Category Archives: Deadlift tips
Here’s what you need to know…
Strength training gurus love to say there’s only one way to perform a lift, and that all other techniques and variations are either wrong or ineffective. Such a philosophy is shortsighted, and this article will show how intelligent variation can build a bigger, stronger, bulletproof body.
First, every body is unique, and the best form for a lifter is the one that best suits his or her unique limb lengths, body segment proportions, tendon attachment points, muscularity, and injury history.
Second, the form that a lifter uses is heavily predicated on his or her overall goals. These goals might include hypertrophy, in which case it’s possible to accentuate tension on a particular muscle; strength, in which case it’s possible to perform a lift in a manner that maximizes leverages; or transference, in which case it’s possible to execute an exercise in a manner that best transfers to another lift or sporting action.
And third, all lifters should purposely perform lifts in a variety of ways in order to build well-rounded and maximal strength.
Stubbornly sticking to a particular form or variation that isn’t right for you, no matter how popular it is, will eventually lead to injury. It’s akin to forcing a square peg through a round hole.
Top Athletes Vary in Exercise Form
All my powerlifting and strongman friends look markedly different when they squat, deadlift, and bench. Hell, take a look at the various powerlifting world record holders, strongman champions, top Olympic weightlifters, and even the best bodybuilders on the planet – you’ll see that their techniques with the big lifts vary markedly.
They’ve all taken the time to figure out the style of each lift that caused the least pain and injury, maximized their leverages and performance, and/or allowed them to best reach their particular goals. What’s hilarious is that many of these top strength and physique athletes “break the rules” according to various experts, making it difficult to find merit with any hard rules in lifting mechanics.
The top lifters have also taken the time to figure out their favorite exercise variations. The top bodybuilder might prefer rack pulls over full-range deadlifts because they’re safer on his low back, but still might hammer his entire posterior chain.
The top powerlifter might perform low bar squats and sumo deadlifts in competition, but prefers high bar squats and conventional deadlifts in training until a month out before the meet since they better build his lifts.
The strongman might tell you that he gave up low bar squatting years ago to preserve his shoulder health, but that he still front squats every week. Lastly, the top Olympic lifter may prefer the Romanian deadlift and high-bar full squat as assistance lifts, whereas the top powerlifter might prefer the deficit deadlift and high box squat. You get the picture.
Useful Barbell Variations of Squats and Deadlifts
I realize most don’t have access to specialty bars, so I only included traditional barbell variations. However, there are dozens of incredible variations that use the rackable cambered bar, safety squat bar, or Dead-Squat™ Bar, to name a few.
Deep Back Squats: High Bar Versus Low Bar
Though the difference might appear subtle, the high-bar squat exhibits less forward trunk lean and therefore places more stress on the quads. Conversely, the low-bar back squat increases trunk lean and places more stress on the hips.
Strong quads are critical for proper squat performance, as are strong hips. You should incorporate both types of squats into your training arsenal.
High-Bar Versus Low-Bar Parallel Squats
With sufficient training experience, most lifters will find that they’re stronger with squats when they use a low-bar placement and take a wide stance. However, there are lifters who discover that they’re indeed stronger with high-bar squats.
Usually, high-bar squats are performed with a moderate stance as opposed to a very wide stance. Again, the high-bar squat emphasizes the quads, whereas the low-bar squat will emphasize the hips. Both variations are great for squat training.
Front Squats: Wide Versus Narrow Stance
Most of the time, when you see someone performing front squats they’re using a narrow stance. But there’s no reason why you can’t perform front squats with a wider stance. Again, both should be used in your training regimen.
Box Squats: Low Box/High Bar Versus High Box/Low Bar
Most lifters are familiar with high box/low bar squats where they sit back and keep vertical tibias, thereby maximizing stress on the posterior chain. However, it’s also a good idea to perform low box/high bar squats from time to time. This variation places considerable stress on the quads and is quite useful depending on the purpose.
ZercherSquats: Hip Emphasis Versus Quad Emphasis
Most lifters only employ one style of Zercher squats but it’s a good idea to occasionally perform two different styles. To stress the hips, take a wider stance, keep the shins vertical and sit back more, descending to parallel. To stress the quads, use a moderate stance, keep the torso more upright, sit down, and descend below parallel.
Deadlift: Conventional Versus Sumo
You should perform both conventional and sumo deadlifts from time to time. They build each other, especially if you have a huge strength discrepancy between the two variations.
Block or Rack Pulls: Conventional Versus Sumo
The same logic applies to block or rack pulls. You can and should use a conventional and sumo stance throughout your training year.
Sumo Deadlifts: Quad Versus Hip Dominant
When you pull sumo, there’s a sweet spot for trunk angle and joint ROM that enables you to hoist the heaviest loads. That said, sometimes it’s a good idea to use lighter loads and practice your sumo deadlifts using a quad-emphasis or a hip-emphasis. With the quad-dominant style, sink deeper and keep a more upright trunk. With the hip-dominant style, raise the hips and use a greater trunk lean.
