After despairing about the ability of our elected leaders to make even the simplest apparently rational decisions (see imminent Grexit -or not- and future Brexit) and deepening my understanding of what makes organizations tick, let’s get back to the one realm of rationality and agency that remains, where we can keep things resolutely under our control: doing intelligently programmed exercises with a barbell.
In my latest post on this issue I argued for complementing the all important squats with another staple exercise, for which I gave the basic safety rules: the deadlift. Today, I’ll be reviewing the required equipment and, if that doesn’t take too long, I’ll provide the essential tips to become a better deadlifter.
Regarding the material you use, it is really simpler than the one needed for squatting, as the bar starts from the floor and ends in the same place. All you really need is the aforementioned bar, a helluva lot of plates (again, this move allows to displace an ungodly amount of weight, so cast iron is the most sensible option here, buying so many pounds in bumpers can be prohibitively expensive) and a flat, even surface from where to pull (horse stall mats are a preferred option, as they are rough as hell, can last a lifetime, are not too expensive, require almost no installation and absorb the noise nicely).
Now, as to what you should wear, just use some comfy clothing that allows you to bend freely at the hips, and consider the following:
· Shoes: the lower the heel the better, as the shorter will be the distance the bar has to travel between the floor and the lockout position. A lot of lifters deadlift barefoot, and some specialists (like Andy Bolton) use something disturbingly similar to ballet slippers. Don’t get me wrong, Andy is a beast and I admire him a lot, but I wouldn’t be caught dead with what he wore when he broke the barrier of 1,000 pounds for the first time. As with the squat, anything squishy or compressible at the heel is to be avoided, and Chuck Taylor (or similar rip-offs) are a frequent choice
· Belt: the same recommendations I made for the squat apply: use a wide (same in front & back), solid, thick powerlifting belt for your heavy lifts, and remember it works by having something to push the abs into. Many people (me included) wear it a tad higher to deadlift than to squat. Some people wear it much higher, almost touching the sternum (so they can adopt a lower hip position to grab the bar with better leverage). To make things more confusing, in a recent article at T-Nation my much respected Mark Rippetoe advocated using thinner belts for deadlifting (3’ wide, instead of the traditional 4’), so they were not so detrimental to adopt a correct starting position… do not get too carried away by the details, use the belt you already have and wear it the way you instinctively find more comfortable (after tightening it I get into the starting position without actually pulling and stand up again, that normally adjusts it in the right place)
· Chalk: an absolute must. Doesn’t matter how you grab the bar (both hands pronated, with or without hook grip, mixed grip –one hand pronated and the other supinated), sweaty palms are a surefire way to loose some kilograms, and miss lifts you are strong enough to complete. If you have ever been around a commercial gym you may have noticed that some lifters wear gloves (that fingerless type that complete noobs and outsiders think actually serve to identify somebody as a practitioner of the generic sport known as “recreational lifting”) to improve their grip and avoid the slippage of the bar. Do not be like them. A true lifter would rather be seen wearing ballet slippers (at least he could argue he got the idea from none other than Andy Bolton) than fingerless gloves. The way a lifter avoids the bar from slipping is by conscientiously training his or her grip, and by using chalk. Not enormous quantities of chalk, mind you (another sign of noobishness), just enough to avoid any trace of sweat or grease in the palms. Yes, it will be uncomfortable at the beginning. Yes, some calluses will form in the base of the fingers and just below the inner folds (but lifters wear their calluses as badges of honor). Yes, when doing long, close to the limit sets (specially at the beginning) some of those calluses will tear, and it will be painful and messy. Just man up (or woman up) and get on with your life. And consign the gloves to the bottom of your locker, never to wear them again.
