It’s deadlifting day. You brew a pot of coffee so strong it could be used for jet propulsion, add an extra scoop of Anaconda™ to your workout drink, say a few Hail Mary’s, and head out the door.
Lately you’ve been deadlifting twice a week, adding 5 pounds per every session. You know, progressive overload. At this rate, you’ll be muscling in on Andy Bolton’s record by St. Patty’s day.
Sound flat out moronic? Well, that’s basically what most lifters do.
My Crash Course
At the beginning of my first internship at a Division 1 football program, I asked the head strength and conditioning coach how to pull a bigger number in the deadlift. Despite my “sound” early programming of drop sets to failure and intense mirror flexes, I’d never deadlifted above 505 pounds.
He told me to stop deadlifting all together, and instead do safety squat bar squats to a low box for sets of 2 reps.
8 weeks later I was deadlifting 650 pounds – a 145-pound PR.
The Nervous System Response
This PR wasn’t the result of some super-secret advanced program but rather a simple manipulation of the nervous system. Basically, I’d over-trained the deadlift (one of the most physically and neurologically demanding lifts) and safety bar squats were a less-stressful option that was still similar to the deadlifting movement pattern. The combination of giving my nervous system a break and a little variation allowed me to increase intensity again.
According to Vladimir Zatsiorsky, there are three ways to get stronger, the maximal effort method, the repeated effort method, and the dynamic effort method, with the maximal effort method being the most effective because of improved neuromuscular coordination, motor unit recruitment, and synchronization.
The maximal effort (ME) method is moving weights at or above 90 percent of an actual 1RM. This usually translates to 1-3 reps, tops. It should be impossible to lift more than three repetitions with 90 percent of a true 1RM.
You’re Not That Tough
A beginner lifter can get a stronger squat just by squatting more often. Sets and reps don’t have to be manipulated much as they’ll respond favorably to almost any repeated stress.
That’s how the high school and college-aged kids at your local gym will often get incredible gains from even the most inane workouts.
Intermediate and advanced lifters, however, need a much higher intensity stimulus to see even minor strength gains. This is where lifting 90 percent or more of your 1RM really shines.
Still, the ME method isn’t without its problems. If you take a compound lift with a high neurological demand like the deadlift, clean, or even bench press, and keep lifting at this percentage week after week, eventually you’re going to stop getting stronger, and might even start to regress.
How fast does this happen? Well, Mr. Progressive Overload, experts say that intermediate and advanced lifters will stop building strength in a chosen lift after three to four weeks of using the ME method.
Fortunately, there’s a solution. To successfully maintain a high intensity level week after week and still make gains, you need to rotate your core lift.
What’s a Core Lift?
A core lift is any compound or complex movement that can be used as a ME lift. Both primary and secondary lifts can be classified as core lifts.
Primary lifts are the money movements that you brag about how much weight you can lift in.
So for a powerlifter, the primary lifts would be the squat, bench press, and deadlift, while an Olympic lifter’s primary lifts are the snatch and clean and jerk.
Your primary core lift should be based on your goal and whatever you want to be good at. If having a big bench press and power clean is important to you, then those are your primary core lifts.
Just like my safety bar box squat example, the demands of the secondary core lifts should resemble the demands of your primary core lift but have a different and often slightly less neurological demand.
These should be rotated in order to continuously use the ME method without stagnating or overtraining. This can go beyond simply rotating exercises; you can even switch up techniques, even attachments. For example, some competitive powerlifters rotate specialty bars designed to develop different angles of strength.
Since most T Nation readers don’t have access to the EliteFTS online store at their local fitness center, here are some of my favorite easily accessible secondary core lifts for increasing hip strength, core and starting strength, and pushing pattern strength. Working on these three areas can help increase your weight in almost any primary lift.
The sumo deadlift from deficit and dead start good morning develop great levels of hip strength. Strong hips usually mean big numbers in primary lifts such as squats, power cleans, snatches, and deadlifts, not to mention help make an impression in your Thursday night Zumba class.