Deficit Deadlifts: Clean Grip Versus Snatch Grip
When pulling from a deficit, you should employ a traditional grip width as well as a snatch grip width. The snatch grip deficit deadlift increases joint ROM and is a brutal yet useful variation.
The hack lift is a nifty way to build quad strength in a deadlift. Just place the bar behind the back and try to mimic your typical deadlift form. This variation stresses the knees and should be used only occasionally. The lockout can be tricky, but most lifters can learn to perform the movement correctly with practice.
The Spice of Training Variety is good for both strength and hypertrophy and it helps prevent overuse injuries. Through tremendous effort and experimentation, accomplished lifters determine optimal positioning and technique for their bodies as well as figure out the movements that transfer best to their particular goals.
The takeaway point is that the best do what works best for them, not what some guru tells them to do. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no standardized perfect form, only what form is best suited for your body and goals.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat… or squat or deadlift a weight.
Those who know me from my seminars or my writings know that I’m a huge proponent of the Olympic lifts.
Sure, I’ve written about the power lifts, and have coached several powerlifters, but I’ve never competed in the discipline – until this past April 1st, that is. This article is a summary of my experience, and what I learned from it.
Just to set the stage, back in August of last year, I re-injured my left elbow trying to improve my jerk technique. I had (for unknown reasons) developed some calcification in that elbow, which had gradually reduced both my full flexion and extension in that joint.
So I found myself at a crossroads – I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to clean and jerk again, and at the same time had grown disappointed by my limited progress in the “O lifts” in recent months.
I needed a change, a new challenge.
In September, my friend and client Gene Lawrence (a world champion powerlifter in the master’s division) told me about an upcoming raw powerlifting meet: the 100% Raw! Federation’s Southwest Regional Championships in Prescott Arizona, which would be held on April 1st, 2012.
I had about six months to prepare, and the competition was only a few hours away from my home, so after some deliberation I decided to enter.
Before I share some of the important lessons I learned from training for and competing in my first powerlifting meet, I’d first like to tell you why it took me so long to finally “pull the trigger” on this adventure.
I had (and still have) an enormous amount of passion for the sport of weightlifting. I worried that dividing my attentions would hamper my efforts in that sport. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I’ll share with you shortly.
I felt I wasn’t strong enough to avoid complete embarrassment in the powerlifting world. Although I’d deadlifted 500 pounds a few years earlier, my lifetime best squat was about 365 pounds. Furthermore, while I had done a sloppy “touch and go” 300-pound bench press in my mid-thirties, at age 52, I hadn’t done any form of bench press in years due to shoulder issues. In fact, on the day I sent in my entry form, I probably wasn’t capable of a legal (paused) 200-pound bench.
I wasn’t sure I was capable of performing “legal lifts” in powerlifting. First, after several serious knee surgeries, I have very limited flexion in my right knee. I knew I could squat “close” to parallel, but different federations have different depth requirements, and I wasn’t certain that I could train at or compete with proper depth in the squat.
Second, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to bench press intensely and consistently enough to prepare for competition due to the aforementioned shoulder problems. In the past, any time I got more than 5-6 workouts into a bench press program, my shoulder would flare up and eventually stop me in my tracks.
Initial Training Approach: Linear Progression
After a short layoff from my usual training in weightlifting, I started my preparation on Wednesday, September 28, 2011 – almost 6 months to the day from the competition. (I started documenting my training right here at T Nation on October 31st, for those of you who might like to reference my training journal).
My initial training approach involved bench pressing and squatting on Mondays and Fridays, and deadlifts every other Wednesday, using a simple “linear progression” approach popularized by Mark Rippetoe here for the bench and squat. I’d work up to a challenging set of 5 on day one, and then 3×5 (with slightly less weight) on the second weekly workout, starting off with very light loads.
On deadlifts, I worked up to a single work set of 5 reps per session (again starting very light). I planned a progression of 5 pounds/session for the bench and squat, and 10 pounds/session on pulls.
Here’s what my initial training week looked like:
Bench Press 3×5
Bench Press 1×5
For squat and bench, I paired a 1×5 lift with a 3×5 lift, rather than doing 3×5 for both lifts on the same day. This was for the purpose of evenly distributing workloads.
I haven’t listed loading parameters for the Olympic lifts, chins, and curls. That’s because I purposely made these decisions intuitively, based on what felt good at the moment. If I felt great on a particular day, I’d try for something big. If not, I didn’t stress about it.
I allowed for occasional variety when it came to the non-competition lifts. The Big 3 lifts, however, were set in stone. I think that training programs should have a “compulsory” as well as an “optional” category, meaning that you should be able to discern between tasks that are central to your goal versus drills that are less critical to your core mission. Therefore, you’ll see that I eventually dropped curls, skipped chins, and so on. Great programs are characterized by a “flexible structure.”
While it may seem excessive to squat twice a week while deadlifting during the same week, keep in mind that volume on Mondays and Wednesdays was fairly low (1×5 for each).
