Category Archives: Deadlift
I grew up in powerlifting gyms and played football into my early twenties. As reluctant as I am to admit it, this upbringing trained me to be a meathead.
I’ll give you an example of my problem solving logic as a nineteen year-old. Every problem could be solved by getting stronger.
Can’t squat deep? You’re weak. Get stronger.
Low back hurt? Stop being soft. Get stronger.
Can’t pick up chicks? It’s because they think you’re a pussy. Stop wearing your t-shirts tucked in. And get stronger.
Over the past few years, however, I’ve changed my focus a bit.
I’m still a big strength advocate, and I think toughness is something most people could use more of. But after some time, education, and experience, I’ve found there’s a lot more to getting stronger than stacking plates and hitting more reps. Clean movement is just as important for continually gaining strength.
Fillers: An Introduction
A few years back I was reading an Alwyn Cosgrove article when something clicked. He explained that making a distinction between strength and mobility training is pointless. They’re inseparably paired, each contributing to the other.
Around the same time, I was reading Eric Cressey’s programming and noticed the mobilizations he used during rest periods. He, and several other established coaches, called them fillers.
These days, the term ‘filler’ is part of training vernacular. Back then, however, I was blown away. What a great idea! Fill time, keep sessions dense, and feel better.
At that point, though, I didn’t understand how to pair the right lifts with the right mobilizations. And I didn’t understand the dramatic effect mobility has on improving strength.
Observation, experimentation, learning more about biomechanics, and reading up on the nervous system gave me the insight to develop a pairing process.
A Match Made in Rehab
Matching mobilizations with activation exercises started in sports rehab and has been adapted to fit in the strength world.
I’ve made friends with chiropractors that specialize in rehab – not just cracking necks and cashing checks. When they describe their treatment process to me it usually goes as follows:
That, of course, is my summary, most likely grossly over generalized. But it offers a simple template that we can apply for our own purpose – building mobility into our strength training sessions to add training density and improve big lift performance.
The treatment template above works from broad correction to narrow correction. That’s how we can apply mobility exercises to serve as active rest between sets of strength exercises. Applying a specific mobilization will be narrow, but will improve our overall movement for a given strength movement.
Three principles will guide our mobility exercise selection for each strength lift:
- Improving sequencing
- Improving patterning
- Alleviating tension created by the strength exercise
Muscles work in ‘force couples’ around a joint – agonists and antagonists, extensors in contrast to flexors, and vice versa. This arrangement allows for full joint range of motion with stability, but it can be limiting when trying to generate as much force as possible.
A tight, or short, antagonist limits the function of the agonist for a given movement. Not only will the tension in the antagonist limit joint range of motion, it’ll also divert neural drive away from the agonist. Recruited before the agonist, synergists are bumped from the supporting cast to the main roles.
Relaxing the antagonist while improving its extensibility will improve sequencing and function of the agonist for a given movement.
Improving Joint Positioning and Patterning
I use the Joint-by-Joint approach to picture joint movement during lifts. If you’re unfamiliar, it is the system of understanding mobility and stability developed by Gray Cook and Mike Boyle.
Here’s a quick and dirty synopsis:
That’s simple enough. We give joints that require mobility more range of motion while improving the stability of joints that move less. By doing so, we can better position our bodies at the beginning of the lift and through its completion. You move better within a given lift and put more weight on the bar.
However, you won’t perform optimally if you can’t put your body in good positions. The key is matching the right mobilizations with the right lifts to improve specific function.
Joint and segmental stability require a lot of tension. During the lift this is good – it means that you’re tight enough in the right places. Unfortunately, this tension can hang around even after the given lift, or session, is over.
Include drills that alleviate the tension during heavy lifts and you won’t have to buy slip on shoes and look like Herman Munster when you turn in your chair.
A Grand Interplay
The grand interplay between strength and mobility is facilitated by several factors: joint range of motion, joint positioning, patterning, and sequencing. These qualities are inseparable – they affect each other at all times, improving or impairing performance for each lift.
For example, poor thoracic mobility while squatting mars hip positioning. Sequencing is skewed, the wrong muscles fire at the wrong time, and the squatting task is unevenly distributed. Performance on a given lift is both affected acutely and over time because of sub-par mobility. Tragically, the story ends with a lot of shoulda-coulda-wouldas.
To avoid this, address joint limiting factors between sets of your big movements. Below is a chart that I put together to help with predictable limiting factors for each movement.
|Squat||Ankle dorsiflexion, thoracic spine mobility, hip mobility, anterior core strength|
|Bench||Upper-back strength/scapular stability, anterior hip mobility/hip stability, shoulder stability|
|Conventional Deadlift||Thoracic spine mobility, hip mobility, hamstring extensibility|
|Overhead Press||Thoracic spine mobility, shoulder stability, shoulder mobility, core stability|
These are typical limiting factors – you may have one or more, you may have none. This is where training partners and taping your lifts come in handy. If you don’t have access to a camera and lift alone, it’s easiest to address them all.
