During my years of competitive powerlifting, the deadlift was my nemesis. I hated it, mainly because I sucked at it. I had terrible leverages for it and couldn’t figure out how to make it work for me.
But getting decent at it left me with a lot of information about what worked and what was a waste of time. So if you’re frustrated with your deadlift, pay attention. This is what helped me get past both the 600 and 700 pound marks and it’ll help you too.
DON’T Do This – Rack Deadlifts
I like rack deadlifts for the upper back, but not for improving the deadlift specifically. People say it’ll “fix your lockout” and make it less of a sticking point, but that’s probably not accurate.
If they actually did help, then the likely explanation is that you had a weak upper back and it limited your ability to stabilize the posterior chain. The great majority of folks get into a completely different position when doing rack or block pulls than what their body is in when pulling from the floor in that range of motion.
And any variation of a main movement where you can use more than about 10% of your max load won’t be all that transferable. Here’s an example:
- Gym bro has a max deadlift of 500 pounds.
- Gym bro decides to do rack deadlifts, and he can use 600 pounds for reps.
- Gym bro doesn’t realize that the rack deadlift positions are different than the regular deadlift positions.
- Gym bro goes back to deadlifts later to find out his deadlift hasn’t improved.
- Gym bro is vexed and sad.
So why doesn’t it work since it’s intended to strengthen a sticking point? Newsflash: Training your sticking point at the sticking point itself is pointless. And that’s a lot of points.
The problem area isn’t the sticking point itself. It’s the few inches before the sticking point where you’re not able to generate enough power (the speed at which you can move the load) to get through the sticking point.
DO This – Get Strong Below Your Sticking Point
If you want to defeat a sticking point, find a way to make that movement more difficult in the area preceding it. Now get stronger in that part of the range of motion. That’s how you’ll eventually crush that plateau.
“But isn’t that what I did with using rack pulls?”
Not if you’re training the rack or block pull in a dissimilar position than you’d be in with your regular deadlift… and especially using a load greater than 10% of your deadlift max, or training the block/rack pull starting at your sticking point with the regular deadlift.
These are all the most common issues with guys using block or rack pulls, which is why I say it’s something you probably shouldn’t be doing to improve your deadlift.
If you’re using the rack or block pull to build a stronger upper back then you still want to stick to the rule of not using loads well beyond the scope of what you can deadlift from the floor. Instead, do them with good form, slower eccentrics (negatives), and sets within the 6-10 rep range. I also suggest using bands here because doing so will make the thoracic extensors work like never before.
DON’T Do This – Extra Lower Back Work
The spinal erectors have the longest recovery time of any muscle group. The deadlift and squat both tax the low back to significant degrees. And if you’re also doing things like front squats and stiff-legged deadlifts or farmer’s walks or… well you get the point. There’s literally no reason to tack on direct low-back work like hyperextensions and such.
In fact, doing such work could be the very issue with the plateau you’re experiencing. This is why I highly suggest squatting and deadlifting on the same training day during the week. Because it gives the low back ample recovery time during the rest of the week.
DO This – Build Your Upper Back, Lats, and Hams
Show me a guy with a big deadlift and I’ll show you a dude that can chin and row big too. Sure, there will be some really fat guys that can pull big and not do chins, but the average dude will need to build strength in the entire upper back if he wants to deadlift big weights.
What lifts should you use for your lats and back? Pick ones that allow for a high degree of progressive overload and ones you really enjoy doing. It’s up to you to figure these things out through experience.
As for hamstrings, I went with the stiff-legged deadlift from a big deficit, and the good morning.
Stiff Leg Deadlift from Deficit
I trained these with completely different modalities. I found that the stiff-leg deads were something I could push the loading on, but I kept the good mornings light and focused on the stretch.
No other lift built my posterior chain like stiff-leg deads from a 4-inch deficit. From the upper back to erectors to hamstrings, this was my “go to” for total posterior chain smashing. I eventually worked up to over 600 pounds for reps on these.
With good mornings I kept the loading in the 185-225 pound range, even when my deadlift was consistently over 700. That’s the contrast in how you should be approaching loading if you choose to include these two lifts as part of your deadlift program.
DON’T Do This – High Volume or High Rep Sets
The deadlift is a “takes more than it gives” movement. It’s recovery intrusive, possibly more than any other compound movement. No lift causes a greater degree of “workout hangover” than heavy and hard deadlifting.
Why? Most coaches say it’s because of the direct attachment of the hands to the bar, and the effect that has on the spine and autonomic nervous system. They also believe this causes a high degree of stimulation to the sympathetic nervous system, depressing the parasympathetic nervous system, causing a massive inroad to systemic recovery.
All of this is theory, but it feels true. Especially after a heavy day of deadlifting. But theory aside, science shows us that volume isn’t actually the driver for strength gains. The neurological adaption to moving loads with greater speed, or moving greater intensities in a lift, are the primary drivers for strength improvement.
