The Two Hands Deadlift
by Charles A. Smith
In the middle 1930’s I was present at a murder trial in the
A court attendant had opened a door. One of those inconsequential happenings which sometimes influence and alter the entire course of events. Across the corridor and in another hall, the local Orchestral Society was at rehearsal – St. Sains’ “Danse Macabre.” As the weird eerie theme echoed into the courtroom, the Foreman said “Guilty” and the judge, with tears streaming down his face, put on the “Black Cap” and sentenced the miserable defendant to be “hung by the neck until you are dead.” Just on of those little things like the opening of a door, and we have the cheap, the customary, the commonplace touched by a “magic wand” of music and turned into something which those who experienced it will never forget.
There are parallels in every walk of life. Even in weight training – and I can just hear the wisecracks about starting an article on the deadlift with a story about death. I am personally acquainted with a young man who had worked for years in the hopes of building up a physique worthy of praise and acclaim. He had always been weak, in ill health and skinny. Like the proverbial broomstick, he grew muscles as fast. Day after day and month after month went by in a fruitless effort to attain his goal of physical perfection. Missing from his usual haunts for some months, he one day turned up to take a workout. The difference in his development was nothing short of amazing. The shoulders were inches wider. There was a tremendous rise of trapezius from his deltoids right up to his neck. The arms were titanic, the huge forearms fairly bulging with whipcord muscle. The thighs, too, had increased in size and definition with the calves shapely and large. His chest had filled out and we guessed it at anything from 45 up, while his back well-nigh defied description. The erector muscles raised twin ridges in which you could bury your fist while the Latissimus dorsi spread out making him as wide as the proverbial barn door. Naturally we asked him what he had been doing, what magic schedule had he discovered and we were told simply that he followed a workout programme in which all forms of deadlifting were prominent. Just a simple change in the non-productive routine he had been following and he had, almost overnight, advanced from an abject failure to build a physique which a few months later was to win him top honors.
Beyond any doubt, the deadlift is the most important exercise in the whole bunch. It is a “natural” lift – a lift which everyone can practice whether he is trained or untrained. The first thing you have to do with a weight before you can hoist it in any acceptable manner is to take it off the floor. The old time test of strength was to lift the heaviest possible weight off the ground – and load was usually in the form of a big rock or stone. Afterwards came the hoisting of a poundage overhead. One might say that the two hands deadlift is the father and mother of all recognized tests of strength athletics, for it builds the basic power necessary to perform each and every lift used as a bodybuilding exercise or as a means of competition. Not only is it a muscle developer but it can also be used to cure the bugbear of all strength athletes and the general public – that aching, nagging back. As a builder of sheer strength it is the finest muscle movement, bar none. Previously the deep knee bend has received a great deal of publicity. Now, squats are wonderful for piling on the pounds, yet they haven’t the all round building qualities the two hands deadlift has. There is hardly a part of the body which it doesn’t affect from the head to the heels. Curls, cleans and jerks, presses and snatches all improve when used in a schedule which has the deadlift as a base. It gives a lightness, a springiness to the body, a natural result of handling extremely heavy weights – and it builds that basic power without which a weightlifter is a strong man in name only. It has the added advantage of being readily adaptable to certain conditions – physical conditions – for the exerciser can learn to hold in his hands weights far in excess of those he can lift from the floor. This development of supporting strength is invaluable. The hands and forearms are powered with a grip of terrific strength. The trapezius are developed to a far reaching degree and the entire shoulder girdle is thickened and packed with titanic power.
The top flight men, performers who have held records on the two hands deadlift were, and are, all men of gigantic power and outstanding physical development. The jerking and curling of heavy poundages come easy to them – Walter Podolak, Hermann Goerner, Bob Peoples, Harold Ansorge and Bill Boone are renowned for their feats of power not only in the lift which made them men of fame but in a tremendous variety of other strength performances. Consider the upright rowing motion of Goerner with a poundage of 286 ¼ – or the bent press of Harold Ansorge of 330 pounds, or the repetition deep knee bends with 400 by Bob Peoples, the 400 jerk by Bill Boone and the fame of Walter Podolak as a first class heavyweight wrestler. All these athletes bear the unmistakable stamp of a terrible elemental force of muscle. Power, sheer, stark, natural power springs from the practice of the two hands deadlift. It is the simple element which turns the ordinary schedule into a productive programme of strength, muscle and definition.
Now for the rules, the assistance exercises and the training methods of the greats.
“The barbell shall be lifted from the ground until the lifter stands erect. Upon conclusion the legs must be straight and the shoulders taken back. Should the bar be brought to rest against the legs during the lift it shall not be counted as cause for disqualification, and the manner in which the bar shall be grasped is a matter for the lifter’s discretion.”
There are two important points to be observed in the above rules. The lifter must be erect with straight legs, and the shoulders must be taken back. Either of these rules, if neglected, will cause the lifter to be disqualified. It is also permissible for the lifter to rest the bar across the thighs while he changes his grip, that is, reverse hands if he is using a “reverse” grip. With, say, the left hand palm frontward and the right hand knuckles facing to the front, he can, if he so desires, change the hands s that the left hand knuckles are facing front and the right hand palm is to the front.
