Friday, February 4, 2011

Adding 100 pounds to my deadlift

So for all of you crappy deadlifters out there such as myself, I'm going to write about how I took my deadlift from the 550 range to it's current 650-660 range over the last few years, and put into a program you can use combining some of the methodologies I used to get there.  So I hope you enjoy benefiting from my mistakes.

Let me preface this shit, just like I did with my series about raw squatting, that if you are some natural deadlifter you may not get anything out of this article.  Or you may.  

Let me add that unlike my squat article, it is not about technique.  If you want a good place to start in regards to that, go look up Rippetoe's simple cues for setting up, and then play with it from there.  For those that are internet lazy here they are.....

1.  Cut your feet in half with the bar (so the bar should be in the middle of your foot)
2.  Reach down and grab the bar
3.  Bend at the knee until your shin is up against the bar
4.  Drop the hips a little, get the chest out, and then pull (I added this part, as I do feel the hips are slightly high if you don't drop them there)

You will have to play with the above to find your own sweet spots.  Me personally, I need the bar a little more in front of me than that.  I also do not drag the bar up my shins like some do.  

Now, what I'm going to do here is actually outline a 12 month plan to increase the deadlift for those that have been stuck in a rut.  I will give the splits I used and the programs I meshed together to make this all happen.

Assuming your technique isn't the biggest issue, this program should add a lot to your deadlift if you follow it to the letter.    

So let's do this.

First 12 weeks - Bastardizing Gillingham

This is the program I used to get past pulling in that 550-585 range.  I made some modifications to it to suit me and what I felt needed to be changed based on my own experiences.  In Brad's program he has you pulling from a different rack height each week, starting above the knee.  I dropped the above the knee pulls because there is ZERO carryover to the floor.  I also added in a week of pulling standing on blocks, and substituted out the speed pulls (which I feel are kind of worthless) for stiff legs.  So you'll get the benefit of my own fuck ups and learning.

This is how this program is now laid out.

Day 1 - Deadlift
Front Squats - up to a top set of 5
Deadlift variation
Chins - 5 sets
Abs - 5 sets

Day 2 - Bench

Day 3 - Squat
Squats - usually up to a solid single, then 5x5 or I would run a 5/4/3/2/1, then a back off set of 8-10

Week 1 - Block Deadlifts - pull up to a max single from below the knee
Week 2 - Stiff Legs - up to a top set of 5
Week 3 - Block Deadlifts - pull up to a max single from mid-shin
Week 4 - Stiff Legs - up to a top set of 5
Week 5 - Deficit Deadlifts - pull up to a max single standing on a SMALL deficit
Week 6 - Stiff Legs - up to a top set of 5

The key here is on the first 6 weeks, don't go crazy on the top single.  You want to beat all of those top singles on the second go around.  Same for the stiff legs.  You want to start light and add weight over the 12 weeks until the last week you're pulling a true max set of 5.

Don't shy away from the fronts.  Push them hard.  As for chins, mix it up.  It's up assistance work so don't overthink this shit and worry about what to do there.  Just chin dammit.

This brought me out of that 550-585 range and up to 605-615 pretty consistently.

12 weeks - 3X53

The next 12 weeks you will actually go back to the floor, and start pulling singles with 2 back off sets afterwards.  I would do 3 singles, then I would do 2 back off sets.  For the first few weeks I would do 2 sets of 5, then as my singles got heavier I would drop that to triples.

Now I'm going to spell this out early.  I did not use percentages here.  I would outline what I wanted to hit over the next few weeks, and go conservative.  It's always best to leave some in the tank, and hit all of your lifts.  I cannot emphasize that enough.  Don't ruin your progress or psyche by missing lifts.  Train in a way that sets you up for success.

With that said this is the split.

Day 1 - Back and Biceps

Day 2 - Pressing and or chest/shoulders/triceps

Day 3 - Squat and Deadlift
Squats - 5/4/3/2/1 or 3x1
Deadlift -
Squat Machine or Leg Press - 1x20-30 all out

This is what I did for deadlifts.

Week 1 - Deads - warm up, 3x1 to a top single, then 2x5 back off sets
Week 2 - same as week 1
Week 3 - same as week 1
Week 4 - 2x3 for the back offs.  You should have hit a pretty good top single this week.
Week 5 - Reduce weight for the top single.  Go back to about where you were in week 3.  2x5 for back offs
Week 6 - 3x1, 2x5 back offs
Week 7 - 3x1, 2x3 back offs
Week 8 - 3x1, 2x3 back offs
Week 9 - Reduce top single again.  Back to about week 7.  1x5 back off.  Close the distance on the back off to the single.
Week 10 - 3x1, 1x3 back off (close the distance)
Week 11 - 3x1, 1x3 back off (close the distance)
Week 12 - 3x1, 1x3 back off (close the distance)

The singles are ASCENDING.  So 405, 455, 495, etc.

