Overcoming Plateaus Part 3: The Deadlift

Squat and bench press records are continually being set in recent years. It’s easy to see why. Most federations have a 24-hour weigh-in rule, which is a positive thing for the health of the lifter. It is easy to rehydrate in 24 hours, which results in fewer cramps and muscle pulls and tears. In the old days, it was common for lifters to pass out while squatting or to drop the squat bar because they were dizzy. And, of course, the more you weigh; the more you can squat or bench. In addition, the introduction of power suits, groove briefs, and bench shirts has enabled the lifter to make bigger and bigger lifts. But, what about the deadlift? Does equipment help in this lift? Shawn Coleman said that using a larger deadlift suit helped him get into a better starting position to pull a PR 835 deadlift. So while supportive gear can help the squat and bench, and prolong one’s lifting career, more times than not it can be a hindrance for deadlifting.

So, if equipment is of little benefit, what’s the answer when it comes to the deadlift? Training.

Most lifters deadlift too often and too heavy. This has an ill effect on the central nervous system. A better method is to use a variety of exercises that mimic the deadlift or special exercises that develop the individual muscles that are used while deadlifting (the conjugate method). One must build the muscles that start and finish the lift. Also, there must be methods used to develop speed and acceleration; the quicker the bar is locked out, the less chance for the grip to give out.

Vince Anello, an 821 deadlifter at 198, once told me that anything he did would make his deadlift go up. Bill Starr said that if you want to deadlift more, don't deadlift. Bill was an excellent Olympic lifter who pulled a 666 national record in 1970, having concentrated on powerlifting for only a short time. Whether they knew it or not, both men were utilizing the conjugate method. This method was devised to develop the muscles and special strengths (starting, accelerating, absolute).

The good morning is a valuable exercise in the conjugate method. For deadlifting, the bent over version is the best. Bend at the upper back first and round over while lowering the bar. The legs can be slightly bent to prevent hyperextension of the knee. While doing good mornings, always think about duplicating the motion of a deadlift. Only you, the person doing the good morning, can gauge its effectiveness, (1) by the stress on the spinal erectors, hamstrings or glutes, and hips, and, of course, (2) if your deadlift goes up.

Shawn Coleman did 600 for 5 reps in the good morning prior to his 835 deadlift. If you are doing 600 for 5 reps and your deadlift is 700 pounds, you are just kidding yourself, and you must change your training.

Use a variety of bars in the good morning: straight, cambered, Safety Power Squat bar. Use a high bar placement and a low bar placement, close and a wide stance, and sometimes do them seated. Bands and chains as well as weight releasers can be used. One to six reps works best. Stockier men should do at least 3 reps to increase muscle tension. Because a max deadlift can take several seconds to complete, the duration of a set of reps in this lift must also be several seconds.

Various types of squatting should also be done to increase the deadlift. Michael Brugger of Germany related to me that the Olympic-style squat was his favorite exercise to increase his deadlift of 887. Eddie Coppin of Belgium made an 826 deadlift at a bodyweight of 186. The front squat was a major part of his training. In the early 1970s, George Clark pulled 700 at 181 and just missed 735, the world record held by Vince Anello. George’s main exercise was the hack squat deadlift, with the bar held behind his back. These are three examples of great lifters using a form of the squat to raise their deadlift.

Squatting with a bar held in various ways will place the stress on the erectors, hips, and glutes; the primary muscles that deadlift. We advise using a group of specialty bars: Buffalo bar, Safety Power Squat bar, Manta Ray, etc. This will teach you to maintain a more upright position, which is conducive to a good deadlift.

If you do all deadlifting, it is a matter of time before your deadlift will stall, or even worse, injury will stop all progress. Why? No ones body will equally distribute the work evenly between the lower, mid, and upper back. If the lower back takes the major role in deadlifting, which is most often the case, eventually an injury will occur. But by doing a variety of special exercises for the upper back, the muscles of the entire back are more likely to receive equal work. These exercises include shrugs, lat work, spinal erector work, good mornings, back raises, reverse hyper, extensions, glute/ham raises, sled work, and pull-throughs.

What about starting and accelerating strength? The best way to develop these strengths is by using Flex bands. By attaching the bands over the bar, the resistance is applied to the bar evenly. The higher the bar is raised, the more resistance applied to the bar. If you are weak at the top, with the bands you will learn to pull faster at the start, so momentum and then acceleration can help carry the bar to lock-out. It you are weak at the start, the bands will teach you to start off the floor faster, because without the fast start, you will not be able to lock out a heavy deadlift. For those who have said this will not build acceleration: one does not use maximum weight with the bands, but rather 60%. More resistance is added to the bar by the bands as you lift the bar. This is called accommodating resistance.