Thursday, April 24, 2014

Deadlift Rx

Regardless of the macho bravado you read on the internet about "genetics being an excuse", it's a very real thing that your genes and the leverages will play a role in determining your strength ceiling, and overall ability as an athlete.

This is an undeniable truth.

Now let's be clear about something; there's nothing you can do to change your genes.  So bitching about them doesn't serve a whole lot of purpose.  But your leverages DO matter.  Anyone that tells you otherwise is a poster child for mental poverty in regards to lifting intelligence.

If you do have poor leverages in regards to a particular lift, then you're really left with one option.  And the best thing about that is, it's a great option.

Get stronger, and train the lift.

Ok so that's really two options.  So let me expound on that.

Get stronger, train the lift - 

The deadlift, for the longest, was my worst lift.  I won't say it's my best lift, but I no longer feel like it's my red headed step child.  I'm not cursing the living shit out of it weekly and tea bagging the bar after a miss.

Over the last few years, as I was developing Base Building, I finally started to understand a few things about how to make the deadlift move for me.

From a musculature standpoint, I needed to shore up a few areas that played a direct part in the pull.  The first one was simply to build stronger legs, and the second was to get my upperback as and hamstrings as strong as possible.

You need strong legs to be fast off the floor.  And I was slow as a snail going through peanut butter off the floor.

Now you will often read or hear that you should pull from a deficit in order to get stronger off the floor.  But after doing that for a very long time, I didn't find that my speed off the floor was any better.  It wasn't worse, it just wasn't better.

When I actually applied some critical thinking to that as a remedy, I realized that pulling from a big deficit didn't make a whole lot of sense.

Speed off the floor comes from knee extension.  The start off the floor is sort of a "push" by the legs.  In other words, your quads are really the muscles you need to get stronger in order to facilitate more drive off the floor.  So there are two issues with pulling from a large deficit have in regards to building speed from the floor, or building the deadlift in general.

1.  Deficit deadlifts don't build quad strength.  

This is a very "duh" kind of statement, but sometimes common sense is lost in lifting.  I mean, you've never heard a bodybuilder say..."My quads are lacking.  I'm going to do high deficit deadlifts."

Not once.

If the quads contribute to speed off the floor, then you need to be building stronger quads to fix that issue.  Well, as noted, no one has ever done deficit deadlifts to build their quads.  You do squats, pause squats, front squats, leg press, etc to build your quads.

From a muscular perspective, a large deficit in the deadlift actually tends to tax the erectors and hamstrings over a greater ROM.  If you don't think so, watch someone do a high deficit pull and notice that the hips get very high from the start.  This means the brunt of the load is being moved by the glutes, hams, and erectors.  This is a great option if you have a weak low back and hamstrings AND can hold a neutral spine throughout the movement.

So for the guys that did find that high deficit pulls helped their speed off the floor, it's very likely that their erectors may have needed to come up a bit.  If your erectors are lacking, every part of the deadlift is going to feel slow, weak, and like shit.

So the remedy to fixing my speed off the floor was simply to get stronger legs.  Seemed pretty simple.  I fixed this by going back to high bar work, doing more front squats, including hack squats into my rotation, and even leg pressing from time to time.  Generally speaking my rotation of the movements looked something like this....

Workout 1 -
high bar squats - Base Building Model I or III
high bar pause squats - fatigue singles  

Workout 2 -
Front Squats - Base Building Model I
Leg Press - 3-4 x 20

Workout 3 -
Hack Squats - 5 sets of 8+

2.  The mechanics from a large deficit are too different to offer significant carryover from the floor.

Getting into position to pull from a large deficit isn't anything like getting into position when you pull off the floor.

When the mechanics change too much in a variation of the movement there tends to be less carryover to the main movement.  This is why guys that use double overhand strapped up deadlifts are doing a disservice to their progress IF they pull with a mixed grip.  It doesn't seem like much, but when you pull with straps and double overhand, you can get longer in the pull than with a mixed grip, and the torso itself isn't in the same mechanical position either.

If you are using a deficit it should be for the purpose of making the pull a little longer, so that the muscles involved in pulling have to do more work, and are at a slight disadvantage.  But not in a way that significantly changes the mechanics of how you pull from the floor.