Ok because I know everyone is going to ask about back offs I want to make this clear.  On the back offs, the first 6-8 weeks you should be taking a lot of weight off for the back offs.  They should feel fast and easy.  You should be slowly closing the distance between your top single and back off set through the whole cycle.

So this cycle is part instinct, and part planning.  Plan out 4 week blocks at a time.  You're going to reduce weight in the 5th and 9th week a bit.  The reason why for this is because the deadlift has a habit of running up real fast, then stalling, then falling off.  Anyone who has pulled long enough knows this pattern.  I don't know why it does that, but it seems to be pretty common.  This is NOT a deload.  And in fact, your back off sets should still be climbing during that time.  Again, do not overthink this shit.  Your back off sets should ascend from the start of the program to the end.  The singles will go in a wave.  By the end you should be pulling a triple that isn't too far off the top single you pulled for that day.

So in case you aren't following, the real meat and potatoes here, are the back off sets.  That's where the strength is built.  So start light, ascend slowly, and look to be pulling a PR triple by the end if possible.  Again, don't miss any lifts.  There is no set percentage between what your single and back offs should be.  Be your own scientist in this regard.

I will give a few examples though.

If I pulled 535 for a single, I'd pull something like 455x5
If I pulled 605-615 I'd pull 500-550 range for 5

So 60-100 pounds was generally my range.  The back offs should be good.  They should not beat the shit out of you.

The Final 12 Weeks - Resurrection of JPS via 5/3/1

 After I tore my bicep pulling 635 (which was actually my final warm up that night.  I know 650+ was in the bag) I went back on the road to recovery.  At first I thought I needed to split up my squats and deads to get back to pulling heavy again, but once the lifts started to climb again, I quickly ground myself into the dirt and everything stalled.  I talked about this in another article.

Wendler and I had talked a lot about splitting up squats and deads all together and I got back on the bandwagon and did that.  This is where I am at now, using 5/3/1 with a bit of modification (not bastardization!) to make it more effective for me.

Split -

Day 1 - squat or deadlift (alternate each week) + hamstring work or quad movement

Day 2 - chest/shoulders/triceps

Day 3 - back and biceps

Day 4 - traps

In this scheme you will pull every other week.  Do not fret this shit.  Your dead will be fine.  You're going to concentrate heavily on upperback work on the back and biceps day, and you get a day just for traps.  I will explain this later.

The 5/3/1 layout -
The way 5/3/1 is setup for squats and deads in this phase is like so.

Week 1 - week of 3's   On the top set you rep it out.  Leaving 1-2 reps in the tank.

Week 3 - week of 5's  I run the ladder.  Meaning I do 5 sets of 5.  65% 75% 85% 75% 65%  all x 5

Week 5 - 5/3/1 week  On the top set rep it out again.  Leave 1-2 reps in the tank.

Week 7 - start over

During this period I have/had pushed the reps.  This was not something I did a lot of before, so hitting PR's in reps became my priority.

One thing I hear people talk about is "your squat will make your deadlift go up.  So just worry about your squat and pull whenever."

This was not the case for me and never has been.  My squat has climbed slow and steady for years now, all the while my deadlift sucked ass.  Over the past few months I have poured a lot of work into rows and heavy chins and shrugs again and my pulling took another jump.

Now I've always done chins and rows and shrugs but I have really hunkered down on increasing the shit out of my row the last few months, and doing a lot of volume on shrugs on a side day.  The shrug day wasn't meant to help my deadlift to be honest.  I started doing it out of fun and vanity (who doesn't want giant traps?).  But then I started to notice, that off the floor I felt tight and explosive.  On heavier weights my traps no longer felt like they were going to rip off.  There was definitely something to it.

So what happened was, I would do a heavy t-bar or db row with heavy chins or pulldowns, then the next day I would do heavy shrugs for high volume.  Basically it looked like this...

