Deadlifts For Life
Deadlifts, preserving the functional ability to "pick stuff off the ground" for many years to come.
A few years ago, I interviewed a primary care doctor for an article that I was writing. The doctor based his practice on what we were meant to do with our bodies from an evolutionary standpoint. I asked him what exercises that we perform in the weight room today that most closely mimic what was essential to the species survival thousands of years ago. His answer? The press and the deadlift. Lifting stuff overhead and picking stuff off of the ground was and always has been essential to our survival.
I like the barbell press and all, but the deadlift has always been my favorite exercise. In my training life, the deadlift, both sumo and conventional alike felt like “natural” movements to me.
The funny thing is, I didn't deadlift during my first fifteen years of training. For my back, I did plenty of bent rows and lat pulls, but not the deadlift. All everyone cared about back then was the squat and bench press. None of my football coaches ever brought up the deadlift as an exercise. I went through my whole high school and college football career without performing a single deadlift. I didn't start seriously deadlifting until I began powerlifting when I was a high school coach in Florida. And even then, I taught myself, but the form that I was using was all wrong. I was doing conventional deadlifts with my feet too wide and my back rounded, so of course, I screwed my back up pretty good. It was only when I started training at Gold’s Gym in Melbourne, Florida and met a guy named Bill who was a professional wrestler and competitive powerlifter that I began deadlifting properly. We began training together and he showed me how to deadlift, both sumo and conventional. Sumo felt best for my low back, so I stuck with it, eventually pulling a competition best of 740 pounds. Since then, I have become more of a conventional deadlifter, but still go back to the sumo style on occasion.
When I began deadlifting in earnest, I found out real quick that when you are squatting heavy and deadlifting heavy, one must be conscious of the volume of both these lifts or gains are going to come slowly. Let me explain: When a person first begins training, especially when they are young, they can withstand multiple sessions of squats and deadlifts a week. Because the tonnage is so low and the lifter is still learning the movements, it is actually a good idea to perform the movements more frequently. This learning period shouldn’t be with heavy weights, anyway. Light to medium weights should be used to “grease the groove”, to ingrain the proper technique. As the lifter progresses in training age and strength, proper programming that emphasizes intense training sessions with well-planned out recovery becomes paramount.
Usually, the deadlift is done once a week, or in some cases, less frequently. I have heard of champion powerlifters only deadlifting once every two weeks to maximize recovery.
If one is squatting heavy and deadlifting heavy, they should try to have enough days in between those lifts to allow for maximum recovery. For example, if the program calls for squats on Monday, then the heavy deadlift should be done either on the same day as the squat or 3 days after on Thursday. This allows 72 hours of recovery, which seems to be the sweet spot for most lifters regarding proper recovery. If the lifter chooses to squat and deadlift on the same day, proper care must be taken to cycle these lifts, meaning a light squat and heavy deadlift one week and a heavy squat and light deadlift the next week. I have used either approach with powerlifting training, and like them both. The advantage of performing both the squat and the deadlift on the same day is that you get both lifts done and then you have a full 7 days to recover. I always think that by training that way, you crush the body and beat it down all at once, and then let it come back, stronger than ever, without a midweek heavy leg and back exercise to make inroads into your recovery. An advantage to the squat Monday/deadlift Thursday split is that you only have to muster enough physical and mental strength to get through one “big” exercise, i.e.., the squat, instead of gearing up for both big lifts on the same day. One way to find a happy medium between both schedules is train with both exercise on different days until you are 6 weeks out from a powerlifting meet and then switch to doing both exercises on the same day. This will prepare you for the meet where both lifts are performed on the same day. If you are not competing, experiment and have fun with the splits and find the right one for you.
It is tough to coach form in an article, but there are a few tips that I can share, some basic tenets for a successful deadlift.
- Don't jerk the bar from the floor, instead, take the slack out of the bar by pulling on the bar before it leaves the ground and wedging yourself down to the bar. Keep that tension on the bar and don't let go. Taking out the slack in the bar allows you to “stay connected” to the bar. You can tell if you haven't taken the slack and wedged correctly when the lifters butt shoots up in the air first and also when you can hear the bar “jingle” as it leaves the ground. If the lifter has taken the slack out the bar, you do not hear the bar move at all when they begin the lift. I tell people that I train to put so much tension on the bar before the rep begins that the plates almost leave the ground. Taking the slack out of the bar is such a huge key, a foundational aspect of the deadlift that must be done to get really strong.
