Deadlifting for Strongman
In the Army, the infantry is called "The Queen of Battle" and often hogs all the recognition for the many jobs performed in combat. However, those in the know refer to the artillery as the "King of Battle," and for good reason. While the infantry gets to go in and kick ass and take names, the artillery clears the path for them with marked efficiency and extreme prejudice.
In terms of raw power, this dichotomy is much like the "big two," the squat and deadlift.
The squat gets all the recognition, winning the hearts and minds, but it's the deadlift in the background that paves the way to pure strength and overall bad-assery. You must channel every bit of insanity and courage you have to pull big weights, and it's just as much a mental war as it is a physical battle.
In the sport of strongman however, there isn't just one type of deadlift that comes into play. While it's almost guaranteed to be in every single strongman competition, you never know which type of deadlift the next challenge will hold. Will it be a car deadlift for reps? A max two-inch axle? Will it be 18 inches? Or will they just throw 705 pounds on a bar and see how many reps you can do in a minute?
These are the situations that strongmen competitors face at every competition – a one-on-one battle with the deadlift, no matter what form it takes.
Quest for Strength
In my quest to explore the differences in how people train, I sat down with three of the best deadlifters in strongman: Vince Urbank, He-Dan Harrison, and Ryan Bracewell. All are American Strongman Corporation professionals and very accomplished deadlifters.
- Vince is an ex-Marine turned elite level powerlifter and professional strongman. He's known in the strongman world for not only banging out 850-plus pound deadlifts in single ply but also for doing them double overhand, with a hook grip.
- Ryan Bracewell is a powerlifter and professional strongman. He holds the North American Strongman deadlift record of 805 pounds and pulled 800 pounds at the Olympia. He holds the current APF 140 kilogram raw total record and is consistently one of the top deadlifters in ASC strongman competitions.
- Dan Harrison is also a powerlifter and professional strongman with a 925-pound deadlift (belt and straps) and a 2,033 SPF raw total.
These guys know how to move big weight and have offered to share some insight on their training. If your goal is to master the king of battle, read on.
What's the basic idea behind your deadlift training?
Vince: Maximum effort. I deadlift a given variation for maximal weight, or in a 1-3 rep range. As well, I do dynamic effort variations of the deadlift, usually in sets of 1-2 reps with bands and 40-50% of my one-rep max. The goal is to perform each rep as quickly and explosively as possible. I also include high volume support work to target specific weaknesses.
Ryan: The easiest way to explain my deadlifting philosophy is heavy singles. If I'm not putting a max load on my body, I don't seem to respond, so I stick with one-rep maxes and occasionally do three-rep maxes. When I made the most gains in my deadlift I was going for a new 1RM every week for up to three weeks in a row.
After three weeks I'd take a break from deadlifting and do something like power cleans in their place. I'd also take a week off deadlifts if I didn't hit a personal record. This cycle worked great when my pull was between 550-725 pounds, but now that I'm pulling in the mid 800s I feel like it would put too much strain on my CNS.
Here's a more detailed layout of what I'm talking about.
Week 1. Work up to a 1RM, jumping no more than a plate each side per set. If I hit a PR I won't attempt a second PR that week (it's always good to leave something in the tank), but if I missed I wouldn't deadlift the following week either.
Week 2. If I hit a PR on week one, I'd work to 1RM and go for a new PR in week 2.
Week 3. If I hit my week two PR I'd work up to a 1RM on week 3.
Week 4. If I was doing good enough to make it three weeks with a PR, I'd take a week off from deadlifting.
Week 5: Start cycle over. If at any point during the four weeks you don't hit a PR, take a week off and start the cycle over.
Dan: My basic concept is to continually max out the body from different angles by using a rotation of different exercises from all angles, thus increasing my floor deadlift. I train Westside, so I don't train deadlifts for reps and haven't done more than one rep per set in any sort of deadlift for probably two years.
Doing singles on a different deadlift variation every week helps build absolute power while keeping you fresh since you change the exercise each week. I use straps on most of the pulls so I can really max out my body/back muscles without dropping the weight 100 pounds below what my body can truly pull. It's also important to pull without straps as much as you can as you work up to your top set so you don't develop a grip weakness.
Do you train for deadlifting differently when it comes to strongman than you would powerlifting?
Vince: No, but I do a bit more volume (sets/reps) when training for strongman, as well as practicing the specific deadlift event for an upcoming contest.
Ryan: For the most part my deadlift training won't change regardless of upcoming competitions. I believe that by creating more maximal strength I'll be able to do more reps with a sub-maximal weight because it will become a smaller percentage of my 1RM.
For example, if there's a contest coming up with a 600-pound deadlift for reps, the guy with an 800-pound deadlift should easily be able to do more reps with 600 than another competitor with a 700-pound max. However, a few weeks before a contest with a deadlift for reps, I'll practice doing repetitions to get my body used to the rhythm.
Dan: No difference. I often compete in strongman and powerlifting meets within weeks of each other, sometimes a week apart or less. Deadlifting is deadlifting.
Before a powerlifting meet I'll start doing floor deadlifts without straps so I know approximately where I'm at, since straps aren't allowed in powerlifting.
What is the biggest mistake people make when training the deadlift?
Vince: Not resting enough between deadlift or heavy low back workouts. The lower back and nervous system can take longer than the muscles to recover from a max effort deadlift, so it's important to listen to your body and not overtrain.
Also, not being confident and pulling aggressively. The deadlift is a brute strength movement!
Finally, not doing enough of or the right kinds of support work. Your support work should be tailored to your individual weaknesses, like glute-ham raises for hamstrings, good mornings for back, and bent-over or chest-supported rows to build up the inner and upper back.
