Monday, October 14, 2013

Specializing in the Deadlift - Louie Simmons

Vanessa Schwenker doing dead-stop squats with the Safety Squat bar.

Chuck Vogelpohl doing seated good mornings with the Buffalo Bar.

Louie Simmons Interview

Specializing in the Deadlift
by Louie Simmons (1996)

Remember in your youth when you wanted to play football? You soon found out that to excel at football, most of the practice had to be done without the ball. A good coach knows that you can't just give a ball player a football to make him good. Rather, he must do countless drills without the ball to raise his performance.

The deadlift is just another example of this principle. There isn't a ball player in pro sports that can play at a high level without special drills.

Even great deadlifters have to do rack pulls or pulls off boxes. Those better built to deadlift, i.e., long arms, short torso, fairly long legs - don't need to do as much assistance work because of good body mechanics.

I was not blessed with great leverage for deadlifting yet did fairly well: 670 at 181, 710 at 198, and 722 at 220. I was going nowhere fast until I read an article by Bill Starr. He had a program that was designed to increase the deadlift by not doing the lift in the usual manner. This, along with learning the conjugate method of training used by the Russians, was and still is the foundation of my training philosophy.

To increase the deadlift, you must gain strength in the legs, back, abs, and glutes, as well as address all aspects of strength: explosive, accelerating, and, of course, absolute strength.

For building muscular strength, we do a wide variety of good mornings and special squats with different bars. We do one major bar squat or good morning for a 2 or 3 week period. Then we switch to a different exercise, usually going from a squat to a good morning. After switching for 8-10 weeks, we will test ourselves on rack pulls, where the plates are 6, 4, or 2 inches off the floor. By doing this, we can gauge our progress to determine what exercise to use to strengthen our weaknesses.

The following is a list of special squats we implement in our training. All these exercises will also build the squat.

Kneeling Squat

Put pads under your knees and set your bar on "J" hooks low enough to rack it on the back while kneeling. With your feet tucked behind you, squat down, trying to touch your glutes to the floor. This places all the work on the hips, hip flexors, and glutes. Just like a good squatter's technique, nothing moves but the hips. Do 8-15 reps, working up to a heavy poundage.

Zercher Squat

Hold the bar in the crook of the elbows and squat down until the bar touches the knees. A moderate stance is best. This is a tough one, but it builds great strength in the back, glutes, hamstrings, and abs. Work up to a max triple.

Squatting Off Boxes of Different Heights

I recommend boxes that are 17, 15, 10, 8, and even 6 inches high. One must completely relax the hip muscles, then flex to come up. We also squat off a hassock, or a soft box. We work up to a max single each workout. We have six different heights to try records on. On these boxes we may use a Safety Squat bar, a Manta Ray device, a Buffalo bar, or a regular bar. We may also front squat. If you multiply the number of box heights by the different bars, you have 30 different combinations to choose from. Add the kneeling and Zercher squats and you have 32 records to try.

Safety Squat Bar

This bar places the weight 5 inches forward due to its special cambered design.

Manta Ray

This device places the bar high on the shoulders, elongating the back, thus producing a super-high-bar or pulling squat.

Buffalo Bar

This bar, manufactured by IronMind, changes the course of the bar slightly from that of a regular bar.

Remember to work up to a max single on squats. After 2 or 3 weeks doing a particular squat, we will rotate to a good morning of some type. The following are a few varieties of good mornings.

Arched Back Good Mornings

These are very effective for the sumo deadlift. Do 3-10 reps per set. For squatting, move the bar 8-12 inches. For deadlifting, go as far as possible without losing your arch.

Bent Over Good Mornings

Bend over until the weight is transferred to the balls of the feet. Do 3-10 reps per set with either straight or bent legs.

Seated Good Mornings

Do these on a box or straddling a bench. On the bench, lean over until your face touches the bench. These are great for the abs as well. Do 3-10 reps per set.

Combo Squat/Good Morning

Carry a bar very low on your back, so low that you have to hunch over to keep the bar on your back. Now bend over until the weight is transferred onto the balls of the feet. Now round the lower back and sink into a full squat. Come up by straightening the upper and lower back and the legs. This is a tremendous power builder. It should feel like it's going to pop your eyeballs out of your head if done correctly. After warming up, work up to a max of 1-5 reps.

Good Mornings on the Floor

For therapy we do good mornings while sitting on the floor. This will stretch the back and hamstrings. High reps of 10-15 work best.