Some readers may notice the complete lack of a general/dynamic warm-up, foam rolling, stretching, and so forth. Personally, I’ve never experienced much benefit in any of these activities, and decided to finally listen to my inner voice on these issues. That said, if you feel you benefit from any of them, certainly use them.
My plan was to run this progression until I hit a wall (which I knew was inevitable), and then devise a new strategy when that happened.
For quick reference, my first 1×5 workouts featured the following loads:
Bench press: 170 x5
Squat: 225 x5
Deadlift: 340 x5
That should give a sense of how light I started off, although these opening workouts weren’t especially easy. I was both embarrassed and nervous on the bench press in particular, given my shoulder history.
That said, I had no pain on those initial workouts, nor did I experience any significant pain or injury during this six-month training period. The only injury I suffered was a moderately-tweaked low back on a 185-pound squat early in the cycle, and a period of 3-4 weeks where I was experiencing moderate left pec discomfort on bench presses. That’s it.
Never before have I experienced a pain/injury-free six months of training, and I sure wasn’t expecting it to occur at age 52.
Reaching A Plateau On Linear Progression
Right around mid-February, I could sense that my linear progression honeymoon period was coming to an end. It was taking all I had to continue making my 5-10 pound jumps, and an additional concern was that April 1st was coming up fast, and 5’s seemed a bit non-specific for hitting big singles in competition.
I had benched 225 x 4 (missed the planned 5th rep) squatted 300 x 5, and pulled 363 x 5, but by this time my discipline had already eroded. I was already “experimenting” (or “pussing out” to be more forthright) by either taking heavy singles, or sometimes going more than 5 reps. Basically I was just sick of 5’s. I needed a new approach before I started losing my discipline altogether.
Enter Chad Waterbury
I’ve known and respected Chad Waterbury for years and asked him if he’d help my with “last minute” peaking strategies. Chad looked at my training journal and told me that in his discussions with people like Franco Columbo and Pavel Tsatsouline, he’d developed a strong affection for a “Medium – Heavy – Medium – Maximum” type of progression.
Medium days were 3 x 3, heavy days were 3 x 2, and maximum days were mock competitions essentially, a chance to evaluate your progress. In terms of progression, each type of workout, when repeated, should be done with slightly more weight.
I immediately implemented Chad’s suggestions, and after about 10 days could feel a renewal, physically and psychologically. My numbers started moving dramatically – before I knew it I was hitting 380 on the squat, 465 on the deadlift, and 255 on the bench, and I felt less drained at the same time. I was peaking. Things were coming together.
In my last month of training, I managed to chalk up a 403 squat, a 255 bench, and a 475 deadlift (see the videos below). I simply wanted to hit these numbers (or slightly more if possible) during official competition, when the pressure was on, without getting hurt. I felt ready go, but I had a lot of unknowns ahead of me…
So How’d I Do?
In terms of expectations, I only had a few:
I really wanted a 400 squat and a 500 deadlift, and I didn’t want to get hurt in the process. I had no idea what to expect on the bench. But I felt I had to be ready for anything, given that this was my first experience in the sport, and also considering that the warm-up room was scantily equipped and crowded.
I had to be prepared for a rushed and/or incomplete warm-up. I had to be ready for the possibility that my squats might not be deep enough, or that I might not be prepared for the various technical rules I’d face on the bench, including the pause, keeping the feet motionless, and so on. I’d trained for all of this, but you never know exactly what you’re up against until it actually happens.
Here’s an event-by event breakdown of my meet:
My last warm-up was with 315, which I had to take from a very low position due to the much shorter guys who were sharing the rack with me. Nonetheless, it felt fine and I was confident overall.
I opened with 340, which felt about as heavy as I expected, and much to my relief I got three white lights – my depth was legal.
My second attempt was with 369, and now that I knew my depth would pass muster, I felt energized and confident. I probably could’ve hit it for a triple if I’d needed to. Three whites.
I went to the administrators’ table and asked for 402, one pound less than my PR in training, but I didn’t want to get greedy. I would’ve been super happy to hit 400, but had I tried, say, 415 and missed, I’d be in a bad mood for the rest of the meet.
402 was heavy and slow. I struggled out of the hole, and waited for what felt like an eternity for the head judge to signal me back to the rack. I think my spotters and I got the bar back on the stands about a second before I nearly passed out from pressurizing against that load. Three whites! I was off to a great start – 3 for 3, no red lights.
You can see my 402 attempt below:
My last warm-up backstage was with 205, and it felt uneventful. My first attempt was 225 pounds – a weight I’d hit for 4 reps in training. I smoked it easily for three whites.
Second attempt: 245. This went up okay, but not as well as I’d expected. Somehow my placement on the bench was off – I reasoned that
I needed to be closer to the uprights for my final attempt. Due to the difficulty of this attempt, and also because I was 5 for 5 at this point, I asked for 253 for my final attempt – 2 pounds less than my training PR.
