Smash Your Weakness: The Deadlift!

Fitness, Strength,

Smash Your Weakness: The Deadlift!

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Learn how you can smash your weakness with the deadlift and changing exercise is the key way to push forward.

Some people are made for a certain lift or type of exercise. They may have a naturally generous amount of fast twitch muscle fibre that makes them fast and explosive, or they may have certain proportions that make them ideal for certain lifts. Not everyone is born with the perfect body for a certain lift or sport, and that means they have weak links somewhere down the line. Maybe they naturally lack speed, or their body proportions mean they have difficulty performing certain movements that other people may not.

Training, or rather, good training can correct problems such as these.

The deadlift (both sumo and conventional styles) is no exception. It is a hard exercise that many people avoid. Others people over train it in an attempt to build it. Some max out over and over only to find they plateau or regress. If you have stalled, change will be the key to push you forward.

Let’s look at the deadlift and training that can be done for it. If it is a weakness or if you have stalled, you can make it stronger with the right training.

Maximal effort work

A common mistake is to use the same training methods over and over. Maxing out on only ones favourite type of deadlift is one such mistake. To build a bigger deadlift a better approach is to use a variety of mechanically similar multi-joint movements for max effort work. Here is a selection of different lifts which will imitate and help build the deadlift. Work up to a 1 rep max. For optimal results 3-4 singles ranging from 90-100% of a max should be performed. At least one attempt should be an all-out attempt for a new record.

Rack pulls (sumo or conventional) – depending on the height of the pins, you may be able to lift more or less weight than a regular deadlift, but this is still a max attempt and your CNS will register the effort and adapt to it.

Deficit deadlifts (sumo or conventional) – these are done by standing on blocks or some other elevated surface.

Good mornings – the listfor these is endless but concentric good mornings where the bar is on a pin or chains to start with are great. Duck under the bar, but make sure that the bar is in front of the knees. Then simply muscle the weight up and lower again. If the bar isn’t in front of the knees, this is more of a 2nd rate squat, so get the position right before you lift.

Low squats/low box squats – a low close stance squat, low wide stance box squat and front squat are some great movements to increase a deadlift. They heavily engage and overload the back and hips in a movement pattern similar to deadlifting. A wider stance squat brings the hip rotators into play more than a close stance. It is important to distinguish whether your weakness is the sumo or conventional style. More of the primary movement comes via the hip rotators in a sumo style. A conventional style primarily uses the hamstrings and more low back.

Assistance exercises

Now, we need to build the muscles that are primary movers for deadlifts. These are low back and upper back, hamstrings, glutes, hips, abs, quads and grip. The same muscles work in both conventional and sumo deadlifts, it is the loading on these muscle groups that is swapped around somewhat. If your weights are vastly different in both types of deadlift then you have a muscle weakness somewhere.

Here is a selection of good assistance exercises for the deadlift. These exercises will use several muscles at once.

Good mornings – these can also be used either for reps and/or max work. Every type of Good morning hits the low back hard. Arched back good mornings train static strength in the spinal erectors. Other styles use less glute activation and involve the spinal erectors in more of a concentric back movement. If your upper back is weak these are tremendous.

Hyperextensions – low back, glutes and hamstrings are used in this movement.

Reverse hyperextensions – low back, glutes and hams.

Dumbbell swings – low back, glutes and hams.

Rope pull through – With legs bent works low back, glutes and hams. Legs straight emphasizes low back more.

Romanian deadlifts – low back, hams and glutes. Hold the bar in your hands. With an arched back push your glutes back. The bar will lower to around knee level and you should feel a stretch in the hamstrings. This is an indicator that the form is right.

Glute Ham Raise (GHR) – one of the very best hamstring and glute exercises to build a lagging deadlift.

