Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dynamics of the Deadlift, The Series - Pete Vuono

Original location of the West Side Barbell Club.
photo courtesy of Mike Knight

Hermann Goerner demonstrating a four-finger deadlift of 595.5 pounds using only the index and middle fingers of each hand. 30th November, 1933.

Series originally published in Powerlifting USA magazine between 1981 and '82.
BIG THANKS to Pete Vuono and Dave Yarnell!


Overloading is a system by which the lifter uses a device, a training partner or changes the execution of a particular lift to help him or her become accustomed to using a much heavier weight than is actually lifted in competition.

Overloading has a mufti-faceted purpose. It serves to alleviate the crushing feeling that a heavy competition weight often has on the lifter, it is a means by which the lifter can train a specific sticking point into greater strength and it psychologically makes a barbell feel lighter. This author has mentioned overloading in the bench press and squat previously and the deadlift is no exception. Here are two possible techniques:

(1) Negative Training

Negative training is a very simple technique to execute and can be done safely. Upon finishing one's deadlift routine of the day, increase the heaviest set of deadlifts for that day by 150 pounds (modify this is it is not appropriate). Get into the your normal deadlift position and and lift it up with the aid of two spotters. If this is too difficult, have the bar placed in a power rack with only about 1/2 inch for the bar to be pulled to completion. Once the bar is pulled to a standing position, the training partners can pull out the pins. Whatever safe way the lifter uses to get the bar into position, this is the starting point of the exercise. Once in this position, hold the bar up for 30 seconds. Now, begin lowering it very slowly, resisting all the way. This should be done ONLY ONE TIME AND WITH CLOSE ATTENTION PAID TO BACK SAFETY. Perform this hold and negative lowering no more than once per week and less if necessary. This brief routine should serve to efficiently overload the muscles involved in the deadlift.

(2) The 'Touch' Method

The touch method was devised in the early days of powerlifting in California (respect to Bill West) and is one of the most useful and successful overload methods. In spite of this, it has been virtually forgotten and is not used by many current powerlifters.

Take a barbell and put it up on blocks approximately 8 inches high. Sturdy blocks, in this author's opinion, are superior to a power rack for this particular movement because they allow for more space and there is no danger of the bar or the power rack pins in the event the bar is dropped. Once the bar is up on the blocks, warm up to 1/2 to 3/4 of your maximum deadlift off the floor. For example, if your maximum deadlift is 400, perform reps in a maner similar to this:

135 x 10, 225 x 5, 315 x 2, completely without assistance from a partner. Now increase the weight to the maximum of 400. The training partner should put his right hand on the lifter's sternum and his left hand on the lifter's sacrum. As the weight is lifted the training partner should push forward with the (lower) left hand and up and back with the (higher) right hand, assisting the lifter with the heavy lift. The lifter will get the overload sensation of feeling a heavy weight, but due to the 8-inch blocks and partner assistance the body and back won't be overly taxed. Perform this single rep with 400 for 1 set; then increase the weight by 25 more pounds for 2 more singles using the touch method.

If the touch method is utilized, perform it only once weekly, three or four days before or after your regular deadlift workout.

(3) The Graduated Deadlift

The graduated deadlift is very aptly named. It is a gradual way of conditioning the body into using a heavier weight than you are used to using.

Take a group of pine boards 3 feet long x 12 inches wide x 3/4 inch thick. Have enough of them stacked so that when the bar is placed on top of the boards (or a block placed on top of the boards) it will only have to be pulled 2 to 3 inches to completion. Slowly warm up to a weight which is 5 to 10% above your maximum deadlift. Perform deadlifts in this fashion once a week. The repetitions off the blocks for a best regular deadlift of 400 would be:

135 x 10, 225 x 5, 315 x 1, then anywhere from 420-440 for 2. The lifter may, if possible, remove a board from each side every third workout. If he gets to a point where he cannot succeed with the lift after removing a board from each side, he should stick with the previous height until it is possible to succeed with the lower height. If this routine is successful the lifter will find that he can work right to the floor with 5 to 10% above his best deadlift.

If the lifter deadlifts once weekly, he may use this routine instead of the regular deadlift, as it uses the same muscles.


