The Intelligent & Relentless Pursuit of Muscle™

Twelve Weeks to a Better Deadlift

Who doesn't want a better deadlift? 

big deadlift

In strength training circles, the deadlift is widely considered to be the single best test of a lifter's "brute" strength, and is just one of a handful of lifts that every iron aficionado seems to hold in high regard, irrespective of their various training philosophies. 

The functional guys hold them in high regard (granted, they do it with a trap bar, but I won't hold that against them), while the Crossfitters like deadlifts so much they include it as part of their total. A deadlift of sorts is required at the start of all Olympic movements, so the weight lifters give them a respectful nod. And of course powerlifters and strongmen alike have devoted blood, sweat, tears, and years to this lift.

Even bodybuilders, often criticized for avoiding the "manlier" exercises, knew the deadlift would pack slabs of beef onto the elusive posterior chain long before the term "posterior chain" became a part of everyday gym vernacular.

In short, if you're any sort of lifter, you care about what you can deadlift, and I'm here to help that number go up.

One of the cooler things that I do in my spare time is coach a local powerlifting team called Team Force. My team recently entered the 100% Raw Single Lift Federation Championships in Norfolk, VA and I had six lifters compete in the deadlift. I'm proud to say that not one lifter missed a lift; we went 18 for 18 in the deadlift!

And don't think we were sandbagging our attempts: every lifter set a lifetime PR in that meet (even counting gym PRs), which was anywhere from 13 to 39 lbs. over their previous bests. 

Some lifters were novices, but not all were – in fact, the most advanced lifter of the bunch made some of the best progress (he added 34 lbs. to his lift), and he even dropped a weight class in the process! 

After seeing the results of this program on my team, I'm now ready to share it with you.

The Basics

big deadlift

When training the deadlift – and when training legs for strength in general – I believe simplicity and consistency are essential. However, don't think I'm going to suggest doing 3 sets of 10 for 12 weeks; there's some serious progression built into this program. 

The simplicity of this program ends on the paper – in other words, while the workout may be a snap to wrap your head around, be prepared to suffer a bit in the gym.

I like to say, "Glory on the platform doesn't come to those not willing to pay the price." Your ass, hamstrings, and entire posterior chain will be writing some serious sweat and effort checks.

For this program, you'll be training legs and erectors one day a week and that's it. You pick the day; when the rubber hits the road, it doesn't matter. You should be able to fit this into whatever routine you're currently using, although it's a dedicated leg day and I don't expect (or want) you to do much else on this day. 

These workouts are usually about an hour long in terms of lifting, but my lifters would often perform about 30 minutes of foam rolling, stretching, and dynamic warm-up to start the session. 

The routine we used was as follows:

Any core freaks in attendance can add in additional core work on Monday and Friday if so desired.

The original plan was to do four or five lower body exercises on leg day. The primary goal was to improve the deadlift – there were no squats contested at this particular competition – yet many members of my team are full powerlifters, so going any time without squatting simply wasn't an option.

I also believe that for the vast majority of lifters, particularly in the beginner or intermediate stages, training the squat has a positive effect on the deadlift. You need strong legs to drive the weight off the floor, and what better way to build stronger legs than to squat?

This is a 12-week workout program (mesocycle) that's broken down into three 4-week long blocks (microcycles). The final week (week 13) is a pre-competition week. Each week you're doing something slightly different and when a new microcycle begins, there's a more significant change.

Again the end goal of this program is to increase your 1RM in the deadlift, although it would likely be effective at increasing your squat 1RM concurrently.

The Exercises

Squat – This is the classic full squat, aligning with the form suggested in Mark Rippetoe's classic book, Starting Strength. If all you care about is your deadlift (you selfish bastard) or if you have some knee problems or other issues, then 3/4 squats can be effective, although everybody on my team did the standard full competition squat (IPF depth). 

Warm-up sets are not included so typically include 2-5 warm-up sets to prepare you for the work sets listed.

See the video below for a demonstration.

See the video below for a demonstration.

See video below for a demonstration.

See the video below for a demonstration.

See the video below for a demonstration.

These are always done for singles on the work sets. I like to stand on some rubber mats to slightly increase my working ROM (an additional 1.5-2" in total). Don't use straps!

See the video below for a demonstration.

See the video below for a demonstration.

Here's a video demonstration of a "normal" RDL:

These are to be performed with relatively light weights for higher reps and shorter rest. Try to be explosive: go down to about mid shin, focusing on maintaining/maximizing the arch in your lower back, and then drive up and pop the hips.

Your hips should hit the bar at the top and the weights should jiggle a bit like a fitness chick's tushie in the offseason. See the video below for a demonstration, minus the fitness chick. 

Note: I'm expecting you to use a pronated grip (double over) and you can (and probably will) use straps. Do sets of 20 without an extended rest period (<4 minutes) and you'll get a massive conditioning effect. This will help build your lockout power for the real deadlift.

We're just doing one work set; each rep includes a 6 second negative phase and don't rush it. Don't be afraid to start relatively light on this, each week go up about a plate on the machine and see what you can get up to. Strong hamstrings = good deadlift. See the video below for a demonstration.

The Program

Note: No warm-up sets are given in the workouts so include 1-5 warm-up sets (usually 2-5 for the main exercise and 1-3 for the assistance stuff) to properly prepare for the work sets.

In the following workouts, along with the prescribed percentage of 1RM values I've also given you an actual weight based on one of my lifters (he started this program with a 345-pound squat max and a 485-pound deadlift max.)

