The Deadlift is one of the all-around best you can do. It’s vital for building a big, thick, strong back, and it trains just about every major and minor muscle group in the body.
It’s also one of the toughest exercises, and one that many people get stuck on. It requires extraordinary effort to perform correctly and as you get stronger, technique matters more and more both in terms of preventing injury and continuing to make progress.
In this article, I want to share with you 8 proven ways to increase your Deadlift while preventing injury. Let’s get started.
As you get stronger, form becomes more and more important for preventing injury and continuing to add weight to the bar. As Dave Tate says, one inch can make all the difference in the world.
This is why it’s smart to do a “form check” now and then by having someone record you performing a set of deadlifts (don’t try to use mirrors to check while lifting as it will throw you off).
Here’s how a perfect Deadlift looks:
The Deadlift Set Up
1. Position your feet so they’re slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart.
2. Place the bar somewhere between against your shins and at the middle of your foot.
The key here is that your shoulders are in line with the bar, or even slightly behind it, which allows for maximum leverage as you pull the bar up and back. For taller or skinnier lifters, this will probably place the bar against their shins. For shorter or thicker lifters, this will place it somewhere around the middle of the feet.
If the bar is too close to your body and your shoulders are too far in front of it, you’ll have to move the bar forward on the way up to get it over your knees. If it’s too far from your body, you’ll feel like you’re going to fall forward and won’t be able to drive upward through your heels.
3. Stand up tall with your chest out and take a deep breath of air into your diaphragm (not your lungs), bracing your abs as if you were about to get punched in the stomach.
4. Move down toward the bar by pushing your hips back, not by squatting straight down. Arch your lower back and keep your shoulders down.
Don’t make the newbie mistake of bringing your hips too low with the intention of “squatting” the weight up. The lower your hips are below optimal, the more they will have to rise before you’re able to lift the weight off the floor when you pull, which is just wasted movement.
Instead, you should feel tightness in your hamstrings and hips as you wedge yourself into what’s essentially a “half-Squat” position, and as soon as your hips rise, you want your shoulders to follow and the weight to start coming off the floor.
5. Place your hands on the bar, with either a double-overhand or and over-underhand grip, just outside your shins and squeeze it as hard as you can. Keep your shoulders back and down and engage your lats.
6. Don’t look up at the ceiling or down at the ground–keep your head in a neutral position.
Here’s a good video that shows the above points:
The Deadlift Pull
7. Drive your body upward and slightly back as quickly as you can by pushing through your heels, and keep your elbows locked in place and your lower back slightly arched (no rounding!).
Ensure that your hips and shoulders move up simultaneously–don’t shoot your hips up without also raising your shoulders.
8. As you approach the top (the lock-out), squeeze your glutes to push the hips through the final phase of the movement.
The Deadlift Descent
9. Many people break the lockout with their knees, and this is incorrect. Instead, you want to break with the hips, sitting back just as you did when you were setting up. The bar should slide down your thighs.
10. Maintain a stiff arch in the lower back and keep the shoulders down and back.
It’s also worth noting that you should make sure each rep is separate. Don’t try to bounce the bar off the ground to propel you into progressively sloppier and sloppier reps. It’s called the deadlift for a reason–you’re supposed to be picking up dead weight, not using the momentum of a bounce.
So, once the bar is back on the ground, adjust your setup position if necessary (suck in air, tense your abs, ensure your spinal position is good, puff your chest out, “pack” your shoulder in a down position, and so forth), and hit the next rep hard.
Grip weakness doesn’t just make the bar harder to hold, it actually makes the entire lift feel significantly harder. And if you don’t ensure your grip is continually improving, your deadlift will stall.
Fortunately, improving grip strength is very easy when you go about it correctly. Check out my article on how to increase grip strength to learn more.
If you an experienced weightlifter, you know the importance of being mentally prepared for heavy lifts. You can psych yourself out or up and hit or miss a lift accordingly.
You’ve undoubtedly seen powerlifters go through what sometimes looks like a ridiculous, satanic ritual before attempting a lift, but did you know that pumping yourself up like that has been scientifically proven to work?
A study conducted by researchers at AUT University with elite rugby players found that when they pumped themselves up for a Bench Press set, force production increased by 8%. Researchers also found that distraction significantly decreased force production–there was a 12% difference in force production between the pumped-up and distracted lifters.
The takeaway here is pump yourself up your for heavy lifts and concentrate on each rep as your perform it–no talking, being talked to, or mental wandering.
I don’t stomp around the gym like a madman to get pumped up. I find that the right workout songs helps dramatically for getting pumped up, and before I grab the bar, I like to take 10 to 15 seconds to focus on the lift I’m about to perform and visualize myself performing it successfully. Sounds silly? Research has shown that visualizing a successful lift before performing it can increase strength.