Low squats/low box squats – these can also be used for reps and max work. They are used to overload the hips, low back/upper back and leg muscles. It is possible to use several variations of low squats or low box squats with different bars such as a safety squat bar or cambered bar if they are available. If they are not, front squats to a low box, back squats with a towel on the shoulders, (to raise the bar and change the leverage thus making it different to a regular bar squat) elevating the heels, close and wide stance squatting and changing the box height (from 8-10-12 inches high for example) are other options that could be used. Different styles will place an emphasis on different muscles.

For abs spread eagle sit ups, lying leg raises, incline lying leg raises and straight leg sit ups on a Glute Ham Raise apparatus are some great abdominal movements. When performingabdominal movements that flex the hip such as above, learn to take a breath into the abdomen before commencing each rep. Tense the abs and perform a rep. This mimics the action taken before pulling a heavy deadlift by learning to brace and expand the abs which will stabilize the torso.

Also very importantly the obliques at the side of the lower torso are of vital importance to any heavy deadlift. Side bends, cable side bends, landmines and 1 arm dumbbell deadlifts are excellent choices.

If your grip is a weakness that needs addressing, static bar holds, hex dumbbell holds, grippers and plate pinches are good choices.

Pick 1-2 posterior movements/squatting movements, and 1-2 abdominal movements after max effort work. Train them heavy (3-10 reps) for several sets with short rest periods. It is good practice to do heavy assistance work after your max effort lift. They can also be done on another day via smaller shorter workouts. If your conditioning does not allow you to complete your training like this, it is possible to build up to this kind a volume by performing fewer sets per exercise and more taking more rest between sets. As time goes on decrease the rest between sets and increase the number of sets. You will accomplish more work in less time, your conditioning will improve and you will find your workouts increasingly more manageable. Greater volume can be achieved and more strength gained. You can in fact train every day if you vary your intensities. You should not train the same muscle group’s heavy every day. For example, on max effort day train heavy assistance work after your max lift. The next day you may train the same muscle groups but with 60% of the intensity (weight) that you used on max effort day. On the day after this reduce the training to 60% of the previous day. This will aid in restoration and increase muscle mass, strength and muscular endurance. On the fourth day you can train heavy again, but of course the days after this you will need to wave the weight down by 60% each day for the next 2 days. It will take time to build up to higher volume workouts so add extra workouts when conditioning improves to address weaknesses. These workouts should be short and should address a weakness you have that you seek to improve. The more often you can train, the faster you can improve. Make sure you are honest about where you are weak and pick the appropriate exercises that address each weakness. As you progress you will find progress slows down in any particular lift. Stop it and pick another that does a similar job. Then after a rotation of a few more you can come back to the original one and be better at it and use more weight. The more advanced the lifter, the more often the exercise must be rotated.

Speed work

Now last but not least, speed work is great at pushing up a deadlift. It will build a fast rate of force development.

Box squats – builds power the in lower body. For the deadlift, a wide stance box squat will build speed-strength in the appropriate deadlifting muscles as long as the appropriate percentages are used. Also form should be correct. Arch the back and sit back until the shins are at least at a 90 degree angle (which will stress the hamstrings, glutes and hip flexors). Once on the box keep the back and abs tight but relax the hamstrings, glutes and hip flexors. To come up, flex the hamstrings, glutes and hip flexors hard and push your traps into the bar and push outward with your hips. Remember to take a breath into the stomach and tense the abs before commencing each rep. For speed strength, a percentage of 75-85% of your max box squat is optimal. Use short rest periods of 45-60 seconds if possible for sets of 2 reps for 6-8 sets. If you rest any longer than this the training effect will be lessened.

Speed pulls (from rack or floor) – Again builds power and speed in lower body. These will aid in perfecting form. Try alternating from conventional styles from the floor, from a rack and a sumo style. Again, a percentage of 75-85% of your max will train speed-strength more optimally. Use singles or triples with short rest periods of 30-60 seconds if possible.

For more information on the optimal number of lifts at each percentage I recommend using Prilepin’s table which can be viewed on the internet.