Make the Match
Based on the potential limitations of each lift, and in the spirit of hoisting superior iron, here are solid strategies for adding mobility fillers to the big four lifts. Remember, the goal is performance. Pre-habilitation is great, and necessary, but we’re here to kick ass.
Since the deadlift is all about starting strength, pre-lift positioning is big for promoting a successful lift. Check the chart above and you’ll find thoracic spine mobility listed first as a limiting factor.
Poor t-spine mobility devastates positioning, so train thoracic movement frequently before and between sets. Here’s how.
- Train t-spine mobility, extension and rotation
- Before starting deadlift sets, train t-spine extension using bench t-spine extension mobilizations.
- As a filler during your deadlift sets, train thoracic extension with rotation. The quadruped extension rotation series works well to meet this end.
Train extension before pulling to prepare for a neutral set-up. I like to avoid stretching the lats during deadlift sets – even if the stretch is active, I’d rather not take the chance and lose lat tightness. That’s why we use extension rotations as the filler during sets.
We also want the glutes to fire like a cannon. Screaming tight hip flexors limit glute recruitment, so we’ll use active hip flexor mobilizations to quiet them down.
Hit sets of five to eight between all of your deadlift sets. If you have a side that doesn’t extend and rotate as well, do more reps on that side.
The squat is a tricky vixen. Since the movement starts with full-body eccentric movement and reverses into a strong concentric movement, the mobility and stability needs change constantly. It’s not as simple as grabbing a bar and standing up with it.
Though the squat starts with top-down movement, I like to insert fillers starting from the ground and moving up.
Poor ankle dorsiflexion turns a squat into a grotesque good morning hybrid. It’s always the first limiting factor I address during squatting. Active mobilizations, such as ankle rocks and wall mobilizations, work well as fillers because weight bearing is required. But I also like to pull the ankle into dorsiflexion while it’s relaxed.
Pick a dorsiflexion move and hit five to eight reps between each squat set.
Avoiding the Knee Cave
Caving knees turn a powerful squat into something resembling the Carlton dance. Limited glute strength is a big player, but poor adductor extensibility also plays a role.
Pushing the knees out while ‘spreading the floor’ tracks the knees while creating tension and recruiting the posterior chain. As you sink into the squat, tight adductors will pull the knees in, causing them to cave. I use two strategies to avoid the knee cave.
- Simply foam roll your adductors between squat sets, as it’s often enough to calm those bad boys down enough for your knees to track well and get better drive.
Sometimes, however, rolling isn’t enough and mobilization is warranted. You need a great adductor mobilization drill. Here’s one I picked up from Steve Maxwell. It trains adductor length and internal rotation simultaneously.
Most great benchers have a great arch. It looks like the bench is the only thing stopping them from rolling completely into a circle. I’ve worked for years, training myself to arch this way, but it just won’t happen. Scoliosis is a mean bitch.
An impressive arch requires spinal extension out the wazoo. But it also requires something many lifters forget, namely glute drive. This is especially true for those of us without an impressively mobile spine.
Benching with rigid glutes facilitates your arch by giving you better leg drive. As a result, you’ll set up higher on your shoulders. Activated glutes also keep you stable on the bench.
For these reasons, I like to include glute activation in between sets of bench, especially when a lifter is learning to arch.
Typically, I use lateral activation drills or glute bridging variations. See the videos below.
Upper-back tightness necessary for heavy bench efforts locks up the t-spine. To perform well on squat and deadlift efforts, you have to keep your t-spine moving freely about.
Including thoracic mobility drills between bench sets is the best strategy I’ve found to keep heavy bench training from affecting squat and deadlift training. The drills included during the deadlift section work well, but standing thoracic mobilizations are great in concert with glute activation drills because they alleviate tension in the lower back.
The rest between overhead pressing sets is free time. Rather than spend it updating your Facebook status about your latest PR attempt (you know who you are), this is a great time to address mobility and stability weaknesses that can pay dividends in the rest of your training.
If you press at the beginning of the week, use t-spine mobility drills and glute activation exercises as your fillers. T-spine drills keep your scapulae moving well, and glute activation sets anchor your hips and core so you can press with optimal force.
Mobility fillers help improve patterning, improve sequencing, and keep unnecessary tension from affecting future lifts. Pairing strength with mobility is a no brainer – even for this meathead.
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?
Strength coach Charles Poliquin introduced T Nation readers to many strength-training tenets like squatting past parallel, body part splits, and the value of compound lifts.
One of his more radical ideas was doing snatch grip deadlifts from a 4″ podium. He loved this exercise, saying it was among the best for putting on mass, fast. Sadly, with the advent of maintaining a neutral spine, this exercise has been snatched from existence.
Many coaches opt for safer, shorter ROM deadlift variations, especially when working with populations sporting the posterior chain mobility of a crowbar. But not having the mobility now doesn’t mean you won’t have it in the future. You just have to put in extra time if you want to do one of the most underrated exercises in barbell history.
Why Snatch Grip Deadlift?
