Thursday, June 2, 2022

Deadlifting for Awards or Personal Power - David Shaw


When examining the deadlift records, it is very apparent that they have not been subject to the record breaking pace of the squat and bench press. This observation was also noted by my friend and training partner, Terry McCormick. Terry and I came to the conclusion that the deadlift does not adapt itself readily to the support gear as do the squat and bench press.

In the past, there were deadlifting shoes marketed with a very thick upper half sole, that when over half of the lift was completed (from floor to upper thigh), you were supposed to automatically sit back in completion of the lift. These did not last long because of the balance problem the sole presented. 

Lifters began trying different sized lifting suits, hoping that a tighter fitting suit would react for them in the same manner a tight fitting suit for the squat reacts, like a coiled spring that when released would rebound them up to completion of the lift. The problem with this was the difficulty in getting set for the deadlift in a tight suit, and the breathing was restricted, creating great discomfort. Recently, a new deadlift suit has entered the market, promising a ten percent solution (increase) on the deadlift. Whether this does what it claims remains to be seen as other deadlift wear, including shirts, have not dramatically changed the deadlifting records.

I would prefer that lifters not look for shortcuts or easier ways to lift more weight, but become stronger through self-discipline, patience and hard work. Originally, lifting suits were required for lifters so there was a consistent appearance at the meets. From there, the suits became a means for squatting heavier weights. During the 1980's the bench shirt was invented and bench press records an the weights used have increased dramatically with little or no increase in the physique development of the lifter.

My introduction to deadlifting, and my years of training the deadlift were quite unusual. In 1967, I began working out at Gold's Gym once a week. I usually would be there on Sundays. One Sunday in 1969 I went to the Recreation Center at Venice Beach, California, and I noticed a flyer announcing the special events for the upcoming summer. One even in August was a powerlifting meet. This was 1969 and, as a sport, powerlifting was only four or five years old. 

I decided to train for this event, and was a bit worried because I did not want to be embarrassed if some well known lifters showed up and lifted. I had also set a goal for myself, not to enter a meet unless I could bench press 400 pounds or more. That was my standard. I had begun squatting, and was not sure where my squatting strength was. Believe it or not, I did not know how to deadlift, but was determined to enter and lift at this meet.

550 deadlift at first power meet, Venice Beach, 1969. 

The meet went well; I bench pressed 410, 420 on a fourth attempt, squatted 450, and went to Bill "Peanuts" West when the deadlifting started and explained to him that I did not know how to deadlift and would he mind showing me how. We went to the warmup area and he showed me what to do, selecting the poundages on the way up. Bill knew the weights to select and had me open with 525 pounds. I completed the lift comfortably, and he selected 550. Up that went also, and then he stopped, advising me that since I had never trained the lift, it was better not to attempt a maximum lift. At age 19, I was happy with my results and second place. 

In the early 1970's, pushing and pulling against an immovable object (isometrics) was popular, and articles were being written with university studies citing strength and development athletes were getting. Another popular piece of isometric equipment was the exergenie. It was cylinder shaped with a rope extending from it and a dial around the cylinder that controlled resistance. 

As I read the various articles on isometrics, I began to form a routine in my mind that had me deadlifting once a month and isometric pulling at three different heights in my power rack, six to eight seconds a set, three or four days a week. I thought I would use the squat to strengthen my legs and lower back, and also improve my deadlift without actually deadlifting. As I did get stronger in the squat, my deadlifting poundages improved also: 

1970 - 585 pounds
1971 - 600
1973 - 625
1974 - 660
1977 - 688
all done in competition. 
At the 1974 Junior Nationals held in Los Angeles, I met Terry McCormick through a mutual friend of ours, who was also a lifter. I asked our friend about my next weight for a third attempt deadlift. He was unsure but knew that Terry was watching the lifting, so he went and got Terry. Terry felt like 650 or 660 was realistic, so I chose 660 pounds. It went up easily for a fourth place finish as a superheavyweight, weighing 255 pounds. 

Since 1970 all of my deadlifts were done isometrically, and using weights once a month. I think the key to this routine was the rest my lower back received by deadlifting with weights only once a month. Isometrics seem passive but when the proper effort is applied, they work very well. The late Peary Rader had a very good booklet on isometric training, that gave the applied theory behind isometrics and how to use it with many exercises for positive results. 


In 1978 Terry McCormick and I began training every Tuesday together on the deadlift. This began a period where I thought it was time to begin seriously focusing on improving the deadlift for future competition. What I did not realize was that I was already very strong in the deadlift. In the spring of 1978m, I competed and deadlifted 755 and in the summer of the same year, I competed and deadlifted 804 at the National Championships in Culver City, California. Terry did the same weight which helped him win the 242-pound class and later the World Championships. Over the next six years my deadlift increased by 44 pounds. 

My training with Terry, I thought, was a smart choice. He was and is strong, but his emphasis was on technique, technique, technique. I had strength but not much technique. Our sticking points were opposites. Terry would have difficulty pulling the weight off the floor, whereas I pulled weights easily off the floor but would stall at the knees or above the knees. That may or may not be explained by our choice of one assistance exercise which I did for many years. 