As I positioned myself on the bench, I remembered the positioning error I wanted to correct, and moved a bit closer to the uprights. Two fifty three went up with ease – the adjustment paid off better than I’d anticipated. On the bench, I again went 3 for 3, and no red lights. My only small regret is that I was probably good for 260, which would’ve been a new PR. That’s what the next meet is for I guess.
You can see my 253 attempt below:
By this point in the day I was pretty wiped out, and my low back and hamstrings were toasted from the heavy squats. One of the unknowns I knew I’d be facing today was that I’d never maxed out my squat and deadlift on the same day.
There was a war going on in my head: a struggle between wanting to play it safe and hit 500, and the desire to get a new PR, say 510 or so. At this point I’d gone 6 for 6 with no red lights, so I decided to commit to a “perfect meet” – going 9 for 9, no red lights, and at least meeting (if not exceeding) training PR’s.
My last warm-up in back was with 405. It was clear that I could’ve hit at least 5 reps with that, so I felt ready for my 440 opener. After I set that down, I was warned by the head judge to lower the bar with more control, which took me by surprise, but nonetheless, I earned three whites for my effort, and asked for 469 for my second attempt, which I handled successfully. The trick of course, is to optimally bridge the gap between my second attempt and my goal for my final lift, which was 501.
Walking out to that 501-pound barbell, I had confidence that I’d already hit that weight before in the past, but also felt pressure that until this point I’d been running a perfect meet. To say that I was determined to make this lift would be a gross understatement.
Internally, I’d worked myself into such a frenzy of effort that I honestly don’t remember feeling the bar in my hands. As I began pulling, I felt relief that I at least got the weight moving upward, but it felt significantly heavier than I expected. I kept pulling, however, knowing that my deadlifts usually move faster than what it feels like.
As the bar passed my knees, I thought, “Okay, I’m home free now,” but my improved leverage was offset by the mounting fatigue. The pull was a grind from start to finish. Finally, I locked it out, and remembering my earlier admonition from the head judge, did my best to lower the bar under maximum control. Hands on knees, I looked back at the scoreboard – three whites! A perfect meet!
In summary, the only change I would’ve made would’ve been to take a heavier final bench attempt, but as the old saying goes, hindsight is 20-20. I felt I’d performed a perfect meet, but what I learned from the experience was far more valuable than winning my first powerlfting meet (oh, did I forget to mention that detail?).
Injury Avoidance: I had virtually no pain during this 6-month training cycle, despite performing nearly every “challenging” lift in the book (squats, deadlifts, bench presses, two Olympic lifts, rows, and chins) hard and often. There are three plausible explanations for my injury-free experience.
First, I started well below my abilities. Second, I progressed very gradually – only 5-10 pounds per session. Third, I didn’t do any “junk” work, which limited my overall wear and tear.
I didn’t do accessory single-joint lifts, nor did I perform “advanced” techniques like eccentrics, plyometrics, chains/bands, partials, or forced reps. I simply did super-basic exercises using tried-and true programming principles, and I did it consistently and progressively.
I never took a single ibuprofen, never iced anything, and I never missed a single workout or failed to hit my numbers because of pain or injury. In short, my training was remarkably low-tech and the only thing exciting about it was that I got bigger, stronger, faster, and leaner; and I did it without injuring myself in the process.
A note about bench pressing: I noted that my traditional experiences with all forms of bench pressing were characterized by shoulder pain and injury. I can attribute my sudden good fortune to only one thing: since September 28th, all of my benches have been done with a pause, as is required in competition.
I believe this pause helps mitigate the high tensions that occur when the shoulder is at its weakest position (when the bar touches the chest). If you’re having issues with your shoulders when you press, put your ego aside and implement the pause – it took me until age 52 to figure that out, so consider this a head start!
Body Composition: Body comp has never been my strong suit. When my focus was primarily on the Olympic lifts, things like squats, presses, and pulls received only cursory attention – by the time I got to squats, I often had nothing left in the tank.
But by putting my primary focus on “big” multi-joint movements done for higher volumes and longer time-under-tensions than what I was used to, lo and behold, I actually started developing a physique. And while I’ve never particularly cared much about aesthetics, I have to admit it’s fun to at least look like I spend time in the gym.
Improved Olympic Lifts: Perhaps the most pleasant outcome occurred as I gradually started reintroducing power snatches and clean and jerks into my prep. Not only did I discover that I could still perform a workable clean and jerk despite my elbow issues, but in late April – after just five sessions and not having performed a single C&J for more than 6 months – I reached 95% of my best C&J ever, despite weighing significantly less and having not practiced that lift in months. I also reached 98% of my best snatch, after only a handful of sessions on that lift as well.
An even more remarkable surprise was that, for years, both snatches and jerks have been problematic on my shoulders, particularly my left shoulder. Remarkably, I found that suddenly, I’m performing very heavy snatches and jerks completely pain free.
