Deadlift Training, Technique and Lifting Styles
by Tony DeFrancisco
Like the squat, regular heavy deadlift workouts will do wonders to develop total body power. Bodybuilders need only look at the fantastic back development of Mr. Olympia winner Franco Columbu to realize what deadlifts and power bodybuilding can do. Another good example is four-time world powerlifting champion John Kuc, whose back development borders on the unbelievable.
In talking to many powerlifters and bodybuilders who do not deadlift I have found two different rationales – those who avoid the deadlift like the plague for the same reason they avoid the squat ( HARD WORK), and those who damn the deadlift due to slow or no gains and/or have suffered injuries due to improper application of the lift.
It has been my observation and opinion that the vast majority of lifters train the deadlift incorrectly. They overtrain by taking two to three deadlift workouts a weekly, generally working up to heavy singles at least once per week, followed by heavy rack lockouts, and then their problem is further compounded by paying no attention to proper technique.
Technique? What technique? Isn’t the deadlift the simplest of all movements? After all, all you have to do is bend down and pull and hope that you can finish, right?
Wrong? Dead wrong! It’s this type of thinking that is responsible for so many lifters having trouble increasing their deadlifts and suffering chronic back injuries. First of all you have to understand that the deadlift is the easiest exercise to overtrain on due to the poundages that can be lifted, which in turn place a lot of stress on the entire body – the lower back in particular. Also, there is an enormous amount of physical and mental energy used.
The program that follows enabled me to make more gains in four months than I had in the previous three years. The strength gain (over 70 pounds in four months) was not nearly as important to me as the health gains I made. Prior to starting on this program I was advised by my chiropractor to give up weight lifting permanently or suffer permanent back damage, to the point where I would eventually need surgery. Understand that he was referring to weight training in general – heavy lifting and any competition was completely out of the question. The upshot of the whole story? Not only did I make tremendous gains on my deadlift, but those agonizing lower back pains disappeared, plus the twice weekly chiropractic adjustments were no longer necessary.
I believe the two key exercises to my program were the extended deadlift (a.k.a. box deadlifts) and heavy good mornings. These two exercises created a surge of blood from my lower back all the way down to my buttocks like no other exercises could. I will get into the actual program a little later.
It is my contention that no lifter, except the rank beginner, need practice the deadlift more than once or twice per month. Incidentally, I made my biggest gains in the four month period mentioned above when my training consisted entirely of assistance exercises. The only time I performed the regular deadlift was in meets. The beginning powerlifter needs to practice the conventional deadlift more frequently in order to assess the technique that is best suited for him.
Since I have short legs, the best style for me is legs very close together (almost touching), hands just outside the knurling, legs in a parallel squat position with my knees just over the bar, back perfectly straight and head tilted upward. I begin the lift by simultaneously pushing down with my feet (mentally I imagine myself pushing my feet right through the floor) and pulling with the back, not the arms. As soon as the weight goes past my knees I throw my head back as far as possible which pulls the shoulders up and back and lock out. Always remember that you will never complete a maximum deadlift if you look down. When you pull your head back you make maximum use of your trapezius muscles. Hence an easier and stronger lockout.
A variation of the above style is the hump back style. This approach decreases the distance that the bar has to be pulled. The disadvantages are that it is harder to get your shoulders back and it does not lend itself well to some body structures.
Another style, probably the most popular and most used by lifters, is hands and feet spaced about evenly apart (about shoulder width). The disadvantage here is that most of the pressure is placed on the back.
Finally, the last style, which on the surface seems to be the most practical and safest is the sumo style. Here the feet are placed wide apart with the hands close. This movement substantially decreases the distance the bar has to travel but is also harder to lock out since the hands are so close together.
So, there you have the four most practiced deadlift styles. Which is the best for you? There is only one way to find out – P-R-A-C-T-I-C-E.
Regardless of which style you find yourself best suited to, always remember the following points. Keep the head up, knees over the bar, hips low and bar against the body. Proper technique can make the difference and help you to avoid injury.
Your mental attitude will also determine whether or not you make a lift, especially in getting the bar off the floor. You have to think success at all times before and during the lift and have a firm conviction that you are going to complete it. The deadlift is definitely a psychological lift and your attitude can and will make the difference between success or failure.
Setting Up a Training Program
My philosophy is different from most lifters in that I prefer higher reps (6’s, 5’s and occasionally 3’s). The time for lower reps is a few weeks before a maximum lift. Lower rep training will help you acquire the motor skills needed for maximum single rep performances and build confidence. Bodybuilders who want to follow this program should realize that singles and doubles are not necessarily required.
Following is the training program that gave me the best results to date. This routine was done twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays right after my power rack bench workout.
1) Power Cleans – this exercise simulates the motion of the deadlift with the added advantage of speed and explosion (very important for maximum deadlifts). The turnover at the top develops the traps and the lighter than deadlift weight helps prevent overtraining.
135x10 (dead hang, first set only), 186x6, 205x6, 225x5, 250x2-3 (only occasionally when the feeling of extra strength is there), 205x8 or 185x10 depending on energy levels.
2) Extended Deadlifts – done on a platform 6 to 7 inches high, bar should be on toes at the start of the movement. I regard this as the best power-building movement in the book. This exercise works the muscles deep down the lower back and glutes and offers a fuller range of movement than the regular deadlift. Since less weight can be handled it is possible to train this lift twice a week without burning out.
135x15 (10 bent-legged, 5 stiff-legged), 225x8, 335x6, 425x6, 455x6, 335 or 385x10.
3) Extended Rowing or Pulley Rowing – extended rowing is like extended deadlifts – done on a platform, wide-grip pull to chest.
135x8, 155x6, 185x6, 205x5.
4) Shrugs – Pull shoulders up as high as possible and roll back and then down.
135x12, 185x10, 225x6, 275x6. 275x6, 315x5.
On Tuesdays and Fridays after squats I would do heavy good mornings. My performance is as follows: Bar high up on the neck, feet wide (same stance as squat), bend knees slightly, bend over while keeping the head up and back straight, go down to parallel position and come up.
135x8, 185x6, 205x5, 225x5, 245x5.