My favorite assistance exercise for the bench press and deadlift was and is the barbell bentover row. The reason I preferred the bentover row was that when training in my home gym, this was the exercise that developed the back, but also assisted the bench press. The bonus was it helped the deadlift. I also did chins on a bar to stretch the upper back. I really pushed the bentover rows to the limit though and eventually reached 350 pounds for 11 reps, and 465 for a single. 

At the time, I theorized that whatever I could row in that awkward position, if I doubled the weight, I should be able to deadlift it while standing. I think this works to a point, but I believe it definitely assists the deadlift by making the pull from the floor much easier, increasing grip strength since is it an overhand movement, and increasing the width of the back to help in the bench press and to support the body for squatting and various pulling movements, such as the low pulley row I did for 5 reps with 390 pounds.

During the period of time when there was no preparation for competition, we included exercises such as deadlifts from a 4" block to assist pulling from the floor, pulls from the power rack at various heights where there may be a sticking point (done every other week, after the regular deadlift routine), and overhand deadlifts without lifting straps. I would recommend not using lifting straps on any pulling movement. 

When selecting an assistance movement, it seems best to select one assistance exercise to accompany the deadlift, using up to 4 sets with reps of 5, increasing the weight each set. 

My bentover rows were done after the heavy bench press workout, and discontinued two to three weeks before a competition, to rest the lower back.

For competition purposes, I would have a number I wanted to deadlift, and usually I counted backwards from the meet day, reducing the top set by 20 pounds a week. By doing this, each workout was preplanned in terms of sets and reps, and a positive expectation was also produced. This was planned for 12 weeks, which allowed for minor injuries, illness or any unforeseen situation that could derail training. This also allowed for reflection on past meets and training, so a realistic number would be reached to increase the maximum deadlift. 

If 12 weeks were decided on as a preparation for the meet, the weeks and repetitions with the top weight for the day would be: three weeks of five reps, three weeks of three reps, three weeks of two reps, and three weeks of one rep, which would lead to the meet.

Outside of 10 repetitions for the initial warmup, repetitions were kept in the range of five and below. 

Deadlifting is strenuous exercise and it taxes the entire body. For optimum performance I lifted in wrestler's shoes as they are flat soled and most people will realign the body's leverages, allowing for a better body position and ultimately a better pull from the floor. The wrestler shoes were recommended by Steve Merjanian and Marvin Phillips, observations that I thought had merit and worked. Shoes with heels throw the body forward, forcing the lifter to shift the hips and shoulder back into alignment to complete the lift. 

I have never had a problem with my grip, but still enjoyed exercising my grip by using various hand grippers, closing them and holding a coin at the bottom of the handles for as long as I could; using thick handled dumbbells, including overhand gripping on deadlift warmups; hanging one handed on the chinning bar; and anything else that could be added into the lifting routine on a regular basis.

I also prefer large jumps between sets on the deadlift so I can lift the maximum amount of weight without much fatigue. For example, if 705 pounds is my top weight for the day for three reps, tghe weight sequence would look like this, including warmups: 245x10, 445 x 5-7, 555x3, 635x3, 705x3, 615-635x3. The last set is referred to as a "down set" and is usually seven to ten percent less than the top weight for the day. The sets are also increased according to how high the weight is. If 800 was the top weight, the sets would look like this: 245x10, 445x5, 590x3, 660x2, 730x2, 800x1, 720x3; eight sets compared to the previous seven sets. 

The maximum weight for the day should be reached without being tired, and within as few sets as possible.

My best deadlifts for training repetitions, single attempts and in competition are:

 - Standing on a 4" block of wood: 715 x 1
 - Training: 675 x 5, 790 x 2, 840 x 1
 - Competition: 848
 - Deadlifts in the rack at knee height: 900 x 1

In watching many people deadlift over the years, I have noticed a common error that is made. Many lifters throw their heads back before the bar leaves the fllor, creating a position with the head and neck that is out of alignment with the way the body travels. Often when attempting maximum weights, they fail. The phrase I use to help lifters is, "Where the head goes, the body will follow." When prepared to begin pulling the weight, the lifter should be looking straight ahead or slightly down. As the bar is pulled up to completion and the lifter is standing straight, the eyes should be looking straight ahead or slightly up. The head should not be thrown back. 

Most lifters seem more comfortable with the traditional deadlift than the sumo style (feet wide apart). Regardless of which style is used, the bar must be the right distance from the shins to begin the pull. Upon approaching the bar, leave some space between the bar and your shins. As you sit lower to secure the bar in your hands, you will notice your shins are closer to the bar than when you were standing. If you touch the bar with your shins and then bend to begin the pull, your shins will be scraped by the bar in the process of standing up. 

By using your head properly to guide the body and your position before pulling, the deadlift should be a bit smoother as the weight transitions from one muscle group to the next. If you visualize the arms and hands as hooks, the trapezius as the initial mover of the weight as it is pulled from the floor, your feet being pushed through the floor and the upper and lower back with the hips and hamstrings as giant cables pulling you to a standing position, you can see each muscle group's involvement toward a successful deadlift. 