As in all specialized feats of strength, the best way to improve is to practice the lift. However, there may be some weak points that may hold you back unless you improve them. Certain thigh muscles or sections of the lower back or trapezius may be less strong in comparison to other groups and might well prove to be the weak link in the chain. Devote a full period – training period – to the practice of assistance exercises and more if you feel you need it. When the time comes for you to start training exclusively for maximum poundages, then follow a tried and tested system such as is used by other brilliant performers on the deadlift, and keep at the one training routine until you have made the record attempt. Don’t forget that it isn’t only the world’s records which can be broken, but your own personal records.
Here is an assistance exercise which is positively invaluable. It accustoms you to handle exceedingly heavy weights, strengthens the grip and puts power into the entire shoulder girdle. Take two strong boxes and place your best deadlift poundage on them so the plates rest on the boxes and the entire bar bridges across. The boxes should bring the bar to just a little above knee height. Step up close to the bar and take your grip. Use a reverse grip with the palm of one hand facing to the front and the knuckles of the other hand to front. From here, lift the weight to the finish position of the two hands deadlift. Shrug the shoulders high, lower the weight and repeat. Start off with 3 sets of 5 reps and gradually work up to 3 sets of 12 reps. When you reach this combination of sets and reps you can either add more weight or place boards an inch in thickness under your feet. The resistance which is added need not be in pounds; the height of the lifter relative to the bar is also resistance. Boards or pads under the feet, gradually added, can raise the lifter until he is capable of using his previous limit poundage in the regular manner in a series of reps.
In the two hands deadlift, the force exerted is a combination of leg and back power. Here is an exercise which will strengthen the muscles in the front of the thighs and will enable you to start the weight away from the floor with a burst of speed. Get your training partners to place a barbell in the bend of the elbows or take the bar, held in the crook of your bent arms, from supports. A safe poundage for a start would be equal to your best press. This is a safe poundage which you can use until you are accustomed to the exercise and able to balance yourself steadily. Hold the arms will into the body and the fists clenched and high. From here squat until the elbows touch the knees and then return to upright position again. Keep the back flat at all times so that the main resistance comes on the thighs. Look straight ahead and hold the head high. Start off with 3 sets of 10 reps and work up to 3 sets of 15 reps. Not only the legs are exercised in this movement, but the arms too, and the latissimus dorsi are greatly affected.
Here is an exercise which is at last coming into its own as a great back and shoulder developer. The anterior deltoids, the teres major, the trapezius, the upper thighs and erector spinae are all stimulated and strengthened. A good standard to set in all exercising poundages is to take a weight which you can handle for 8 comfortable reps and work up, from here. Place a suitably weighted dumbell between the legs. Bend down and grasp the bar with both hands, interlacing the fingers around the bar. The feet should be 15 inches apart, with the thighs bent to the depth employed in deadlifting. From this position swing the dumbell up and away from the body until it is at arm’s length overhead. Return immediately to starting position and repeat. Every rep should be continuous, one after the other with no pause between reps. Start off with 3 sets of 8 reps and work up to 3 sets of 15 reps before increasing the weight.
An advanced muscle movement for increasing the power of the entire thigh. a “by product” of the exercise is a muscular definition seldom seen as a result of any other leg developer. You need a good strong box of sufficient height so that the dumbells are clear of the floor when you are in a good full squat position and a piece of wood to place under the heels. A board about an inch thick is excellent. The two dumbells should be fairly light in poundage to start off with. Stand on the box with the board under the heels. Take hold of the dumbells – have your training partner hand them to you if possible, and then squat down – right down – and from this position, commence your squats. DON’T use a rebound but take every squat from the rock bottom position. Start off with 3 sets of 10 reps and work up to 3 sets of 20 reps before adding weight. Never force the poundage increases on this exercise but ALWAYS use a weight which you can handle comfortably and easily to start with, and GRADUALLY, STEADILY increase the reps and weights.
Again you need the use of a good sturdy box. Stand on it and get a training partner to hand you a barbell, if possible. Hold it across the fronts of the thighs, in the finish position of the two hands deadlift. From here bend forward until the bar touches the box in front of you. Return to an upright position and repeat. It is important NOT to use too heavy a weight. Here, as in the previous exercise, start off with a weight you can easily and comfortable handle for 8 to 10 reps and gradually work up to 15 reps. Use 3 sets. When you do increase the weight, do so by a mere 1 ¼ pound disc each end of the bar.
Training Methods of the Champions
Harold Ansorge, who made a deadlift of 680 pounds, had a very strenuous programme and one which packed a considerable amount of weight on his body. He worked out on the deadlift once every SIX DAYS making 3 sets of 25 reps and resting 25 minutes between each set. When he had advanced as far as he could go on this schedule, he then trained every FIVE DAYS performing 10 sets of 12 reps, resting 20 minutes between each set. When this schedule was used up, he would rest for five days, and then take on a series of deadlifts with heavy poundage and low reps and a high number of sets. He would make 20 sets of 5 reps with anything from 520 pounds to 650 pounds. He rested 5 minutes between each set. After this schedule dried up, Ansorge would return to the original routine, again deadlifting once every six days.
As a means of increasing power, the two hands deadlift is the finest exercise in the whole book. Common sense use of the lift – as an exercise – will more than repay you for the expended efforts. As a competition medium, it provides excitement and, because of simplicity and lack of detailed technique, appreciation from the audience as a TRUE feat of power. No lifter or bodybuilder can fail to improve in strength and development with judicious use of the two hands deadlift included in his workout programme.