Don't be lazy, stick around and do your support work, even if you're tired from deadlifting. Support work is what brings up lagging muscle groups and helps maintain a balance in strength. Don't skip it.
Ryan: Some of the most common mistakes I encounter with younger or less experienced lifters are:
First, not enough warm up time. I've seen lifters come into the gym and start their deadlift workout with 315 pounds, then do 405 and try for a max the next set. This is just asking for injury. I still do a general barbell warm up and start every deadlift workout with 135 pounds. I'll do 6-8 sets before reaching my max, and even at a powerlifting meet will do 4-5 sets with very low reps.
Second is bad form. Everyone's deadlift will adapt to their body type, but regardless of adaptation your low back needs to stay tight. This is especially true for novice lifters that don't have the protective muscle mass that more experienced lifters can fall back on when their form is a little off.
Third is doing too many reps. If your goal is to have a big one-rep max, then you need to lift like it.
Dan: The biggest mistake I made in deadlift training was doing the same style of deadlift, week in, week out. Grinding out reps of heavy conventional deads every week is basically suicide for your deadlift. I'm a big fan of Louie Simmons' method of rotating lots of different exercises, especially for the deadlift. The deadlift is tricky to improve, because you really have to experiment to find which deadlift variations best build your power. I believe in working up to a one rep max, but having 4-6 different types of deadlifts to rotate through.
The other mistake is failing to keep up with the right kind of assistance work. Strong hamstrings and abs protect the low back from injury while helping to build a massive deadlift. The trick is finding the right exercises to hit those two muscle groups.
My personal favorites for hams are weighted roman chair extensions and lying leg curls, and for abs, heavy pulldown abs or ab wheel extensions. For me, hams seem to need somewhat higher reps, like 15-20, but still heavy weight. Abs seem to grow better with 6-10 reps, very heavy weight.
What's the best tip you can give to a beginner looking to build a big deadlift?
Vince: Deadlift! Don't be scared of it or avoid it. Do plenty of rows – bent-over rows, chest-supported rows, and T-bar rows are some of my favorites.
Ryan: Assuming the lifter has good form, for beginners and intermediate lifters I recommend doing heavy 1-3 rep deadlifts 2-3 times a month as described above. For more experienced lifters things can get a little tricky because as your deadlift goes up your weaknesses start to reveal themselves. This is a good time to start altering your routine to address these weaknesses.
For me, I'm really good off the floor but have trouble locking weights out, so I've started doing elevated deadlifts, reverse band deadlifts, and regular band deadlifts. If you're slower off the floor I'd add deficit pulls and make sure you're getting sufficient quad work during your leg workouts with front squats, leg presses, and single-leg squats.
Dan: A beginner doesn't need as many deadlift variations as a very advanced lifter would, so deadlift every week with sets of 3 to 5 reps, but alternate sumo and conventional every week. Sumo deadlifts give the lower back a break and help build the hamstrings and hips much more than conventional deadlifts. Also, I'd emphasize the importance of weekly heavy ab work. If your abs are weak, you can kiss a big deadlift goodbye.
Since strongman is a sport of not only overall static strength, but also explosiveness and endurance, what other training devices do you use to meet those standards?
Vince: I do dynamic effort deadlift and squat with band tension. I perform every rep on every primary exercise as hard and as fast as I can. I also do cleans (usually with an axle) and of course, strongman events improve explosiveness and endurance. Also, sled pulls are the staple of my endurance training.
Ryan: I like to throw in some high rep sets (15-50 reps) after a max effort lift to maintain a combination of strength and endurance. For example, if I work up to a one-rep max deadlift, I'll drop the weight to 50-75% of my 1RM and rep until failure. I also try to keep a healthy diet. Fat and water bloat slow you down and drastically reduce your aerobic capacity. Many strongmen will also do additional GPP stuff like sleds, Prowler, and sledgehammer hits but it's not something that I do regularly.
Dan: I use bands with my max effort movements quite frequently, which builds explosiveness and absolute power. As far as endurance is concerned, I do higher reps on my assistance work. Louie Simmons says that as a rule do singles for max effort work, but for assistance work, do higher reps. 4x10 reps is the average but I occasionally like to take it into the 15-20 rep range.
Finally, give us an idea of what a deadlift training day would look like?
- Warm-up with front squats or light deadlifts.
- Work up to a max or max rep set on a given deadlift variation (bands, reverse bands, rack pulls, deficit pulls, etc.).
- Front or box squats or leg presses, followed by support work consisting of about 4-5 exercises for 4-5 sets each. Bent-over rows, T-bar rows, chest-supported rows, narrow and wide pulldowns, quad extensions, hamstring curls, good mornings, upper back work, biceps curls, etc., are staples.
- Barbell warm-up (squats, presses, good mornings, etc.) and then start deadlifting with 135 pounds using no belt or straps.
- Increase the weight by 90 pounds per set. For 135-405 pounds, the rep scheme will be something like 10, 8, 4-6, and 2-3 with all reps touch and go.
- At 495 pounds, start doing singles and add belt and straps if planning to use them that session.
- Once I reach a max, rest for five minutes and then do a high rep set of deadlifts as mentioned above.
- Do 1-2 accessory lifts like glute ham raises and good mornings, and occasionally front squats.
- Max effort deadlift variation. Do singles up to a true one-rep max (going for a PR) and then unload the bar.
- Hamstring/posterior chain assistance movements, usually two exercises like lying leg curls and reverse hypers.
- Heavy ab work, three work sets.
Awaken the Dead
No matter how you wage war against the king of battle, the take home message is clear: Lift heavy! The trend among the world's strongest men and best deadlifters is a trend for a reason!
See you on the battlefield.