All aboard the pain train: strap up and man up to attain the elusive ‘deadlift overload'

Featured Weightlifting Equipment: weight lifting straps, barbell, Olympic bar, power rack, Olympic barbell, bench press, weightlifting platform, rubber bumper plates

Strap-phobia: It is eternally chic in deadlift circles to eschew the use of weight lifting straps when deadlifting. The rationale is seemingly irrefutable: "I want to work on my grip while deadlifting - what good is it to pull on weight using lifting straps that is past my grips ability to hold?" Indeed, a weak grip is a deadlifter's weak link, an athletic Achilles heel - assuming you have a weak grip. This idea, never use weightlifting straps on account of working the grip, is very convincing. While not necessarily flawed, this thinking is certainly one-dimensional and shortsighted. The conventional thinking goes, "Why do I want to develop pull capacities past my grip's ability to hold onto the barbell? Plus, lifting straps are cumbersome and take time and practice to master." For this reason 90% of deadlifters never use barbell wrist straps when deadlifting. Expertly used, weight straps enable the deadlifter to build muscle and power unobtainable without straps.

Pertinent side bubble: Deadlifting is different from squatting and bench pressing and this difference creates the need for differing training approaches. Few have noted the obvious…

  • Squat: the lifter gets a ‘rolling start.' Take the Olympic bar out of the power rack and allow gravity to commence the lift. The lift begins with the negative making the start easy.
  • Bench press: the lifter gets a rolling start. Take the Olympic barbell out of the bench press uprights and allows gravity to commence the lift. A gravity-assisted negative makes the start easy.
  • Deadlift: no rolling start. The lifter begins with the concentric portion of the rep. The lifter has to overcome total inertia; this makes the start hard.

The English "Strength Set" Make all lifts equal! The British forerunner to modern powerlifting was a society established and run by Old School weightlifters and strongmen in the early 1960s. The federation had the strictest and most unusual rules ever used in competition. The British reasoned that in order to make the lifts equal, the bench press would commence with the loaded barbell placed on the chest of the lifter to start the lift: begin with the concentric, eliminate the rolling start. The squat was even more gruesome: the lifter squatted all the way down and two men placed the loaded barbell across the back of the squatter who would then arise: begin with the concentric, eliminate the rolling start. Horrific! The thoughtful Brits would make all the lifts equal by starting all the lifts from a dead-stop.

Alternately, they considered allowing the deadlifter to start the lift standing erect. The loaded barbell would be handed to the deadlifter in the completed standing position. The deadlifter would then lower the bar to the floor to begin the lift. In this way the deadlifter could have a rolling start and all three lifts would be equal: the eccentric preceding the concentric. The British thought it important to consider these subtleties and nuances. The Americans were like, "Concentric, eccentric - who cares! This is all too foo-foo. Let's just freaking lift!"

Looping back around to barbell straps there is a sizable segment of the deadlift elite that have grips in excess of their back power: many men, like myself and my deadlift mentor and world record holder, Mark Chaillet (865 deadlift weighing 270) never lost a competitive deadlift on account of grip. There is a sizeable portion of the deadlift populace that possesses grip power that exceeds their back power. For the strong-gripped lifter a dose of strap deadlifting will enable them to overload back muscles and create muscle and power gains unobtainable without the use of straps.

Overloading deadlifts; the breakthrough tactic: the expert use of weightlifting straps allow the determined lifter to squeeze out extra growth-producing reps. A seasoned deadlifter can turn a single rep into a triple, a limit triple into a five rep set, a five rep set into an eight rep set...these extra reps create additional back muscle and extra back muscle means more muscular horsepower. It all equates to a bigger deadlift. There is a specific technical procedure for the deadlift overload procedure using straps...

  • The strapped-in lifter stands erect between reps and huff breaths
  • Knees are locked, glutes are flexed, the spine straight - no energy leaks
  • The lifter inhales huge breaths, "like trying to suck all the air out of the room."
  • With each breath, lactic acid clears and back and thigh muscles recover
  • When recovered sufficiently, the lifter lowers to commence another deadlift rep
  • End the set when form breaks down; want to stay injury free, follow this dictate

Dropping deadlifts to "avoid" the negative: In the year 2017 it is very chic to drop deadlifts from the locked-out position, essentially throwing away the negative. I have been exposed to some amazingly compelling and persuasive arguments, rationales as to why lifters should simply drop the barbell to the weightlifting platform after pulling every rep to lockout. For starters it occurred to me it is a wonderful attention-grabbing device: no one within earshot can ignore the clatter and decibels generated by a 400-pound deadlift dropped from three feet, especially if not using rubber bumper plates. The only thing more jarring than a dropped deadlift is a high rep set of dropped deadlifts.

If throwing away the negative on the deadlift is so beneficial - often portrayed as even superior - then why not throw away the negative on the squat and bench press? If "no negative" improves deadlifting, then why not adopt the no-negative strategy for the bench press and squat? Simply train the squat and bench so as to use a controlled freefall to the chest on the bench press and free fall to the below parallel position in the squat. Would we not want to reap the same amazing physiological benefits on our squats and benches that no-tension negatives are providing in the deadlift? Yet there is no rush of takers.

