The deadlift is the easiest lift to perform, and the most difficult to train, for me. It lends itself to over arousal, since there's really no "over" with deads, and I love that. But, past the novice stage, I've always burned out pulling heavy from the floor. The result was that I was forced to consider one of my least favorite things: conjugate periodization. My deadlift is really the only lift I figured out, and trained, alone.
Initially my main lifts besides pulls from the floor where 16" rack pulls, deficit deads from 1.5-3", and more recently, I added pulls with the plates on 3" blocks. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about deadlifting came from The Mad Stork. When I first pitched my rack pull idea, he felt they were OK, provided one took great effort to mimic their position in the deadlift, at that stage of the pull. As a result my best 16" rack pull is only 35lbs more than my deadlift from the floor. Could I pull more if I simply used the most efficient way to pull from the greater height? Of course, but it wouldn't have carried over nearly as well to my DL. My deadlift from the floor is reliably 25-35 lbs. behind my 16" rack pull; it's a great indicator lift for me. But only because I mimic my position in the DL, rather than trying to see how much I can lift from 16".
I don't rotate these lifts on any fixed cycle, like you often see. This makes no sense to me, if you're still doing well pulling from the floor, why would you just up and switch? Initially you'll probably hit the wall before you realize it's time to switch. On days like that I advise sacking the deadlift, and going harder on the assistance. As you get used to it though, you'll be able to smell it coming. The PR will be smaller, the weight will have felt heavier than it should have, and you'll know you should switch lifts next week.
For me, intensity has always been king when it comes to the deadlift. My training has pretty much always been 1 to 3 sets of 1 to 3 reps, although I added downsets later. Yes, that's correct, sometimes my best deadlift workouts are just working up (in large jumps) to a heavy single. I believe in weekly or bi-weekly deadlifting, the once a month, once every two weeks thing just never did anything good for me. I will admit that I have weeks where I just suck ass at deadlifts, but at least I'm giving myself the chance to perform well. That said, I've met enough guys who do better on infrequent pulling that I would suggest experimentation. That's true of pretty much anything I suggest, many ways to skin a Walrus. But, I can't help but wonder if these infrequent pullers have, themselves, not experimented. Perhaps the truth of the matter is they can't pull from the floor heavy frequently, which is sort of the whole point of this article: few people can do that. But there are ways to keep yanking heavy weights without pulling from the floor weekly.
People royally fuck up their deadlift set up all the time, and it drives me crazy. It's not even about where their hips are, or what their back is doing. It's that they're leaving all kinds of slack. If you were trying to remove a tree stump using a truck and a chain, would you leave 20' of extra chain, and gun it? Well, that's what most guys are doing when they deadlift, and that's a fucking terrible way to pull a stump. It starts with your hands. Really work that bar into your hands. Don't just make a fist around the bar, that's not how your hands will stay during the pull. I like to put it further up on my hands, resting right on my callous ridge. I start with it there, and that's where it stays during the pull. I do know one man who could hold onto deadlifts with the first two digits of his fingers, but you are not that man, most likely. I know I'm not. Then it's the arms. What's with these loosey-goosey arms? These are the chains that connect you to the bar. TAUT, man. As part of allowing the arms to be taught, one must conversely loosen up the upper back. How many guys have you seen start with their upper back in a tight, retracted position, pull that tightness out, then yank on the slack in their arms? It's awful . . . you'll never pull the stump like that. Take out all that damn slack.
Another thing that comes up periodically is what to do with the back and hips. The truth of that, of course, is that it depends on the lifter. But here's what I found. I've always had a little bit of monkey-see-monkey-do in me over the years. Hell, I pulled sumo (because that's what all the Vogelpohl lookalikes where doing, so I should get on it right?) up until 500, at which point I missed it thrice, before getting furious, yanking it conventional, and never looking back. The "Konstantinov’s slump" led to larger PR's for me almost overnight. It changes the leverage of the lift ever so slightly for me, so that I may be more hinge-like and keep the bar closer to my body throughout the lift. Whether you pull with an arched back, a flat back, or a rounded back really doesn't matter. What matters is that your back doesn't move while you're pulling: start in the position your back is going to end up in. It's that moving around that hurts folks. That's why rounded backs get such a bad reputation, guys start neutral backed, then round mid lift. If they'd started with their back rounded, they probably would have been fine. Lifting with a rounded back is something the human body can do just fine, it has for longer than I even understand. I, myself, prefer a neutral back position for the lumbar area, while rounding the upper back as much as possible (and taking the goddamn slack out).
