Fix your deadlift for fast size and strength gains!
by Eric Cressey
Hi. My name is Eric and I have a problem. I never expected it and I didn't plan for it. It just happened. And now, I'll never be the same. Hardly a minute passes when I don't think about it, salivate, and get the shivers. My own grandmother cringes in fright when she even hears about "it."
Yes, folks, I'm a deadlift-aholic. I don't just want to pull; I want to pull every minute of every day for the rest of my life. I dream about grinding out heavy pulls where the bar seemingly bends in half, and I jump at the opportunity to do speed pulls so quickly that I nearly castrate myself with the bar. This passion has led me to a ranking in the Powerlifting USA Top 100 for my weight class, and the brink of a 1RM of 3.5 times my body weight.
Do I expect you to share my enthusiasm? No, although it would be nice if you'd at least get a little excited to humor me! I do, however, hope that you'll derive some benefit from my passion and the perspective it's enabled me to attain. Whether you're a powerlifter, bodybuilder or athlete, the deadlift and its variations should take a central role in your training.
These exercises yield some of the greatest size, strength and athletic performance benefits of anything you can do in the weight room. Maximizing your poundages on such lifts will take you to a whole new level, but as is the case with anything in life, you're limited by your weaknesses. With that in mind, let's diagnose and troubleshoot the most common deadlift weaknesses.
Mike Robertson did a great job of outlining the overall technique for the deadlift in his article, Precision Pulling, so I won't revisit all his points. What I can do is tell you what's causing you to miss where you miss, thus bridging the gap between technical and structural aspects.
First, let's get something straight: you're always going to be weak at one point in the range of motion on every exercise you do. So, although we have the ideal deadlift technique at, say, 90% of 1RM, what do we do when we try to pull 101% and miss the attempt due to that sticking point? I'll tell you what a true T-Nation reader does: he devotes himself to hammering on that sticking point until it's on par with or better than the other components of the lift, thus increasing his 1RM and actually creating a different sticking point and a new challenge!
Problem #1: Weak off the floor. Bar doesn't even budge.
This problem has several potential causes, so we'll move from obvious to the not-so-readily apparent:
1. The bar is too heavy! If your 1RM is 400 pounds and you load 700 on the bar, do you really expect it to budge? It doesn't matter where your sticking point is if you're picking a weight that isn't even close to what you can handle.
Solution: Tell your ego to wait for you in the car. Take some weight off the bar so you can find where your true weakness is.
2. You're slower than molasses going uphill on a winter day. Just as its name implies, the deadlift is performed from a dead stop on the floor; it's to your advantage to develop force quickly.
This is especially important with heavier weights, as the bar won't necessarily move initially when you start the pull. The faster your rate of force development (RFD), the faster that God-awful "will this ever budge?" feeling will go away. If you're slow, you'll miss (or give up on) the lift before you ever approach near-maximal force values.
Solutions: Speed pulls are your best friend. Start with as little as 40% 1RM initially, but work in the 50-60% range for the vast majority of the time. Going to 70% is pushing it, but it's been done. Some lifters have found that conventional plyometric exercises can help, although I don't feel they hold a candle to speed pulls from a specificity standpoint.
Another option is to essentially trick your body by pulling from a deficit. In other words, do your deadlift variations while standing on a box or platform up to six inches in height. Once you "return to Earth" and pull from your regular altitude, the weights will seem to fly off the floor. You can go from deficit to normal in a single session to improve your speed on normal sets by tricking your nervous system.
Deadlifting from a deficit
Another option I sometimes use in assistance work (e.g. snatch grip deadlifts) is to pull heavy from the floor in week one, then pull the same weight in week two from a two-inch deficit, and from a four-inch deficit in week three. In effect, you increase the amount of work you do by simply changing the distance, but not the force (in contrast to the traditional method of just increasing resistance while keeping distance constant).
3. Your hamstrings aren't up to par. Take a look at the starting position for the deadlift, paying specific attention to the hips. You'll notice that the pelvis is as anteriorly-tilted as it can get. This positioning places the hamstrings at a mechanical advantage early in the pull. If your hams are weak, you won't be able to get past this initial phase of the pull, so it won't even matter how strong your glutes and lower back are.