High Pulls

This Olympic lifting special exercise can be done for a week or two to work the upper back. To do a high pull, grab the bar with an overhand grip, and with a flat back, pull the bar to the belt, low chest, or neck level. Warm up, then work up to a few singles. This will build the traps as well. When pulling, the elbows should be out to the sides so the bar stays close to the body.

For additional back work, do a variety of upper back work such as lat pulldowns with different bars, and weighted chin-ups. Rows are great. T-bar, dumbbell, chest-supported, and bent-over barbell. Reps are 6-15.

The following are effective low back exercises.

Back Raise with Weight

Do 5-8 reps. Hold some at the top for static strength.

Reverse Hypers

We do 4-6 sets of Reverse Hypers with heavy weight twice a week, about 10 reps. We also do two lighter workouts, 15-20 reps. This exercise works as restoration as well as a strength builder.


Face away from a low-pulley machine, grab a single cable-crossover handle in both hands, walk away from the machine a few feet, and squat down, letting the arms go between the legs. Then straighten up, squeezing the glutes. This is great for glutes and hamstring tie-ins for start and lockout power.

For general leg strength, we do six exercises in a rotating manner.

Walking Lunges with Dumbbells

3 sets walking 100 feet.

Static Squats Against a Wall, Holding Dumbbells

5 sets of 30 second holds.

Static Squats in a Belt Squat Machine

Working up to 40% of your best squat, 3 sets. Try to hold these for 30 seconds at different positions.

Regular Belt Squats

Ramping up to a max set of 5 reps, or 5 sets of 4 reps at 80% of your best set of 5 reps.

One-Legged Squats

With your back foot on a 12-24 inch box. Use dumbbells or a barbell, 8-15 reps.

Calf/Ham/Glute Raise

5-8 reps per set. These are unreal for hamstrings, but require a calf/ham/glute bench: a device with a toe plate and a curved padded support for your thighs.

Ab Crunches

Every day, 200-500 reps.

Weighted Situps

On a flat or inclined board, 5-10 reps, sometimes held statically for 6 seconds, twice a week.

Spread-eagle situps

Twice a week. These work the lower abs, but are intended to build the hip flexors.

Leg Lifts of Various Kinds

Lying with legs straight or bent; hanging with legs straight or bent. Hanging leg raises, bringing your feet up to the bar you're hanging from, build strong abs and hips and increase flexibility.

We don't practice the deadlift, but we do static deadlifts from different positions. Don't sell isometrics short.

Ultra-wide Sumo

Place a set of two of collars on an empty bar and load the plates. This will allow you to use an extremely wide stance, which puts a tremendous amount of stress on the hips, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. It is important to keep the back as upright as possible. This takes the stress off the back and places it on the hips. George Frenn, an innovative lifter out of the original Westside Barbell, had a trick he used to teach a lifter to keep a flat back. He would place one hand on the lifter's sternum and the other one the lower back. By putting pressure at both points, he helped the lifter maintain proper form and use his legs correctly; thus overcoming sticking points. The Culver City Westside group was, in my opinion, 30 years ahead of their time.

Original location of Culver City Westside Barbell
Photo courtesy of Mike Knight

A very important point when doing a good morning or a special squat for deadlifting is to  

A perfect example of this is a good morning variation I failed to mention earlier. It is one of our favorites, but it is extremely tough. Place a Safety Squat bar on the power rack pins at a height that when you are under the bar, with your arms hanging straight down, your hands are about 9 inches off the floor, the same position as when the bar has just separated from the floor in a deadlift. Now, by driving your neck and shoulders into the Safety Squat bar, stand erect. This simulates deadlifting but without using your hands.

Some of you may need to do grip work. Don't let a bad grip stop your progress. There are a great number of grip training devices and exercises to choose from that are very good. I suggest using a hands-over grip until failure, then switch to a hands-over hook grip. Then, and only then, use straps. A reverse grip should be reserved for a contest. 
With a reverse grip the bar will sometimes windmill out front. To remedy this situation, place the curl-grip side foot out an extra inch or so. If you hold your hands knuckles out and turn one hand over, you will see the curl grip hand has moved out away from the body an inch or two. That's why you must step the curl-grip side foot out to compensate.

The method of training I have reviewed for the deadlift is called the conjugate method. It has been very good for us at Westside, and it can do the same for you.

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