If getting “walking-like-you-have-Sidney-Crosby’s-Olympic-Gold-winning-hockey-stick-up-your-ass” syndrome after a heavy session of snatch grip deadlifts isn’t enough proof that they “work,” here are some other reasons to do the exercise:
1. Upper-back development.
Olympic weightlifters have very impressive back development. Outside of pulling from the floor with insane frequency, one thing they do that most others don’t is pull with a snatch grip. So if band pull aparts aren’t exploding your posterior delts and upper traps as planned, consider adding this lift into your program.
2. Posterior chain development.
Conventional deadlifting is known for developing a muscular back more than it is for developing muscular legs. This is because, all things considered, the lift doesn’t require a lot of range of motion in the hips and knees.
Even though you’re not lifting as much weight when you use the snatch grip, it’s more of a leg exercise because of the starting position depth. Your hamstrings and glutes gets stretched considerably more, and this is what packs on the size.
3. Assisting conventional deadlifts.
The deadlift, for all practical purposes, is like a half-squat. There’s nothing “normal” about the height of forty-five pound plates, they’re that size because of tradition. To increase ROM, many lifters will pull from a deficit.
The snatch grip deadlift is essentially a deficit pull because the wide grip forces you to get deeper in the starting position. You can now stop balancing on stacked plates like a jackass.
4. It can boost your vertical jump.
I’ve researched vertical jump training thoroughly to prepare my athletes that go onto combine-esque tests. Although journal articles are insightful, nothing compares to analyzing video footage of people attempting vertical jumps.
I’m looking at two stills taken from YouTube. The quality is too crappy to post here, so take my word for it. Both shots show jumpers stopped in the amortization phase of a vertical jump.
The guy on the left boasts a 30″ vertical. Honestly, with the setup he’s using, I doubt it, but for the sake of conversation, let’s say he’s telling the truth. The dude on the right boasts a near 50″ vertical. Since that’s very high, I’m going to bump it down to 40″ to account for YouTube inflation.
We’re left with a 10″ difference. Apart from the guy on the right being noticeably more muscular, they have dramatically different body positions. The guy with the higher vertical is relying much more on hip extension, which equates to more glute and posterior chain use. The other guy is all quads and calves.
Although there are probably many reasons why the one is jumping higher, his body position isn’t hurting him. And strangely enough, it’s a position that resembles the beginning of a snatch grip deadlift.
Get a Grip!
Many who try snatch grip deadlifts get as far as the first set and never to do them again because gripping the barbell mangled their hands into a pseudo-cramped claw. But this lift isn’t meant to be grip work, so don’t fret.
Most Olympic weightlifters use straps in training and the hook grip in competition to save their hands. The hook grip is a gripping technique where your fingers wrap around the thumb instead of the traditional thumbs-atop-fingers monkey grip. But it’s not really meant to be done for long duration sets, and is much more of a “singles” friendly technique.
If you’re serious about the snatch grip deadlift but want to save your hands, you’re going to need straps. Forgo them on the warm-up sets, however, and save them for the work sets.
In the Olympic weightlifting world, it’s customary to setup and start with the shoulders behind the bar so that the quads help the initial push from the floor.
But since we’re not Olympic weightlifters, I prefer to use the pulling mechanics that most heavy deadlifters abide by: shoulder blades directly above the bar, and the bar kept close to the body (scraping the skin off of the shins).
What Not to Do
Having a form breakdown during the snatch grip deadlift is about as easy as a guy having an affinity for Jamie Eason. Since the wider grip stresses the upper back, it needs to stay rigid to keep the system intact. But the upper back is a mixture of many smaller muscles, and it’s not nearly as strong as we’d like it to be. When it fails, the shoulders round over and the lower back soon follows.
Because of this, I prefer “mastering” an easy weight to ease the upper back into the lift. This means volume is added before weight. If you deadlift anything above 350 pounds, a good starting point is 225 pounds for five repetitions. Yes, this will feel “easy,” but it’s necessary to prepare for higher intensities down the line.
Weight on the bar should only be ramped up after you’ve solidified the mobility to use maximum grip width, and have built the upper back tolerance for it.
Before I go further, this article is about snatch grip deadlifts from the floor. Most lifters have enough trouble keeping the back in a good position without the extra height a podium offers. If you toy around with this lift for a while, however, and decide you want to kick it up a notch, feel free to pull from a deficit. At that point you should know whether your back can take it.
Since we’re easing into this exercise, it’s perfect for a “light” lower body day (or light deadlifting day). You can also incorporate it into your conventional deadlifting warm ups. Again, if you’re handling anything above 350 pounds, do your warm ups up to 225 pounds with a snatch grip. The extra range of motion will make your conventional pulls feel easier.
Let’s start at the beginning: “Where should I grip the bar?”
When people think of taking a “snatch grip,” they envision grabbing the bar from collar to collar. But the widest grip I advise (and this is for tall folk) is with the index finger just outside the last ring on the barbell. The narrowest grip would be a grip where the pinky finger is just inside of the last ring. Most, however, will settle in between these two grips.
To find your starting grip, you’re going to have to do some testing. Grip the bar one thumb length away from the smooth. Do one or two deadlifts to groove your form. If you hit them without problems, move your grip out an inch further. Again, one or two reps should tell you whether you’re ready for the grip width.