Suffice it to say, the listed weights are NOT the loads I expect you to use; it's merely included as an illustration to help you make sense of the program. Use the 1RM percentages to calculate your training loads.

Month 1

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Squats: Actual 205x8 (4 sets) 2:00 rest, 255x2 225x8 (3 sets) 3:00 rest, 275x2 245x8 (2 sets) 4:00 rest, 295x2 175x8, 205x5, 235x3, 265x8, 315x2
Squats: %1RM 60% x 8 (4 sets) 2:00 rest, 75% x2 65% x 8 (3 sets) 3:00 rest, 80%x2 70% x 8 (2 sets) 4:00 rest, 85%x2 50%x8, 60%x5, 70%x3, 75%x8, 90%x2
Partial Squat and Hold 3 reps + 6 sec hold each one (3 sets) + 20 lbs on each set (+5%) + 40 lbs on each set (+10%) + 60 lbs on each set (+15%)
Leg Press 270x20 (2 sets) 2:00 rest 270x20 (3 sets) 2:00 rest 270x20 (4 sets) 2:00 rest 270x20 (5 sets) 2:00 rest
Rack Pull: Actual 315x8 (4 sets) 2:00 rest 345x8 (3 sets) 3:00 rest 375x8 (2 sets) 4:00 rest 285x8, 325x5, 365x3, 405x8
Rack Pull: %1RM 65%x8 (4 sets) 2:00 rest 70%x8 (3 sets) 3:00 rest 75%x8 (2 sets) 4:00 rest 50%x8, 60%x5, 70%x3, 80%x8

Month 2

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Squats: Actual 235x5 (4 sets) 2:00 rest, 275x1 255x5 (3 sets) 3:00 rest, 295x1 275x5 (2 sets) 4:00 rest, 315x1 155x8, 205x5, 255x3, 295x5, 335x1
Squats: %1RM 70%x5 (4 sets) 2:00 rest, 80%x1 75%x5 (3 sets) 3:00 rest, 85%x1 80%x5 (2 sets) 4:00 rest, 90%x1 50%x8, 65%x5, 75%x3, 85%x5, 95%x1
Front Squat Iso Hold 135 x :10, 185 x :10, 225 x :30 135 x :10, 225 x :10, 265 x :30 135 x :10, 225 x :10, 305 x :30 135 x :10, 225 x :10, 285 x :10, 345 x :30
Leg Press 10:1:1 360x10 410x10 460x10 510x10
Negative Deads on 4 mats 10:2:1 365x1, 365x1, 365x1 365x1, 365x1, 395x1 365x1, 395x1, 425x1 365x1, 405x1, 455x1
Negative Deadlifts: %1RM 75%x1, 75%x1, 75%x1 75%x1, 75%x1, 82.5%x1 75%x1, 82.5%x1, 87.5%x1 75%x1, 85%x1, 92.5%x1
GHR 6:0:1 3 x 3 4 x 3 5 x 3 6 x 3

Month 3

Exercise Week 9 Week 10 Week 11 Week 12 Week 13
Squats: Actual 255x3 (4 sets) 2:00 rest 305x1 275x3 (3 sets) 3:00 rest, 320x1 295x3 (2 sets) 4:00 rest, 335x1 205x5, 245x3, 285x1, 325x3, 350x1 205x5, 205x5, 245x2, 285x1
Squats: %1RM 75%x3 (4 sets) 2:00 rest, 87.5%x1 80%x3 (3 sets) 3:00 rest, 92.5%x1 85%x3 (2 sets) 4:00 rest, 97.5%x1 60%x5, 72.5%x3, 82.5%x1, 92.5%x3 102.5%x1 60%x5, 60%x5, 72.5%x2, 82.5%x1
Deads*: Actual Off 395x5 435x3 475x1 Off
Deads: %1RM Off 82.5%x5 90%x3 97.5%x1 Off
Leg Press 540x AMRAP 570x AMRAP 600x AMRAP 630x AMRAP 180x12, 360x8, 450x8
RDL: Actual 205x20 (3 sets) 2:00 rest 225x20 (3 sets) 2:00 rest 245x20 (3 sets) 2:00 rest Off Off
RDL: %1RM 40%x20 3 sets 45%x20 (3 sets) 50%x20 (3 sets) Off Off
Seated Leg Curl 6:1:1 180x8 195x8 210x8 225x8 165x8 no neg

This program is set up so that Week 13, the final week of the program, is your pre-competition week and the competition would be on Saturday or Sunday of that week. I generally feel that you should plan to max out10-20 days from your last heavy deadlift day. Here's how to do it:

25%x8 (135), 45%x5 (225), 65%x1-3 (315), 75%x1 (365), 85%x1 (415), 95%x1 (455), 102.5% (495), and assuming the previous set goes well, 105-110% (510-530)

If you're advanced (3+ years of regular deadlift) I'd be pleased with a 2.5-5% increase. If you're an intermediate I'd be pleased with a 5-10% increase. If you've only been deadlifting for a few months this probably isn't the ideal program for you.

Wrap Up

Whether you're a strongman, bodybuilder, powerlifter, or just want to have an ass that pops out in 3D when you wear your new spandex Tron costume next Halloween, there's no reason to be afraid of some basic, heavy pulling.

Nor does it have to be complicated. I mean, the program is all laid out for you; it's been tested, and it works. Now it is time for you to do a little self-improvement and rock it out.