The deadlift is the ultimate test of strength.
It’s a total body exercise that works just about every muscle in the body. It’s great for building muscle and developing superhuman strength, and is one of my favourite lifts of all time.
The two styles I’m going to cover in this piece are conventional and sumo. To keep it simple, conventional deadlifts are done with the hands on the outsides of the legs, with varying stance widths. Sumo deadlifts are done with the hands inside the legs, with varying stance widths.
There is much debate about which style you should use based on your body’s leverages and limb lengths. Truthfully, I think you ought to try both to see which one feels stronger and more comfortable. If you have experience with one or the other, or both, then you’ll pick one as your primary deadlift (the one you’ll test). The other will help build your primary variation. The cool thing is, you can train both of them. You don’t have to exclude sumo deadlifts if your primary method is pulling conventional. If you’re a sumo puller, working on your weaker conventional deadlift will increase your sumo.
How to Figure Out Your Training Max
Now don’t go sprinting to the gym to start yanking on some deadlifts right away.
There are a couple of things I’d like to point out. When you start any kind of program it’s important to know where you stand, and where you’d like to get to (the goal).
For the purposes of building your deadlift, let’s break down your end goal as either a 1 or 3 rep max. If you’re a beginner and have little experience deadlifting, a 3rm would be a good test at the end of the program. Intermediate/advanced lifters should test their 1rm. The reason for these variances is simple. Maybe you just want to get stronger but you don’t compete or have the desire to lift a weight only one time. On the other hand, if a 1 rep max is part of your sport or something you need to know for training purposes, then by all means test that 1 rep max at the end.
Before you begin the program, you’ll need to determine your starting max. This is either the most weight you’ve ever lifted for 1-3 reps, or an estimated max based on a weight you’ve done for X number of times. If you don’t have an actual max, or you just haven’t tested it before, you can use this calculator to estimate a starting weight for your program. Simply input the amount of weight you did for the given number of reps, and you can estimate what your 1 or 3rm would be. That will be your starting number that we will use to set up your program.
The primary focus of this article is to layout a progression designed to increase your deadlift.
However, I feel that it’s important to go over some fundamental techniques used in both styles of deadlifts.
- Stance width will vary, but a good place to start is to perform a vertical jump. Wherever you land is the foot position you’ll pull from.
- Set up close to the bar, but not too close. Leave a couple of inches between your shins and the bar. This is very individual as some people prefer a vertical shin (or close to it), while others like a more forward shin angle.
- Create tension. To put yourself in a strong and powerful position, you want to create tension throughout the hamstrings and glutes. You also want to tense the entire core and back. Once you set your hips in the best position, you’ll want to pull the slack out of the bar by flexing your lats down toward your hips. For more advanced lifters,flex into the front pockets. This will stabilize the upper back.
- Don’t try to pull your shoulder blades together. This position will break against heavier loads, so it’s not recommended.
- Fill your belly, low back, and sides with air by inhaling deeply into the stomach, not up into the chest. Pull your ribcage down and brace hard.
- Grab the bar as hard as you can (either double overhand or mixed grip), get yourself tight, and push/pull hard at the same time.
- Finish the movement by throwing your upper back backwards. Flex your glutes and abs as you stand tall.
- Stance width will vary, but a tad wider than shoulder width is a good starting place. Adjust as necessary.
- Many of the same cues above apply to the sumo deadlift as well.
- The main difference is the pre pull set-up.
- Your shins have to be vertical (or as close to vertical as possible), or else the bar will drift forward and you’ll lose position.
- You want to think about dropping and spreading to get down to the bar.
- You want your feet turned out to allow the knees to track more sideways than forwards.
- Your arms should hang straight down. That’s where you’ll likely grip the bar. Closer or wider is not the optimal position to lift the most weight.
- Hips should be as high as possible, but in a position that allows you to get your torso up “enough”. If your back is parallel to the floor, you’re not doing a sumo deadlift. You’re doing a wide stance conventional deadlift.
- Keep the bar in close and try to wedge the hips in close to the bar while lifting your chest up and back hard.
- Brace and push/pull hard!