I do have to say that I've noticed high hipped puller tend to do better on the deadlift. You always hear the same refrain ". . . and he almost stiff legged it, too!" Well, that's no accident. It may very well be that people with bodies and limb ratios better suited to deadlifting are more comfortable with high hips, and it's their natural talent that makes their big pulls possible. But the high hipped pulling has always worked best for me, and the guys I see who get way down there usually spring up to high hipped level right before they pull anyhow. It also tends to increase what's already an abominable clusterfuck of slack.
I do, strangely, though, think there is something to the idea of a sort of "second pull" in the deadlift. I have a lot of speed off the floor, but I don't just shove my legs into the ground and blast off like a rocket. I come off the ground nice and steady for a couple/few inches, and then accelerate hard to pull past my knees. Lockout should be easy for a conventional deadlifter (the only actual deadlift is with your legs within your grip, and the bar in front of your body), unless they have some kind of muscle imbalance. One thing I see time and time again is weak glutes. Upper back strength is important as well, of course, but less so than people expect. One needn't retract their entire upper back at the top of a deadlift, but simply push their hips through and pull their shoulders back. What they really need is a stronger ass to push their hips through if they're having trouble above the knees. For the most part, just more squats and RDL's (see below) should fix this. There is one assistance exercise I think helps people with trouble using their ass properly, as much as I hate to advise any sort of sumo pulling. Sumo stance rack pulls (What could be more useless than normal rack pulls you asked, right? Don't be so fucking hasty.) for short rom are effective for this purpose. Pull from a height that lets you use your 1RM for sets of 5. Keeps the hips high and the legs locked like they would be at that point in a sumo pull. The only way to initiate, let alone finish the lift, is squeezing your ass. This is especially good for guys with shitty squats, because in their case, a competition depth or full squat will never overload their glutes.
There are two assistance exercises that almost never, ever get cycled out of my routine, regardless of what I'm trying to do. I like 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps (roughly) on RDL's, and bent over barbell rows. RDL's are not the super complex lift some folks think they are. It's just staying tight, and then like most of the other important lifts, it's a function of "Ass back, hips forward". I also love dumbbell rows. Hammering the upper back really allows for a lot more wiggle room on the deadlift. My best deadlift came at a relatively low bodyweight for me. My starting position was better (When I'm heavy I'm like a seated pregnant woman, my gut hits my thighs, my tits hit my guts and I can hardly breathe down there), I could keep the bar closer...and my upper back strength was down. When heavier, I need that "excess" upper back strength to compensate for those minor, but important differences. Shrugs are fun, but I've never really gotten much from them, and just throw them in as a "Whatever" type exercise. Maybe do some power shrugs, or snatch grip shrugs for high reps, just whatever gets my rocks off that day.
My best deadlift to date came during a period of no squatting. I wonder sometimes, now, if that was a mistake. I intend to repeat the experiment with squats, we'll see. I would do one heavy deadlift day using the conjugate method above, and the second day, I would do snappy doubles either from the floor, or a deficit, depending on what happened on heavy day. If I pulled from an elevated height or the floor, deficit pulls, if I was pulling heavy off the floor, then deficit pulls on light day. Afterward, hit more posterior chain and upper back. I chose the word snappy over saying speed work, because you don't wanna be fucking with 60% on that day. Keep everything quick and crisp, but you don't have to use obscenely light weights.
One of the only newfangled devices I approve of is the glute ham raise. An old friend of mine welded me one, and I've loved it for the past decade or so. I like to use bands, or a mix of bands with weight. Much like with sit-ups on the GHR bench, as the lift gets easier toward the top end, bands stretching keep the resistance more consistent. Make that two newfangled devices. Damn, they got to me.
Band good mornings are the pushdown of the deadlift. Do at least 120 reps on band GM's after every posterior chain workout. Do it three times a day. You gotta get into this like you're jerking off your erectors.
Over the years I've found that both bottom position rack squats and box squats seem to translate better to the deadlift. Another really odd assistance exercise I like to go with the sumo stance, small ROM rack pulls are partial, highbar, narrow (same as deadlift) stance squats. You can do these for triples off pins, or for higher reps with a regular top start. They won't do shit for your squat, but they're fun, and they seem to help my deadlift.
Find your "bad place" for when you deadlift. Like I said, no such thing is as over arousal with deads. If you can, work yourself into such an emotional fury that you've got tears in your eyes and your teeth are chattering. You're gonna pull on that goddamn bar until your lockout, or your spine blows out in a spray of bone shrapnel and LSD laden fluid. That might be the only thing you really need to listen to in this entire husk of an article, just fucking pull hard. Don't fake it, don't thump your chest like an ape (unless that just happens to be your thing for psyching up), just get ferocious, motherfucker.