Sumo Deadlift from Deficit
The sumo deadlift from deficit isn’t discussed nearly enough as a tool used to increase strength in other lifts. For our purposes, the sumo stance isn’t used because it’s the best variation for a particular body type, but rather as a way to target the hips. Standing on plates also increases the range of motion and makes the hip extensors work even harder.
- Make sure your shins are right against the bar and that you externally rotate the hips (don’t just “push your knees out”).
- Drop straight down keeping your chest up. A great cue I heard Dave Tate say is to “drop your nut sack directly on top of the bar.”
Dead Start Good Morning
The second hip strength emphasis lift is the dead start good morning. This lift builds great starting strength because the lift starts from the bottom position, preventing you from getting assistance from either momentum or the stretch reflex.
- Don’t forget that this is a hip extension lift. Make sure you brace your core and extend at your hips, not your lumbar spine.
- Focus on the concentric portion of the lift. Descend rapidly back down to the pins. That way you can do more concentric work and not get fatigued by the eccentric phase.
Other hip strength options: Standard good mornings, sumo deadlifts, low rack pulls, hex bar deadlifts, Zercher deadlifts, heavy Romanian deadlifts, snatch grip deadlifts.
Starting Strength for the Squat
The dead start Zercher squat and front squat to a low box with pause are great for building starting strength. Have you ever gone to deadlift and found that it felt like someone super-glued the plates to the ground? While that would be a funny prank, chances are you just weren’t strong enough to lift the weight. Specifically, you lack starting strength or the ability to rapidly develop tension.
Dead Start Zercher Squat
The bar position in the dead start Zercher squat makes the squat more taxing on your core.
Front Squat to a Low Box
The front squat to a low box is straightforward and can be done with a clean grip or with arms crossed. Make sure you don’t bounce off the box but come to a complete stop for at least one second. If you don’t have a box at your disposal, find the lowest bench possible or just hold yourself at the bottom of a free squat.
Other squat options: Low box squats, front squats with pause on the bottom, standard Zercher squats, rack pause squats, band-resisted box squats.
Pushing Pattern Strength
Building strength in the two main pushing patterns – vertical and horizontal – are necessary for many primary lifts ranging from the bench press to the clean and jerk.
Medium Grip Dead Start Bench Press
Medium grip dead start bench presses build starting strength in the horizontal push pattern just like the dead start good morning builds starting strength for the hips. Using a medium grip increases the range of motion and adds another variable to help develop strength from different angles.
- Bring the bar down controlled and rest it on your chest for a half-second without letting the bar sink.
- Accelerate with as much force and speed as possible.
Other horizontal push options: Standard or medium-grip board presses, bench press rack pause, low incline bench press, narrow grip dead start bench press.
If you have resistance bands you can also do cool things like band resisted bench press.
One-Arm Dumbbell Circus Press
The one-arm dumbbell circus press builds unilateral vertical pushing strength that translates to bilateral movements as well.
- Use your hips like you would in a barbell push press.
- Keep the reps in the 1-3 rep range. Remember that even though it’s a unilateral movement, it’s still a ME lift. The weight should be heavy enough that performing more than three reps would be damn near impossible.
Other vertical push options: Standing military press, push press, push jerk, spilt jerk, standing dumbbell press.
Using the Method
There are many advanced programs available for the competitive weightlifter, but what about your average lifter just trying to build a bigger, more powerful body?