The subject of “ideal” rep ranges is complex, so I won’t dive into it in this article. (I do talk a bit about it on my article on hypertrophy, though.)
Instead, I’ll keep this short and sweet:
If you’re new to weightlifting (you’ve been lifting for less than a year), you should be doing all deadlifting in the 4 to 6 rep range (guys) or 8 to 10 rep range (girls).
That means you use a weight that you can do at least 4 by not more than 6 reps with, and once you hit 6 reps, you add weight for the next set. If you want to see how this fits into an actual workout, check out my article on the ultimate back workout.
If you’re an experienced weightlifter, you can benefit from working in different rep ranges, or periodizing your training.
I will be discussing periodization in more detail in my next book, Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger (which will be out in a month or two), and will be sharing a full periodized program for advanced lifters, but here’s a simply way to go about it for your deadlifting:
Week 1’s Deadlifts: 2 sets of 2 to 3 reps (~90% of 1RM) + 1 sets of 4 to 6 reps (~80% of 1 RM)
Week 2’s Deadlifts: 2 sets of 2 to 3 reps + 2 sets of 4 to 6 reps
Week 3’s Deadlifts: 2 sets of 2 to 3 reps + 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
Week 4’s Deadlifts: 3 sets of 2 to 3 reps + 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
Week 5’s Deadlifts: 4 sets of 2 to 3 reps + 2 sets of 4 to 6 reps
As you can see, the above program has you deadlifting once per week (per 5 to 7 days), and involves working in the 2 to 3 range, which provides maximal overload, and the 4 to 6 rep work is the “sweet spot” for myofibrillar muscle growth.
Once you’ve finished the 5-week cycle, you should deload for a week (or take a week off the weights), after which you can start again from week 1.
Chances are you’re like most of us and you sit in a chair all day staring at a screen. This often causes tight hips, hamstrings, and glutes, which in turn impairs our ability to Deadlift.
The fix is easy: implement a weekly lower-body mobility routine to limber up and you can dramatically improve your Deadlift.
If you want to keep progressing on your Deadlift, you should begin your workouts with it.
The reason for this is simple: studies such as this and this have shown that the order in which you do your exercises has a significant impact on your strength and overall performance capacity on each.
This is why my Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger workouts always begin with big, compound lifts like the Bench Press, Deadlift, Military Press, and Squat, and then move on to more isolation-type exercises like Dips, Dumbbell Rows, Side Lateral Raises, and Lunges.
Start your back (or pull) workouts with the Deadlift and you’ll be most likely to make progress.
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As you probably know, I’m not a fan of fancy set schemes like supersets, drop sets, and giant sets, nor am I a fan of nontraditional training protocols like super-slow training, super-fast training, negatives, and the like.
Many of these techniques have been scientifically proven to be no more effective than traditional set schemes and rep rhythms, and my experience is in line with the research (I used to do all kinds of fancy stuff and made poor progress with it).
That said, there is one “special” type of training that has both anecdotal and scientific evidence on its side, and that’s the Rest-Pause Set. This is an old school powerlifting method for breaking through plateaus, and researchers from the University of Western Sydney recently studied it. They found it to be an effective way to increase strength via greater muscle fiber recruitment.
The Rest-Pause Set is very simple. You perform an exercise to failure (the point where you can’t get another rep without help) and then rest for a short period before performing the exercise to failure again, followed by a short rest, and another set to failure, and so forth.
When incorporating this into your deadlifting routine, I recommend you do Rest-Pause sets in the 2 to 3 or 4 to 6 rep ranges, and that you limit it to 3 to 4 Rest-Pause Sets per workout.
If you’re doing Rest-Pause sets with ~90% of your 1RM (2 to 3 rep range), rest 45 to 60 seconds in between set. If you’re doing them with ~80% of your 1RM (4 to 6 rep range), rest 20 to 30 seconds in between each set.
Like “ideal” rep ranges, optimal training frequency is a hotly debated subject. The bottom line is it boils down to workout intensity and volume.
The lighter the weights and fewer the sets per workout, the more often you can train the muscle group. And, as a corollary, the heavier the weights and greater the sets per workout, the less often you can train the muscle group.
I’ve tried many different splits and frequency schemes, and what I’ve found works best is in line with an extensive review on the subject conducted by researchers at Goteborg University:
When training with the proper intensity (focusing on lifting heavy weights), optimal frequency seems to be about 40 – 60 reps performed every 5 – 7 days.
While training each muscle group 2 to 3 times per week is trendy right now, and while it’s workable (if volume is programmed correctly), it’s not necessarily more effective than training each muscle group once per 5 to 7 days, at the right volume.
If you do less than the optimal volume, as given above, you will be leaving some gains on the table. If you do more, you’ll probably end up overtraining.