For the majority of people, it’s a good idea to stick with the primary deadlift as your only deadlift-specific move.
However, once you have some experience, deadlift variations can help you blast through sticking points. They can also help hone your technique and build muscle in weaker body parts.
Early on in your programming, these are great to include. As we progress towards your testing day, you’ll want to choose more specific exercises that are similar to the exact style you’ll be pulling. For the purpose of this program, I’d suggest picking one of these three variations as your secondary deadlift exercise.
Generally, deficit deadlifts are done standing on an elevated surface about 1-3″ in height.
The goal of the deficit is to build the lift through a greater range of motion and build strength off the floor. These are great for both hypertrophy and strength phases.
You’ll set up quite similar to a regular deadlift. However, you will have to drop the hips to account for the lower starting position. If you keep your hips in the same starting position as a regular deadlift, you’ll likely be doing a stiff-legged deadlift. You could also lack sufficient leg drive.
Because you’re lifting through a larger range of motion, and starting in a less advantageous position, you won’t be lifting as much as a normal deadlift. It’s a good rule of thumb to adjust training numbers down in relation to your normal deadlift max. I’d suggest dropping 10-20%- and maybe more- depending on how challenging these are for you. Keep in mind, you aren’t trying to set a max on this lift, so don’t stress if you have to use less weight than you thought.
Depending on the phase of training you’re in, deficit pulls can be done for higher reps to build muscle, or lower reps to build strength. The higher reps will work to build the hamstrings, glutes, and back. The lower reps will help build strength off the floor.
Talk about humbling.
Pause deadlifts are a brutal variation that will keep your ego in check. They’re also extremely beneficial because they force you to maintain tightness and perfect technique throughout the lift.
The great thing about pause deadlifts is that each person can choose where to pause the lift based on where they need it most. Some lifters struggle right off the floor, so pausing after the initial break off the ground would be an excellent choice. Others struggle around the mid shin and some around the kneecap. Doing pause deadlifts at these specific points will reinforce good technique. This will also help to correct any disconnect or flaws in your pull. Unlike deficit pulls, I don’t recommend doing pause work for higher reps. The pause adds a unique challenge and more time under tension. With higher reps form is likely to break down. Keep these on the lower side, mostly between 3-6 reps.
Block pulls serve to provide overload and help to build lockout strength.
You’ll be able to handle more weight at the top, and some lifters like to feel the heavier weight in their hands.
To do these, simply elevate the bar onto blocks, or mats, about 3-6″ off the ground. This is just what I usually use, but you can adjust the height depending on where you need to improve upon the most. Some advanced lifters like to do a slightly elevated pull and will deadlift from one mat (about an inch off the ground). This is so close to the ground that it’s almost a regular deadlift, but you’ll likely be able to handle slightly heavier weight. Others like to perform block pulls from right below the knees. Play around with different heights to see where the lift feels the hardest. Then, train the heck out of that range of motion. You’ll want the hips slightly higher in the starting position here. You’re trying to simulate the position you’d be in if the bar were traveling up from the floor without the blocks.These can be done for higher and lower rep ranges, similar to deficit pulls.
When determining which variation to use as your secondary deadlift exercise, think about where you struggle most during your pull. If it’s tougher to break the floor with heavier weight, deficit pulls would be a good choice. If you have trouble locking out you could implement block pulls. Pause deadlifts are great all around and really help to lock in efficient pulling technique.
There’s a saying made famous by Louie Simmons, often revered as the Godfather of powerlifting, that says, “Don’t have $100.00 shoes and a 10 cent Squat.”
When it comes to deadlifting the same principles hold true. I’d recommend you deadlift wearing flat soled shoes, no shoes, or deadlift slippers.
Don’t get too caught up in your shoe choice, just make sure you’ve got something that works. Personally, I like to pull conventional without shoes because I’m able to get a little bit lower to the ground. I can feel my entire foot pushing through the floor. When I pull sumo, I like a high top shoe similar to a Chuck Taylor, and something with a flat sole. Because you’re spreading to get down to the bar, pulling without shoes here won’t be the greatest idea.