Repeat this process – re-gripping, testing, and resting – until you’re unable to keep your spine in a good position. Take note of where your hands are because that’s the grip you’ll use until you become flexible enough to hit your optimal width.
If you get as far as pinky finger just inside the ring, then you won’t need much work. Hell, if you’re a shorter person don’t worry about going further. For most, however, it’s best to have at least your fourth finger gripping overtop the smooth ring on the barbell.
To make this clearer, here’s a standard.
Height: 5’7″ to 6’1″ – Index, middle, or ring finger on the ring.
Height: 6’2″ and above – Index finger on or outside of the ring.
This certainly isn’t gospel. If you’re shorter and want to shoot for a wider grip, then I encourage you to go for it. But if your form is breaking down with a not-so-wide grip, you need to work on your flexibility.
To get more flexible for the snatch grip deadlift, you need to practice the snatch grip deadlift position. Complicated stuff, I know.
Load a bar with 315+ pounds (you need enough weight on the bar so that you don’t actually end up lifting it), get into the starting position (the sequence is described below), and then anteriorly rotate your pelvis while lifting your chest up. Use the bar to pull yourself into the ground. You’ll feel this most in your lower back and hamstrings.
Hold the position for 20-30 seconds. Stand up and shake yourself out. Go back and take a wider grip on the bar and do the same, holding for 20-30 seconds. Again, stand up and shake yourself out. For your third set, grip the barbell at what you feel is your optimal grip. Another 20-30 seconds and another shake out concludes your stretching.
Do this as frequently as you can, but especially after your lower body lifting days.
For those already at your optimal grip, take a collar to collar grip and do this stretch for one set after your deadlifting days to develop a safe net of flexibility.
Despite the snatch grip deadlift appearing to be technical wizardry, it’s an easy maneuver to master as long as you’re working within your means.
Start by settling your feet underneath the bar, lining it up over the mid-foot. Your feet shouldn’t be quite as wide as squatting width, but they shouldn’t be quite as narrow as deadlifting width, either.
You need to give your torso some room, so point your toes out anywhere from ten to twenty degrees. This makes getting into the bottom position easier, which helps keep the lower back rigid.
Take your grip on the barbell with the same width that you tested into earlier. Along with having a suicide grip on the bar, make sure you lock your elbows.
Think about pulling the bar apart with your hands. This keeps both the elbows and upper back tight. Losing slack in either of these areas is a recipe for hunching over and losing spinal position. It’s common to “forget” about the elbows because they’re not normally a concern during conventional deadlifts, so make it a point to remind yourself.
The feet are in place and the grip is settled. To finish the setup, bend your knees until your shins hit the barbell. Once contact is made, lift your chest and settle the lower back into a neutral position. You’re now ready to pull.
Drive the bar off the ground using your legs. Envision squeezing yourself into the floor. Be sure to keep your back angle constant during the initial leg drive. When the bar passes your knees, drive the hips forward to a strong lockout with tight hips. Remember to slide the barbell up your body. For the sake of your lower back, don’t let it float away.
As a small aside, be sure to bring your shoulders with you at lockout. If you don’t, depending on your grip width, there’s a good chance the bar will settle right across your junk. Guys, consider yourselves warned.
To set the bar down, reverse the directions above, breaking at the hips until the bar reaches the knees. Reposition yourself after each rep to ensure that your back stays in good position.
Programming the Snatch Grip Deadlift
Most people don’t like to pull heavy twice in one week, and for good reason. Between the squats and other leg work, the lower back and nervous system can fatigue quickly.
The good news is that snatch grip deadlifts will be anything but “heavy,” especially compared to conventional pulls. Approach this exercise with a tortoise mentality. Start at 225 pounds for sets of five.
The purpose of the first cycle is to gradually introduce the snatch grip deadlift and to work on any flexibility issues you may have. Since three weeks of hard training followed by one week of deloading is a common training strategy, that’s the format I’m going to use for this example.
Day 1 (Light day)
|B||Snatch grip deadlifts+||3||5|
|D||Ab wheel rollouts||5||8|
Day 2 (Heavy day)
|D||Bulgarian split squats||2||8|
|D||Band hip rotations||2||10|
+ 3 sets of snatch grip stretching after
** done Reverse Pyramid style (work up to a 3-5 RM for the first set, drop the weight by 10% for the second set and hit same number of reps as first set +1)
Day 1 (Light day)
|B||Snatch grip deadlifts+||4||5|
|D||Ab wheel rollouts||5||10|
Day 2 (Heavy day)
|D||Bulgarian split squats||2||10|
|D||Band hip rotations||2||10|
+ 3 sets of snatch grip stretching after
** done Reverse Pyramid style (work up to a 3-5 RM for the first set, drop the weight by 10% for the second set and hit same number of reps as first set +1)
Day 1 (Light day)
|B||Snatch grip deadlifts+||5||5|
|D||Ab wheel rollouts||5||12|
Day 2 (Heavy day)
|D||Bulgarian split squats||2||12|
|D||Band hip rotations||3||10|
+ 3 sets of snatch grip stretching after
** done Reverse Pyramid style (work up to a 3-5 RM for the first set, drop the weight by 10% for the second set and hit same number of reps as first set +1)
Week Four (deload)
Day 1 (light day)
|B||Snatch grip deadlifts+||2||5|
|D||Ab wheel rollouts||3||10|
Day 2 (Heavy day)
|D||Bulgarian split squats||1||10|
|D||Band hip rotations||2||10|
+ 3 sets of snatch grip stretching after
** use these sets to retest your grip
Less Reading, More Lifting!