So I incorporated pulling while standing on a 45 pound plate.  Basically, a 1" deficit.  Doesn't seem like much, but it's enough to make the deadlift slightly harder without causing me to change the mechanics of my pull.  This is how I actually train my deadlift now.  I never pull from the floor until the meet.

The other area I needed to strengthen was my upperback, and hamstrings.

For months I labored over barbell rows.  And I did notice that getting stronger on these did in fact help my deadlift.  But there came a point of diminishing returns.

Once I was doing sets of 405 for reps and 365 for high rep back off sets, I realized that going heavier on them simply meant my form had to loosen up.  And I didn't really want to start doing "monkey fucking a football" rows, or that awful shit you see where the guy is virtually upright and essentially doing bent arm shrugs, but calling it a row.  I wanted to use the barbell rows to strengthen my upperback, i.e. rhomboids and middle trapezious.  Not my upper traps.

So I milked everything I could out of barbell rows, and then realized that I had a far better option that hit both the hamstrings and the upperback very, very hard.

And that was deficit stiff legged deadlifts.

Deficit stiff legs destroyed my hams and upperback to a magnificent degree.  And the other great part is that I would be pulling the bar in a path that was somewhat similar to that of my conventional deadlift.  So I would be strengthening the muscles required in the pull in a movement pattern that had far more correlation to the deadlift than barbell rows, or good mornings.

I ended up hitting these with sets of 5-8, but sometimes even doing a heavy double or triple on them because well, that was fun.  

Let the pull come to you - 

This was probably the single biggest factor in my deadlift improving.

I had to really learn how to let the pull come to me, when it was ready.

If you're not a natural deadlifter, or if it's the most difficult movement for you to improve, then the worst thing you can try to do is force it.  The reason why is because the erectors are slow to recover, and pounding the shit out of heavy deadlifts on a frequency basis tends to do nothing but take more than it gives.

The cycle I would go through when I was training the deadlift often looked like this....

1.  Train the deadlift hard and heavy
2.  Watch it go up very quickly
3.  Get excited
4.  ???
5.  No profit.  I would find that my pull would stagnate very quickly after the initial progress, and often go backwards from there.

Once I realized that the deadlift did not like being bossed around, I backed way off, and concentrated on pulling sub-maximally with lots of explosiveness.  Once I figured this out, I watched my deadlift move up on a consistent basis without that regression period that often crept in when I was pulling heavy all the time.

I realized that pulling fast and explosive triples from the small deficit paid huge dividends for me.  I would test a semi heavy deadlift every few months when I was "feeling it", and without fail my pull had gone up significantly.  I went from pulling triples with 585, to pulling triples at 635.  My next goal is pulling triples at 675.  

Not only that, I wasn't constantly frustrated at the lack of progress in my pull because I was rarely testing it.  I was training it heavy enough so that it moved, but not so heavy that recovery started to overlap supercompensation.  Which was my problem when I was squatting AND pulling heavy every single week.


1.  Get stronger off the floor by getting stronger legs.  Do this with high bar work, hacks, and fronts.
2.  Don't pull from a deficit that is too high.  Use a small deficit to train the lift.  Stand on a plate.
3.  Get stronger hamstrings and an upperback using stiff legged deadlifts.
4.  Don't train the pull heavy very often.  Test your double or triple every few months.


  1. Nice article, I have been putting the deadlift aside for some time and focusing on squat variations and straight legged deadlift - which leaves me incredibly sore.

    Have you ever incorporated squats with a safety bar?

  2. Great read and totally agree. I'm doing front squats, paused front squats and stiff leg deadlifts for a while. Last week I tried regular DL just for fun after few months. I nearly tripped backwards how fast it went up.

  3. I love elevated stiff legs/romanians. Been doing them for a while and i'm so much more solid during regular deads. Even when the rep is hard/slow my upper back stays tight and i can drive through it. Great exercise.

  4. For some reason my squat has always been higher than my deadlift. My last meet, I squatted 440 and deadlifed 410.

    Right now I'm squatting 375x10 and deadlifting 375x5

    If you were me and had to pick one quad assistance exercise to hammer out, would you go front squats or high bar squats?