Deadlift Progression

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Al Borland played by Richard Karn


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Deadlift Progression

The deadlift is peculiar exercise because it has the propensity to build massive strength and size, yet it can also hamper training when done incorrectly. I will briefly talk about the general procedure to increase the deadlift for a new trainee, talk about some ideas for the more advanced, and then open up the forum for what you may have done, seen, or read regarding advanced deadlift training.

Someone that is brand new to lifting will be learning technique in all of their lifts and will be able to deadlift every workout. How fast someone advances is individualized. Former weight trainees and athletes will lift more weight, thus they will reduce their frequency of deadlifting sooner than someone who has been sedentary. Factors that affect this are strength and density of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones; systemic recovery ability; genetic potential for strength; technique; present muscular development; and desired soreness. Regardless of how fast someone can progress, the question lies with whether they should. If the frequency of deadlifting has been low or non-existent, then the progression in weight should be gradual. If a former high school athlete works up to deadlifting 350 for reps on his first or second day, he may cause damage to muscles or tendons that could prevent him from even squatting in his next workout. The Bill Starr axiom Patience + Persistence = Strength is incredibly important with training and programming.

Regular Novice
After the honeymoon phase of deadlifting, it would behoove the lifter to shift to deadlifting once per week. This allows ample recovery time between deadlift workouts. Some trainees deadlift early in the week and find that it hampers their next squat workout two days later. Instead, consider deadlifting at the end of the week because the weekend provides one more day of recovery before the next training session. If deadlift training hasn’t consisted of one work set of five reps, then the trainee should switch to it here. One work set of five reps ensures that the intensity is high enough to be an adaptive stress, yet the volume is low enough so that you can still continue on your linear progression. This wouldn’t be the time for multiple sets of five or sets of five across; crippling the lower back with high volume or high intensity deadlifts will be debilitating to the overall strength improvement as well as ruining the next workout.

A good goal would be to increase the weight lifted by about 15 pounds. This increment will be steady and should continue advancing for quite a while. If there was a particularly difficult workout, then it wouldn’t make sense to increase 15 pounds. If the last workout was equivalent to warming up, then it’s probably safe to increase more than 15 pounds. Keep in mind that as you advance (in how you adapt to stress or how much weight is on the bar), higher increases will be harder to recover from. Just because it’s possible to make a large increase doesn’t mean you should (remember, hindering your next workout isn’t conducive to getting stronger — leave your ego out of it). When you are more advanced, you should have a good understanding of what your body can and cannot handle (although some people never learn this awareness and make stupid decisions).

Advanced Novice
Once 15 pound increments start to “slow down” (i.e. become increasing difficult each deadlift workout), then 10 pound increments will be in order followed by increases of 5 pounds. Depending on lifting schedule, the lifter can adjust his program to deadlifting every 10 days and continue making 15 to 10 pound jumps. The extra recovery time will allow the larger increases to still occur. When deadlifting slows down every 10 days, then it may be time to deadlift every 14 days. This is what I did with Chris when he progressed his deadlift from the mid 400s for reps to the mid 500s for reps. He ended up pulling 545×5 and singled around 600. The problem with deadlifting on that schedule is that the lifter only deadlifts twice a month. If someone is interested in general strength for a sport, this infrequency may not be enough to give their musculature the appropriate work. If someone is interested in powerlifting, this infrequency (and lack of heavier deadlifting) won’t be conducive to getting ready for meets.

Intermediate and Beyond
The track that a trainee has taken up to this point is dependent on their ability, goals, and schedule. They may have deadlifted once a week consistently and resetted several times, or they may have elongated their progression by increasing recovery time between deadlift workouts (also with resets). One method that someone can shift to is doing a variation of the 5/3/1 on their deadlift. This isn’t the same as literally doing Wendler’s program, but it takes the principle from it. In week 1, the lifter would do a medium-heavy work set of five reps. They wouldn’t try for a PR or a max set, but something that gives them some work. The next week they’d aim to increase the weight (perhaps 20 pounds), and do it for a triple. Again, it shouldn’t be a 3RM or a 10 on a rating of perceived exertion scale. The following week they’d increase the weight again and do a single. If the single was easy, then they could repeat it for another single, or add a bit of weight. The idea is to reduce the volume while increasing the intensity every week, so the last week shouldn’t exceed two or three reps. The fourth week can be a light deadlift day, or accessory day (e.g. RDL’s if they aren’t done regularly).