Whether you’re interested in strength or size, the snatch grip deadlift is worth the investment. It’s a great exercise that can complement and improve a traditional deadlifting program while adding extra mass to the upper back, glutes, and hamstrings.
So man up, work on your mobility, and start gripping the bar wider and wider to master snatch grip pulls from the floor. Just don’t complain to me when your friends start making off-color jokes about your newly acquired walk. Of course, once their girlfriends start checking out your beefed-up glute and hamstrings, you might hear a lot less laughing.
Anthony Mychal is an athlete consultant, writer, teacher, and coach. In his free time, he publishes a blog about his musings on athletic preparation at http://www.anthonymychal.com
Deadlifting for MMA
Iron-world historians believe the deadlift may be the world’s oldest strength training exercise. In less civilized times, deadlifts were performed with rocks, logs, and other formidably heavy objects as feats of strength in primitive strongman competitions.
By the 19th century, aspiring lifters started to use the deadlift as an exercise to build strength, muscle, and power. Today the deadlift, along with the bench press and squat, is one of the contested lifts in competitive powerlifting and is a strength training staple.
Yet despite such noble pedigree, few recognize the important role deadlifts can play in a Mixed Martial Artists’ strength and conditioning program.
A casual search on the Internet will reveal videos of fighters performing increasingly exotic activities, leaving the impression that MMA conditioning programs have taken a turn toward a Coney Island sideshow.
While some of these routines may have their place in a MMA fighter’s strength and conditioning routine, the deadlift remains the most effective exercise for building the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, adductor mangus and lumbar erectors), which is crucial for almost all physical movements in MMA.
Functional For Fighting
The deadlift’s basic action is picking a weight off the ground, forcing the posterior chain to lift a load that’s in front of the body. A strong posterior chain is essential for executing explosive fighting movements, from shooting a double leg takedown to delivering a knee strike from a clinch, and enables a more explosive hip throw or ‘heavier’ hips when sprawling to prevent a takedown. This is the definition of real-world “functional training.”
Deadlifts are also highly effective for building power and are one of the simplest ways to enhance rate of force production (RFD), or how quickly a person can develop tension in a muscle. This is important for any type of striking or grappling movement and in many situations specific to the cage, ring, or mat.
The nature of the average mixed martial arts bout is one in which the fighter will alternate between extended periods of moderate energy output and short bursts of explosive activity.
The majority of an MMA fight is spent jockeying for an advantageous position by trying to create openings to implement one’s technique. This working for position is seen at all ranges (striking, clinch, and grappling). From the striking range, a fighter may be feigning to set up an overhand right, from the clinch a fighter may be looking to establish a deeper underhook, and from the grappling range a competitor could be slowly adjusting his hips to set up a sweep from guard.
These activities of continuous moderate energy output are disrupted when a fighter must quickly develop tension in a muscle by throwing that overhand right, using that underhook to attempt a takedown, or exploding from the bottom position to go for a sweep. Therefore, enhancing rate of force is crucial for the successful execution of all explosive movements found in MMA.
One way to increase RFD through the deadlift is compensatory acceleration training (CAT), popularized by Dr. Fred Hatfield in the 1980s. CAT is done with the assistance of resistance bands and chains that increase tension as the weight is lifted off the ground, so the resistance is heaviest at the top where most are the strongest.
This type of training is called accommodated resistance and complements the strength curve of the lift, allowing for maximum strength to be built.
Check out the following video for an example:
If the athlete doesn’t lift the weight fast enough, he won’t successfully complete the lift, as the tension is increasing. Think about a Thai kick, a double leg takedown, or an arm bar from the bottom; in each case the hips accelerate as you progress through the movement. This is the deadlift providing functional training for MMA.
Get A Grip
You shouldn’t be using straps when you deadlift as it’s the ultimate exercise to increase grip strength. Increased grip strength is a very helpful adjunct for all martial arts that involve throwing, grappling, or holding an opponent, but the importance of a strong grip is especially important in an MMA fight.
With the MMA glove inhibiting hand movement, grip strength must compensate for the decreased dexterity in the fine motor skills of the fingers, most evident when fighters are battling to finish or defend a rear naked choke. Ultimately, the hands transfer power from your body to an opponent, and grip strength can make you or break you in fighting.
There are many deadlift variations, the two most common being the conventional and sumo techniques. In the conventional deadlift the feet are hip width apart, arms just outside of the legs, the barbell is on the ground and lifted to a fully erect position. In the sumo deadlift the hands are inside the legs and the legs are much wider than shoulder width apart.