Maintaining lower back health and proper alignment of the spine will ensure many injury free, pain free deadlift workouts. For over twenty years, I have visited a chiropractor whenever I felt out of alignment. Without this necessary component, I do not believe I would still have excellent back health today, especially considering the weights lifted for years over 500, 600, 7800 and 800 pounds in the deadlift and the squat. 

Recently, soft tissue therapy has become another tool used for healing damaged muscle tissue and increasing flexibility. My brother is a registered physical therapist and used car salesman, and his advice on stretching, along with a few great vehicle deals, has been invaluable. 

When I competed, I regularly used the gravity boots to stretch and align the lower back and spine. Whenever I stopped using them, I had back soreness. I highly recommend using the previously mentioned health care practitioners for longevity with heavy training.

Another helpful tool has been aspirin or ibuprofen one or two hours before training the deadlift and squat. It stops or reduces the soreness or inflammation from the trauma of heavy exercise. Then you can get out of bed without soreness or stiffness in the morning.

In becoming stronger and attempting to add to that strength, one area often overlooked by most lifters is the mental process and how the mind and body are linked for optimum strength performance. 

In 1972, I came across some literature in which the editor's favorite phrase was, "Everything begins in the mind." If you stop and consider it, that phrase is not only true, it is accurate when considering human beings and how they succeed or fail at something. At a human level, all that we do or do not is based on a decision. Our emotions are controlled by our thoughts and what we DECIDE to believe, CHOOSE to perceive, AGREE to call true about our world, from relationships to what we eat, who we hate and how we spend our time. 

In lifting, oops where were we, we begin with little strength but the desire for greater strength, and pursue that. 

Some of us may have the ability, and take advantage of it; others may not have the ability, but decide that by planning and patience, much more can be achieved than is presently in existence. Obstacles may arise and a plan, through a decision, is arrived at to overcome the obstacle. 

When trying to get stronger on the deadlift and squat, I realized that I had to first accept my mental limitations to succeed on a physical basis. Every time I went to lift a deadlift over 650 pounds, my pulse went up, the palms of my hands became moist, and I was nervous -- not calm, self-assured and confident. I did not even feel good lifting the weight because the attempts felt halfhearted. In short, I had to develop mental toughness. For a long time, I could lift respectable poundages easily without thinking about them, but as the numbers increased, so did my anxiety. My thoughts revolved around lifting heavier and heavier weights and being injured in the process. 

By studying how the mind affects the body and can change or stimulate the body's processes by introducing a thought or word, I thought I would apply this to lifting. For example, as a demonstration of what I am talking about, with your eyes closed or even open, whichever works best for you, picture a lemon that you are now eating. If you are graphic in your visualization, you actually feel your mouth begin to pucker up and secrete saliva because of the sharp taste of the lemon. Now, if my mind can create a reaction in my mouth to a picture of something, why not visualize myself handling larger and larger weights confidently, and succeeding with them. I decided to do this, and as I became more skilled at the deep relaxation and visualization, my self-confidence grew and I could approach the bar without nervousness or hesitation, and lift whatever was on the bar. As the weights became heavier, I became calm to the point that those people around me thought aloud that I wasn't psyched up or ready to lift. Extreme calmness seems to make people nervous. After using deep relaxation and another method I will write about at a later date, feeling comfortable in most situations involving lifting and life in general became a part of me. 

Most of the competitions I entered are memorable because of the level of lifters who competed. From 1974 to 1987, every meet I competed in had a national caliber person, national champion, or a world champion competing. At one meet I competed in, an up and coming lifter (this happened on two occasions) approached me and said, "I feel I will have made it in this sport when I beat you in competition." I wished him a good meet and went to begin warming up. As the meet progressed and the squat and bench press were completed, I needed to check to see where I was placing and what was needed to win. At this same meet was a national champion lifting in my weight class, and when I requested to use the program he had to convert pounds to kilos, his helpers refused to loan it to me. So I asked someone else to go to the table and see what was needed to win, what the weight was in kilos and what others in the class were taking as first attempt deadlifts, which would tell me what they would probably take on second and third attempts.

The lifter who made the earlier statement to me was ahead of me by eleven pounds and the national champion was ahead of me by five pounds. They were both opening at 722 pounds, and I was opening at 744 pounds. I had a feeling they would not go much higher than 750 pounds, so I watched them succeed with their first attempt and choose their second attempt. As they chose their poundage, I could see their uneasiness grow as their anxiety increased. 

I competed at an easy 744 pounds and chose 815 pounds. Both lifters then attempted a second and third attempt of 771. Both missed the 771 and I won the meet. In watching  the lifters approach the bar on their second and third attempts, they appeared totally shaken. The outspoken lifter looked as if his confidence and spirit had been drained from him, and the national champion looked as if he could not believe what had happened. The mental toughness to reach the most stressful part of the meet and lift heavier weights which decided the placing, was not in them. As I watched them from the award rea, a phrase from a Dirty Harry movie came to mind . . . 


To compete successfully at sports or life, you have to have mental as well as physical preparation. To leave any portion to chance will not get you awards or personal power. 

Enjoy Your Lifting!  

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