This set up would provide an undulating volume/intensity pattern for deadlift training, and give the lifter some rest at the end of the month. When I was first thinking about this programming idea, Gant was worried that the fourth week should be a total reduction in volume like the original 5/3/1. Gant is a proponent of reductions in training on a regular basis — and for good reason. Regular reductions allow your body’s recover capabilities to catch up with the stress imparted on it. This is relevant to casual* and older lifters**. However, younger lifters (<30 years old) who train seriously probably don't require this every four weeks. The reduction of deadlift stress in that fourth week along with the potential reduction of other lifts should be enough. This shouldn't have to be said, but if you are feeling run down or spread thin, then it's time to reduce your training for the sake of recovery — this fourth week is a perfect time for that.

The subsequent months of this 5/3/1 style of deadlifting should see more weight used on each day. The sets of 5, 3, and 1 should be higher than they were the previous month without overtraining. The lifter who can walk that knife’s edge will be rewarded with a progressing deadlift. This style of programming the deadlift can be altered to the lifter’s needs; 5/3/2, 3/2/1, and 3/2/2 are all valid. A more advanced trainee could even change the rep scheme depending on how many months out from a meet he is. Six months out could see something like 8/5/3 or even 12/8/6. Who cares? The idea is to adjust your training to continue making progress. The major difference with Wendler’s program is that I wouldn’t recommend the lifter to go for maximum reps on a given day; I’m merely just using the general rep scheme. Too many reps would increase the volume and ruin the effectiveness of a Texas Method or split routine style program. Remember that the 5/3/1 has less volume than a Texas Method, and that’s why going for max reps is possible and effective. Keep in mind that the entire program can be shifted to Wendler’s exact program for great success; everything I’ve written here is relevant to programming the deadlift on an intermediate style program where volume and intensity are manipulated weekly (like the Texas Method).

Open Forum
I gave just one example of how you can progress your deadlift beyond the novice stage, yet it isn’t the only way. I’ve asked a couple of readers with solid deadlifts to give their thoughts in the comments, so feel free to share what you have done for your advanced training. If you are deadlifting over 500 pounds then it would be interesting to hear what you have done, seen, or read about. If the training you share with us is only relevant to lifters on drugs, then please clarify so it doesn’t mislead aspiring deadlifters (in other words, if you mention Westside or equivalents, clarify who you’re talking about).

*Casual lifters are those who want to get stronger, but it isn’t their main focus in life. This is okay; you don’t have to be passionately married to a barbell. It’s better to be honest with yourself and say, “I like getting stronger, but it isn’t top priority in life, yet I will continue to train consistently to get stronger and more muscular over time for x reason(s).”
**This statement can also be applied to people of any age who are beginning to lift for the first time in their life. The high school and collegiate cross country runner’s body will be inept at dealing with the stresses of lifting continuously, and thus they may require more patience and slower increases in weight over time. Getting stronger is a process, and if your body has never done it before (or hasn’t in a long time), you must respect that fact.

Some Common Deadlift Faults

Brent is a pain in the ass, so let’s pick on him today. Here is a video of him deadlifting 405 for 8. It isn’t a limit set, but it’s tough.

On a side note, Brent was asking if he looks more swole in the picture (remember, he’s been focusing on swollertrophy as of late). I really can’t tell because he’s wearing white, the one color that reduces swoleness.

Irre-fucking-gardlessly, let’s talk about some mechanics. If you watch the first few reps, you can see that Brent doesn’t get a good squeeze in his chest prior to pulling. Since he doesn’t extend his thoracic spine to the potential that he can, there is some slack that gets yanked out as he starts the pull. Brent habitually does this for some reason (I noticed it on his Olympic lifts, and he was doing it in an Olympic weightlifting meet in March to deleterious effects), and I think training alone all the time is the culprit. As you can see, Brent is strong enough that the loose starting position doesn’t prevent him from pulling the bar off the ground, affect his low back, or change the bar path. This looseness can allow the bar to swing forward as it comes off the ground, and when the bar is in front of the middle of the foot (the balance point) it’ll be exponentially harder (and cause a missed lift if it’s heavy). Letting the bar swing out front also can cause the low back to round since the lever arm is less efficient.