Check out the basic template below.
fCG93GRL_ooDay 1 Max Effort Lower Body
|A||Sumo Deadlift From Deficit (hip emphasis secondary core lift) max effort – @ 90% or more of 1RM||1||1-3|
|B||Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift (assistant)||4||5-8|
|C||Split Squats (auxiliary)||3||6-10|
|D||Inverted Bodyweight Rows (auxiliary)||4||6-10|
Day 2 Max Effort Upper Body
|A||Medium Grip Dead Start Bench Press (horizontal push) max effort – @ 90% or more of 1RM||1||1-3|
|B||Neutral Grip Dumbbell Press (assistant)||4||5-8|
|C||One-Arm Overhead Dumbbell Press (auxiliary)||3||6-10|
|D2||Bent Over Barbell Rows (auxiliary)||3||6-10|
|D3||Triceps Work–skull crushers, pushdowns etc. (auxiliary)||3-5||6-10|
Day 3 Repetition/Volume Day
|A||Front Squat (quad dominant)||5||5|
|B||One-Legged Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift||4||6-8|
|C||Core Work / Loaded Carries (Planks / Farmers Walks)||4-5||8-15 / 20 yd|
Day 4 Repetition/Volume Day
|A||Push Press (vertical push)||4||5|
|B||Triceps–dips, diamond weighted push-ups||4-6||6-10|
|C1||Wide Grip Cable Rows||3||6-8|
|C2||Neutral Grip Lat Pulldowns||4||6-8|
|C3||Shoulder Work–dumbbell laterals, front raises, etc.||4||6-8|
Day 1 Max Effort Lower Body
|A||Zercher Squats (squat pattern emphasis secondary core lift) max effort – @ 90% or more of 1RM||1||1-3|
|B||Goblet Squats (assistant)||4||5-8|
|C||One-Legged Dumbbell Deadlifts (auxiliary)||3||6-10|
|D||Weighted Inverted Bodyweight Rows (auxiliary)||4||6-10|
Day 2 Max Effort Upper Body
|A||One-Arm Dumbbell Circus Press (vertical push secondary core lift) max effort – @ 90% or more of 1RM||1||1-3|
|B||Neutral Grip Overhead Dumbbell Press (assistant)||4||5-8|
|C||Resisted Push-Ups (auxiliary)||3||6-10|
|D1||Wide Grip Pull-Up (auxiliary)||3||6-10|
|D2||Supinated Grip Bent Over Barbell Rows (auxiliary)||3||6-10|
|D3||Triceps Work–dumbbell pullovers, overhead dumbbell extensions (auxiliary)||3-5||6-10|
Day 3 Repetition/Volume Day
|A||Good Mornings (hip dominant)||5||5|
|B||Reverse Lunges (auxiliary)||4||6-8|
|C||Core Work / Loaded Carries (Rollouts / Uneven Farmers Walks)||4-5||8-15 / 20 yd|
Day 4 Repetition/Volume Day
|A||Narrow Grip Bench Press (horizontal push)||4||5|
|C2||Neutral Grip Pull-Ups||4||6-8|
|C3||Shoulder Work–lateral raises, front raises, etc.||4||6-8|
Lift “A” is always the secondary core lift that’s rotated.
- You can rotate the core lifts every week, or keep them the same for weeks two and three, de-load on week four, and then go for a max in your primary core lift of choice on week five. This all depends on your training level and natural ability to adapt to new stimulus.
- The sets and reps can also be changed every week or kept the same depending on your training cycle.
- The assistant and auxiliary exercises can be changed as often as you like.
- Assistant exercises specifically help build strength in the core lift. I suggest using dumbbells for these as it’s less neurologically demanding due to reduced weight. Auxiliary exercises are included to help build an overall base of muscle, strength, and balance.
- This program doesn’t address details like mobility and injury prevention work.
If this looks simple and vaguely reminiscent of other programs, that’s because it is! I’m certainly not the first to talk about using the max effort method! Still, I’m often amazed to hear guys say that they just can’t get stronger despite changing super cool programs every week and doing heavy sets of twenty reps for six months straight.
It’s almost like they’re expecting a different result from doing the same thing repeatedly. But that would be crazy, right?
- Verkhoshansky, Y.V., & Verkhoshansky N. (2011). Special Strength Training Manual For Coaches. Rome Italy: Verkhoshansky SSTM
- Verkhoshansky, Y. V., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. (6 ed.). Rome, Italy: Verkhoshansky.
- Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2008). Science and practice of strength training. (2 ed.). Human Kinetics Publishers.