Anderson deadlifts are a great exercise to have in your toolbox. I use them for a variety of purposes. They're great for newbies who display poor range of motion (ROM) or have poor body awareness; with people returning to lifting; for those that want to give their back a bit of a break but still want to lift heavy; or those that have a weight/rep goal they're really focused on.
But what the hell is an Anderson deadlift? They're based on a very simple concept popularized by Paul Anderson, legendary weightlifter, strongman, and Olympic gold medalist. Paul was known for his unbelievable squatting ability and there's a great story about how he got so proficient at them. He found two giant iron wheels in a junkyard and built himself a makeshift barbell that connected the wheels.
The wheels were huge – much larger than today's standard plates – so he placed the barbell on the ground and dug a hole in the ground underneath it. He'd then stand in the hole and squat the bar up. This allowed him to use a shorter ROM, and the deeper the hole, the shorter the ROM (since the weight was still on the normal ground).
At first he was doing what constituted half squats or quarter squats and as he built up his level of comfort with the implement, he'd just throw some dirt into the hole in the ground, raising it up and thus gradually increasing the distance he had to squat. He kept adding dirt a little at a time until ultimately he was at a full ROM. Keep in mind the weight he was using was significant – it's reported that his barbell construction weighed over 1000 pounds. This seemingly crazy approach, subsequently named Anderson squats, made him a better lifter as Anderson supposedly went on to full squat 1,200 pounds, raw – a number that powerlifters in full gear can barely match today, 50 years later.
I like taking that same principle – starting with a reduced ROM, static load, and then increasing the ROM over time – and applying it to deadlifts. It's particularly useful to newbies who can't maintain a flat or arched lower back during full ROM deadlifts. This is obviously problematic and potentially dangerous, but instead of allowing them to continue lifting with poor form, yelling at them for being an idiot, or just ditching the exercise, reducing the ROM by 4-8" works very well.
This still allows a sufficient load (usually 95-135 pounds for relative newbies) to enable the lifter to get a training stimulus and start to develop the all-important hip-hinge motor pattern. Then we increase the ROM an inch every 2 weeks or so. Of course, accomplished lifters still find that full ROM deadlifts are also the toughest and most draining on the lower back. Many elite lifters have found that they can only deadlift heavy from the floor infrequently, but if they perform shorter range of motion deads (often referred to as rack pulls), they can train more frequently and recover better.
Additionally, rack pulls and deadlifts from various heights over 8 inches can be extremely effective in adding mass, particularly to the upper back. I've also found them to be the best trap building exercise available, even more effective than shrugs (when done with straps and a double overhand grip).
A standard deadlift begins 8 inches off the floor, which is the radius of a 45-pound plate, but 12 inches is a good starting point for doing Anderson deadlifts. That means we have to elevate the bar 4 inches. There are plenty of ways to do this. You can use a power rack, but dropping the bar on pins can be noisy, the pins may not be distanced properly, and metal colliding against metal is the easiest way to warp a bar (load the bar up with 3 plates plus and then drop it against the safety pins hard and you'll likely have a bent bar and an angry gym owner). You can also lay the barbell onto rubber mats, providing your gym has enough of them.
If you're lifting in a commercial gym, the easiest thing to use is an aerobics step. Place one aerobics step – the step itself, not the riser that goes underneath it – underneath each side of the bar. The aerobics steps are almost exactly 4" high and they'll generally survive the session unscathed (my goal was to permanently bend one by using lots of weight, but alas I never did that). However, if you like to drop your deadlifts from the top, then yeah, dropping 4 plates on the step from 2 feet up will crack it. The steps also have the added advantage of reducing the noise associated with heavy deads.
I suggest breaking your program down into 2 phases. Let's say you have a current best of 380x6 but want to hit 405x10. In the first phase you'll elevate the bar 4 inches using either of the methods I suggested. You'll use this same ROM for 6 workouts and just increase the weight. This is essentially an acclimation phase to get you used to the poundage. It might go like this:
Phase 1: Acclimation Phase (increase weight, same ROM)
- Workout 1: 340x10 with bar elevated 4 inches
- Workout 2: 355x10 with bar elevated 4 inches
- Workout 3: 370x10 with bar elevated 4 inches
- Workout 4: 385x10 with bar elevated 4 inches
- Workout 5: 395x10 with bar elevated 4 inches
- Workout 6: 405x10 with bar elevated 4 inches
In phase 2, we're going to keep the weight the same now that we're at the goal weight (in this case, 405), but now we're going to gradually increase the ROM by adding a half-inch rubber mat each workout. I don't think you should increase the ROM more than half-inch each time and even that rate is pretty fast.
In other words, during the first workout of phase 2, you'll still have the barbell on the aerobics step, but now you'll stand on a half-inch mat. During the second workout of phase 2, you'll add another half-inch mat. Continue to add one mat each week, so at the end of 8 weeks, you'll be doing a full ROM lift at your target rep range.
Here it is laid out:
Phase 2: Anderson Method (same weight, increasing ROM slightly each time)
- Workout 7: 405x10, bar elevated 4 inches, standing on 1 mat
- Workout 8: 405x10, bar elevated 4 inches, standing on 2 mats
- Workout 9: 405x10, bar elevated 4 inches, standing on 3 mats
- Workout 10: 405x10, bar elevated 4 inches, standing on 4 mats
- Workout 11: 405x10, bar elevated 4 inches, standing on 5 mats
- Workout 12: 405x10, bar elevated 4 inches, standing on 6 mats
- Workout 13: 405x10, bar elevated 4 inches, standing on 7 mats
- Workout 14: 405x10, from the floor (equivalent of 8 mats)
You can apply the Anderson method to many different exercises such as squats, leg presses, and even bench presses by using pins, mats, or boards, depending on the exercise.
- Use a heavy weight but one you can handle with good form in the partial range of motion.
- Make slight increases in the range of motion with the exercise (don't rush the process).
- The form you use on the partial must mimic the ultimate form you wish to use when performing the full range of motion.
That last point is important. I often see people load up a bar with a ton of weight, elevate it in the rack so it's well over their knees, and then "deadlift" it by sliding their knees forward and under the bar before standing up under it. You'll never get into that position in a real deadlift, so practicing that position will have little value if you hope to ultimately pull that weight from the floor.
The same is true for the bench. Flaring your elbows dramatically might be useful in a 5-board press, but you won't get into that same position in a real bench. The form you practice with the Anderson method must mimic the form you'll use when you go full ROM.