As Brent gets tired, you can see his hips raise before the bar gets past his knees. Ideally the back angle shouldn’t change until after the bar passes the knees. His back angle changes (hips rising, chest dropping) because his hamstrings are getting tired. The hamstrings isometrically hold the back angle in place, and since he’s doing higher reps they are getting fatigued and not doing their job. You can clearly see this as the bar passes his knees. Brent pushes his knees forward and the bar doesn’t move upward. As a result, the hips extend without applying any force to the bar, and this makes the back more vertical. In other words, the bar doesn’t move that much and the hamstrings are no longer helping, so the lockout becomes primarily a knee and back extension without including the normal hip extension.

If you’re doing a 1RM, you should pull the bar however you can. But when you’re trying to get as much musculature strong (or maximally jacked), you’d want to keep your knees back so that the hamstrings maintain their role in the movement. Brent isn’t horribly sloppy here, but if he were, there would be significant stress on the lumbar spine. If you already have back problems then you’d want to be careful with this common form fault. I’ve coached lots of people that have lumbar disc problems and they have never re-injured the existing injury. However, I’ve heard several stories recently of people hurting their backs deadlifting, and this form issue is probably the problem. Any time you change a movement mid-lift to use less muscle mass, you’ll increase the injury potential.

A coach should take care of your form faults, but if you don’t have one, a friend or camera can identify your problems. You should have already learned enough about the movement that you would be able to see major errors. Once they are identified, you can cue yourself. At most you’ll think about one or two cues. In Brent’s case, I would verbally cue him to squeeze his chest up before the lift starts. This would fix his little “hips raising” issue as well as the “pulling the slack out” issue. Since 405 is relatively lighter for him, his lack of tightness isn’t detrimental, but he looks like a poon doing it. Next, I would cue his knees to stay back on the second portion of the pull. This will prevent his knees from falling forward and will keep his hamstrings tight, thus giving him a wonderful set of hams that will create the road map for a woman’s eyes to travel up to his prominent glutes he got from FedEx and squatting.

Next I would cue him to do pull-ups in his underwear.

Brent’s roommate does a fantastic job of giving him adamantly loud, yet non-descriptive cues.

Lady’s First Meet

Last week’s posts were dominated by our experience from Raw Nationals. A lot of you have written in saying how much 70’s Big has inspired you to compete, and I enjoy every one of those e-mails. 70’s Big is an attitude, and part of that attitude is putting yourself to the test and risking failure along the way.

I’m going to periodically share some stories from people who have written to me about their competitions. Today I want to highlight Antoinette’s journey into her first powerlifting meet earlier this month. You may remember her from this post when she deadlifted 250lbs. Antoinette is coached by her boyfriend Eric, and he did a solid job on teaching her the barbell lifts and helping her develop a great strength base. On a side note, Antoinette told me that when she got into lifting, she dropped bodyfat and even though she was eating a lot more. I’ll let her comment on that, but typically when girls start getting stronger they have an improvement in body composition.

Eric and Antoinette having a rough time with the 70's Big Face

The first time Antoinette e-mailed me, she was asking about the best way to taper her “Texas Method” program into the meet. TM programming works really well with people shifting from novice programming to intermediate, and once the lifter has been on it for a few months, it can be transitioned pretty well into a short taper for a meet. I recommended she start doing 3 rep maxes (3RM) so it would paint a more accurate picture of what she could open with.

Antoinette kept in touch with me as she got ready for the meet, and unfortunately she was hit with various types of the black plague for the three weeks leading into the meet. In any case, she didn’t let it deter her from having a solid day. Eric wrote me a recap, and I’ll give it to you from the horse’s mouth:

So our plan was to open conservatively and make reasonable jumps for the second attempts on each lift so, worst case, she could go 6/9 and put up lifts in the neighborhood of her training PRs. Seeing how she was coming off being sick for most of the three weeks prior to the meet, and the fact that her Tuesday recovery day hadn’t gone very well, we definitely wanted to keep things on the low side. Add in the fact that she was on the verge of having an anxiety attack prior to her first lift (she can tell you more about that) and I was still a little worried going into the squats.