This was one of the most gratifying things I’ve experienced in my entire training career. I attribute this to the 6-month break away from these lifts that allowed my old shoulder injuries to heal, but I also believe that bench pressing contributed to my overall shoulder integrity. Furthermore, I became much stronger as a whole, which certainly contributed to my shoulder health and integrity.
Prologue: What I’m Up To Now…
My current goal is to be ready to do either a powerlifting meet or a weightlifting meet at short notice, any time of the year, while continuing to improve my body comp and staying injury-free at the same time. In other words, I want to be a bit more well-rounded as I get older, and I’m having a lot of fun getting stronger in my 50’s without nursing injuries in the process.
The take-home lesson is, there’s lots for all of us to learn, even if we’re well-known experts who’ve been training for decades. I humbly hope that this story has inspired you to reach out and seek new challenges for yourself – no matter how good you are, no matter how much you may know, no matter how old you are, there are new heights for all of us to reach.
When I was a little kid, my parents once had to call 911 for me. It wasn’t for anything serious, though. I was going about my normal routine of being awesome – running like a maniac and jumping over stuff – when disaster struck. I fell into a hole.
My leg was wedged. My knee was pinned against the front wall and my foot against the back. It took two firemen to get me out.
I watched Rescue 911 for months waiting for my segment to air but it never did. I realize now, 20 years later, that a six-year-old stuck in a culvert isn’t exactly television worthy. But man, at the time, I was pissed at William Shatner.
A lot of deadlifts suffer the same fate – they get stuck in a hole. Sometimes the hole is deep and the entire movement needs an overhaul. But more often than not, a deadlift that needs saving is pinned in a shallow hole, not all that different from the one I was in. All that’s needed is attention to a weakness that’s pulling the movement out of balance.
This article will examine the pitfalls that can betray each phase, along with the best movements to save your deadlift. If you’ve felt your deadlift sinking slowly into a hole, here’s the answer to your 911 call.
Speed Off the Floor
The first question you should ask yourself when you’re having issues early in the pull is, “Am I tight enough?”
Check your grip, make sure you have the slack out of the bar, and secure a tight back – you can now confidently say that you’re tight enough. If you’re still slow off the floor, you need to develop speed and power.
Here are the best deadlift speed exercises.
Most jump training includes a full cycle of muscle contraction – eccentric on the down phase and concentric on the up phase. But the deadlift start is in the bottom position with limited stretch reflex, so we can’t count greatly on the elasticity of the myofascia.
Instead, we have to start jump training in the bottom position, using only the concentric phase to replicate speed off the floor. Remember that the stretch reflex can linger in the myofascia for close to a second, so when you prepare to do the following jumps make sure you’re holding in the bottom position for 2-3 seconds.
As you sink into the bottom position to start concentric-only box jumps, run your hands down your legs and set up in your starting deadlift form. Hold this position for 2-3 seconds and jump.
The videos below show the body weight version and the loaded version that includes holding two dumbbells.
Starting in a seated position limits the stretch reflex and has the added bonus of a strong glute and hamstring contraction as you start to jump.
Here are the box jump and broad jump versions of the seated jump.
Swings, Hang Cleans, and Dynamic Effort Deadlifts
Though they aren’t concentric-only movements, swings and hang cleans improve pulling speed due to the violent hip extension involved in both exercises.
Performing both exercises, however, can be frustrating. If the O-lifts cause you performance anxiety, forget about it. Extend your hips violently from the hang position and drop under the bar. Unless you’re planning on mastering the movement to compete as an Oly lifter, it’s no big deal.
Swings, though, shouldn’t be butchered, as they are the simplest exercise in the world. Start with the kettlebell in front of you and then, while keeping your back flat, pull the kettlebell between your legs and extend your hips violently to swing it.
Tighten up as the kettlebell levels out at the top and don’t break at the hips until your arms hit your torso on the way back down. At no point should it look like a squat/front raise hybrid. The video below shows a great looking swing.
Dynamic effort pulls must be in your training if you’re slow off the floor. Jumping, swings, and hang cleans are great, but if you aren’t specifically applying speed to the deadlift, you’re a few shovels short of a digging party.
Unless you can pull over two times your body weight easily, don’t worry about accommodating resistance using bands and chains. Work on being fast with good form and bar weight.
Drive off the Floor
Remember back in college there was that skinny wide receiver that could jump through the ceiling but collapsed like a pile of laundry as soon as a bar was on his back? We want to avoid being the deadlift version of this guy.
If you’ve got hops and can pull a lightly loaded barbell with speed but still struggle off the floor with heavier weights, you need drive, which is where speed and strength meet to create power.
Great drive off the floor requires strong legs (especially quads) and powerful glutes. Squatting develops quads of strength and fury while building glutes that could crush walnuts, but when it comes to driving your deadlift off the floor, we can get more specific.
Paul Anderson was a behemoth and his ‘bottoms up’ squat method is the most devastating strategy to overcome inertia ever invented. Lifters have been using Anderson squats to get out of the hole of the squat for a long time, but they’re also killer for deadlift drive off the floor.
