Expert Tips For Building A Big Deadlift

Expert Tips For Building A Big Deadlift

If there is one exercise that is the ultimate test of strength and ability, it’s the deadlift. There is simply no better test of strength than picking the heaviest amount of weight possible off of the floor.

But, the deadlift is a complicated movement that tests many different muscle groups and requires practice, focus and sometimes the use of advanced techniques. If you wish to have the biggest deadlift possible, you’ll need all three.

In this guide, we’ll dive into just about everything you should consider in your deadlift training. By using the advice to follow, you’ll be on the road to your biggest deadlift yet.

Why Bother With The Deadlift

Before jumping into the many ways you can improve your deadlift, you should first consider why you’d even use it in the first place. Is it a good muscle builder? How about for developing strength? To answer these questions, you need to consider how the deadlift influences your body and then, how you can manipulate your training to improve performance.

First and foremost, the deadlift is a full body movement. Many people will consider the deadlift to be primarily a back or even a leg dominant movement, but by and large, the deadlift requires input and coordination from many different muscle groups.

When you consider the deadlift as a movement, you can easily begin to see that many muscle groups are involved. These include most of your back musculature, ranging from the erector spinae, (low back), all the way up through your trapezius muscles, which are often considered to be part of the shoulder group.

From there, you also need to consider the involvement of your entire core. Your legs, including quads, hamstrings, glutes, adductors, abductors and even calves also play an integral role. Further, as you increase resistance, development of hand, wrist and forearm strength also becomes very important.

So what does this mean? Basically, it means that the deadlift is the jack-of-all-trades, perhaps only comparable to the squat when considering the influence one exercise can have on the development of your entire body. Not to mention, if there is one exercise that can help you improve whole body strength and ability that’s easily transferable to the real world, the deadlift is the answer.

Choosing The Right Form Of Deadlifting

Sumo Deadlift

If you have any involvement with social media with regards to exercise and fitness, you might be familiar with the never-ending debate about which form of the deadlift is superior: Sumo or Conventional. On one side, conventional dead lifters find sumo to be “cheating” due to the reduced distance the bar needs to travel. On the other side, sumo dead lifters often find no issue, especially in terms of overall strength and muscle development.

But of course, as with anything, the answer to which form you should use is likely somewhere in the middle, with multiple factors playing a role.

First and foremost, you should consider which form of the deadlift is most comfortable for you and your body. Do you enjoy conventional while sumo just feels awkward? Do you feel like your back is going to snap during conventional, yet you feel perfect when pulling sumo? Mostly, the answer should be decided based on your preferences.

What research shows is that the differences between sumo and conventional deadlifting, in terms of muscle activation, is not terribly different. This research shows that sumo deadlifting does require greater leg activation than the conventional deadlift, but this is likely due to how the body is positioned during the movement (1).

For example, in the sumo deadlift, this variation requires a more upright and erect torso. When doing this, driving through the legs while extending the hips forward becomes much more important in the movement. Whereas in the conventional deadlift, you’re often in a position of being bent over, relying more heavily on back musculature.

Second, you should also consider how the structure of your body influences your ability during the movement.

For example, if you have very long legs, yet relatively short arms, the conventional deadlift may be difficult for you, simply because the bar needs to travel a far distance. If you’re a bit shorter and stocky, either deadlift might work great for you. If you have short legs and long arms, the sumo deadlift might work very well for you.

Mostly, this will take some trial and error, which means you should test out both variations before making a decision. As research shows, both variations will likely develop similar muscle and strength, so choosing the one you prefer will only help you.

General Deadlifting Advice

Man grabbing are barbell to do a deadlift.

Before jumping into specific techniques that you can use to improve your deadlift, there are a few ideas to consider for building your deadlift and overall strength.

Practice & Perfect Form First

Regardless of which form of deadlift you choose, and before even considering the use of advanced training techniques, you need to practice, practice and then practice a little more. Not only is the deadlift difficult to master in terms of ability and coordination, but it also allows for large amounts of resistance, which increases the risk of injury.

Sparing you the talk about practicing safe form, if you’re not using the best form possible for your body, you’re holding yourself back from progress without even lifting up the bar. Imagine if a simple tweak or adjustment to your leg position could add 10, maybe 20 pounds on your deadlift without making any other changes. Now, just imagine that weight added on to the improvements you make during training.

