Monday, August 18, 2014

Road to Relentless: Programming the Deadlift.

The Deadlift. You pick something up and put it down. Looking back, I don't think I truly grasped the deadlift until I digested that idea. All you're doing is picking something up and putting it down. I mean, all the lifts have tips and tricks, cues and techniques. And the deadlift is no exception. But at the same time, it's a pretty simple concept. Pick something up and put it down.

Think about that for a second. What do you want the weight to do? Move up. How is the best way to do that? Move it in as straight a line as possible. Since childhood we've all been taught "use your legs, not your back" to pick things up. How would you pick up a big box? Squat down. Grab the box. Lean back and stand straight up. Why would the deadlift be any different? When I grasped this, I started leaning back a little, pulling the slack out of the bar, and standing straight up. My deadlift started feeling and moving phenomenally.

One key to this, I've found, is the paused deadlift. Essentially you're going to stop the deadlift somewhere between mid-shin and just below the knee. Keep the tension in your body (back and core maintain their tightness) and wait for a moment. Then stand up.

I first heard about these at the Dan Green seminar. I love the idea of using them in your warm-up to really hone in on your technique. If you're too far out of alignment, your lower back is going to feel all whack-a-doodle. That's a technical term. When you pull into proper alignment, suddenly it doesn't feel so bad to pause for a few moments. That technique carries over into the big weights.

In my experience, the deadlift is the extreme on the volume/intensity scale. Whereas the bench press can use a ton (literally, heh) of volume, and the squat lies somewhere in the middle, the deadlift requires less volume in order to recover from session to session. I think this is because the deadlift truly is a whole-body lift. It's a fantastic builder of leg, back, and arm strength. Not only are you driving heavy weights with your legs, like you do with the squat, but you're gripping the weight instead of letting it rest on you. Takes a whole lot more to actually hold something than to stabilize it.

Some of those 5x5 programs show this too: most of them will give you programming like 3 x 5 or 5 x 5 for the bench/row/squat, but when it comes to deadlift it's almost inevitably 1x5 or 3x5. Less volume because it takes quite the toll on your body.

A typical deadlift session for me looks something like this:
Warm-up using full plates. Keep the weight under 8 reps, generally speaking. As I find with squats, it never hurts to get some glute-activation in your warm-up as well. One-legged bridges are fantastic for this:

When you hit your working weight, hit hit hard for singles, doubles, or triples. I find singles and doubles to be especially fun. With singles you can approach your true max, resting enough between lifts. Using doubles, you'll have to back off a little, but try to pull them as hard and as fast as you can. Use sets to get the volume in, not reps. Take plenty of time to recover.

I'll typically try to get a few back-off sets at a lower weight in as well, but these are non-essential depending on time/how I'm feeling that day. As long as I'm pulling heavy singles/doubles, I'm happy for that day. For the past month or so I've been pulling singles; it's probably time to start swapping them out for doubles. 
Ideally that will probably look something like this:

There's an old adage that your body won't lift what it can't hold. For the deadlift this means that your grip will always be the limiting factor. Some people like to use straps, but I've never liked the way they felt. A bit of chalk never hurts though. To help me with my grip strength I've been using Fat Gripz on my standard bench day and with my rowing during overload day. This seems to be carrying over nicely into my deadlift but it's too early to tell. 

Generally speaking, the little muscles recover faster than the big ones. Which means you can hit them harder and more often. Grip work several times a week compared to big-muscle work once or twice. That sort of thing. The mainstays that I've always heard of for grip training are:

  • Fat bar work (rows/presses)
  • Pull-ups (esp. with weight)
  • Towel hangs (throw a towel over a pull-up bar and hang for time)
  • Plate pinches (pinch one/more weight plates in your hand, for time)
  • Farmers Walks (walk as far as you can with something as heavy)
  • Pausing and holding the top of the deadlift
As I mentioned before, I'll be putting farmers walks into the rotation soon. The rest, with the exception of plate pinches, I already do. Aerial is fantastic for working out the grip, as anyone who has worked on straight fabrics can tell you. 


Your Recover and You: how to gauge how you feel

Recovery is kind of a subjective thing. There's so much that goes into your day to day life, exercise and well being that it can be hard -- if not impossible -- to say something like "I'm 90% recovered from the last workout session". I mean, it would be fantastic if we were able to quantify something like that. That way we can gauge the next workout session, tailoring it to better fit our bodies. But it's not that easy for us.  

There's something fancy that I've been reading about called heart rate variability training. Essentially it's using your hear rate throughout different points in the day as a metric to see how well you're recovering. With the prevalence of heart rate monitors, fitness bands, and smart phone apps these days, it's a fantastic way to examine your training.

A slightly easier method is to examine how your grip feels. Squeeze your hands. Hang on to something. Does it feel weak today? Or can you crush coal into diamonds? It's not perfect, but your grip can be a fantastic indication of whether or not you're recovered from the last workout. If it's feeling really weak today, back off a little bit. If not, go for it! It's another tool in that self-examined lifting tool-box. 
I've also been thinking that I should implement some hamstring-specific work as well as more leg-based grip work. To that end I've been looking towards the hack squat for general lower body accessory work as well as stiff-leg deadlifts to hit those hammies. What I wouldn't give for a reverse-hyperextension machine. This segues well into my next series of articles, which I think will be about support/accessory work and general program layout/design. 


  1. I have never done a deadlift. I don't think I even did them in high school weight training.

  2. If you've got a competent trainer I'd say give it a try! Or start with an empty bar and work your way up. That's what I did.

    The lift definitely gets a lot of flak; people scared for their backs. This comes from leaning waaaaay too far forward over the bar, and lifting with the back. Such a lift has it's place, in the stiff-leg deadlift, and even then they're probably doing it wrong.

    Step up the the bar, place your mid-foot under the bar. Keep the bar close to you, stand straight up. Bring the bar with you when you stand up. If you're doing it right, you will most likely scrape your shins. Wear tall socks or pants.

    That's the basics of the lift. There's nothing else like it to develop your posterior chain. Glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors. Even traps and lats have their place in the lift. It's a full-body lift like none other.

    Plus it makes you feel like a certified bad-ass.

    A few vids I might recommend if you're considering it: