Building a Better Deadlift with World Record Holder Stefi Cohen and Hayden Bowe

Ever watch someone lift an insane amount of weight and think, ‘Man, that didn’t even look hard!!’ That sums up watching Stefi Cohen deadlift over FOUR times her bodyweight, as the 121 lb. powerhouse hit a 507 lb. attempt this past weekend.

Cohen owns several World Records in powerlifting and is the co-founder of Hybrid Performance Method along with Hayden Bowe, who lifts an impressive amount of weight in his own right. (His meet PRs include a 285 kg/ 628 lb. squat and 290 kg./640 deadlift at 181 lb.  bodyweight.)

Here, the freakishly strong couple share technique tips, how to fight through a max lift, what accessory work they use to build massive deadlifts and what rounding your back really means.


How do you add strength that will directly correlate to your deadlift?

“Kettlebell swings have the ability to improve your one-rep max deadlift even if you aren’t doing one-rep max work,” Cohen said. “A heavy kettlebell swing: both heavy American swings and heavy Russian swings because of the hip extension component.”

Any kind of hip extension is going to help you, with barbell hip extensions another favorite of Cohen’s. Most of us spend so much time sitting that posterior work is a must (even if you aren’t trying to improve your deadlift!). Start working in various forms of heavy hip extensions a couple times a week and watch that deadlift grow.

Fix your grip

“Coming from a CrossFit background, people tend to grab the bar really, really narrow in the same position as sumo high pulls. And it’s not optimal,” Cohen said. “You want the grip to be at the width of your shoulders.”

Chest up, hips stay down

A lot of sumo pullers make the mistake of letting their hips shoot up first. But the hips should act as a fulcrum and be relatively stationary, no matter how heavy the bar is.

“Think of your arms and legs as levers,” Cohen said. “Yes, the butt will move up slightly but it shouldn’t even be noticeable. You should aim to keep your hips in the same place and chest up the whole movement, as opposed to conventional.”

Feet out, toes out

A key difference in sumo is that your toes are pointed out at a 45 degree angle toward the plates. This allows your knees to stay behind the bar as opposed to a toes-forward stance, which would put your knees in the way.

Cohen also sees stance length as a common error, with a lot of lifters either too wide or too narrow with their spacing.

“There’s no 100 percent consensus as to what the best stance is, it’s based on your body proportions and flexibility,” she said. “You want to choose a stance that is comfortable and allows you to pull the most weight. As a rule of thumb —maybe one foot wider than your hip stance and experiment from there.”

Save your energy

A huge mistake Bowe often sees with conventional deadlifts is athletes forcing their hips down which causes a ton of unnecessary work.

“It creates a really forward shin angle and you see the bar doesn’t leave the ground until their hips get a lot higher,” he said. “So you’ll see their pulling and wasting energy and the bar doesn’t move. Once their hips move a certain height, the bar moves. That should be the starting point.”

Your deadlift is like your squat

It’s not going to look exactly like your friends or favorite Instagram lifter. And that’s perfectly fine.

“People try to force positions that aren’t optimal for their body type,” Bowe said. “Even a lot of other coaches try to apply the basic framework to different body types. But just like everyone’s squat is going to look different, their deadlift is going to look different. I thin there’s a lot more variance with the conventional deadlift than the sumo deadlift.”


Yes, no matter what kind of athlete you are and what style you typically use, Bowe and Cohen are both huge proponents of training both sumo and conventional styles of deadlifting. (As is World Record Holder Matt Wenning.)


“When you look at a conventional pull versus sumo you’re working on very different things. If you are only training one, you are leaving a lot of holes in your training,” Bowe said. “Say you squat low bar and pull conventional, you are practicing very similar movements in those two lifts and you are not doing a ton of direct work for the muscle groups that are worked more in sumo, like the quads. That leaves you exposed. Even if it’s not something that’s going to add a ton of weight to your total, I think for injury prevention. It’s huge just for balance.”

“If you only train one, you are picking the one you are strongest at and other style might signal your weaknesses,” added Cohen. “For example, sumo is more quads and conventional more low back and glutes. If I do sumo only, maybe I’m lacking strength and motor control in my glutes and lower back.”


Speaking of strength in your low back, the primary mover in the conventional deadlift should be your glutes. Unfortunately, that’s a problem area that’s often overlooked.

“I see it misdiagnosed all the time,” Bowe said. “People think their back is rounding [because of form] and 9 times out of 10 it’s because they have weak glutes so instead of using their glutes and keeping their back straight they are depending on their extension of their erectors. That’s a case where doing extra glute work and hip extensions can be so effective.”

As for upper back rounding, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“People just say [in general], ‘Rounding, that’s a huge problem’. There’s an important distinction to be made there,” Bowe said. ‘Change in the flexion of your back during a lift under load is a problem. But if you’re the type of person who can get a little upper back rounding to give you better levers off the floor, as long as the position isn’t changing, it can be extremely beneficial. You see a ton of high level powerlifters with rounded upper backs because it allows you to get more of your shoulders.


“As a kid my dad told me a story about a golfer who would never admit to missing a putt. Even if somebody showed him video footage of him missing a putt, he wouldn’t admit it. in his mind, 100 percent, the shot was already made before he did it. And I’ve sort of applied that mentality ever since,” Bowe said.

“The only weight I’m ever going to put on the bar is a weight that I’m going to 100 percent be convinced that I’m able to do. I won’t put the bar down unless I’ve made a bad call and it pulls me back down. I’m going to keep pulling until I can’t, because I convinced myself before I did the lift anything I put on the bar I’m going to make.”

In Cohen’s last competition, her second squat attempt wasn’t as easy as she had hoped. So she told Bowe she knew she was going to make her final lift, but it would be a grind.

“I was prepared for the worst, I was prepared for that weight feeling heavy and to put it all out there,” she said. “It pisses me off when people are like “light weight, baby” when you go up to a heavy bar. It’s not going to be light, you are going to put that weight on your back or pull it from the ground and it’s going to be fucking heavy. And you’re going to have to find a way to lift it anyway.”



All photos courtesy of Hayden Bowe and Stefi Cohen. Learn more about the Hybrid Performance Method programs, including Powerlifting and Deadlift protocol here.