Solutions: Beat on your hamstrings in a movement-specific context. In other words, use hip extension movements such as good mornings, glute-ham raises, stiff-legged deadlifts, pull-throughs, reverse hypers, and single-leg movements (e.g. lunges, step-ups, split squat) with longer strides. Leave the leg curls for the bodybuilders.
The pull-through (straight back variation)
4. Your set-up is garbage. This problem can be subdivided into six categories:
A) The hips can be too high. Sorry folks, your stiff-legged deadlift shouldn't be on par with your conventional deadlift. Get your butt down.
Solutions: In some cases, it's purely a matter of telling the lifter to arch a little, and the butt will "magically" drop. Others just need to be consciously aware of getting the butt down before every attempt.
Interestingly, as I learned from my friend John Sullivan (an accomplished strongman competitor), some Olympic lifting can be of great value in correcting this problem because it's so dependent on proper posture. In less than three months of an intensive Olympic-lifting program, Sully took his deadlift from 579 (in competition) to 605 (in the gym) without pulling a single deadlift. When you consider the difference between competition and training maximum, this is even more significant an improvement.
Sure enough, Sully's main problem at the start was high-hips. A steady diet of Olympic lifting taught him to get his butt down at the start of the deadlift. Keep in mind that these were technically-sound Olympic lifts, not the feeble attempts at power cleans that you see in your local gym by those who've never learned the technique properly.
One middle-of-the-road movement that's relatively easy to learn yet highly effective is the high pull. Clean grip high pulls will carry over best to your deadlift, and snatch grip high pulls will pack some serious size on your upper back.
B) The hips can be too low. This might seem contrary to the last point, but I have to admit, I'm glad that this problem exists. Why? Well, for starters, it's hilarious to watch someone try to "squat up" a deadlift with their quads! Plus, it gives me an opportunity to once again reiterate how much stronger yet unappreciated the posterior chain is than the all-show-and-no-go quadriceps.
When you push your hips way back to get more knee flexion, you move the fulcrum (the point about which a lever rotates in this case, it's the hip joint) away from the bar, therefore increasing the lever arm of the resistance. Minus the biomechanics lingo, this simply means that the bar becomes a lot heavier for your posterior chain to handle as you move it further away from your hip joint.
Solutions: Start your pull with the hips higher and hammer on the posterior chain. Then you'll have no reason to want to use the quads when pulling. Oh yeah, don't pull in front of mirrors, either. You'll be too tempted to check out your quads, you narcissistic pansy.
C) You're rounded over up top. This is just a mess from both a technical and injury-predisposition standpoint. Be forewarned, however, that some guys might appear to be a little rounded-over simply because their upper backs are so enormous. Don't confuse this with simply allowing the scapulae to drift and humeri to internally rotate.
As a general rule of thumb, if you can see the lettering on the chest of the lifter's shirt, he's in decent shape from a scapular standpoint (although the humeri may still be internally rotated).
Solutions: This problem can be fixed quite easily if it's just a matter of being too lazy and careless to assume a proper set-up position. Simply think of keeping the chest high and you'll straighten right out.
However, if your posture is chronically bad, this won't do jack. In this scenario, check out the T-Nation series, Neanderthal No More. This program will help to fix your posture and add to your deadlift poundages appreciably in the process.
D) You're rounded over lower down. This is just as problematic as the last example, and many times it's closely related to rounding-over up top, too (the lifter just balls up like a caterpillar).
It's largely a result of tight hamstrings. When they're tight, you can't get sufficient hip flexion to bend down to the bar. Therefore, the lumbar spine has to flex for the individual to get to the down position. Lumbar flexion isn't a good thing, especially when deadlifting. Poor multidirectional core stability is also a problem in this scenario.
Solutions: First off, stretch the hamstrings and try to avoid prolonged periods of sitting without standing up and walking a bit. Secondly, every day for a few weeks, just practice setting up as if you were going to deadlift (but don't pull). Simply getting into your set-up is a great way to groove movement patterns and essentially force yourself into good flexibility.
