray Cook] Do you know how many times I’ve walked into a facility and seen somebody coaching a deadlift on people who can’t even touch their toes?

When people can’t touch their toes and they can get down to a deadlift bar, they’re not deadlifting. They’re squatting!

They’re squatting to the deadlift bar, so really all they’re doing is low and high squats on different days. Monday is “squat on your back day” and Tuesday is “squat on the ground day,” but they’re both squats.

If people can’t touch their toes, they’re going to end up compensating if you try to get them to deadlift. It doesn’t matter why—whether it’s the sciatic nerve, a posterior fascial plane, the hamstrings or an arthritic hip. If they can’t bend properly, it means you can’t coach anything that involves bending, not with any degree of integrity or professionalism whatsoever.

Make sure your clients can touch their toes before they start deadlifting.

If you’d like to help your clients touch their toes so they can start deadlifting, click here to learn Gray Cook’s Toe Touch Progression.

Two drills to help teach proper deadlift technique

In the following two videos taken from Hacking the Hinge, Charlie Weingroff and Mark Cheng go through drills to teach and reinforce proper deadlifting technique:

Charlie Weingroff: Touch the Wall Drill

Mark Cheng: Rob the Forefoot Drill

Which is better for an athlete: the squat or the deadlift?

Adapted from Michael Boyle’s Advances in Functional Training book

[Michael Boyle] Competitive deadlifts are universally ugly. The goal of the competitive deadlifter is only to get the weight from point A to point B. There are no style points or technique requirements.

Get the weight from the floor to waist level without a hitch and you get the lift. Flexed spines throughout the lift are the rule, not the exception.

Unfortunately, my experiences in competitive powerlifting soured me on a potentially valuable exercise for nearly thirty years. It took an article by track coach Barry Ross and some experience with deconditioned personal training clients to change my thought process. Ross’s point was simple:

The deadlift provides more demand and return than the squat because the weight is in the hands.

The muscles of the upper back are forced to work in a way that cannot be imitated in a squat. It was a point that was hard to disagree with, and it forced me to revisit my impression of this valuable exercise.

My argument against deadlifts in our weightroom was always “You can’t deadlift heavy and deadlift well.”

However, I’m in control of technique; in our weightroom technique breaks are my problems as a coach. If we can do squats, we should be able to do deadlifts. Both require a great deal of teaching and attention to detail on both the coach and the athlete’s part.

The ah-ha moment for me was realizing how easy a kettlebell sumo deadlift is to teach compared with how hard it is to get someone to squat well. Deconditioned clients and adults in general don’t become great squatters right off the bat. However, they all seem to easily conceptualize the sumo deadlift.

Another advantage with deadlifts: we don’t have to worry about depth in the deadlift. Everyone begins at the ground and comes up. As long as the back remains flat, injury is no greater a concern than in the squat, and in my mind the concern is actually decreased.

With squatting there are two back concerns, flexion and extension. A loss of position can cause a round back and a potential strain on the erectors or a disruption at the SI joint.

This is the same problem in the deadlift, however in the squat, the load on the shoulders and the arched position of the back at the start also predisposes the lifter to extension-based disorders. In essence, the squat is a battle between extension and flexion.

In the deadlift the load in the hands clearly produces a flexion force that must be countered by an extension force. And in the deadlift, the load is positioned at the center of mass rather than near the cervical spine the way it is in the squat. The balancing act is in effect eliminated.

When I look at a squat and a deadlift through the eyes of a biomechanist, the deadlift actually comes out ahead.

The deadlift is a better total-body exercise with more carryover to sprinting and can be done faster, in a concentric only manner and with less equipment.

Teaching women to hinge properly

Taken from Dan John’s Intervention DVD

In this video, Dan John covers some important points in teaching women how to hinge properly. If you are coaching women to deadlift, watch this video:

Trap bar deadlifts for athletes

From Michael Boyle’s Advances in Functional Training

When we inserted trap bar deadlifts in our program as a priority lower-body strength movement and the results were fantastic.

Athletes liked the lift and were able to learn faster and to quickly achieve higher loads. With the squat, loading is more limited by technique concerns, as well as ankle and hip mobility.

The trap bar deadlift eliminates most of these issues. The athlete can use higher loads, and the intentional forward lean of the trunk makes it easy for any athlete to get in proper position.

I like the trap bar or hex bar much more than the conventional straight bar. The trap bar deadlift is a great equalizer; in effect the bar is running through the body. The load stays centered, and the movement is very much like squatting with a weight in the hands.

Maintaining deadlift strength without deadlifting

Adapted from Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Continuums

The kettlebell swing, done correctly, will maintain much of the strength in the deadlift and much of the mobility your clients worked on to get there in the first place.

There’s something about doing complex, ballistic movement like the kettlebell that maintains the root system.

If all your clients do is stop deadlifting and you never teach them the kettlebell swing, you will have to coach a lot of deadlifts to maintain the same amount of strength that a small metabolic package of swings would get for you.

How strong do you need to be in the deadlift?

From Dan John’s Intervention book

For years I’ve insisted upon a double-bodyweight deadlift as the rule of thumb to indicate someone is beyond the beginner stage. It’s a good measure of overall body strength, grip strength and appropriate training.

Women seem to do well in sport with 150% of bodyweight, but I’ve noticed, almost without exception, when a woman deadlifts 275lbs and above, good things happen in sport.

How is the deadlift different from the squat?

The squat and deadlift are both compound exercises that work the lower body. However, there are differences between the two.

The deadlift is a hinge movement involving minimal knee bend with maximal hip bend.

The squat movement on the other hand, involves maximal knee bend with maximal hip bend.

Dan John’s Hip Displacement Continuum, as seen in the Perfecting Your Kettlebell Form video, explains it nicely and categorizes different lower body and full body exercises.

Dan John's Hip Displacement Continuum

What deadlift variations are available?

Adapted from Dan John’s Intervention book

There are a variety of deadlift variations available to cover our pulling needs. Some of these include:

  • Sumo deadlifts
  • Thick-bar deadlifts
  • Snatch-grip deadlifts
  • Clean-grip deadlifts
  • Jefferson deadlift
  • Trap bar deadlifts
  • Stiff-legged deadlifts / Romanian deadlifts
  • Rack Pulls
  • Deficit deadlifts
  • Reeves deadlift
  • Single-leg deadlifts

The trap bar has become a popular variation for many, although it tends to make some people squat-hinge, so make sure keep an eye on that.

For more on the deadlift, click on the links from the excerpted material above.


Tap into the Brains of Some of the World’s Leading Performance Experts

FREE Access to the OTP Vault


Inside the OTP Vault, you’ll find over 20 articles and videos from leading strength coaches, trainers and physical therapists such as Dan John, Gray Cook, Michael Boyle, Stuart McGill and Sue Falsone.

Click here to get FREE access to the On Target Publications vault and receive the latest relevant content to help you and your clients move and perform better.