Both the regular and front versions of the Anderson squat are great for building deadlift power. That is, if your hips and knees move in unison and you don’t shift your hips forward to put the stress of the movement entirely on your quads. Check out the videos below for solid performance visuals.
Barbell Glute Bridges and Hip Thrusts
Bret Contreras hit the nail on the head with barbell glute bridges and hip thrusts. Not only do both exercises mold a derriere into something magnificent, but also they train for immense amounts of glute drive.
Get your glutes involved early in the lift to compliment quad drive and your deadlift will climb, and effective glutes are strong glutes. Do your bridges and hip thrusts, and do them heavy. See the video below.
Pulling Through the Mid-Range
The mid-range is the deadliest phase of the deadlift, the area most likely to send you back into the hole.
The good, and the bad, news is that most mid-range emergencies can be narrowed down to three problems: inability to maintain power off the floor, weak hamstrings, and loss of back tightness – with the former sometimes becoming the product of the latter two issues.
If it’s mid-range power you seek, check my article Half Pulls – Not Half Assed for ideas on adding accommodating resistance to partial range of motion deadlifts.
Weak hamstrings and a tight back need direct assistance work. There’s no complicated schematic; just picking targeted assistance work and using rep ranges that work for your body.
Hamstrings are best hit with glute ham raises and RDLs. I keep the reps around 6-10 for each movement, but you have to do what works for you. If you don’t have a glute ham raise at your gym, substitute lying leg curls or Russian leg curls on a lat or seated calf machine like in the video below.
Training for a tight back is accomplished by doing good mornings, both heavy and for reps. Focus on keeping your lats pulled tight and maintaining neutral spine. If you feel your back round you’ve either gone too low for your mobility level or didn’t keep your back tight.
Finishing the Pull
When I think about training to finish the deadlift, I think of Matt Kroczaleski. It’s been that way ever since I watched the video of him explaining how he developed Kroc rows. He couldn’t find anything that worked – until he trained the balls out of his lats using high rep one-arm rows and, like magic, he finished his pulls stronger. Finishing is all about the lats. Check out the video below.
Train your lats heavy and train your lats with high reps and you’ll get better at finishing your pulls. Also, don’t count out heavy barbell rows and other rowing variations done in the bent position. Rowing while bent builds strength through the entire posterior chain, which carries over to deadlifting. Keep the barbell rows heavy and use one-arm rows to train for reps.
Discounting our old friend the pull-up would be a travesty. Outside of the rowing variations mentioned, no other exercises are as effective for building thick and strong lats. Do them heavy, do them fast, and do them for reps.
Core and Grip
The deadlift is a core and grip exercise. But as you add wheels to the bar each can become a limiting factor if not up to snuff. Like any other weak point, you must address it during your assistance work.
The deadlift is all about extension, yet one of the best core assistance exercises for the lift is based on anti-extension, the rollout. Being able to resist over-extension creates stability in the lumbo-pelvic complex, allowing you to recruit your glutes and pull like crazy. See the video below.
The front squat is a great exercise for building leg drive, but if you’re failing to hold extension as you pull, front squats also train you to stay tall by coordinating a hard abdominal brace with a contraction of the lats and upper-back musculature. Training for better T-spine extension while strengthening your abs will improve your deadlift.
Reverse crunches don’t meet the badass quotient of rollouts or front squats, but they’re useful for creating lumbo-pelvic stability. Excessive lordosis of the lumbar spine caused by repeated extension limits stability and hinders recruitment patterns. Reverse crunches correct hyperextension and create balance.
Barbell Suitcase Holds
I labeled them as a grip exercise, but suitcase holds combine grip and core training. They present a serious grip challenge, training crushing strength and forearm leverage strength. At the same time you’re presented with a strong stimulus to avoid lateral flexion. Your obliques, lats, and glutes work like crazy to keep you from bending like a willow tree.
Fat Bar Cleans
I won’t piss on your leg and tell you that it’s raining – fat bar cleans are rough. Any barbell exercise done with a fat bar requires a grip commitment, but adding the wrist extension of the clean marries you to the exercise. A few sets of five at the end of your training session and you’ll be steering with your elbows on the drive home.
Kroc rows train you to finish the pull out of the deadlift hole while training your grip for endurance, provided you don’t use straps. Grab a heavy dumbbell and rep it for 30. It could be the shovel that digs you out of the hole.
Make the Call
There’s no hole that’s too deep to pull your deadlift out of, and it’s never too late to call for help. But for the best assistance, you have to know why you got stuck. Give your deadlift an honest assessment and then come back to this article and make the call.
That’s what grandpa used to say when I’d help him with the yard work. Admittedly, I was quite the lazy ten year-old, but when the threat of the boot came down I’d straighten up and get the raking and mowing done. Instead of a half-ass, I’d become a full-ass.
Partial range of motion deadlifts, unfortunately, often receive a similar half-assed treatment. That’s a downright shame as partial pulls can transform anemic deadlifts and skinny hamstrings into impressive full deadlifts and a posterior chain that gets noticed. It’s time partial pulls get the respect they deserve.