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

Heavy deadlift.

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

Man grabbing barbell to do a deadlift with chalk on his hands.

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, 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

Olympic weightlifter putting on a weightlifting belt.

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.

Deficit Pulling

Women doing deficit pulls in a smith machine.

One of my favorite techniques for improving the deadlift is deficit pulling. What this means is that while you’re completing the deadlift, you do so with your feet on a platform, while the bar rests on the ground.

As you can imagine, when you’re standing on a platform, even if it’s just a few inches, you’ll be starting the movement with the bar in a lower position than when you complete a standard deadlift. This technique has two distinct benefits.

First, the deficit deadlift requires you to pull the weight over a longer distance. Since the bar is lower to start, it needs to travel a longer distance for you to reach a full lockout. By doing this, you’ll need to generate a greater amount of force, for a longer duration, thereby increasing your pulling ability, once you return to a standard deadlift.

Second, the deficit deadlift is particularly good at helping you pull the weight off the floor if that happens to be your sticking point. By having the weight in a lower position, it becomes a bit more difficult to initiate the movement, which can translate to better pulling power off of the floor, once you return to a normal deadlift.

To do deficit deadlifts, simply find a small platform that you can stand on that won’t get in the way of the barbell resting on the ground. A good starting point is to find a flat, 45lb. plate and place it directly under the bar, in the middle. Fortunately, you can easily add additional 45lb. plates, should you desire a greater deficit.

Rack/Block Pulling

Man doing block pulls for deadlift.

Alternatively, you can also use rack or block deadlifting, to help with the top portion of the lift.

Many people, myself included, struggle primarily with the lockout position. This portion of the deadlift is often more difficult since it’s at the tail end of the movement. Fortunately, rack and block pulling can help.

To complete this technique, you have two options. First, you can set the barbell up on pins, within a squat rack. That means the weight is elevated off the ground and the movement begins with the barbell just under your knees. After setting up the barbell and getting into a good position, you can then pull the bar from the rack, completing the top portion of the deadlift.

The second option is to use blocks or small platforms, placed underneath the weight plates on the barbell, to elevate the bar off of the ground. Mostly, this provides a similar benefit as rack pulling but may be easier to achieve, especially for sumo dead lifters, as a squat rack may be too narrow.

Mostly, rack and block pulling are great techniques for overcoming sticking points in the top portion of the lift, but also can be used to simply increase strength at the top portion of the deadlift.

Paused Deadlifts

Man doing paused deadlifts.

Paused deadlifts are a relatively new training technique, but one that can really take your deadlift to the next level. To achieve a paused deadlift, you want to initiate the movement and pause while the bar is halfway up your shins.

By pausing halfway through the movement, you first require your body to develop force at different points throughout the movement. This can help your body initiate high levels of force throughout the entire movement and overcome sticking points.

Second and arguably even more importantly, paused deadlifts help ensure that you’re bracing your core throughout the entire movement. Many people neglect abdominal bracing during the movement and by forcing intense contraction halfway through the movement, you teach your body to maintain abdominal bracing throughout.

Accommodating Resistance

Chains for accommodating resistance deadlifts.

When considering accommodating resistance, this means using devices such as resistance bands or large chains to “accommodate” the barbell weight. Using these devices strategically in your training can drastically improve your deadlift.

The idea works like this. You have your standard barbell and then attach either resistance bands to the bar, or add long chains to the end of the barbell. As you lift the barbell, the band stretches and the chain lifts off the ground. In both of these situations, the amount of resistance you’re pulling against increases the further you lift the bar.

In the case of the band, the tension on the band increases as it becomes stretched, which makes it progressively more difficult to pull against. For the chains, as the bar is lifted, more and more of the chain lifts off of the ground, which also progressively adds resistance to the bar, as it moves.

Together, these two techniques force your muscles to contract and produce force at higher rates as the movement commences. As you can imagine, this helps your body increase force throughout the movement, rather than reducing it.