In the deadlift the athlete does not crouch down as low as in the squat. It is for this reason that there is much less of a 'squeeze' effect on the body. In the deadlift no body part squeezes or pushes off of another body part to a major extent. Therefore, there is less of a leverage factor available.

However, these limited leverage conditions can be remedied and the 'squeeze' effect can be made greater by the usage of certain apparel.

Although the descent of the legs is not very low, it is low enough for a 10-cm. wide leather belt to create a slight amount of pressure so as to push the body upward. This action can be even more enhanced by the powerlifter if he consciously presses his abdominals up against the belt when descending towards the bar. This, of course, gives the benefits of a lighter torso and hence better leverage.

Another advantage can be had by wearing one of the snug reinforcing suits which are in vogue. Because of the tightness in the leg, seat, and straps, it makes the descent towards the bar slightly more difficult or tighter. It is recommended that if the trainee uses a suit of this style that he not use it during practice but only one or two months before the contest. This will help the lifter to not depend on the suit but have time enough to become adjusted to its feel so that his style is not altered.

It is well known that the closer a lifter is to the ground the less distance he will have to pull the bar. To achieve this shortening of distance it is desirable to wear shoes with thin or no heels. Track shoes, wrestling shoes, slippers or gymnastics shoes have such heels. It will help the lifter to not wear socks as they sometimes cause friction with the bar. Some lifters have gone as far as to use an electric shaver across the thighs to further cut down on friction.

One might also spread baby powder or talcum powder across the thigh to offer a source of lubrication to allow the bar to slide up the leg. If powder is used, do not apply it directly with the hand or it will cause a slippery grip and a possible loss of the lift.

Another technique that the lifter can try is to have a one-inch thick wedge placed on the shoe in the area just over the ball of the foot. The rationale here is that lifters wear raised heels on shoe in the squat to offset the weight which is behind them, making it easier to lean forward and utilize the back. Since, in the deadlift, the weight is in front of the body, a wedge in the front of the foot will help offset a weight which is in front and help the lifter to pull up and back, which is precisely the way the bar must travel towards completion.

There is no guarantee that the wedge at the front of the foot will increase poundages. However, if the lifter has an old pair of track or wrestling shoes this experiment may well be worth a try.


Although overloading and power rack training can be quite effective for some lifters, others require usage of a full range of motion which is unassisted to overcome sticking points. Two fine methods of overcoming one’s sticking points without overloading or power rack training include first - make the deadlift more difficult to perform by the addition of a device or the changing of the angle to make the execution of the lift more difficult and yet similar to the actual lift.

An excellent example of this method is to execute the front squat rather than the full back squat as the angle change eliminates help from the back in the ascent. Another example would be to do a close-grip bench press rather than using the normal grip as this helps to eliminate shoulder and pectoral strength.

The same method can be used with the deadlift in several ways, instead of training on the deadlift itself, so that when the trainee returns to the deadlift after several months or working it from a harder position, his poundages may increase markedly after regaining familiarity with the regular deadlift.

The second method of overcoming one’s sticking points without overloading or using the power rack is to determine which muscle group or groups are causing a sticking point, and then strengthening them by using exercises which isolate those muscle groups. For example, a two-arm chin works latissimus, biceps and forearms. If someone wanted to isolate the bicep alone, he would specialize by doing a curling exercise which works the biceps more and the other muscle groups less. Isolation on one’s weak muscle group can be done with a myriad of exercises which isolate those muscle groups. For example, a two-arm chin works latissimus, biceps and forearms. If someone wanted to isolate the bicep alone, he would specialize by doing a curling exercise which works the biceps more and the other muscle groups less. Isolation on one’s weak muscle group can be done with a myriad of exercises. Now, the above-mentioned routines will be explained separately.

A.) Making the Deadlift More Difficult to Perform

It sounds logical that if an Olympic lifter can clean or power clean 300 pounds, then their deadlift should be considerably higher, since the distance of the pull is much shorter. There is a school of thought in powerlifting which feels that if the lifter works the pulling muscles involved by pulling the bar a great deal higher, then when the regular deadlift is contested it will have increased greatly. Many American and world record holders vouch for this technique and it could prove to be a valuable method for the reader as well.