Complement this flexibility work by hammering on your core with exercises focusing on trunk flexion (e.g. pulldown abs), lateral flexion (e.g. side bends, windmills), rotation (e.g. woodchops), lumbar extension (e.g. back extensions, safety-squat bar and manta ray good mornings), and stabilization (e.g. prone and side bridges, heavy walkouts, one-arm suitcase deadlifts). This core training will yield the greatest functional carryover if it's performed in a standing position.
Low-to-High Cable Woodchops
Learn to create intra-abdominal pressure by bracing the abs, and tell anyone who tells you to suck in your tummy that they ought to go suck a big, fat well, you know. Or, you could just refer them to Dr. Stuart McGill's outstanding text, Ultimate Back Training and Performance.
The key is to have muscles firing in all directions so that you have multidirectional stability to support the spine. This dramatically reduces the risk of numerous injuries, most notably those to the intervertebral discs. Complement this muscular stability by drawing air into your stomach, not your chest. If you're a powerlifter wearing a belt, push your core musculature out against it as hard as you can. If you're not wearing a belt, brace your core as if you actually were wearing one!
E) Your grip is too wide. The wider your grip, the further you'll have to pull. Personally, my forearms are brushing up against the sides of my thighs.
Solution: Bring the hands in.
F) The bar is too far away from your shins. The further away from your shins (and, in turn, the hips) the bar is, the longer the lever arm of the resistance. Are you sick of my biomechanics bitching yet?
Solution: Get closer to the bar. You don't necessarily have to be touching it with your shins, but you should be pretty close to it.
5. You're bouncing the weight off the floor on your rep work. This is more of an issue with beginners who require more reps per set to groove the movement patterns and build proficiency with the exercise. Many of the most experienced powerlifters rarely pull deadlifts with their competition stance for anything other than singles because it's so neurologically draining, pretty technical, and perhaps best trained indirectly. I don't think I've pulled a conventional deadlift for more than one rep in almost 18 months!
Back to the problem at hand. If you're always bouncing the weight off the floor, you're really only pulling all the weight in the initial phase of the movement on the first rep of the set. As such, you become proficient in the lockout, but not in the initial pull. If you can't get it off the ground, you can't lock it out!
Solutions: Don't bounce on your repetition work. Instead, pause for a second in between each rep. Cluster sets can be a brutal, yet effective protocol in this regard.
For instance, take 85% of 1RM and pull a single, rest five seconds, pull another single, rest five seconds, pull a third single, rest five seconds, and pull a fourth single. That's one cluster. I typically write it out as 4x1/5s. If you were doing four clusters just like this, it would be 4x(4x1/5s).
Another solution is to simply can the repetition work altogether. This is more appropriate for those seeking maximal strength (not size) and technical proficiency. A 6x1 or 8x1 protocol works quite well, in my experience. These sets are usually speed work performed at a pre-determined percentage of 1RM.
6. You're taking too long between your set-up and the actual pull. This is something I'm guilty of myself. In the past, I'd get my feet lined up, drop down to the bar, set my grip, spend a few seconds focusing while looking down, then get my eyes up, fire the heels into the floor, and pull.
Technically, it wasn't too bad. Then I watched a video of one of my meet pulls and realized that it took me a full 11 seconds to pull from the time that I first contacted the bar. As a result, I lost every shred of help I could get from the stretch-shortening cycle (the elastic energy of which takes several seconds to dissipate completely) present from my drop to the bar. Suffice it to say that since seeing that video, I'm pulling more "promptly."
Solutions: Think about all your cues before you get up to the bar. Then, when the time comes, bend forward at the hips and get your grip set one hand at a time. Once the grip is set, think of pulling yourself down to the bar and into the appropriate starting posture.
Rip it off the floor immediately; don't wait for every bit of elastic energy you stored from the initial drop to die off. You'll see some lifters "dive" into the bar and come back up right away. It takes a ton of practice to get your grip perfect at such a rapid pace, but the "dip, grip, and rip" approach has proven quite successful for these veterans of the iron game.