Educating the Hips
Most of us have stupid hips. Sitting all day kills our hip IQ. It’s like the old egg in a skillet as your brain on drugs metaphor. “This is your ass. This is your ass after eight hours in a chair.” For normal working stiffs that just hop in the car and head home after work without a thought of deadlifting, that might be okay (although, it probably isn’t).
But we’re out for pulling dominance, so we need to reeducate our hips to recruit the right muscles at the right times.
Unfortunately, postural issues such as anterior pelvic tilt dominate many of us. This results in short (and usually weak) hip flexors, weak/inhibited glutes, and hamstrings that bail on us like a Kardashian with a pre-nup.
Without strong hamstrings to pick up the slack when our quad drive dies out, we’re left incapable of pulling the bar past the knee barrier – too low for our glutes (if they’re firing well) and lats to finish off the pull.
Basic partial-range pull variations like the rack pull and deadlift off blocks are great for taking the glutes and hamstrings to deadlift school. Because the bar is set anywhere from low on the shins to just below the knees, the involvement of the quads is limited. This gives the hamstrings a chance to let their true colors shine. Rather than hanging the glutes out to dry, the hamstrings get back to keeping the weight moving through the mid-range of the pull, provided we use weight that keeps us within the confines of good form.
As a bonus, we can also position our hips advantageously (with good hip-hinge mechanics) to recruit the hamstrings and glutes while the bar moves through the mid-range. Some coaches take exception to this notion, arguing that “pulling from an advantageous position doesn’t carry over to the full range pull,” to which I respectively say, “bullshit.”
A good coach teaches movements in segments so their clients and athletes learn good form through each portion of a movement before being subjected to the Full Monty. This is referred to as a top-down training progression. The deadlift is no exception.
Teaching the hips to pull from different starting points gives the body a memory to draw on when the going gets tough and form starts to break down. And this lesson isn’t just for the newbies – we veterans also need refreshers. Training for longer periods can often lead to subtle bad lifting habits. Breaking down the deadlift helps prevent these habits from becoming major issues.
Check out the video below for a rack pull refresher.
Notice that my hips are positioned where they would be if it were a full range deadlift. The glutes and hams squeeze the weight off the pins and the lats finish it off.
Below is an example of the deadlift off blocks. While they’re less convenient than rack pulls, they more closely replicate a deadlift off the floor as the plates are resting on an elevated surface rather than the bar resting on pins. As you initiate the pull, the “slack” will come out of the bar and you’ll get an inch before the weight starts moving, much like a full range deadlift.
The hip positioning is similar to a rack pull and deadlifts off of blocks can be loaded intensely. But if you’re planning on training with Jim “Smitty’ Smith of Diesel Strength, don’t make the mistake I did. Start out with a hook grip, not an alternated one.
Smitty recommends the double overhand grip (with or without the thumb hook) because it’s safer. Many athletes and gym goers alike stand with excessive internal rotation at the glenohumeral joints and kyphotic upper-back posture. This suboptimal posture puts stress on the biceps of the supinated arm during an alternated deadlift grip, thereby increasing the chance of a tear.
Speed-strength (high velocity low load) and strength-speed (high velocity high load) are both important for maximal strength. There are many technical terms that can be used here: rate coding, motor unit synchronization, and rate of force development are a few. But the important take away is the faster you move – or attempt to move – a weight, the more motor units you’ll recruit. It’s about hot, nasty speed.
Speed off the floor is necessary for a successful pull, and training for speed-strength can raise a deadlift number steadily, at least for a little while.
But where do we go when speed deads are no longer effective? When we’ve exhausted dynamic effort deadlifts versus bands and chains? When pulling from a deficit is no longer stoking the flame and heavy pull attempts are again failing at the knees, there has to be another strength catalyst. Thankfully, there is: the rack pull versus bands.
Rack Pulls Versus Bands
With speed deads being an application of speed-strength, rack pulls versus bands work well as an application of strength-speed.
Training speed-strength will take you a long way, but as the weight you’re able to move becomes heavier, strength-speed must become a focus. When max effort attempts become slow grinders it’s strength-speed that maintains the power you’ve generated off the floor. Having good levels of strength-speed means you’ll be able to keep the weight moving at a constant rate, rather than feeling it slow down as it approaches your knees.
Bands provide accommodating resistance by overloading the lockout, forcing bar acceleration throughout the entire pull. When training for speed, a standard rack pull won’t cut it because deceleration will take precedence over acceleration as the bar approaches lockout.
The bands also keep us honest. Rather than slapping plates on the bar with typical meathead disregard, we have to account for the tension of the bands. Add too much bar weight and you’ll be left doing the involuntary shakes when the bar hits mid-thigh.
To generate the most speed off the pins you must concentrate on tension and breathing. Make sure you’re belly breathing, setting your grip as hard as possible and bracing your core hard (lats pulled tight, abs contracted). Also, reset between each rep. This will make the exercise safer and give you a chance to produce more power. If you’re doing a set of eight, treat it like eight sets of one.