We decided to open at 105kg on squats, which was a weight she had tripled without too much struggle two weeks ago. You can see that it looked a little more difficult than it should have, which was mainly due to her nervousness preventing her from getting a good deep breath before starting the lift. So we only went with a 2.5kg jump for her second attempt, which put her about 9lbs short of her gym PR of 245lbs. 107.5kg went up without too much problem since she had calmed down a lot once she got the first lift out of the way. She had a slight knee turn-in and loss of back angle, so we knew she could handle quite a bit more weight if she fixed that. For her third attempt we jumped to 112.5kg, and even with a slight knee turn-in (looks like it was due to toes not being angled out enough in the stance) it went up without any problem.

Bench was definitely her weakest event–on her last intensity day she had put up 125lbs (which was a PR for her) but it didn’t go easy. We opened at 52.5kg which went up easy enough, but I was still hesitant about making a big jump on bench so we only went to 55kg for attempt #2. That went up easy enough that I felt comfortable calling for 60kg on the third attempt. By this time she had gotten over the nervousness and was able to channel the pressure in a productive way and get amped up for each lift. 60kg went up far easier than I had expected, giving her a 7lb PR on bench.

With deadlift we wanted to use the first attempt essentially as a final warmup lift so she would have something left for her second and third attempts. So we opened at 102.5kg, which she has done for a set of 5 before. That went up easy enough for us to feel comfortable jumping to 110kg on her second attempt…again short of her gym 1RM but something that would let her get a solid number on the board without too much trouble. After hitting that attempt easily we jumped to 115kg, 3lbs over her gym PR. She pulled 115kg like it was a warmup lift, and it looked far stronger than when she set her previous deadlift PR a few weeks ago.

So in the end, she went 9/9 and totaled 287.5kg, good for 2nd place in her weight class in the raw open. Tracee Patterson, the winner in her weight class, hold several national records in that class, so it was no shame to take second place to her. All three lifts were PRs and it looked like she could have handled about 5kg more on the bench and 7.5-10kg more on the squat and deadlift, but being her first meet we thought it was a better idea to leave something on the table rather than taking a chance bombing out or getting hurt.

That, my friends, is how you handle someone at their first meet. Antoinette had e-mailed me, and we went back and forth with strategy. I mentioned that they could take the last warm-up for deadlift on the platform, and that’s what they decided to do in order to help her go 9/9 in the meet. And really, PR’s on all the lifts and going 9/9? I can’t think of a better way to motivate anybody, especially a girl in her first competition. Nice job Antoinette, and nice job Eric.

Here is Antoinette’s last deadlift (you can see her other lifts here):

Lifting Vids

AC has been training with Taylor, a good friend that I used to pal around with when I was still in school. Taylor has pretty impressive pressing strength and bear-like features. I have heard stories of him cuddling a grizzly in its den because he “needed a soft warm body in those winter months”. I wasn’t shocked when he told me this.

A-way is his fiance and is in the top three funniest girls I know. She has surprising ferocity in her miniature stature, especially regarding her bear hug (it helps with Taylor). They are both the feature of another original AC film, and AC makes a deadlifting appearance at the end. Sweet song too.

T-Ray and A-way from A.C. on Vimeo.

In early June, Brent hit a PR Snatch at the WFAC in the midst of his powerlifting training.

Here’s a vid of Chris pulling 600 back in May (I think). He doesn’t get pumped at all, and that’s a rarity for him. I thought it was more impressive because he just walks up to the bar and pulls it (trust me, I know what he’s like when he’s amped).


PR Friday. Post any personal bests you may have hit this week into the comments.

Vids on PR Friday

My friend Mike Hom (you’ll remember him from this video montage) has a goal of deadlifting 405×20. This may be daunting for most lifters, but Hom only weighs 190. But when you remember that he has pulled 505×5, it seems reasonable. Well, he’s almost there.
Note the shirt as he pulls 405×16.

That was a PR for Mike, and he wants to get 20 reps by September. If you’ve got any Personal Records then bust them out in the comments on this glorious PR Friday.

Here is a very cool video of David Rigert mostly preparing for a 210kg clean and jerk (he was a 90kg lifter).

Note: There’ll be a new Saturday post that announces the “Comment of the Week” and some other kind of nonsense.