The conventional deadlift has a much greater dynamic correspondence to fighting than the sumo deadlift and is a more effective posterior chain builder. However, the sumo deadlift can’t be dismissed for fighters looking to build more quad strength as well as adductor strength (the ‘squeezing muscles’ in the legs).
Many MMA fighters have long ignored the adductors, but an increase in adductor strength will enable a more powerful guard and tighter submissions. Any submission that requires the squeezing of the legs together (straight arm bars, knee bars, and triangle chokes) will improve with stronger adductor muscles.
Strengthening the posterior chain with the deadlift may even reduce the chance of injury. Strength coach and TNation contributor Eric Cressey states that weak hamstrings can greatly exacerbate the chance of an ACL injury (one of the most common injuries among wrestlers and MMA fighters), patellofemoral pain, and many other problems in the hip, lower back, knee, and ankle.
Machines like leg curls won’t sufficiently strengthen the posterior chain, and can lead to overuse injuries as stabilizer muscles go unused and movements are in a fixed plane of motion.
Some reminders for proper deadlift technique:
- Push through the heels
- The middle of the foot should be directly under the bar. The shins must be touching the bar.
- The back is in extension. Don’t round.
- The shoulder blades should be directly over the bar. The shoulders are actually in front.
- The elbows must remain in full extension throughout the movement.
- Lower the bar in the opposite way the bar was lifted in terms of hip and knee angles.
The MMA Fighter’s Deadlifting Program
Pre-MMA Training Camp Deadlift Limit Strength Routine
|D||Bent over rows||3||8|
|F||Mixed grip chin-ups||Max||3||10|
|G||Glute ham raises||3||8|
|D||Bent over rows||3||7|
|G||Glute ham raises||3||8|
|B||Deadlift against mini-bands max||1||3|
|E||Bent over rows||3||6|
|H||Glute ham raises||3||8|
|E||Glute ham raises||2||6|
|D||One armed row||3||6|
|G||Glute ham raises||3||8|
|B||Reverse band deadlift max||Max||3||1|
|C||Lightning deadlift *||50%||4||2|
|E||One armed row||3||6|
|H||Glute ham raises||3||7|
|B||Lightning deadlift *||50%||4||2|
|D||One armed row||3||6|
|G||Glute ham raises||3||7|
|E||Glute ham raises||2||6|
Week 9 Test New Max
Serious Exercises for Serious Results
It’s very important for fighters to pick functional training exercises in the true sense of exercise science, not just passing Bosu and vibration-inspired fads. Deadlifts work virtually every muscle in the body and act as a powerful catalyst for muscle growth, provided sufficient calories and protein are consumed.
Lastly, don’t overlook the favorable spike in the natural production of growth hormone and Testosterone a solid deadlifting session can elicit.
With the deadlift you’ve found a way to gain overall body strength, work the posterior chain, aid in muscle gain or fat loss, work forceful hip and knee extension, build grip strength, and increase mental toughness and overall speed. Include them in your holistic approach or get left behind!
“Any healthy male under the age of 50 should be able to deadlift at least 400 pounds within two years of proper training.”
Not surprisingly, my business partner and fellow TMUSCLE contributor Eric Cressey caught a lot of flack in the fitness community a few years ago for making that bold statement. But it’s true. If you’ve been training for a couple of years, you should be able to deadlift at least 400 pounds.
I understand you may be upset if you can’t yet pull the big four-oh-oh. It’s human nature to get mad when someone questions your manhood. But what are you going to do about it? You can stop reading here, go to the discussion thread, and leave a nasty comment, or you can sack up and learn how to pull eight plates (or more) off the ground.
All you need to do is follow the Dirty Dozen.
Tip #1: If you want to improve your deadlift, you should have perfect form.
First, a story of what’s possible: When Cressey Performance business director Pete Dupuis started training last year, he started with 88 pounds on the trap bar. Fast-forward 364 days and Pete deadlifted 400 pounds for an easy personal record. So we’re not bullshitting here.
With that in mind, here are eight steps to the perfect deadlift:
1. Your feet should be slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart, and the bar should be against your shins.
2. Keep your chest “tall,” get your air (make yourself fat, brace your abs as if you were going to get punched) and sit back into position, arching your lower back as hard as possible while keeping your shoulder blades retracted. I tell my guys to push their hips back until they can grab the bar. Do not squat down.
3. Grab the bar and squeeze the hell out of it while pulling your shoulders back and down to engage your lats. This will also activate the thoraco-lumbar fascia and stabilize the spine. You should feel a fair amount of tension in the hamstrings and glutes at this point.
4. Keep your chin tucked and find a spot roughly 10-15 feet ahead of you on the floor and fixate on it throughout the entire movement.
5. Drive through your heels, and keep your elbows locked. Pull the bar, making sure that your hips and shoulders move simultaneously. (I’ll often see the hips come up first; this is just asking for trouble.)
6. As you approach the lock out, make sure to “finish” the movement by firing your glutes and getting those hips through. Many fail to accomplish this last point, and it ends up looking something like the first of the two lockout videos at right.