The first group of exercises which make the deadlift more difficult to perform adhere to the above-mentioned theory. They are the quick, explosive pulling movements given to powerlifters from Olympic lifters. The trainee may perform power cleans, or clean-grip or snatch-grip pulls once per week without performing the deadlift and still work the pulling muscles involved. The power clean and the clean pull make the lift much more difficult by forcing the lifter to bring the bar a great deal higher than in normal deadlifting. If the reader decided to do the power clean and the clean pull, do them once per week each and three days apart from one another. For a lifter who can power clean 225 once, a sample routine would be 135x5, 155x5, 175x1, 195x5 or whatever one’s strength that day dictates.

The trainee may arrange the repetitions in the same manner for the clean pull. Train with these exercises for several months and go back to the normal deadlift one or two months before the contest.

When executing the power clean the lifter may or may not use straps. The bar should be pulled up from the floor to the shoulders IN ONE MOVEMENT WITHOUT DIPPING UNDERNEATH WITH A KNEE BEND. This will serve to work the pulling muscles more thoroughly and decrease the possibility of an injury due to knee or ankle twisting.

The second type of exercises which make the deadlift more difficult to perform are those which force the lifter to stoop down lower to grasp the bar, rather than forcing the lifter to pull it higher. They are similar to the first set of exercises in that they work the same muscles used in deadlifting and greatly increase the distance of the pull.

The first of these exercises is the snatch-grip deadlift. This is simply a deadlift performed on an Olympic bar with one’s hands just inside the interior collars. The wide grip automatically forces the lifter to descend or squat lower thus creating a higher, longer-range pull. A sample routine for someone who can perform 300 for one rep in this manner could be 135x10, 225x5, 250x1, 25x3-5 reps, depending on the lifter’s strength that day.

Another series of important exercises which force the lifter to bend lower thus creating a longer pull is the bent-legged or stiff-legged deadlift done while standing on a 4-inch, 6-inch block or small platform, or on a bench. Standing on a 4” riser when regular deadlifting causes the lifter’s insteps to be approximately 2” from the bar. A 6” block allows for the lifter’s insteps to approximately touch the bar, again providing more distance to the pull. Placing the bar up on a bench and standing atop it immediately behind the bar forces the lifter to bend all the way down to the toes to grasp the bar, making the lifter pull the bar approximately 8” fuller than normal.

One step ahead of this would be to perform this style with legs bent at only a 10 to 20-degree angle, which eliminates a lot of the leg strength. If the trainee does decide to use the “stiff-legged” variety of this exercise he should be sure to stretch both the hamstrings and back, and start utilizing the movement very gradually but progressively.

The height of the block, or whether to utilize bent legs or nearly-straight should be left up to the lifter. Experiment and use whatever works best for you. This may vary over time. This author’s personal routine has been to use straight legs with a 10-degree bend at the knees while standing on 4” high blocks. My routine is as follows: 135x10, 225x5, 385x2, 485x1, 505x1. The final set should be heavy but never maximum so as not to cause staleness or a premature peak. The lifter may or may not use lifting straps.

B.) Developing the Muscles

The second method of overcoming one’s sticking points without the use of the power rack or overloading is to determine which muscle group is causing a problem, and isolate it with an exercise which works those muscles in a different angle, or serves to exclude other assisting muscle groups, of works the deadlift muscles from the point of sticking.

The bottom, middle and top position of the deadlift will be analyzed and the muscles which are dominant in each phase will be discussed. Finally, suggested exercises for assistance will be recommended for each phase of the deadlift.

Before going over each phase it is important to point out that the quick Olympic-style lifts will be listed in each phase (bottom, middle, top). There are several reasons for this and they will be illustrated with the power clean. Since, in the power clean, the lift is started from the floor and is pulled slightly faster than the deadlift, the lifter must concentrate on an explosive start. This concentration helps develop good starting power and thus the bottom position of the deadlift.

Since momentum is created in the middle of the power clean and speed accelerated, the lift can serve to break a middle sticking point in the deadlift. Also, the final shrug at the top of any quick lift helps to break a deadlift sticking point at the top where so many powerlifters are caught short.