· Straps: like with drugs, just say no (for deadlifting, they have their place in an Olympic lifting oriented routine)
So if you had a little corner of your house already set up for squatting, nothing prevents you from putting a couple stall mats in there and start deadlifting. No great technical difficulties about it, just remember to do what feels natural, start light, keep the low back flat and do not jerk the far off the floor. Add weight judiciously but relentlessly, and in no time you will find yourself moving some respectable numbers. To accelerate the progression, follow these tips:
· Tip #1 progressive overload: really? Progressive overload again? Got nothing more exciting and groundbreaking? Nope, this is still the bread and butter of any program. Add a little bit to the bar each session, and once you are not able to add more weight, add reps and start waving total volume and intensity
· Tip #2 perform full, heavy DL seldom: As Paul Carter frequently says, the deadlift is a very taxing exercise when done heavy (close to a 1RM) that can take more than what it gives. It is easy to stop progressing (and even regress) when going near to a max every day, or even every week, whilst it is a move that, when done in the range of 70% to 80% admits of a very linear, very constant improvement. Of course, if you are starting you can add a bit to the bar every session, as you just become stronger and recover from session to session and what was previously your 1RM has stopped being so the next time you grab the bar, but that lovely state of affairs can only last for so long (a couple months or until approaching 1,5 BW, whichever comes first), and after it ends it is wiser to go 1RM heavy (or anywhere above 90% of that) once a month, or even less frequently
· Tip #3 strengthen the grip: As is commonly said, “the back and the legs won’t lift what the hands can’t hold on to”. The strongest hamstrings, glutes and erectors in the world are close to useless if the puny flexors can’t keep the fingers wrapped around the bar, and the moment they start letting it go the powerful posterior chain will shut off. Most of the times, the grip is the weakest link and thus the impediment to keep progressing in the deadlift. When that is the case, there is no way around it, it has to be strengthened, even if that means training it separately (a case can be made for actual deadlifting being the most productive way to strengthen the grip, but if it is substantially below par it can consistently hamper the ability of the rest of the body to grow stronger for a long time). There are four ways to get the grip up to par:
o Dedicated grip sessions in the gym, that involve mostly plate pinching and are one of the most boring things that can be done (but produce great results fast)
o Dedicated grip activity outside the gym, mostly with a specific tool designed for that purpose (“grippers”) which have the advantage of being usable anytime anywhere, even while you do some other thing at the same time (which has the paradoxical effect of making it less likely that you will actually ever do it). Its effectiveness depends on how disciplined you can be about it (hint: most people are not much), and if you are going to go down that road, I suggest using a whole set of grippers of increasing resistance (like the very famous “Captains of Crush”, of which I own a few) so you can apply the same principle of progressive overload we already know is so useful
o Farmers’ walks, just grab a pair of heavy implements, from dumbbells to specially designed farmer’s walk handles, and walk around carrying them until your grip gives way and they fall to the ground; massage your fingers, curse a bit, ignore the lacerating pain and repeat. Next day do the same thing, only with a bit more weight… you get the idea
o Sneak some extra grip training in your existing program (in the gym). For example, hold the last rep of each set of deadlifts for 20-30 extra seconds (or until the grip gives way) after lockout; hold the top of each chin up or pull up for an extra 5-10 secs; hold the top of each row… just extend the time under tension of the flexors in every exercise that requires holding a bar, so the grip does that extra work and is forced to grow stronger in the process
· Tip #4 engage the lats: the more efficient pull ends up being a stronger pull, where more reps are done with more weight. And for the pull to be more efficient it has to move as vertically as possible. To keep the bar in a vertical path the lats have to stay in tension during all the pull, as the tendency of the bar the moment it separates from the floor will be to swing slightly forward. Think of moving it slightly brushing the shins until it passes the knees, and resolutely brushing the thighs thereafter. Since the moment the hands grab the bar, contract the alts hard to create a solid block, and do not relax them until fully locked out
