The Slow, Bone-headed Way to a Huge Deadlift

This essay also known as, “Hey Bob can you write a program to get my dead lift up?” deadlifts

What makes me an expert at dead lifts, other than liking deadlifts?

I wrote this because being a strong dude plus personally experiencing my unscientific study of N=1 means that I know everything there is to know about dead lifting :). But really, there are more than a few good dead lifting resources out there. I don’t claim expertise in power lifting. My forte is more in the realm of using weight training to stay healthy and be awesome outside of the gym (sports performance and rehabilitation). But since more than a few people have asked the question…

I never lifted with an official bar (better grip and spring), wearing an official belt (assistance), in an official meet (strength culture and context). But even without these small but important advantages, I have managed to accrue these dead lift credentials, most of them with video proof:

600 lbs X 1, while weighing slightly under 200 lbs (> triple bodyweight is pretty rare).

500 lbs X 10 continuous reps

405 X 20 continuous reps

315 pounds for over 100 reps in about 30 minutes.

Yes, this is surely part of the reason why my injured right hip has suffered additional wear and tear.

I’ve also coached many folks through dead lifting over double body weight.

Presently, I’m not at peak strength but can probably manage 80% or better of the numbers listed above. Last week, at the age of 41, I easily dead lifted 405 X 10 reps.

First, here are a few principles:
ASSUMPTION 1 : You’re access to equipment and space, work ethic, and ability to follow instruction are not in question.

ASSUMPTION 2 : You’re form is dialed in. This article is not about How to Dead Lift. This is an over view and guide about how to increase your dead lift. Before following any of this advice, you must spend plenty of time learning how to groove the hinge that uses nearly every muscle in your body in a concerted effort. For training purposes, form comes first. When you’re going for a one-rep max PR (this should be infrequently), your form may break down to some extent. This is not acceptable for regular training and repetition. But for one effort, it’s usually no problem.

ASSUMPTION 3: You have some perspective. You need to know that being able to fairly easily lift twice your body weight is a good goal for most people, and will provide huge advantages out on the playing field. But triple body weight deadlifts, and some of the other feats mentioned above, are not needed for sports outside of weight lifting. They are extreme and awesome but not necessarily healthy.

Consideration 1 – Loading versus Time Under Tension

Believe it or not, lifting as much as you can for one rep is absolutely not the best way to drastically increase how much you can lift for one rep (at least not for a while). You probably need to spend a long time consistently dead lifting weight that is relatively heavy for you but you can handle with perfect form. If 315 pounds is your estimated 1-rep max that means multiple sets of around 275 – 300 pounds for 3 to 5 reps. This is heavy but totally within your power to repeatedly crush and feel taxed but not at all drained. You do need to lift heavier weights and practice pulling heavy singles (like >90 % of your 1 rep max), but give it at least 8 weeks before you increase the load and cut reps.

Appreciate the inverse relationship between load and time under tension. Heavy loading (like one rep for max effort) does wonders for improving the nervous system. But the time under tension is insufficient to stimulate muscle growth. Lighter loading (like something you can handle for 8 to 12 reps) provides plenty of time under tension, but the load often isn’t heavy enough to really cause the nervous system adaptations and muscle tearing and rebuilding process that causes optimal total body neuromuscular efficiency.

That’s why the magical formula for actually increasing YOU is to achieve between 10 and 20 total reps, usually over 3 to 5 sets of somewhere around 80 to 85% of your 1-rep max.

Consideration 2 – REST:

Also – you definitely need to recover better. Ensure at least 2 days of recover from any intense leg or back work prior to your regular dead lifting day. Really, recovery is everything. You will often have to temporarily let go of some other physical pursuit or interest in order to truly make room for optimal recovery.

Consideration 3 – ACCESSORY EXERCISES:

Should include chin-ups, row variations, and squats. Some big lifters swear by glute-ham raises but I’ve never done them. Getting your lats and hips strong is key. But again, rest from these at least 2 days prior to dead lift day. You need to squat, but not so intensely that it interferes with recovery for dead lift day.

Consideration 4 – FOCUS YOUR EFFORTS:

This goes along with recovering better (above). But simply cool it with conditioning. I’m not saying to be lazy or go Sumo. But you MUST understand that exercising for specific, focused performance is not the same as exercise for what our culture is obsessed with – namely aerobic fitness and weight loss. Exercise for the sake of creating energy balance (burning calories) is a time-consuming, labor intensive, and recovery hindering endeavor. Get leaner by adding muscle to your frame and eating relatively clean, not through burning calories through “cardio.”

It’s such a basic idea, but one I see poorly handled quite often. A focus on strength means that you will save the “leaning out” or weight loss or what-have-you for another time after you are a dead lift beast. Eat like a human that needs to support intense exercise and growth. Not like a skiddish bird that runs on fear.

Consideration 5 – Learn from those before you:

I had my first go-round with dead lifts at the age of about 24 right after graduating from college. That ended after five (or so) months when I experienced a fairly significant lower back strain (and likely disc herniation) while trying to dead lift 365 pounds.