Finally, since Olympic-style movements are fast, they serve to develop fast twitch muscle fibers which are those fibers utilized when an athlete executes a fast movement in sports. These fibers are left undeveloped from simply deadlifting and could serve to increase one’s deadlift if they have been trained conjunctively with slow twitch fibers. Therefore, the quick, Olympic-style lifts will be listed under each of the three positions.

Bottom Position

According to Gray’s Anatomy, the primary muscles for maintaining the spine in the erect posture and to bend the trunk backward when it is required to counterbalance the influence of any weight at the front of the body are the erector spinae muscles. They are responsible for most of the action of the deadlift and along with a slight assist from bent quadriceps are responsible for the bottom position of the deadlift. Assistance movements which can help to isolate a weak bottom area are as follows:

a. stiff leg deadlift.
b. stiff leg deadlift, lifter standing on 4” platform.
c. stiff leg deadlift, lifter standing on 6” platform.
d. stiff leg deadlifts with bar on bench, lifter standing on bench.
e. bent leg deadlift, lifter standing on 4” platform, 6” platform, or on bench.
f. snatch-grip deadlift.
g. snatch-grip deadlift, lifter standing on 4” platform, 6” platform, or on bench.
h. isometric deadlift in power rack with empty bar set at low position.
i. isometric/isotonic deadlift on power rack with loaded bar set at low position.
j. good morning exercise.
k. power clean.
l. clean pull.
m. snatch pull.
p. power snatch.
o. hyperextension with or without weight.

Middle Position

The erector spinae muscles are still in the process of hoisting the weight but other muscles come into play and assist. The trainee will note that during the process of deadlifting the upper arm or humerus is drawn back slightly as the bar is pulled upward. This movement is primarily executed by the latissimus dorsi and teres major which are both attached to the humerus. Therefore, since these middle back muscles are attached to the humerus and serve to pull it back slightly when deadlifting, they could be the cause of a middle sticking point. Exercises to eradicate a middle sticking point are as follows:

a. wide grip chins with or without weight.
b. medium grip chins with or without weight.
c. close grip chins with or without weight.
d. lat machine pulldowns with wide or medium grip.
e. seated cable rows.
f. bentover barbell row, pronated grip.
g. bentover barbell row, supinated grip.
h. one dumbbell bentover row.
i. two dumbbell bentover row.
j. good morning exercise.
k. power clean.
l. clean pull.
m. snatch pull.
n. power snatch.
o. isometric deadlift done with empty bar at middle position.
p. isometric/isotonic deadlift done with loaded bar at middle position.
q. lockout deadlift done from the middle position of the power rack or off blocks.
r. lockout deadlift done from the middle position of the power rack or off blocks using the “touch” method.

Top Position

According to Gray’s Anatomy the trapezius muscle reacts retracts the scapula and braces back the shoulder; if the head is fixed, the upper part of the trapezius will elevate the point of the shoulders as in supporting weights. Thus, both the trapezii together draw the head of the shoulder directly backward.

This is the action of the final shrug which plagues so many powerlifters. Assistance movements which will improve one’s top position are as follows:

a. shrugs done with bar in front of the body.
b. shrugs done with bar behind body.
c. shrugs with dumbbells.
d. power shrugs, done in cheating style, pulling the bar from just above knees using trapezii and back conjunctively.
e. lockout deadlifts from top position on power rack.
f. isometric deadlift with empty bar at top position.
g. isometric/isotonic deadlift with loaded bar at top position.
h. upright row.
i. upright row done in cheating manner, pulling the bar from the floor to the sternum with various grips.
j. power clean.
k. clean or snatch pull.
m. power snatch.
n. hang power clean.
o. hang pull with various grip widths.
p. hang snatch.
q. hang power snatch.

A wide variety of exercises have been listed in hopes that the reader will be able to choose an exercise or exercises that will cater to his current individual needs. A general rule would be to first ascertain one’s sticking point, choose one isolation exercise and perform it once weekly. It is permissible to exclude the deadlift entirely if the trainee uses an assistance movement or movements which fully develop the same muscles involved in the deadlift. For example, if the trainee did the stiff-legged deadlift on blocks once per week, it would be fine to exclude the deadlift as the important muscles are already worked.