· Tip #5 wrap fingers around bar: when you start moving serious weights, for multiple reps, there is no way around it: the bar is going to hurt where it presses the hand. Now, accepting that fact, it doesn’t have to hurt like hell (well, it actually does, but that level of pain should be limited to AMRAP sets above 80%, and you shouldn’t try to get near there until you are quite knowledgeable about your own body and your physical and mental limits). The first step to reduce the discomfort is to learn to properly grab the bar. As gravity is going to pull it to the nook between the fingers and the palm, rather than let it get there dragging a big fold of skin underneath, which is what causes most of the pain, let it sit firmly there before wrapping the fingers around it, so it starts already in the place it will eventually end (and thus will not form that excessive skin fold). A doddle may help explain it:
· Tip #6 activate the glutes: The quadriceps are the main contributors to take the bar off the floor; the hamstrings then kick in to take it from below the knees to mid thigh, and the glutes finally complete the lockout, ensuring the bar goes up those final 1-2 inches that are the most difficult (actually, a final valid lockout receives a major contribution from the oft neglected rhomboids in the middle of the back, but the glutes need to have taken it to the right height before the rhomboids can finish arching the back in position). Of all those muscle groups, the gluteus enter last, but are the most decisive, as if they allow for the slightest relaxation they will have a much harder time completing the lift (as they will a) let some of the power being exerted by the hammies and quads leak and b) have more difficulties to start contracting at the right moment, once those have finished their contribution). So remember to clench them hard since the very beginning, when you take the slack out of the bar. A little trick that has worked well for me is to turn the knees slightly outwards just before starting the pull, to have the gluteus medius (and adductor of the legs) already shortened and tense since the beginning.
· Tip #7 choose the right assistance exercises: as we already said in the 2nd tip, the Deadlift doesn’t lend itself to frequently maxing. But maxing is one of the most effective tools to speed up gains. What are we to do if we want those sweet gains to keep coming without burning up? Hit the supplementary exercises hard, that’s what. Now they are called supplementary for a reason, as they can not entirely substitute for the main lift (as it was widely circulated some years ago, how to get better at DL without actually DL’ing… which was a big piece of BS, of course), but can keep it improving at a lesser cost. There are two main kinds of assistance for deadlifting:
o Stiff legged Deadlift (SLDL)/ Romanian DL, in which you keep the legs more extended (you bend less at the knees) and the hip higher, so you essentially take the quads off the equation and put additional stress on hammies and glutes. As they have to be done with lesser weight they are less taxing, and can be done for more reps, and with higher frequency. They are the right solution for lack of strength off the floor, so if your competition DL’s fail in the first 3-5 inches, that’s what you should do to improve
o Partial DL’s/ rack pulls/ block pulls, in which you position the bar higher than normal (be it in the safeties of a rack, a pair of boxes, or even stacked plates), which allow for more eight being used but without the most stressful part of the lift (the initial one) being done. They correct the lack of strength in the upper part of the lift, so it is the go to solution if you tend to fail anywhere above the knees. They can be more or less dynamic (to qualify as pulls they should be followed by some shrug after reaching the lockout position) and have different range of motion, most coaches agree than for them to have some transfer to the complete move they should start at least below the knees (although lifting the bar just a couple of inches with a monstrous weight is a superb exercise for the grip)
· Tip #8 keep weight on heels: The most stable position of the human body is achieved when the center of mass (of the system formed by the body plus the barbell) is right above the center of the feet (between the balls of the feet and the heel). To ensure the trajectory of the barbell does not deviate the center of mass from that vertical line, it is helpful to think in keeping the weight on the heels (not let it drift towards the ball of the feet or, even worse, towards the toes –the cue of wiggling the toes before pulling is as helpful here as it was in the squat). As I mentioned in the safety rules, when you start the pull think of it as pushing the floor away with the heels rather than lifting the bar with the back and hips, to ensure the main thrust doesn’t take you off balance (typically by leaning too fast forward, in some sense what you are trying to do is pull the bar a bit backwards, towards you –hence the previous tip of engaging the lats, to counteract the spontaneous tendency to lean too much)