Like regular rack pulls, rack pulls versus bands can be done with the bar set anywhere from low on the shins to just below the knees. Just remember that the higher up your shins the bar is, the more band tension required.
Here are two examples of rack pulls versus bands; one mid-shins and one just below the knees.
Serious Back Mass
What if your goal isn’t to pull as much iron as possible? Maybe you just want bigger, thicker lats and traps; perhaps an upper-back that makes shirt collars scream uncle? Partial range deadlifts can help build a yoke that would turn an ox green with envy.
The “how-to” is relatively simple and follows the normal rules of muscle hypertrophy. More weight plus more time under tension equals bigger muscles.
Rack pulls, along with other partial range deadlifts, can be loaded at a higher intensity than a full-range deadlift can be, creating greater amounts of muscular tension. Since the range of motion is decreased, we can also work with higher loads for a greater amount of reps, increasing the total time under tension.
So rather than being able to pull 400 pounds for 1-2 reps with a rack pull, you can rip it for a set of 6-8. It’s a perfect equation for fantastic lats and traps, with the bonus being that the weight is moving mainly through the top half of the deadlift motion, where the lats are increasingly active.
Strong guys know that burning out your nervous system and diminishing your ability to recover by hitting high rep, full deadlifts isn’t necessary. Keep the full range deadlift sets heavy and for low reps (1-5) and then add in partial range pulls during your assistance work for higher reps (6-8). If you want to get your back big in a hurry, high-rep rack pulls are a tool you can count on.
Pulling into a Partial Range Cycle
A little while back I went through some deadlifting woes. Although it was a long, frustrating ordeal, it did allow me to experiment with my training. I eventually came up with a partial pull progression that had a great deal of carry-over to my conventional deadlift. If your deadlift is in a bad way, this cycle could be your guide back to the right track.
Check it out:
|1||Reverse band deadlift||7||1*|
|2||Mid-shin rack pull||5||2-3|
|3||High Bartley pull||4/2||2/1|
|4||Reverse band deadlift||4||1*|
So how the hell did reverse band deadlifts sneak into this cycle? It’s supposed to be a partial range of motion cycle, right? Well, I count reverse band deadlifts as a partial range deadlift movement because the full effect of the weight isn’t felt until the bar travels to your mid-shins, or beyond.
Not familiar with the reverse band deadlift? Here’s a video demo:
Notice the bands going slack as the bar approaches lockout? Take another look at the video. Right before the bar gets to the knees the band tension dies, so does the assistance provided by the bands. I’m left by my lonesome to lock out the weight – but this is a good thing.
Again, the concentration has to be on bar speed. As the plates break the floor, the goal is to “race” the bands to the top. If you win the race you’ll generate enough bar speed to keep heavy weights moving when the band tension dies, thus training you to pull fast during the top half of your deadlift. Lose the race and you’ll be a hunched, frustrated man with iron in his hands that’s dangling in rubber bands.
This cycle is great for training the lockout because it progresses from an assisted movement (reverse band deadlifts) to a movement that uses accommodating resistance (high Bartley pulls), then allows for the realization of the training adaptation during the fourth week.
You get faster while moving heavy weights because the focus is always on bar speed. The reverse band deadlift during week four can be replaced with conventional deads if you want to take advantage of the bar speed you gained during the previous three weeks. When I used this cycle, however, I waited until week six to test my deadlift, using week five as a down week and stepping away from the bar.
Pulling it all Together
I’ve got a little too much of my grandpa in me, so I’ll never pardon a half-assed effort, be it in the weight-room or out in the real world. And considering partial range pulls can save your deadlift and kick-start some serious posterior chain development, you’re only shooting your skinny self in the foot by not doing them.
So roll up your sleeves and hit those pulls with focus and intensity, and free yourself from deadlifting mediocrity. But before you do, finish your yard work – those leaves aren’t going to rake themselves!
The Uncomplicated Deadlift
Setting Up the Pull
Chest Up, Back Set
The Deadlift is Not a Squat
Less Bounce to the Ounce
That Wasn’t So Hard, Was It?
1. Get Your Lats Tight!
2. Get Your Hips Down
3. Strengthen Those Hamstrings!
4. Mix it Up
- Lifting against the bands or chains
- Lifting with the bands.
Exercise: Deadlifts against bands
Week 2: Work up to 90 or 95% for one single. No big psych-up or extra arousal here – save the ammonia snorting routine for another day. Use a belt if you typically use one.
Week 2: Moderate technique work. Work up to 75 or 80%, then perform 3-5 singles.
Week 3: Bordering on Max Effort. Work up to 90 or 95% for one single. No psych up or extra arousal. Belt-up if needed.
Week 4: Deload.
Month #2: Deadlifts against chains
Month #3: Deadlifts against bands
Month #4: Deadlifts with bands
5. Don’t be Afraid to Grind!