If an assistance move is used in addition to the deadlift, perform it once weekly, three days before or after the deadlift and with higher repetitions than the deadlift so to focus power on the deadlift and not on the assistance movement.


Without exception, in every power meet that this author has gone to as a spectator or as a competitor, there has always been at least one deadlift lost due a weak grip.

Whether or not the reader has large or small hands, the grip can usually be sufficiently strengthened to insure that his grip doesn't give out before the pull is completed. Think about it: how many major competitions have been won or lost due to a lifter's grip giving out?

The following are several suggestions which will help to build one's grip to go along with a more powerful pull. The best routines are those which require an actual gripping movement. However, exercises which strengthen the forearms can help also.

Here are some suggestions:

a) supporting a heavy barbell off a power rack without a hook grip.

b) performing the above exercise with the hands first greased with petroleum jelly.

c) pinch-gripping thin, smooth surfaced barbell plates with each hand.

d) ping-gripping thin, smooth surfaced barbell plates with a light film of petroleum jelly on the hands.

e) squeezing grippers for 3 sets of 10 reps three times weekly.

f) holding thick-handled dumbbells or barbells made so by encasing them with a hollow pipe, layered tin foil or a towel wrapping.

g) performing deadlifts with an overhand grip without using a hook grip.

h) performing deadlifts in an alternate grip but using only one finger from each hand; first use the little finger, then the ring finger, middle, and finally the index fingers.

i) isometrically squeezing a rolled up towel.

j) performing the wrist roller exercise with a pronated grip for 3 roll-ups.

k) performing the wrist roller exercise with a supinated grip for 3 roll-ups.

l) the reverse curl done in normal fashion.

m) the 'Gironda' reverse curl done by dragging the bar up the body, keeping it in contact with the body at all times.

n) the Zottman curl.

o) the thumbs-up, or Hammer curl with dumbbells.

p) the modified reverse curl where the bar is lowered only to a parallel position.

q) wrist curls with a pronated grip done on a bench.

r) wrist curls with a supinated grip done on a bench.

s) wrist curls done standing with a barbell with the hands behind the back.

t) wrist curls done with dumbbells held at the sides with the wrists curling toward and away from the body.

Perform your grip exercises two or three times a week on days that the arms are not worked. It is advisable to do them on the lower body or deadlift days, last on the agenda. 3 sets are appropriate for all supporting, gripping and forearm exercises. If an exercise is chosen for the forearms, be sure to choose one for the flexors and one for the extensors for balanced, overall development and strength. For example, I do the reverse curl compounded with wrist curls for the flexors and extensors of the forearms and these are followed by hammer (thumbs-up) curls for the brachialis muscle. On all forearm exercises, the trainee may choose anywhere from 10-15 reps for each of his 3 sets.


The power rack can be used just as effectively for the deadlift as it can for the squat and bench press, and offers several training advantages. It can help isolate sticking points at whatever stage of the pull the lifter has difficulty. It can also overload the body and is usually quite safe due to the rack pins.

By setting the bar around one's sticking point or weak area in the rack, the trainee can:

(a) isolate the sticking point physically by continuously starting from that weak area, or

(b) isolate the sticking point mentally by forcing the lifter to focus his concentration on the weak area because it is the point from which the pins have been set at, and

(c) add isometrics to the routine, providing another training method.

In order to isolate one's sticking point (at just above knee level, for example), set the bar on the pins adjusted to the desired height. Now pull the partial deadlift. This will allow one to physically attack the area in a more concentrated manner, because the area from the floor to just below the knee has been eliminated. You can focus your power on the sticking point in a fresher state without the fatigue from the first part of the lift.

An additional advantage here is that by starting at your weak area you have to concentrate more heavily with the mind on the weak area. Nerve impulses are trained to break through the weak area, which helps the physical weakness to be overcome. The mind becomes used to success in this area of the lift, and not failure. The power rack helps to focus energy on one particular spot so that when this spot is encountered during a full movement it can be broken down easily.

