One Exercise To Rule Them All
If I were forced to choose only one exercise to do for the rest of my life that would provide the greatest strength and muscle-building benefits, my answer would be the trap bar deadlift.
It's a perfect squat/deadlift hybrid that's easier on the knees than squatting and easier on the lower back than conventional deadlifts. This makes it a great choice for getting strong and building muscle over your entire body.
It's long been a staple in my training. And it's usually how I start off my week because I think it's wise to put the exercises that yield the greatest benefits early in the week so you can do them when you're fresh.
Plus, nothing screams, "I'm going to make this week my bitch" like crushing some deadlifts on Monday. The following program, however, evolved almost by accident, which seems to be how I get a lot of my ideas.
My knees had been acting up, especially with heavy squatting and heavy single-leg work. I stupidly tried to work through it for a while before smartening up and taking a break from all squatting and heavy single-leg work. To continue to work my quads without pissing off my knees, I modified my trap bar deadlift form so that it was more of a squat than a deadlift by dropping my hips lower and keeping my torso more upright.
I had to lower the weight at first from what I could normally trap bar deadlift with a higher hip position, but I found it worked the legs better and felt better on my lower back, which was a welcome tradeoff. Plus, once I adjusted to the new form, my weights climbed right back up.
Still, I found that as the weights started to increase, my joints starting revolting. I had a goal to pull 600 pounds, but I was junk for three weeks after I hit it. Some people are lucky and can follow progressive overload their entire lifting career without breaking down. Others – like myself – reach a strength threshold where their body can no longer tolerate getting under heavy weights week in and week out, even when using good form.
That strength threshold varies from person to person, but once you find yourself starting to break down from heavier weights, it becomes prudent to find other modes of progression beyond just adding weight to the bar.
If you've stalled out on your current lower body routine and are looking for something to kick start new muscle growth, the following program will be right up your alley. Don't think that this program will be easy because you're not going as heavy; it's anything but easy. In fact, it just may be one of the most challenging programs you've ever tried.
Your first workout of the week will be based entirely on the trap bar deadlift. Start with a good warm-up followed by 3-4 sets of sliding leg curls, glute-ham raises, or machine leg curls. Once that's out of the way, use the following weekly progression for the trap bar deadlift.
- 6 sets of 8
- 6 sets of 10 (same weight as week 1)
- 7 sets of 8 (add 10-20 pounds to week 2 weight)
- 7 sets of 10 (same weight as week 3)
- 8 sets of 8 (add 10-20 pounds to week 4 weight)
- 8 sets of 10 (same weight as week 5)
- 9 sets of 8 (add 10-20 pounds to week 6 weight)
- 9 sets of 10 (same weight as week 7)
- 10 sets of 8 (add 10-20 pounds to week 8 weight)
- 10 sets of 10 (same weight as week 9)
- Follow the progression laid out. I made the dumb mistake of jumping right into 10 sets of 10 right from the start and it damn near crushed me. Learn from my mistake.
- This progression does not include warm-up sets, so work up in weight intelligently until you reach the weight you plan on using for your working sets.
- All work sets are done with the same weight. As such, start out lighter than you think you need to. The first sets may feel easy but it'll get hard in a hurry, so if you start too heavy you won't be able to complete the workout.
- Think of the exercise as a squat as opposed to a deadlift. Get your hips down and your chest up.
- Use straps when needed. I'll usually do 3-4 sets without straps and then use them for the remaining sets.
- Use touch-and-go reps, but don't bounce the weight. Think of it as a light "kiss" off the ground.
- Don't overthink rest periods. Start out taking about two minutes between the first 3-5 sets and take up to 3-4 minutes between sets towards the end. Just don't go overboard and let the workout drag out too long. Try to keep the rest periods somewhat consistent from workout to workout.
- Don't do any other heavy deadlifting or squatting throughout the week. For more quad work, stick to single-leg work and reverse sled drags. For more posterior chain work, stick to glute-ham raises, sliding leg curls, leg curls, and hip thrusts.
- If you don't have a trap bar or Dead Squat™ Bar, don't try to substitute with conventional barbell deadlifts as you'll end up crushing your lower back.
While this workout is considered a lower body workout, you'll notice substantial growth in your back, traps, and forearms as well.
Interestingly, when I first started training this way, I started getting a lot of comments that my upper body looked bigger even though I was doing very little upper body training at the time.
At the end of the 10 weeks you can either move on to a different lower body routine or continue training in this fashion.
Once you're at 10 sets of 10 though, stay with 10x10 and work on increasing the weight while still completing all 100 reps rather than continuing to increase the reps. Small jumps in weight really add up over the course of 100 reps, so don't over get overzealous.