A number of years ago, well before I had more fully articulated a training perspective, an individual approached me after observing me do about a 20-rep set of stiff-legged deadlifts with 300 pounds. "What's your deadlift routine?" He asked. Even though I was on vacation and supposedly doing more casual training, I didn't want to stop my session to answer his question. At the time I thought the question was amusing - and in fact I still do - because my deadlift routine is the same as it was years ago.
It consists of one work set performed about once every week, preceded by two or three warmup sets consisting of one rep each. The only thing that changes is that sometimes I do higher reps of 15 to 20 and sometimes I focus on lower reps of 8 to 10.
Based on my current training philosophy, I understand that my one-set deadlift approach provides and almost perfect dose, and I've always received an excellent response from it. There was, however, one limitation to my approach:
I believed that doing about 20 repetitions with 320 in reasonably good form was my limit and that anything over about 340, say, for 7 to 8 reps was all my elbows and shoulders could take. I had set mental limits, but they seemed to have a basis in fact, as 320 x 20 or 340 x 8 was all I could do.
I've also had a Trap Bar for years, but although I used it occasionally for shrugs, I'd never used it for deadlifts. While I agree with the many people who believe the Trap Bar is the best free weight movement, because I'm small, I always thought the hand spacing was too wide for me and would hurt my elbows. Furthermore, I was worried that I couldn't balance the bar.
In August '97 I was doing my regular deadlift routine and reaching my usual limits. As it happened, on three separate occasions during the year I'd strained the muscles in my left lower back. The strains were so serious that I couldn't deadlift for two or three weeks after each incident. Then it took weeks to work my way back to respectable weights.
During the second week in August I reinjured the area. I was frustrated at the way my body was "letting me down" and leery of starting the entire rehab process again only to end up either with an injury or hitting my so-called limits again. I decided to try the Trap Bar for a few weeks because I felt I had nothing to lose. If things went well, I'd also have a new movement on which my limit didn't seem so etched in stone.
What follows is a chronology of my experience.
I started using a regular-style deadlift on the Trap Bar, doing 285 x 20, then 300 x 14 (September 4). I had no trouble doing the movement, was suitably cautious and felt I got a good response - with one caveat. The muscles involved were virtually the same as the ones used for the free weight squat. The reason I always favored the stiff-legged version of the deadlift is that it places the stress primarily one the lower back and hamstrings and to a lesser extent on the upper back and traps.
I decided to try a stiff-legged version of the Trap Bar deadlift and did 275 x 20 at my first workout. My stiff-legged deadlift, to be honest, is more a Romanian deadlift, as I bend my knees somewhat and go down only to my shins. I believe that's safer than a strict version. In addition, I use grips.
The modified stiff-legged version felt very good, and the hand spacing wasn't a problem. I simply kept adding repetitions or resistance at each workout, training deadlifts about once a week, with the number of days between sessions varying because of travel. At one point, as the following shows, I became enamored with doing lower reps. In some cases I included my comments on the workout.
September 18: 300 x 16 (Not pushing at all.)
September 25: 310 x 17 (Nice progress.)
October 2: 320 x 20 (This was easy!)
October 9: 325 x 20 (Still easy.)
October 16: 330 x 21 (This is the most I've done for 20-plus reps.)
October 23: 335 x 20 (This is getting interesting.)
October 30: 345 x 14 (Maybe I shouldn't have gone up 10 pounds.)
November 7: 350 x 12 (This is getting very heavy; I may be near my limit.)
November 14: 350 x 14 (Not bad.)
November 20: 355 x 14 (Pretty difficult.)
November 26: 350 x 18 (This wasn't hard; the first rep flew off the floor.)
December 3: 360 x 12 (Kind of an off day.)
December 10: 365 x 12 (Not feeling that strong.)
December 17: 370 x 11 (Probably near a limit.)
December 21: 350 x 20 (Incredible effort on four days' rest!)
December 29: 365 x 13 (Not bad after vacation in New York.)
January 6: 370 x 13 (This is major league.)
January 13: 375 x 10 (The most deadlifted in any style in 23 years.)
January 20: 380 x 12 (I bet I could go over 400 for reps.)
January 27: 385 x 9 (Didn't feel good; off day.)
February 4: 400 x 8 (Great for an off day.)
February 11: 400 x 10 (So now what?)
It has indeed been an interesting journey. With hindsight I understand that in the past I allowed two factors to limit my deadlifting. The first was simply that I was doing too much volume on other movements and hadn't recovered enough to make a good progression. The second factor was my belief - obviously without much real basis - that my limits were 320 x 20 and 340 x 8. The bottom line is, don't sell yourself short. You never really know what you can do until you establish more ideal circumstances.
Here are some other points and comments:
1) The lower body workout began with leg extensions and regular or Smith machine squats. That meant I was already warmed up. My simple warmup might not work well if heavy deadlifts were the first exercise in the routine. Here's the progression I used: 135x1, 225x1, 315x1, 365x1, 400 x work set.
2) I didn't hurt my lower back or elbows on this routine, but it's important to note the use of a slow-but-steady progression. I also stopped my work sets a repetition or two before failure. I never strained to get that last rep on this movement, because if I lose my groove, I'm sure to get injured.
3) A long progression such as this one suggests there's not much rationale for cycling if you perform the correct dose of an exercise. Of course, it can be argued that moving from higher to lower repetitions is a form of cycling and periodization.
4) Any kind of heavy deadlifting takes a great toll on recovery. i believe the so-called inroad into recovery is greater than one experiences even with the squat because the deadlift affects both the upper and lower body. In any case, once I passed 350, my overall recovery from the lower body workout took longer, suggesting a great systemic effect. That caused me to modify my walking on the day after the workout (I went slower), and my shoulder, arm and cardiovascular workouts on the day after that. It was apparent I needed another rest day, but that's a story for another article.