The lifter, before setting the bar at his weak area, should practice the lift slowly from the floor with light weights. While doing this, try to observe the position that your body assumes when the bar crosses the sticking point. THIS SAME POSITION SHOULD BE DUPLICATED EXACTLY IN THE POWER RACK. For example, if your sticking point is just above the knee and your knees are almost completely straight at this point in the regular full deadlift, then this position must be duplicated exactly in the power rack or much of the effectiveness is lost.

Another routine that the lifter can use the power rack for requires that he first set the bar on the pins in the area of the deadlift sticking point. Next he should place another set of pins four inches above the first pair. Now, pull the bar from the first set of pins up to the second set and pull against them isometrically for five seconds. This routine may be done for 3 sets of 3-5 reps
(after a warmup).

A helpful adjunct to this routine would be to remove the upper set of pins after the isometric sets are completed. Now simply pull the bar from the first (the remaining) set of pins to completion for 5 sets of single reps with the same weight. By using isometrics and isotonics together the lifter can incorporate two useful training methods to overcome the sticking point in one workout.

The power rack can also be used for overloading purposes. You can pull huge poundages, 150 pounds in excess of your top deadlift, an inch or two off the pins to give the sensation of a heavier lift that is done in competition. You can also have a training partner take away the pins while you are holding the weight and you can, after 10 to 30 seconds of supporting, lower the weight negatively toward the floor.

Still another usage of the power rack is to set a pair of pins at the sticking point. Now set an empty bar under the pins and pull isometrically for 5 to 8 seconds. You can perform this variation for 1 to 3 isometric pulls per workout.

Finally, it is suggested that you perform these variations after a warmup and the you WORK INTO THESE MOVEMENTS SLOWLY. If they are done as an adjunct to your routine, perform only one variation once per week on a day three days before or after your regular deadlift routine.


In planning a repetition scheme for the deadlift the trainee must be cautious so as not to do too many reps, sets, warmups, or heavy sets as the heavy taxation which the deadlift puts on one's back can easily take a toll.

If you enjoy cycling before a meet, it is advisable to make the heavy set go no higher than 5 repetitions and the number of heavy sets not to exceed one set. Therefore, if a meet is 12 weeks away, the trainee would work up to a heavy set of 5 rather than 8 or 10 reps so as not to tax the back too heavily. When the meet approaches, the lifter may cycle down to a heavy set of 3, 2, or 1 repetition.

Another way to work the reps is to simply work up to a heavy double or single all the time prior to the contest but never to attempt a maximum. The heavy double or single should be done only once per workout and once per week, and only increased when the lifter is certain that the effort is easy.

Perhaps one of the best ways to work the deadlift rep scheme (or for the squat or bench press) is a routine which I call the '10, 5, 1, 3 to 5' routine. It is a mini-cycle which is designed to always keep the lifter used to heavy weights but to also prevent an inappropriate maximum effort in training.

For a hypothetical lifter who has a maximum deadlift of 400 pounds for 3 repetitions, the first workout will go as follows:

135 x 10
225 x 5
300 x 1
400 x 3

On the following workout, the lifter strives for 4 reps at 400. When this is finally achieved (and it may take one or a dozen workouts), the lifter strives for 400 x 5. When 5 reps are achieved, the lifter adds 5 pounds to the bar on the next workout and attempts 3 reps with 405, and so on. A key to this routine is the set of 1 with 300. One repetition before the heavy (work) set is enough to physically and psychologically warm you up for a heavy set. Also, because it is only one repetition, it does not heavily tax the body and therefore leaves a great reserve left. This routine is very brief, but this is an asset which prevents overtraining. It is always sequential and always gives you a good idea where your maximum is. Also, because the reps are low (3,4,5), you are always prepared for a maximum lift. This one is worth experimenting with.

This concludes my series on the deadlift. It was my intent to give everyone some advice which might improve their lifts. If this has occurred, then this effort was well worthwhile. It is also the hope of this author that all the lifters who will stoop to conquer the deadlift bar can honestly say to themselves that they will have performed the feat by way of knowledge, hard work and their own natural God-given abilities.

To Powerlifting,
Pete Vuono.

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