Problem #2: Weak at Mid-Shin
So you've gotten the bar one-third of the way up? Congratulations! Although I'd love to tell you to take some time out to pat yourself on the back, you've still got two-thirds of the way to go before you can relax. Here's what could be standing in your way at the mid-shin level:
1. Your hamstrings are weak again! There's still a significant amount of anterior pelvic tilt in place when the bar is below the kneecaps, so the hamstrings are still doing the majority of the work. In some individuals, this is just the portion of the movement where they're the weakest, especially if their speed is fantastic and they can get the bar moving just fine, but seem to hit a brick wall when the bar is a few inches off the ground.
Solutions: Same as above. Use plenty of variety in your training for best results in bringing the hams up to par.
2. You're not prepared to grind. Let's face it, not all pulls are going to be lightning-quick. If you're not prepared to exert force over at least a few seconds, you'll likely miss any pull where your speed doesn't carry over to the top portion of the lift.
Solutions: For one, it helps to be super-fast (so that this problem doesn't ever really arise), so you can't ever really write-off speed work. I think that one of the best ways to develop grinding prowess is isometric deadlifts against pins. Set the pins in the power rack at your mid-shin sticking point, and position a bar beneath them on the floor. It should be loaded with a speed weight percentage (40-70%).
Rip it off the floor as quickly as possible, and when you hit the pins, keep pulling like crazy. Use grinding periods of anywhere from five to ten seconds (yes, I've had competition deadlift PRs that have lasted a full ten seconds). Your blood pressure will be sky-high, but so will your new PR after a few sessions.
This technique can actually be used for a variety of sticking points, but it's imperative that you initiate the pull from the floor (and not a lower pin) in order to replicate the body position present in a true deadlift.
3. You lack acceleration strength. All things held equal, the mid-shin sticking point is where one should miss a deadlift, as it's the weakest portion of the strength curve (i.e. where the lever arm of the resistance is longest).
Fortunately, one thing that isn't held constant is bar speed, so if you can increase the speed of the bar (acceleration strength) after you've initially gotten the bar moving, you can blast past this sticking point. As such, one way of getting past the shins is to develop acceleration strength to increase bar speed following the initial phase of the pull.
Solutions: Perhaps the best way to improve your acceleration strength is to pull against mini-bands, chains and weight-releasers with a weight that approximates 40-60% of your 1RM. Speed work with this set-up will teach you to accelerate the bar at the crucial mid-shin portion of the lift, effectively forcing you to "outrun" the accommodating resistance.
It'll also increase the resistance at lockout on your speed work, a challenge that isn't present when using straight weights.
Another option that's actually contrary to something I wrote above is to use rep work with bouncing the plates off the floor. Ideally, you'll have bumper plates to do this. While it might be a fruitless endeavor for those who struggle off the floor, a controlled bounce can actually help those who struggle at mid-shin to learn to accelerate the bar following the initial rebound.
4. Your upper back needs to get with the program. The entire trapezius muscle including the upper, middle and lower fibers and rhomboids are active in the first portion of the movement, but they don't take on a huge role until the mid-shin phase begins. The same can be said of the lats and teres major, too.
Recall that this is the natural sticking point in the movement, and therefore the point at which the bar has a tendency to track away from the body even further that is, unless you fight to keep it close by using your upper back musculature. The trapezius complex and rhomboids (collectively known as the scapular retractors) hold the scapula back and somewhat down, therefore keeping your chest up and out and the torso in the right alignment.
Meanwhile, the lats and teres major (the humeral extensors) work to keep the elbows tucked (to the sides instead of up, as in a front raise) in the sagittal plane relative to the torso. Essentially, you've got a ton of isometric upper back work taking place in the presence of some serious loading. It's no wonder that deadlifts are king when it comes to putting slabs of muscle on your back!
Solution: Hit the scapular retractors and lats with a wide variety of horizontal pulling movements. Some vertical pulling in moderation won't hurt, but it won't have as much functional carryover to your deadlift (or bench, for that matter) as variations of seated and bent-over rows and face pulls.