· Tip #9 look up! Not up to the ceiling, mind you, just a little higher than what you are doing right now. This will enhance your back alignment and make it easier to puff out the chest and keep the shoulders slightly externally rotated so you can pull safely and effectively. Some lifters (me included, it took me a while to get rid off that bad habit) use to look slightly down before starting to pull, as if they fear the bar may be in a wrong position (or may get into one) if they don’t check it visually. Do not worry, bars loaded w 400 pounds have a tendency not to jump around, and stay firmly within the hands that move them. Just look ahead (a tad higher than what is your natural stance, that for most people tends to be a tad too slouching) and trust mean ol’ mr. gravity (in Rippetoe’s words) to keep the bar in its place
· Tip #10 speed is king: this coming from a not very explosive lifter (remember, my power clean only recently reached a 50% of my deadlift), who has had his share of utra-slow grinding, bone on bone lifts. The moment you start actually pulling (not counting the 1-2 seconds you spend taking the slack off the bar, closing the glottis and bracing the core) commit 100% to the lift and use all your might to take the bar to lockout as fast as humanly possible. In the words of Donny Shankle, “as if you were ripping off the head of a goddamn lion”: if you do not pull fast enough and powerfully enough the lion will keep the head in its shoulders and, being royally pissed off by the jerk, will probably maul you to death. There are a number of ways to work on your speed, the most direct is to do power cleans, you just can’t do them slowly. If power cleans are technically too difficult (there is people awfully uncoordinated and/ or stiff) I recommend introducing in the program some speed deads, performed with 50%-60% of the 1RM and with very little rest between them, and done as fast and explosively as possible. A variant I have used (which can be very humbling) is standing in front of the bar and try to perform 20 singles, every half minute on the half minute (so 20 reps in a total time of 10 minutes). You just look at the clock (or your watch) and when the hand gets to 25 or 55 you bend, grab the bar, stand up and put it down as quickly as you can. After 5’ you stand in a puddle of sweat, hands shredded to pieces, and your weakest link trembling and shaking uncontrollably (so you find very fast what weakest link may be holding you back). When you reach the 20th rep you normally faint, but you thank God it’s over
· Tip #11 don’t overthink it: Dave Tate has a very famous article on the deadlift that runs something like 10,000 words long, and Mark Rippetoe devotes almost 90 pages of Starting Strength to its countless subtleties and nuances. You can endlessly discuss some aspects (is it better to do it sumo ro conventional? Mixed grip or hook grip? Roll it a bit towards you before starting the pull or move it from a complete stop?) but it is truly the most basic of human movements that can be performed with a barbell. Just grip it & rip it. Repeat enough times as to engrave the neuromuscular pattern, and progress slowly, as it allows for an almost infinite progression (it just progresses at a slower and slower pace). If you do what feels more natural you will do it right 99 out of 100 times. As long as you don’t attempt foolish jumps in weight (especially when you already move heavy enough amounts) it is one of the safest movements: if at some point in the lift you come to the conclusion that you can not complete it, you just let it go, and it will fall to the floor harmlessly (contrary to what happens in the squat and the bench press, no part of yourself ever gets in the way of the falling plates). But (just a suggestion) before letting it go just try a bit harder, some of my best lifts were completed past the point where I had almost given up and thought they were beyond salvation…
So there you are, ten plus one tips to keep you happily deadlifting until you get to that 2,5 BW pull (after which, of course, you just keep going towards 3 BW). The Deadlift has a primal purity, a no frills and no bullshit aura around it that makes it extremely attractive for just gaining strength. It doesn’t do much for your physical appearance, it would be the most dumbheaded thing to improve your endurance, or your rate of force development, but if you are looking for some anchor that makes your training more tilted towards the acquisition and maintenance of brute strength, few things are more appropriate than deadlifting heavy regularly.