There’s literally zero reasons to be doing highly-volumized deadlift routines. Same for trying to do high-rep (12-plus) working sets of deadlifts. Both are fantastic ways to drive recovery into the ground.
DO This – Sets of 3 to 5 Reps
If you’re looking to build maximal strength in the deadlift then sets of three to five should be your bread and butter. I just told you why you should stay away from high volume and high rep sets, so let’s move on from that. Nothing else to see here.
DON’T Do This – Go Heavy (Too Often)
You shouldn’t be training your deadlift heavy on the regular. Here’s a common scenario:
- Gym bro is deadlifting.
- Gym bro sees his deadlift going up week by week.
- Gym bro keeps adding weight, because deadlifting big feels manly and savage.
- Gym bro sees his deadlift stall and actually regress.
- Gym bro is vexed as to why this happened and becomes sad (yet again).
- Gym bro stops deadlifting for a while, and goes back to it later. He sees the deadlift numbers rise up again, doesn’t learn from last time, and again sees it stall and regress. The sads continue.
I’ve heard this story more times than I can count. The deadlift has this potential to go up very fast, and due to the slow recovery of the low back, the lifter doesn’t account for the need for recovery as the intensity increased. As the need for localized recovery (the erectors) are not met, fatigue will then mask performance. Thus, the deadlift tanks and the lifter has no idea why.
DO This – Use a Small Deficit
This was probably the most productive change I made in my deadlift training during my years of competing. There’s the belief that deadlifting from a big deficit (like 4 inches or so) will improve your strength off the floor. It won’t. It’s the same issue I addressed above with rack deadlifts and how the position you’re in is too dissimilar to transfer over to your conventional deadlift.
With a very small deficit (my go-to was standing on a standard 45-pound plate), the positioning is pretty much the same, but it makes the beginning of the lift slightly harder.
See how all of this is lining up?
- Make the start of the lift slightly more difficult.
- Keep movement patterning similar.
- Get a high degree of transfer to the lift itself.
Deadlift monster, Chris Duffin, relayed this same principle to me a while back. He’d been deadlifting standing on mats for months. We’re talking maybe a half-inch deficit.
Then one weekend he deadlifted at another location, where there were no mats. He kept wondering why the weights felt so much lighter than usual. Then it dawned on him that he was pulling from the floor, and what a massive difference it made (way easier from the floor after standing on the mats).
Once I figured this out I never deadlifted from the floor again in training. It was always from a small deficit. The only time I’d pull from the floor would be on meet day.
Let me repeat that in case words are hard. I trained from a small deficit the entire training cycle, and the only time I pulled from the floor was on the day of the competition.
DON’T Do This – Train Like Naturally Good Deadlifters
This is a common issue with guys who suck at deadlifting. They watch guys who are naturally built for deadlifting and try to copy what they’re doing.
If you’re built like a T-Rex, and you’re trying to copy the training style of a guy built like a chimpanzee, then you’re probably going to end up a very disgruntled lifter.
People don’t understand the significance of an inch or two in a lift’s range of motion. A lifter who finishes his deadlift with the lockout right above the knee has loads of leverage advantages over the guy who finishes his lockout at mid-thigh. And mid-thigh guy has tons of advantages over the guy who finishes with his lockout buried in his crotchal region.
This isn’t to say that every guy that has good leverages for the deadlift doesn’t have some great gems to offer about how to train. Andy Bolton was blessed for big deadlifts but his ideas about how to train it properly influenced my own lifting tremendously.
But the guy with mile-long arms that’s pulling max singles multiple times a week for social media isn’t the guy you need to be training like if your friends call you stubby.
DO This – Train The Deadlift Explosively
This was another change I made that finally pushed my deadlift past the 700 range. Since I was a really crappy deadlifter I quit trying to mimic the training of guys that were built for deadlifting. My leverages dictated that I needed to train the deadlift in a way that allowed it to “come to me” in a way.
This meant training it in an explosive manner most of the time, with sub-maximal loading, and picking some spots here and there to pull in the near-maximal range. In other words, truly leaving my ego at the door, and doing what was best to improve my strength and not just demonstrate it for social media every week.
I spent most of my deadlifting work within the 70-80% range for my sets of 3-5 reps. Working sets were never more than 2. My goal for each training block was to work up to 90% of my goal and pull it for a very explosive triple. Without fail, if I could smash 90% of my goal for a fast triple, I’d hit my goal PR later with some room to spare.
- Week 1: 65% x 2 sets of 5
- Week 2: 70% x 2 sets of 5
- Week 3: 73% x 2 sets of 3
- Week 4: 75% x 2 sets of 3
- Week 5: 80% x 2 sets of 3
- Week 6: 83% x 2 sets of 3
- Week 7: 85% x 2 sets of 2
- Week 8: 90% x 1 set of 3