It was a while before I went at it again. By 30 years of age I could pull 405 fairly easily but I was focused on squatting very heavy and for high reps. At the age of 34, after a two year dead lift sabbatical and no preparation, I threw 405 on the bar and hurt my back severely. About 6 months after that I decided to build back the correctly, as if I were training a client. 405 came back easily and then increased to about 455. At the age of 35, after a long cycle of regular heavy training, I was able to eek out 500 lbs for one rep.

At the age of 36 I tore my right pectoral muscle and then about 9 months after that broke my left hand. I was able to keep my hips and core strong through an emphasis on squat variations. By my 37th birthday I was back to dead lifting around 475 for reps. I once got 500 for 5 reps.

Then…THEN…something profound happened. I started to actually listen to someone else. My friend Matt Hunter said I still was not recovering well enough. He said I should practice more single reps, even with relatively less weight, and build it up. He said I should cycle intensity rather than pushing my limit with 4 heavy sets of 3 to 5 reps each and every week. So, at his advice, when I was due to push some jumps in loading, I backed off the intensity of sprint/plyo training. I quit squatting intensely, made squats into a DL accessory rather than a main event. I squatted hard but not like I prefer to be ground into the floor.

I committed to eating a lot. I thought this may cause some weight gain and I would have to accept at least a little softer middle. But I gained only around 5 pounds and noticed no real difference for better or worse in my abs. So 10 weeks before hitting my 600 pound goal, dead lift days looked something like this (not including warm-up sets):

Week 1: Four sets of 500 X 5
Week 2: 500 X 3, 535 X 1, 535 X 1, 555 X 1
Week 3: 500 X 5, 535 X 3, 555 X 1, 555 X 1
Week 4: 500 X 5, 535 X 1, 555 X 1, 565 X 1
Then I would take a week of lighter work such as 4 X 5 with 315, or light single leg dead lifts. Scale the numbers down by 100 or 200 pounds if you need to.

At one point I hit 565 X 2 and 585 X 1, took a de-load week, then gradually pushed it back up over four weeks in the above manner.

Did I mention that this requires patience and a lot of awfully hard work?

On PR day I wore my PR shirt and after warming up pulled 500 X 1, 535 X 1, 565 X 1, put a good song on and pulled 600.

[Below image is precisely how you feel after a quality dead lift session.]

So, it basically took me 15 years to dead lift 600 pounds. Slow. Bone headed. Of course, you can quicken things up by maybe a decade. Or don’t learn from my mistakes, and plow your own slow, injury laden, boneheaded road to a big dead lift or injury.

Below is a template for an athletes who can dead lift around 340 and wants to get to 405 pounds.
That seems like a common sticking point for many folks. If your goal is 315 pounds, shift all the numbers down about 90 pounds. The outline has you dead lifting heavy only once per week. One other day of the week, be sure to get
1. 2 to 4 sets of moderately (but not too intense) squats and a powerful hinge move like dumbbell clean and presses, hang cleans, or simply lighter weight deadlifts with emphasis on speed of pulling off the ground.
2. Some mmoderately light single leg deadlifts (using dumbbells or kettlebells) in order to provide more of a stability challenge and iron out any asymmetries in the legs and core.
 Consideration 6 – A Templates
Week 1: Four sets of 300 X 5 (not including warm up sets)
Week 2: 300 X 5, 310 X 3, 325 X 1, 325 X 1
Week 3: 300 X 5, 315 X 3, 335 X 1, 335 X 1 (yes you are practicing singles even though you could probably single rep a little more).
Week 4: 300 X 3, 325 X 1, 335 X 1, 345 X 1
Week 5: 300X5, 320 X 5, 320 X 5, 320X 5
Week 6: 300x 5, 330 x 3, 330 x 3, 330 X 3
Week 7: 300 X 5, 330 X 3, 340 X 1, 340 X 1
Week 8: 315 X 3, 330 X 3, 345 X 1, 355 X 1
Week 9: 275 four sets of 5 (de-load)
Week 10: 315 X 5, 335X5, 345 X 3, 355 X 1
Week 11: 315 X 5, 335 X 3, 355 X 2 , 365 X 1
Week 12: 315 X 5, 335 X 3, 355 X 3, 355 X 3
Week 13: 315 X 3, 335 X 1, 355 X 1, 375 X 1
Week 14: 315 X 5, 335 X 3, 350 X 3, 360 X 3
Week 15: 315 X 5, 345 X 3, 355X 3, 365 X 3
Weeks 16 315 X 3, 345 X 1, 365 X 1, 385 X 1
After all of this, 405 X 1 should be relatively GUARANTEED!
Following dead lift cycles, I usually recommend taking a short time off deadlifts, or a cycle of focusing on some other activity or lift while maintaining a respectable amount of what you gained in the deadlift cycle. Then, come back to another dead lift cycle…shooting for MORE.

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