Back/Bicep Day
t-bar rows - 6-8 sets of 10-20 reps to a top set (usually 6 plates x 12-15)
chins or pulldowns - up to a top double or triple on chins, or heavy pulldowns for sets of 8
some bicep work

Traps Day
Barbell Shrugs - 5-8 sets of 20 with 405-455


Db Shrugs - 6-8 sets of 20-50 with 100's

For traps this isn't that barely-get-my-shoulders-raised bullshit.  I shrugged and squeezed the traps in.  More like bodybuilder work where you want to actually make the muscle work.  Lots of guys with no traps do that cheating shrugging.  I've done it too, working up to 605-650 for some shitty reps, and nothing happened with my deadlift.  When I pulled weight off, and went with a tight squeeze that was controlled, my traps got a lot stronger, and I could feel them do a much better job of helping support the deadlift.

What I figured out was, the traps actually play a bigger part off the floor than people realize.  Don't think so?  Look at deadlift pics where guys are pulling just a few inches off the floor.  Their traps are contracting all out.  So for me, this whole "work your hamstrings to get strong off the floor" never worked.  I've done good mornings with 425 for deep reps and my deadlift didn't do shit.  Nothing from a lower body standpoint ever helped my deadlift move.

The rhomboids are the key to a strong lock out.  So all of the rows will give your lock out a real boost.  The lats also work in a contracting and supporting role from the floor.  If you don't think so, pull a lat then try to deadlift and see where it hurts the most.  Right from the floor.

So the final piece of this puzzle (for now) was for me to build my back from top to bottom.  My traps and lats for strength off of the floor, and my rhomboids to help with the lockout.

Dissecting some of the problems -

Most know that my stance on assistance work is to use the main lift and volume for it.  Cover, not smother.  I feel that that the squat and bench actually do a really good job of building themselves.  With bench you can throw in an incline or military press after, and that can be the bread and butter of an entire great pressing program.  Squatting, well, you just need to squat for a long time and that lift really builds itself.

However the dead is a different animal.  The dead doesn't have a myotatic reflex for one.  So there is no rebound.  And because of this, the deadlift needs to erectors, lats, rhomboids, traps, and hams to all be strong however the deadlift itself doesn't always do the greatest job in the world of getting those areas as strong as they need to be, in order to increase the lift.  This was the issue when I got to the 550-585 area.  The dead itself wasn't doing a great job of making me stronger.  When I went to the rack pulls, I got stronger from top to bottom in the various ranges of the movement, then when I went back to the floor I was now stronger through each portion, and I pulled PR's.

So if you need stronger lats and rhomboids, then the chins and rows are better tools at doing that really.  However, you can't just get stronger there, and stop pulling.  Then start pulling and expect the deadlift to have increased.  You still need to pull.

Which leads me to my other issue.  This whole "increase your deadlift by not deadlifting" bullshit.  Look, no one ever won Wimbledon by not practicing tennis.  No one ever won the Super Bowl without watching film and practicing and coaching in preparation for it.   And if you're a shitty deadlifter, you're never going to be a really good deadlifter by following such a stupid mantra or program.  You have to pull.  All the best pullers in the world pull, regardless of their leverages.  Andy Bolton, Konstantinovs, Benni, etc.  They all spend a lot of time with their hands connected to the bar.  And those guys are built to pull.  So if you aren't built to pull, what makes you think that not pulling is going to make you a better deadlifter?  I also do not care about the guy that says "well I took my deadlift from X to X by not pulling".  Don't give a flying fuck.  Good that it worked for you, however the MAJORITY of guys will have to pull to, you know, to make that lift better.

You need to be smart about pulling however, and smart about how you program.  And lucky for me over the past couple of years I have done more of that, than in the years before.

I'm dumb I guess, but eventually I get it.

I hope you guys benefit from this article.  I know the dead has been the most frustrating thing in the world for me in terms of lifting for years now.  So I identify very quickly with guys who are frustrated with their poor deadlifting.


  1. Paul,
    One of the best articles you have written. I just got done with a meet and wanted to give the Gillingham program a go but I also dont really like the speed pulls. Great solution.

  2. Great post, I've obviously been doing just about everything wrong to try and get my deadlift up. I am going to fix that this year.
    I do know some guys who's dead went up from squatting BUT they were doing smolov, where they squatted four times a week for weeks with serious volume. That by default creates a serious amount of back and trap training through holding the bar in place. I don't think that is a viable deadlift training philosophy however, and I doubt it would continue to cause improvements in your dead by running smolov once or twice a year, year upon year.

  3. Brian - No amount of squatting ever helped my dead, and I've squatted 3X a week plenty of times. Some of us just wired different in that way. No amount of hamstring or leg work ever helped my dead. I need to pull, and get stronger throughout my whole back.