If you consider how these two options help, it becomes easy to understand the benefits. First, you’ll need to generate greater amounts of force at the beginning of the movement to allow the bar to gain momentum and overcome the added resistance. Without this added momentum and force development, you won’t be able to overcome the resistance of the band or chain.

Unsurprisingly, research corroborates this idea. In one study, scientists revealed that using accommodating resistance led to 1.25 times greater muscle contraction force than normal training alone. More force development means a higher deadlift number (8, 9).

Second, accommodating resistance is particularly beneficial for helping with a weak lockout. When you have a weak lockout, this means that your force development is declining throughout the movement to the point where you cannot finish the lift. By using bands, this forces your body to ramp up force production later in the movement, which can translate to a much stronger lockout.

I suggest that you start with a resistance band for this technique mostly for ease of use and portability. If you’re lucky enough to work out at a gym that has their own chains or allows you to bring your own, you can also consider chains as well. Mostly, it will be up to your preferences and what your gym environment permits.

Bringing It All Together

Man doing a sumo deadlift.

Improving your deadlift is no easy task. You need to specifically improve your efficiency in the movement, while simultaneously increasing the strength of all muscle groups involved.

I recommend that you deadlift often, such as once per week if you’re really serious about improving your performance on the lift. From there, adjust frequency based on your preferences and ability to recover. When doing these deadlift sessions, consider using some, if not all of the advanced training techniques mentioned previously.

Second, focus on developing the muscle groups involved in the deadlift individually. While the deadlift will develop all muscle groups involved, spending specific time developing these muscle groups individually will improve your collective strength and ability during the deadlift.

Third, while straight deadlifting is certainly acceptable, there are tons of different advanced techniques that you can use to develop the entire deadlift, as well as specific sticking points.

Finally, don’t rely on equipment all of the time. While things like a weight belt and wrist straps certainly have their place, you don’t want to rely on using them. Training regularly without these pieces of equipment will improve your ability on your own, which means once you add the equipment back into your routine, they’ll be even more effective.

Final Word

The deadlift is widely regarded as the ultimate test of strength ability. But, it’s not as easy as just picking weight up off the floor. The deadlift is certainly one of the more complicated movements to perfect and requires much practice.

Fortunately, there are many different tips and techniques that you can employ in your training to improve your deadlifting ability. Some deal directly with deadlifting, while others help improve individual aspects of the lift, such as individual muscle group strength and ability.

Consider using the techniques in this article in your own training to help build your biggest deadlift yet.

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References

1. Escamilla, R. F., Francisco, A. C., Kayes, A. V., Speer, K. P., & MOORMAN III, C. T. (2002). An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine & Science in sports & exercise, 34(4), 682-688.
2. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.
3. Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Vigotsky, A. D., & Peterson, M. (2016). Differential Effects of Heavy Versus Moderate Loads on Measures of Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men. Journal of sports science & medicine, 15(4), 715.
4. Atherton, P. J., & Smith, K. (2012). Muscle protein synthesis in response to nutrition and exercise. The Journal of physiology, 590(5), 1049-1057.
5. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of sports sciences, 35(11), 1073-1082.
6. Kraemer, W. J., Adams, K., Cafarelli, E., Dudley, G. A., Dooly, C., Feigenbaum, M. S., ... & Newton, R. U. (2002). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 34(2), 364-380.
7. Harman, E. A., Rosenstein, R. M., Frykman, P. N., & Nigro, G. A. (1988). Effects of a belt on intra-abdominal pressure during weight lifting. ARMY RESEARCH INST OF ENVIRONMENTAL MEDICINE NATICK MA.
8. O'hagan, F. T., Sale, D. G., Macdougall, J. D., & Garner, S. H. (1995). Comparative effectiveness of accommodating and weight resistance training modes. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 27(8), 1210-1219.
9. Wyland, T. P., Van Dorin, J. D., & Reyes, G. F. C. (2015). Postactivation
potentation
effects from accommodating resistance combined with heavy back squats on short sprint performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 29(11), 3115-3123.
Samuel Biesack
Samuel Biesack - Author

Sam is a strength & conditioning coach who specializes in exercise and nutrition research. He holds a Master's in Exercise & Nutrition Science and is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist. If he's not lifting in the gym, he's probably running a trail in Colorado or playing video games.


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