Quite simply, you need to spend time figuring out the best form of deadlift for you and then simply practice the movement using varying amounts of resistance. While you can use lightweight to perfect form, you can also use heavier amounts of resistance to learn how to move properly under a heavy load.
Eventually, you’ll make small adjustments that make the movement as efficient as possible for your body. That way you clear a path for pure progression, rather than working out the kinks with your form.
DEVELOP PRIME MUSCLE GROUPS OUTSIDE OF DEADLIFTING
Don’t rely solely on the deadlift movement to improve your deadlift. Remember that this movement is a culmination of inputs from many muscle groups such as your legs, most, if not all back muscle groups, core, and forearms.
By spending time specifically focusing on the development of these muscle groups, you’ll improve the strength of these muscle groups individually. Then when combined during deadlift training, your ability will automatically improve.
PLACE A PRIMARY EMPHASIS ON LOWER REP RANGES
When attempting to improve your deadlift, you should vary your rep ranges, but you should place emphasis on lower rep ranges.
Recent research in this field suggests that while any rep range can be employed to build muscle (so long as you approach failure), you want to use the rep range and amount of resistance that will provide the benefit you desire. If you want to increase endurance and fatigue resistance, you need higher repetition sets. If you want to build strength, you need to regularly use heavy resistance so that your body adapts by increasing strength, power output, and force production (2, 3).
This means that a majority of your deadlift workouts should use a rep range anywhere from 2 reps per set to around 8 reps per set.
The reason for this is quite simple. Higher rep ranges will require that you reduce the amount of resistance you’re using. While that might be beneficial in terms of cardiovascular ability, higher rep ranges are unlikely to specifically help you improve your 1 rep deadlift maximum, since higher ranges promote differing adaptations like fatigue resistance and endurance (3).
IMPROVE YOUR GRIP STRENGTH
An often-overlooked aspect of deadlifting ability is grip strength. Simply put, if your grip strength isn’t up to par, you could be significantly holding your deadlift back.
When you consider the deadlift and the muscle groups involved, the deadlift relies very heavily on your posterior chain, or your entire back, hamstrings, and glutes. Collectively, the amount of force and strength that these muscle groups can produce is typically much greater than what your hands can hold on to. While your body might be able to deadlift 500lbs. you’ll never be able to if your grip strength gives out at a lower number. Considering this, you should work on developing grip strength.
To achieve greater grip strength that can translate well to the deadlift, there are three different techniques I suggest.
First, you can simply do static holds with a loaded barbell. Set the bar up on pins in a squat rack at mid-quadriceps height. Add a heavy amount of weight to the bar and then simply pick up the bar and hold for as long as possible.
Second, try hanging from a fully extended pull-up position for as long as possible. You’d be amazed at how difficult simply holding your bodyweight for 60 seconds can be! The best part is, you can easily progress by holding for longer amounts of time and even adding resistance to a hip weight belt while you hold.
Third, you can also practice higher repetition sets for the deadlift, using reasonably heavy resistance. While this won’t directly increase the maximum amount of weight you can hold, it will help you hold on to resistance for longer periods of time, which can help increase fatigue resistance, even under heavier load.
INITIATE THE LIFT WITH YOUR LEGS
As I mentioned earlier, the deadlift should probably be considered a full-body exercise. Despite heavy involvement of the back and legs, the deadlift requires many muscle groups to be activated for a strong deadlift.
That said, I recommend that you attempt to initiate the lift by driving through your legs, rather than initiating a “pull” movement with your arms and back.
By driving through your legs, you recruit the largest and likely strongest muscle group to help overcome the inertia of the weight you’re using. If you initiate the lift using your back, you’re not only putting your body at risk of injury, but you’re ignoring the assistance that your legs can provide.
Many times, a simple change of mindset to recruiting your legs more can be the change you need to begin setting new personal records
TRAINING FREQUENCY OF THE DEADLIFT
Most training guides promote a high frequency of training to improve performance. This means if you want to excel in a certain movement or build specific muscle groups, practicing the given movement or training that muscle group multiple times per week is preferred (4, 5, 6).
However, the deadlift is a bit different since it’s so taxing on the body and nervous system. Simply put, if you’re trying to lift the heaviest amount of weight possible, that puts tremendous strain on your body and requires more time for recovery than say a biceps curl.
This means that you have two options when it comes to frequency.
First, you can employ high-volume training sessions, done infrequently. That means you train the deadlift once per week or every other week, and you train very hard during those sessions. In this case, you have one opportunity for progress, over the course of 1-2 weeks.
Second, you can employ more frequent deadlift sessions, done with a lower volume per workout. That means you can deadlift 1-2 times per week, but keep the number of sets and repetitions you complete on the lower side.
Mostly, the decision to deadlift frequently or infrequently will be up to your preferences. Just ensure that you’re properly recovering and progressing, regardless of which you choose. Otherwise, you might not make progress at all.
USE EQUIPMENT STRATEGICALLY
If you walk into any gym with people deadlifting, it’s likely you’ll see many of these individuals using equipment such as a lifting belt and wrist straps. While both of these pieces of equipment can be beneficial for improving your deadlift ability, you don’t want to rely on them.
Weight belts are typically the most used piece of equipment in the gym. While many people use lifting belts for safety purposes like keeping your core aligned under heavy load, lifting belts also provide a performance benefit: abdominal bracing.
As an experiment, try contracting your abdominal muscles with no belt on. Then, wear a belt and do the same. What you’ll find is that having a weight belt provides a wall to push your abdominals against, which helps maintain rigid posture while also increasing the pressure you can generate in your abdomen. This rigidity then allows for efficient power transfer throughout your body (7).
While this is certainly beneficial for the deadlift, using a belt all of the time can create dependence or the inability to create this rigidity without a weight belt.
Instead, I recommend that you use a weight belt only 50% of the time when deadlifting. By doing this, you’ll learn how to brace your abdomen effectively without using the belt. Once you use the belt again, your ability to brace your abdomen will be much greater. Just remember that if you regularly use a lifting belt, use lighter resistance than normally when training without one until you learn how to effectively brace your core under load.
The second most common piece of equipment used is wrist straps. As I mentioned earlier, most people have stronger posterior chains than grip strength. By using wrist straps, you remove the factor of lacking grip strength, which allows you to lift as much as your posterior chain can handle.
While this is obviously an advantage of wrist straps, it can also create immense dependence. If you’re always using straps, your grip strength is never tested and never has a reason to improve. This can create an even greater deficit between grip strength and posterior chain strength.
I recommend that you use wrist straps only 50% of the time when deadlifting. This allows for some extra progress, but not so much that you create more imbalances.
ADVANCED TRAINING TECHNIQUES
Apart from simply deadlifting regularly and practicing the movement, there are a few techniques that can be used specifically to improve your deadlift. As a side note, I recommend using these techniques in an alternating fashion with deadlifting as normal. While advanced techniques such as the ones to follow are great ideas for deadlift training, specifically practicing the deadlift will also provide benefit.