A lifting belt is probably the number one most important piece of equipment you could have if displaying your strength is a priority.
Lifting belts come in all different types of material and styles. I prefer a single prong or lever belt.
Investing in a solid belt will benefit you for many, many years of lifting. When you wear a belt you’re able to create abdominal pressure and brace. This creates stability which allows you to lift more weight. Now where you place your belt will be up to you. I wear mine around my abdomen so that it goes around my low back. This is what I’ve had the most success with. Other people like to wear it up a bit higher to brace their mid back. Find where you need the most support and try both placements to see which one feels best for you.
Not too much to say here except that you should be using chalk when you deadlift.
It’ll keep your hands dry and help you hold onto the bar. Holding onto the bar is a very good thing when we deadlift.
Lifting straps have their time and place.
They can be very useful when doing rep work, or when you want to do overload work. Keep in mind though that straps are a tool, not a CRUTCH.
If you always train with straps your grip will suck. Use straps when necessary or when your grip needs a break.
How to Build Strength
Building strength occurs through several different phases.
It’s not overly complicated, but many people tend to skip steps in the process. When you want to get stronger you generally want to cycle through these phases:
-Hypertrophy (60-75% of 1RM, sets of 6-12 on average, grow the size of muscles, used primarily during cutting or massing phases)
-General Strength (75-90% of 1RM, sets of 3-6 on average, improve strength of newly developed muscle, best used during maintenance or massing phases)
-Peaking (90+% of 1RM, sets of 1-3 on average, peak strength to test maximal strength)
What most people tend to do is go straight from hypertrophy phases to testing their 1RM. Or, people train with low reps all year round, neglecting the importance of volume in their training, and never adding much muscle in the process. The more muscle, the greater potential for strength. The length of time spent in each phase depends on the individual needs. If putting on a good amount of muscle is what you need, then doing multiple blocks of hypertrophy work would be a good idea. If more general strength is needed, multiple strength cycles before a peaking cycle would be beneficial. The main idea is that regardless of how many blocks of each phase you do, you always want to go in the order of hypertophy-strength-peaking.
4 Weeks To a Bigger Deadlift
We’re going to focus on the strength phase of your training so that you can follow the steps necessary to prepare you to test your max.
Remember that for the strength block, we’re going to be working in the 75-90% range of your 1RM/estimated max.
I’m laying out the prescription for the deadlift only. You can follow the same percentages and set/rep schemes with your squat and bench as well. Keep accessory work somewhat limited during this phase, and be sure to stay within 4-8 reps for any assistance work.
Week 1: Primary deadlift 3 x 5-6 reps @ 75-80%, variation (deficit, block pull, pause) 3 x 5-6 reps @ 75-80% of estimated max for that specific variation
Week 2: Primary deadlift 4 x 4-5 reps @80-85%, variation 4 x 4-5 reps @80-85%
Week 3: Primary deadlift 4 x 3-4 reps @85-90%, variation 4 x 3-4 reps @85-90%
Week 4: Deload. Primary deadlift 2 x 3 reps @ 65-70%, variation 2 x 3 reps @65-70%
You’ve followed the template to a T and now you want to go for a new max. To set you up to pull maximal weight, you’re going to do a short peaking phase.
The week after your deload do this:
2 weeks out from testing- 2 x 1-3 reps @ 95% and 2 x 1-3 reps @ 85% on primary variation. Since the testing day is so close, variations are no longer used.
Final week before testing- 3 x 3 reps@50-60% early in the week, if you plan to test later in the week. Keep it light 2-3 days before so that fatigue can drop.
When testing day comes around you’ll be primed and ready to smash a new personal record. Make sure you warm up and make incremental jumps working up to your max.
To keep it simple for you do this to warm up for your PR:
40% x 8
50% x 5
60% x 5
75% x 3
85% x 1
90% x 1
From there you can determine if you want to do one final warmup before doing 100%+ or just going straight to it.
If you followed the progression I laid out for you, then chances are you smashed a new personal record.
Keep in mind that the amount of weight your deadlift goes up will depend on many various factors. Technique, experience, and execution all play a part in your success.