  4. The follwing things put my dead over 700, ranked in order of how well it worked:

    #1) Finding my EXACT form (this is extremely important to maximizing the deadlift)
    #2) Sumo deads in training
    #3) Heavy explosive shrugs
    #4) Handle squats
    #5) Superman's on ext. bench
    #6) Rack pulls from below knees
    #7) Close stance high bar paused squats

  5. The things that have helped me the most, allthough I have a piss-poor 450 DL:

    - Shrugs, cheated or strict. Very high rep repouts. Rest pause style. Better lockout and better grip. Overhand grip, no straps.
    - Stretching. Deadlifting feels so much better since I stretch.
    - Deficit DLs from a 4inch platform.
    - Rackpulls from 4inch below the knee.
    - Pulling more often.
    - Speed Pulls without added resistance.
    - Holding the last rep of a set for time. Like Konstantinovs does.
    - Cutting to a lower BF%

    Piss-poor programming prevented me from making progress, but these things have made my pulls feel much more natural, and more solid. I am sure that I can cross the 500 barrier with better programming, but I am learning as I go along.

    Great article Paul, But I am much more interested how you got to the 500lbs barrier. Totally different approach or very similar to what you describe?

  6. 500 came from just regular training. I remember pulling 500 not too long after I started the transition from bodybuilding to "powerbuilding"

    I always did stiff legs, and I experimented with rack pulls for a few years early on but I wasn't doing them correctly.

  7. Good stuff as always. How well do you find deficit deadlift work for you? Thinking of including them in my training. Do they help strength off of the floor you find? I only did the a couple of times before I got injured a while back. Just getting back into things. Also, what do the rack pulls help with? Definitely going to add in more shrugs this time around, really focusing on the squeeze.

  8. FA - The deficit and rack deads were all used as a system to work together. So I can't say how the deficit deads worked on their own. When I have done them on their own I get a log of leg drive in them and no carryover to the floor.

    Rack pulls below the knee help you pull a little more, but not so much more that there is no carryover to the floor. The mid shin pulls actually generally let guys use less weight than from the floor because it puts you in a less than favorable position.

  9. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for another great article. Do you have any plans to do a similar article for the squat (my worst lift). I know you did the raw squat series which was great but would be interested in seeing which programs took you through the levels on squat.

    Also, when you list squat 5 x 5 and 5 x 5/4/3/2/1 is that all using the same weight for 5 x 5 and 5/4/3/2/1?

    Thanks again,

  10. Dan - Probably not on the squat because I think guys really just need to get under the bar and be consistent in their squatting for a long time once their technique feels right for them.

    As far as my strength levels on the squat, I didn't do anything special to make it move. I did a lot of 5/4/3/2/1 with a back off set, Lots of pause squats, lots of high rep squat, and lots of 5x5 both straight across and ramping.

    The most important part in squatting to me is to just be consistent. The squat really builds itself nicely so there is no real secret to make it move other than to squat consistently for a long time. that or gain weight will make it move too.

  11. Hi Paul. I just wanted to say that I recently stumbled onto your blog and I think it's great. I love the no nonsense approach. I'm especially interested in Deads and all pulls. They just appeal to me. I'm over 50 now and started at 12 so my best years are behind me but I keep at it. It's a labor of love. Thx and keep them coming.

  12. Thanks for the kind words Paul. It's awesome that you've been at the iron so long, but don't think that your best years have to be behind you. Just reload on what something new!

  13. Very interesting Paul, thanks for sharing. These kind of "real life routine" articles are excellent.

    I read your reply to "Paul from Holland" as regards how you got to 500lbs but do you think the sort of programming detailed above would be good for a guy stuck at about 450 - or something simpler?

  14. Well that was kind of the point of all of this. Is that if you suck at deadlifting to give these routines a go. There isn't anything ultra advanced about what I did here. So if you are trying to go from 450-500+ running the templates above will do that.

  15. Paul,

    Maybe just me, but I never have a point where there is a nice linear progression on the big three during a training cycle. It seems progress on one lift comes at the expense of another. Right now my bench is on fire, but deadlift is holding steading, possibly even losing some traction. Sucks to be only 1/3 as awesome as possible. Do you think this is just the ebb and flow of long term lifting, or time for a review of how the training is planned out. Thx

  16. Yup. I don't know that I've ever had a training cycle where all three were kicking ass either. Generally I find 1 does real well, 1 will hold steady, and 1 will decline a bit. This is ALWAYS the case. Sometimes I will have two of them do well and 1 hold steady but that's rare or when I'm in a big calorie surplus.

    This is really what the week-10 days before the meet is for. The give you that super compensation burst for the meet. I wouldn't sweat it really. It's better to have 1 kicking ass than none.