7. This is the part that tends to be a bit tricky for some. Don’t break with your knees, but rather the hips. You want to sit back (think sitting back into the heels), while sliding the bar down your thighs the entire time.
8. Remember to maintain a hard arch in your lower back, and don’t allow your shoulders to round forward.
Also, think of each rep as its’ own set. A lot of guys tend to rush and end up bouncing the bar off the ground. As a result, each rep gets progressively worse, and my spine starts hurting. It’s called a deadlift for a reason. Once you get the bar back to the ground, get your air back (brace those abs), re-adjust your spinal position, get your chest tall, pull those shoulder blades back and down, tuck your chin, repeat, and be awesome.
Tip #2: Pull frequently and heavy
No, I’m not talking every day. But if you want to get good at the deadlift you should probably, you know, deadlift.
I’d suggest pulling at least once per week, usually on a Monday since you’ll be fresher. Moreover, you need to use low(er) rep training. Strength, at least in the very beginning, has more to do with CNS development than anything else, which is why most guys will see drastic increases in strength before they see a six-pack.
I rarely program more than five reps when it comes to deadlifts. Anything above that usually results in abysmal form, particularly for beginners and intermediates. It’s also been well established in the literature that low(er) rep training improves the body’s ability to recruit high threshold motor units, improve rate coding, as well as increase inter/intra muscular coordination.
When it comes to programming, I feel that individualization is crucial. Still, a simple breakdown would look something like this:
Week 1: 5×5
Week 2: 4×5
Week 3: 6×5
Week 4: 3×5
Week 1: 4×3
Week 2: 3×3
Week 3: 3×3, 2×5
Week 4: Pull-Throughs, 3×10
Week 1: 3RM (or 1RM)
Week 2: 4×4
Week 3: 4×5
Week 4: 3×4
After 12 weeks straight, I’d suggest taking a week or two off from deadlifting altogether. Focus on some single-leg work (more on this below), throw in some biceps curls for the hell of it, and eat lots of dead animal flesh.
Tip #3: Rotate your movements (just not every week)
While I think it’s important to rotate movements, especially movements you suck at, you don’t need to do it every week. I like to use three to four week cycles, rotating movements every month or so.
Tip # 4: Fix your weaknesses
Some people (such as myself) are woefully slow off the floor. Others are able to rip the bar from the platform, but have a hard time locking the weight out above the knees. Regardless, it’s important to find where you’re weak and fix it.
A lot of this will depend on your leverages. Those with long limbs tend to have a mechanical advantage towards deadlifting, but they’ll oftentimes have a hard time locking the weight out. If this sounds like you, some dedicated speed work or heavy rack pulls will do you good.
For those with long(er) torsos who have trouble with speed off the floor, try pulling from a deficit (feet elevated 1-4 inches off the ground). As a result, when you revert back to pulling from the floor, it’ll feel better. Also, sumo variations would be a superb alternative as it shortens the distance the bar has to travel.
Tip #5: Take off your shoes
Anyone who’s read Christopher McDougal’s phenomenal book, Born to Run, knows by now that the shoe industry is essentially a 20 billion dollar per year sham. Any deadlift variation done within Cressey Performance is done barefoot.
Without shoes, you’re 1-2 inches closer to the ground, which is 1-2 inches lessdistance the bar has to travel. Also, by taking your shoes off you’re now able to pull through your heels, which will allow you to recruit your glutes and hamstrings more efficiently.
For those of you who train at lame gyms that frown on people training barefoot, I’d suggest purchasing flat shoes such as Chuck Taylors or Nike Frees and getting rid of the cement blocks you’re wearing.
Tip #6: Don’t use straps
I’m a bit torn on this one. On one hand, I think far too many people use straps as crutches. I mean, lat pull-downs? Really? On the other hand, I realize grip strength is a limiting factor for many, and sometimes it’s beneficial to permit straps if for no other reason than it allows someone to actually use heavier weight. We’ll let guys use straps for snatch grip variations, but that’s about it.
Use a mixed-grip, alternating hand positions with every set, and get some chalk. If your gym doesn’t allow chalk, either find a new gym or sneak it in. Keep it in a plastic container in your gym bag, lightly rub some chalk on your hands, and have at it. Also, don’t be an asshole—clean the bar when you’re done.
Tip #7: If you want to get strong you need to train with strong people
Much like if you want to get better at accounting, you hang out with accountants. Or, if you want to get better at not getting laid, you go to Star Trek conventions.
Now, I don’t have any scientific evidence to back this up, but I’m pretty sure testosterone levels drop by 144.37% every time Miley Cyrus is played over the radio. How do you expect to get fired up for a training session when you have walking bags of douche curling in the squat rack, and you’re surrounded by housewives on the treadmills?
A general rule of thumb: if your gym has more Smith machines than power racks, you have a better shot at winning the lottery than getting super-strong.
Tip # 8: Do accessory work
If you want to get better at the deadlift, you need to train the posterior chain hard. Sorry, leg presses, leg extensions, and leg curls won’t cut it. When I hammer my goodmornings, my deadlift always skyrockets. It almost serves as a “marker” so-to-speak—when my goodmornings are going up consistently, it’s a safe bet that my deadlift is going to go up as well.