- Keep the high reps to a minimum, and you will have a better chance of deadlifting without injury. On big, compound lifts such as the deadlift, I like to program sets of 5 and under. This keeps the chance of injury to a minimum, because in many cases that I have seen, lifters get injured when fatigue sets in and proper technique cannot be maintained. I always say, “ Better off doing 10 sets of 3 instead of 3 sets of 10. I do love, on occasion, testing a high rep set of deadlifts, but it is done few and far between.
- Keep those damn arms straight during the whole rep of the deadlift. If you want to tear a biceps, pull with bent arms. If you want your butt to come up first and take the chance of rounding your back, pull with bent arms. Put those arms ramrod straight and as soon as you wedge yourself down to the bar take the slack out. Think about keeping the “connection” to the bar and keep the tension in your arms.
- Try the hook grip! The hook grip can be described as an overhand grip but instead of grabbing the bar with all of your fingers, you hold onto your thumb with your fingers, not the bar. Wedge the webbing on your hand between the thumb and pointer finger, then put your thumb around the bar and then wrap your fingers around the thumb. Squeeze your thumb as hard as you can. This grip, when done correctly, enables you to hold onto the bar with very heavy weights, makes the pull shorter, reduces the chance of biceps injury and keeps the bar from twisting. It may feel like your thumb is going to fall off, but it won’t. Eventually, you will get used to the hook grip and you will swear by its effectiveness.
- Bent over rows are essential to a big deadlift. This exercise, besides adding slabs of muscle to your middle back, will strengthen your grip, build up and strengthen your erectors and will help you get strong in the position of the deadlift where your back is slightly above parallel to the ground.
- Use your lats to keep the bar close to your body. When you have the bar set and next to your shins, think about performing a straight arm cable row. When you do this, you will feel your lats flex, and by keeping this position, the bar will stay close to your body throughout the lift.
6 Week “BURST” Deadlift program.
WARNING: This program focuses on increasing your deadlift max in a short (6 weeks) period of time. Do not undertake this program unless you are totally dedicated to it. You will be sore. Pay attention to your recovery, getting plenty of sleep and good food. It is for advanced lifters and has lots of volume, but if you stick to it, you will get stronger. Not for the weak willed!
Squat heavy once a week (80-85%) with low reps (2-5) and sets (2-3) except for the max week. Squat 70% 3x4 on your first squat day of the max week (week 6).
You will squat light before your deadlift around 3 days later. Use percentages of your one rep max. If you don't know your max, just estimate. Estimate on the light side with the one rep max. DO NOT bump the weight up because you "feel good", just follow the program. The percentages will work, have faith in the program! ALSO, 4x5 reads 4 sets of 5.
Here is the light squat and deadlift workout:
Week 1- squat-70x3, 75 2x3, deadlift 75 5x6, 60x10-12
Week 2- squat- 70x2, 75x2, 80x2, deadlift 75 8x6, 65x8-10
Week 3- squat- 75 3x3, deadlift 80 12x4, 70x6-8
Week 4- squat- 70x2, 75 2x2, deadlift 85 10x3, 75x6-8
Week 5- squat- 75 2x2, deadlift 80x2, 85x2 90 7x1, no down set
Week 6- squat- 70 3x3, deadlift 70x2, 75x2, 80x1, 85x1, 90x1, 95x1, 100x1, 105x1, keep going if you are successful!
The deadlift is a classic, awesome exercise that should be included in everyone’s program when trying to get bigger and stronger. It is a full body exercise that provides you strength for life as well as for a big total. Picking up heavy stuff off of the ground is a natural movement for us humans. Embrace the deadlift and you will not regret it!
*Photo Credit - Cristi Bartlett, Director Of Strength North Carolina State University @Bartlettc42
About The Author - Jim Steel
Jim Steel has been immersed in athletics and the Iron Game for most of his life. He has been a college football player and coach, powerlifter, Muay Thai fighter and is currently a competitive bodybuilder. In 1999, Steel was named Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2004. He is the owner of the blog Basbarbell and is a motivational speaker, frequent podcast guest and the author of two books, Basbarbell Book of Programs and Steel Reflections. Steel is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Jim Steel is co-host of the RAW with Marty Gallagher Podcast along with Marty Gallagher and J.P. Brice and is a monthly content contributor at IRON COMPANY.