If you find that your torso is fine position-wise, but your arms are tracking away, opt for more rowing with a supinated grip to emphasize the lats and teres major. Conversely, if your torso is rounding over, stick to neutral and pronated grip rows and pull closer to the waist than the neck.
Problem #3: Weak at your Lockout
You're two-thirds of the way there, and the crowd (or just the voices in your head) are screaming at you to just lock it out. Wouldn't it be nice if it was that easy? Here are a few potential roadblocks at the lockout:
1. Your gluteus maximus is weak. At lockout, the pelvis finally posteriorly tilts to reach a neutral position, and the gluteus maximus is the primary muscle involved in establishing this upright pelvis position. If you can't fire the glutes, you'll either stall the bar short of lockout or hitch the lift in a "fake lockout."
With hitching, one bends the knees, but appears to straighten up the torso by hyperextending the lumbar spine. This is dangerous and isn't considered a completed lift by powerlifting judges. Weak glutes are typically related to tight hip flexors and overactive lumbar erectors (and sometimes hamstrings). Mike and I went to great lengths in our Neanderthal No More and Get Your Butt in Gear articles to highlight this problem and offer corrective measures.
Solutions: Checkout the aforementioned two series of articles for tips on how to loosen up the hip flexors (e.g. warrior lunge stretch, Bulgarian split-squat EQIs) and activate the glutes (e.g. supine bridges, kneeling squats, and single-leg exercises). You'll also want to do some stretching for your hamstrings and lumbar erectors. Focus on driving your hips into the bar once it passes the knees. You should feel your glutes fire as if you're pinching something between your cheeks.
2. Your upper back is weak again! This time, it's not just the scapular retractors that are the problem; it's the scapular elevators, too. You're going to need to retract your scapulae to get the torso upright in order to lock out the bar. Simultaneously, the upper traps and levator scapulae need to be firing like crazy to assist with the upward pulling motion. Little to no movement occurs (you won't see many people shrug a max attempt!), but there's definitely some serious force contribution to the overall effort.
Solution: More of the rows mentioned above, but with somewhat of an added emphasis on pulling toward the shoulders (rather than the hip). Seated rope rows to the neck are a great choice along these lines.
Seated row to neck using rope
This is one case where supplemental shrugging exercises can be beneficial, although most lifters get plenty of scapular elevator work simply from deadlifts, rows and any Olympic lifting they may do. Snatch grip deadlifts will also give you plenty of bang for your buck.
Rack pulls can be extremely helpful in terms of the upper back strength thickness that we desire in this instance. However, many lifters find that their carryover to improving lockout strength is minimal at best. The main problem is body position. The set-up for a rack pull doesn't exactly replicate the joint angles that occur in mid-pull.
For instance, when I missed a third attempt at my last meet, the bar stalled an inch short of lockout. At the time, I was able to do six reps on rack pulls with 85 pounds more than that attempt. It shouldn't have been a limiting factor, as the rack pull is done from a dead stop. Essentially, the movement winds up turning into a quarter squat rather than the completion of a deadlift, as trainees begin the movement with a near-upright torso and simply extend the knees (without much concern for the hips).
Summarily, if you're seeing progress on your deadlift poundages from using the rack pull, it's likely because these pulls are strengthening your upper back, not because they're directly training the lockout (which they aren't). In the aforementioned meet example, my upper back had plenty of strength; it was my glutes that failed me at lockout. Getting the torso out over the bar and focusing on simultaneous hip and knee extension enables you to attain greater specificity.
3. You're not getting the head extended. This component of any hip extension lift is more important than you might think. Moreover, performing compound movements like deadlifts, squats, cleans and good mornings with the neck flexed (head bent forward) is dangerous because this position forces the important thoracic and cervical spinal erectors to relax.
Since neck extension is a crucial step in these complex kinetic chain sequences, performing such movements with the neck flexed will also make you weaker. I mean, honestly, does anyone really want the muscles protecting their spine to relax during a deadlift?