For you, it may be box squats. For someone else, it may be Romanian deadlifts. The point is, you should have another exercise that you can use to “gauge” where you’re at.
Things like glute ham raises, slideboard leg curls, hip thrusters, and pull-throughs (in my opinion, one of the most under-rated exercise out there) should make up the bulk of your lower body accessory work.
Tip #9: Perform single-leg work
Single-leg work equals bigger lifts. If I get someone better and more proficient with their single-leg training, they see a vast improvement in their deadlift and squat.
As Mike Boyle has stated on numerous occasions, single-leg movements force us to activate the lateral sub-system, which consists of the adductor complex, glute medius, as well as the quadtratus lumborum on the contra-lateral leg.
From low-back and knee health perspectives, this is huge since in a two-legged stance these muscles aren’t necessarily “activated.” However, in a single-leg stance, this same system of muscles is forced to “fire,” which then work to stabilize the hip and knee joint.
In short, if you’re jacked up all the time, you won’t be lifting anything heavy. Do your single-leg work and thank me later.
Tip # 10: Get those glutes firing!
We all know (or at least we should) the importance of the warm-up prior to training. Furthermore, I’ve written in the past how I’m a big fan of fillers—low grade stretches or activation work done in between sets. So, instead of watching Sports Center highlights, or hitting on the hot chick you don’t have a shot in hell with, you might as well do something productive while you rest between sets.
For most of us, one area that undoubtedly needs a lot of work is the glutes. Because we sit on them for 8 to 12 hours per day, the glutes tend to be weak and inhibited. Given that they’re the body’s strongest hip extensor, it stands to reason that they may affect how much weight you’ll be able to deadlift. Put another way, many of you are short changing yourself by not paying closer attention to glute activation.
I recommend you do some simple glute activation between sets of deadlifts. You’ll see a big change in how much weight you can add to the bar.
Here, you lean against a wall and flex one leg up (without hyper-extending the lumbar spine) and drive the heel of the standing leg into the ground. Hold for a 2-second count, and squeeze the glute of the standing leg. Alternate legs and repeat for a total of five repetitions per leg.
Lie supine on the floor, drive both heels into the floor and raise your hips slightly off the ground. Squeeze your glutes. From there, simply elevate the heel of one foot 1 to 2 inches, and keep your pelvis square (it shouldn’t dip). Hold for a one-second count, bring back to the floor, and repeat the same sequence on the opposite side for a total of five repetitions for each leg.
Tip #11: Don’t make a habit of missing lifts.
One of my biggest pet peeves as a strength coach is guys missing lifts. Granted, I understand it happens, but it shouldn’t be a weekly thing.
I think there’s a lot to be said about grinding out a set here and there, but missing lifts on a regular basis will do nothing except fry your nervous system and lead to a world of frustration.
Tip #12: Do speed work (but not that kind!)
Most guys are familiar with the conjugate approach to training, as popularized by Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell. This is where you take multiple strength qualities (max strength, speed strength, etc.) and train them simultaneously in an effort to improve performance in the “big three” (squat, bench press, and deadlift). One day is dedicated to the max-effort method (lifting heavy shit), and one day is dedicated to the dynamic-effort method (lifting less heavy shit quickly).
I’ve already touched on the former (see Tip # 2), but I’d like to talk about the dynamic-effort method. Research shows that guys can see significant strength gains using 40 percent of their one-rep max, which is why it’s often recommended that you use anywhere from 40-65 percent of your 1RM when using this method.
That said, I have a hard time programming speed work for an un-trained 35-year-old—let alone any of the high school or college kids I train—when they’re barely deadlifting 225 for reps. Still, we do need to find some way to get guys more explosive.
Enter the kettlebell swing.
I’ll admit that up to a few months ago, I was a bit reluctant about the whole kettlebell thing. To me, it just seemed like the latest fitness fad that everyone was doing, and thought it would fizzle out sooner or later. However, after spending some time with Mike Robertson last year, and more recently, listening to Dan John speak, I quickly changed my mind.
Without getting into all the details, Dan described a continuum where on one end, you have a squat pattern, and at the other, you have a hip snap. With respect to the deadlift (a hip dominant movement), the kettlebell swing is a fantastic way to learn how to get more explosive, not to mention improving technique!
Thing is, most people end up butchering the movement to the point where it looks more like a squat swing.
It’s not uncommon for many to experience significant lower back pain when performing it this way. Go figure! As such, when coaching the swing, you’ll often see the same mistakes made time and time again. Rather than re-invent the wheel, I’ll just steal a few pointers courtesy of Mike Robertson.
6 Ways You’re Screwing Up the Kettlebell Swing
What Will the Dirty Dozen Do For You?
Isn’t it about time you hit a new PR on the deadlift? Use the Dirty Dozen above, check your form, and work hard, and I bet you’ll be surprised with how much progress you make in a matter of months.
One good-lookin’ deadlift
Ditch the shoes (and hair gel) for a better pull.