Controlling the negative in the deadlift becomes optional: controlling the negative in the deadlift is difficult, incredibly taxing and in 2017 apparently controversial. The negative in the squat has to be delt with; the negative in the bench press has to be dealt with; the negative in the deadlift is completely optional. Human nature being what it is - is it any wonder that tons of experts came up with highly nuanced arguments as to why the deadlift negative is superfluous, irrelevant and actually counterproductive? The deadlift dropping epidemic would not have been allowed in my day. Au contraire, the fastest way to get kicked out of the best gyms was to start dropping loaded barbells from knee height.

Ride the Tiger: we use weight straps to slow the negative portion of the deadlift rep, thereby accentuating and amplifying the physiological benefits associated with the negative. Straps make controlling the negative a non-event; straps allow the determined deadlifter to grind out additional growth-producing strength infusing reps; with straps we can extend the duration of the set without compromising the intensity. Beware! You are riding a tiger that bites. Straps combined with piss-poor deadlift technique will likely result in a trip to the emergency room.

The proper deadlift is the undisputed King of all back exercise. If you are serious about deadlifting, the judicious use of weight lifting straps, atop pristine technique - with an emphasis on the negative - will blast you out of whatever complacent groove of deadlift stagnation you find yourself mired in. One last tip: elite deadlifters love the 5-rep set. Mastery of "fives" provides the best balance between the pure power of 1-3 rep sets and the hypertrophic advantage of higher 8-12 rep sets. Again, a top man is going to use straps to turn that limit triple into a five, reaping all the results associated with those two extra "overload reps." Strap up. Man up. Fall in love with the slowed negative. Do so and your deadlift will soar. Period.

"Too Glamorous"
Straps in the year 2017

My father used to say, "Never look a gift horse in the mouth." He was born in 1914 and the cliché dates back to horse and buggy days. The lesson is when someone gives you a present, don't examine it for flaws and then complain about it. While down in Virginia Beach working with some spec ops guys, I inadvertently left my lifting straps. I asked Iron Company Boss of Bosses, J.P. Brice if he could send me a replacement pair. Which he graciously and generously did; they arrived and thus began my befuddlement.

I am a barbell strap expert. Using a double overhand grip I can cinch both lifting straps tight simultaneously in a split second. I play piano for an hour a day and have excellent prestidigitation. My expertise using plain vanilla straps was undone with the arrival of J.P.'s George Jetson weight lifting straps. I felt like Gabby Hayes in an old western movie, "Goll-durn these new-fangled con-found in-ven-tions…tar-nation only a horn-swogler would try and improve on perfection." It took me 30-minutes to figure out how to lace the wrist wraps through the metal clips (there is no metal on Old School weight straps! Sacrilege!) And it took me another ten minutes to successfully dangle them from my wrists.

I felt ridiculous. I thought of a mutual acquaintance of J.P. and mine, a pretentious mid-level bodybuilder. Replete with cliché tattoos, this bodybuilder video tapes all his workouts for later viewing; he stands proud in front of the mirror and pumps away, seven days a week, always wearing a spaghetti strap tank top and long pants to cover his subpar legs. He always wore a stylish haircut that changed with the times, he had perfect teeth and a practiced perfect smile, he had an eternal tan and appeared tensed and flexed at all times. He would wear these same style elaborate straps that J.P. sent me as part of his stylized bodybuilder costume.

One of his favorite back exercises was a spine-busting and worthless rounded-spine stiff-legged deadlift done while standing precariously atop a bench nominally used for bench pressing. Impossible to ignore in a commercial gym, he would tower three feet over everyone in the gym at the time and this natural showman always made the best of his time in the spotlight. He was not about to disappoint his fans on Facebook.

Strapping up, he would do 3 sets of 8 reps in the rounded back spine- buster that he called a stiff-leg deadlift. He would use 135-pounds and always use a thick rubber bumper plate to make the pathetic 135 look a hell of a lot heavier than it was. The completion of every rep was punctuated with a blood-curdling attention-grabbing scream. My training partner at the time said, "Sweet Jesus it sounds as if that guy is being repeatedly castrated!" Well yeah, I replied, but you forget he is an adulation junkie badly in need of a fix."

When I sheepishly mentioned to J.P. that this was the type of lifting strap used by our attention-starved mutual acquaintance, he laughed and said, "I understand...the straps are too glamorous for you. I'll rummage around and find some Old School/Simple Simon canvas webbing straps."

Plain vanilla replacement straps are in the mail. Which is good because since I have been wearing these glamorous Gucci bag straps I am beginning to get an odd urge to deadlift off a bench, maybe move a mirror into the unheated garage gym and begin taping my sessions.

Make sure to check out Marty Gallagher's latest books, Strong Medicine and The Purposeful Primitive, that are packed with a rich history of the sport of powerlifting and its founding fathers including proven, no-nonsense methods and "old school" knowledge for gaining strength, muscle and becoming leaner.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.