Solutions: Fix your eyes on something slightly above your line of sight during the pull so that you aren't tempted to look down. If this still doesn't help, add in some extensions with the neck harness at the end of your lower body sessions and you should see improvements in technique and lifting safety in a matter of weeks. Just make sure that you don't close your eyes with the head extended at lockout; it's guaranteed to make you pass out!
All things considered, my favorite exercise for overloading the last third of the pull is the reverse band deadlift. You get help off the floor, but you'll feel like you've hit a ton of bricks when it comes time to lock that sucker out (when the band tension is much less). This approach enables you to conserve energy on the initial pull(s) in order to focus on your weakness at the top. The set-up can be a pain in the butt, but the results will justify your efforts.
Reverse Band Deadlift, Westside Style!
Problem #4: You have the grip of a girl scout.
I'm sorry to inform you that if you can't hold a weight, you can't deadlift it. Life's just not fair sometimes.
Solutions: First off, lose the straps on all pulling exercises. That's a no-brainer. Next, make sure that you're using a mixed grip when pulling. Be sure to alternate the pronated and supinated sides from set to set, and use your stronger set-up for all maximal lifts.
Some lifters have mastered using the hook grip for some really heavy deadlifts, but they're the exception, not the norm. Nonetheless, if you feel that it's something that might help you out, rest assured that others have done it before you. Lastly, score some chalk. No one should ever miss a lift because of sweaty hands.
These changes alone should make a difference, but you'd also be wise to incorporate some specific work to train your supporting grip (as opposed to your pinch and crushing grip), especially in time periods specific to the deadlift. In other words, doing sets that last a minute won't help much unless you're pulling for a lot of reps. Ten seconds is a better time period to use if preparing for maximal attempts. Thick-bar training and farmer's walks are great, as are suitcase deadlifts, isometric pulls against pins, and even just heavy barbell holds for time.
A Note on Sumo Pulling
Believe it or not, although these recommendations were made with a conventional deadlifter in mind, they're almost entirely applicable to sumo pullers, too.
In my experience, most sumo pullers struggle the most with getting the weight off the floor. With the exceptions of the comments on stance and grip width, the recommendations for Problem #1 hold true. Also, the glutes tend to kick in a bit earlier in the pull with the sumo stance because there isn't as much anterior pelvic tilt with the more upright position.
If you're unsure of which style to use, try both and see which feels more comfortable. Generally speaking, if you squat wider and have shorter arms and legs, you'll take nicely to sumo pulling. Conversely, if you squat narrow and have long limbs and a short torso, conventional is probably the way to go.
Balls and Calluses
If you take a look at the best deadlifters, you'll notice that they very rarely miss lifts. There are three primary reasons for this low miss frequency. First, the stronger they get, the less frequently they deadlift. This movement really beats on the body. While a newbie might be able to get away with pulling every fifth day, experienced lifters might only pull once per month. If you're not pulling as often, you're not missing as often.
Second, they don't overshoot their abilities. Sure, they test the waters and go for PRs, but they aren't stupid about it. Nobody sets PRs when they're injured from taking an attempt 100 pounds over their previous PR, and it won't do much for your nervous system or confidence if you're constantly missing max attempts.
Third, and without a doubt most importantly, is attitude. This is deadlifting, not a cardio kickboxing class or a "beach workout." When you deadlift, you should be training, not just "working out." It isn't just a matter of doing what's on the paper and calling it a success; just because you plan doesn't mean you prepare.
In the days and hours prior to a deadlifting session, you should be anxious to the point of twitching from just thinking about pulling. I can give myself the shivers just thinking about standing on a platform in front of a loaded bar. You need to grow some balls and some calluses (in that order). It's a combination of smart training and just being so fired up when the time comes that there's no way you'll let yourself down and miss the lift.
Quit planning and start preparing, and give up "working out" in favor of training. Now, let's see some PRs reported in this article's discussion section!
About the Author
Eric Cressey, BS, CSCS is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Kinesiology with a concentration in Exercise Science at the University of Connecticut. A competitive powerlifter, Eric has written over fifty articles for publication in various online and print magazines. He has experience in athletic performance, rehabilitation, human performance laboratory and general conditioning settings. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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