Bands, chains and weight releasers will also provide an adjustment in the strength curve of a lift. In the case of bands or chains, this is to reduce bar deceleration in the concentric portion of a lift. Bands and weight releasers will also overload the lowering portion of a squat. Bands will pull the lifter down faster than they would normally lower in a squat thus causing a greater amount of kinetic energy when in contact with the box (if a box is used) thus allowing the lifter to accelerate faster concentrically. When a weight releaser device falls off during the lowering phase, the body reacts as if the weight was still on the bar allowing the lifter to accelerate the weight faster on the way up. Weight releasers can also be positioned so that they fall upon the bar when raising a deadlift at any point during the lift. This will make the weight more at the top than the bottom.

A variety of body weight or light weighted jumps to improve neuromuscular speed and explosiveness will aid in building a bigger lift by assisting the separation phase (the bottom part of the lift of a box squat, a pull from a rack or deadlift from the floor). Some good choices are broad jumps, box jumps, depth jumps and vertical jumps.

Linking it all together

The above components are better combined and linked in weekly and 3 weekly cycles rather than trained in separate linear phases. Each component added will improve your deadlift potential by linking different strength qualities together. Each component neglected will slow your deadlift or possibly regress it.

An example of a structured workout for the deadlift is as follows:

One day max out as follows: pick a squat type one week, a deadlift type next week then a good morning type the week after as described. Some people find that after 3 weeks of maxing out they stall in their max effort lifts (even when they are changed weekly). If this is the case don’t max out for more than 3 weeks without having a week where no max efforts are attempted (but keep the assistance exercises). Start again on week 5 with a different type of squat, then a different type of deadlift then a different type of good morning. It is up to you how many different max effort movements to incorporate but 6-9 movements are good to avoid stalling or suffering from burnout and accommodation. You can then re-do the first cycle. As you break your records in different types of assistance and max effort movements, your deadlift will go up provided the exercises are selected appropriately. This can be trial and error and is a very individual thing. You will learn which lifts have the best carryover to your deadlift by experimenting. This would be the case for both max effort exercises and assistance work for reps. Assistance work for reps should be done to build the individual muscles that deadlift. You should pick exercises that have a positive carryover effect and work where you are weak in order to make you stronger. Movements with little or no carryover value should be replaced with more appropriate movements.

At least 72 hours later do box squats and/or speed pulls. A 3 week wave is used as per the percent descriptions earlier in the article. A 3 week wave is important for speed work. If one tries to increase the weight for any longer than this, bar speed will be reduced. The solution is to wave the percentages back to week one. Combining the amount of bands, chains or weight on the releasers also helps to avoid accommodation. The percentages are calculated according to ones 1 rep max in the lift they are performing. For instance, the box squat is an excellent tool for developing a fast rate of force development (thus a good reason to use it for speed work). A person’s box squat max off a 12 inch box may be 200 kg. They may decide to use this to base speed work off. When they have broken the max effort record for this box height then they will then adjust the percentages accordingly.

6-8 sets of box squats of 2 rep sets will work well depending on the percent used. If speed pulls are performed, 5-10 sets of singles or 2-3 sets of triples immediately after speed squatting works well, preferably with 75-85% of max.

Jumping movements can be trained any day of the week in extra workouts, but again should not be trained with high intensity every day. 1-3 jumping sessions a week will add an edge to one’s training by alternating high, medium and low intensity jumps.

Max effort work, speed work, assistance work for weak muscle groups and jumping exercises can all be performed in weekly and 3 weekly cycles to increase ones deadlift. Extra workouts can also address weaknesses such as a lack of strength in a muscle group, a lack of sufficient physical conditioning, or a lack of flexibility. Reducing the weight on different days will also increase muscular endurance and provide restoration while also helping to increase ones conditioning level. The better ones conditioning level (or general physical preparedness) the faster and harder and more often one can train. Exercises can also be rotated according to one’s physiological adaptions to avoid plateaus (accommodation). Each well prepared element is like a transmission in a car. The more gears you use, the more efficiently the car runs. Remove a gear and the cars performance is reduced or it stops. Give some or all of the ideas in this article a go for a better deadlift.


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