Yes it’s true, deadlifting isn’t the best way to get better at deadlifting.
I’m that person that always asks the question “how and why”? During my basic physical instructor training my class mates called me ‘The Dr’, purely because I would ask all the questions to try and get my head around everything, even the most advanced stuff.
I remember one day learning about the ATP-PC energy system during a long lecture when the instructor was reading his workbook and said something along the lines of, “In a test conducted on supplementing creatine monohydrate it was discovered that 90% of the subjects could do more reps at the same weight than when they started. The conclusion is that creatine monohydrate does in fact increase strength”.
I put my hand up as I usually did and said, “First thing is that if the subjects did more reps at the same weight they didn’t increase their strength, they increased their endurance. Secondly, it’s all well and good telling us it increases the endurance, but how does the creatine actually increase the endurance, like what’s happening inside the body?”. I would go on and on until I knew ‘why’ things happened, because once you know why they happen and you have a deeper understanding then you are in a much better position to help people.
A friend of mine I have been talking to recently has not increased his deadlift in about two years. He has tried three different coaches and programs, he has spent entire 12 week training cycles trying to increase his deadlift and failed, and like most people that are unsuccessful with a 1 RM Deadlift attempt, it’s his back that starts to round out, the bar doesn’t move and the lift is lost. Pretty fucking common.
But you would think that doing multiple deadlift programs over the space of two years with plenty of accessory work including Good Mornings, GHD Back Extension and Rack Pulls might help increase that elusive 1 RM. Nope! His last 12 week training cycle was from a well known coach and he lost 5kg on his deadlift. WTF???
When I asked him how he felt going for his new 1 RM attempt he said he felt worn out and his back was sore… Ya think?!
Lets fix this once and for all:
I read a lot, I listen to podcasts and talk to people that are doing well in their fields, I question everything, read contradictory articles and then I come up with a conclusion. From there it is all about trial and error to see if things work in reality.
Deadlifting is simply lifting a bar up from the ground to the hips. Although it is a basic movement in comparison to squatting or the Olympic lifts, it still uses the whole body, from the fingers to the toes. I have been deadlifting for quite a few years now and I deadlifted a whole lot more while I had severe tears in both my patella tendons from squatting. When you do something enough you start to really figure out what makes it work better and what doesn’t seem to work at all.
If you look at the deadlifting movement (depending on who does it and the lever lengths etc) then you can see that it primarily involves hip extension, a stable core (neutral hip and spine), and a strong straight torso. From there you can see that the shoulders, arms and hands are pretty important in holding the weight and attaching the weight to the torso.
We have to look at it now in order to prioritise the parts of the lift:
1) Is the core switched on in a neutral position with the spine straight
2) Are the core and spine muscles strong enough to keep up with the hip extensors during the movement
3) Are the shoulders and arms securing the load to the body properly (lat engagement, ideal grip etc)
4) Are the hip extensors strong enough
If you move down that list in order of priority it will give you some clues on what to do and when to do them. Now we all know that the majority of deadlift’s fail because the back rounds out, which means it doesn’t matter how strong your hip extension is, your back/core muscles are the weak link.
You can do all the hip extensions and heavy deadlifts in the world but it will not help. You need to strengthen your core which starts with coordination. You need to be able to feel and fire the right muscles and from there you can add load. Forget heavy lifting for a while, forget GHD Sit Ups, forget Rack Pulls and forget Deficit Deadlifts.
To address point number one you need to focus on simple things like Prone Bridging and Segmented Back Extensions with correct hip position. Pilates and gymnastics teach this stuff pretty well.
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To address point number two you need to build some real strength through the midsection and its ability to brace. Strongmen have some of the strongest cores in the world and I absolutely recommend using Yokes as part of your core strengthening. The diaphragm, transverse abdominals and pelvic floor all press inwards together to support the midline. If you are used to wearing a weight belt then you need to STOP while you are training your core to get stronger (weight belts are fine for maxing out, competitions or even helping with activation, but they are detrimental when it comes to getting your own core strong).
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To address point number three there are ton of things you could do to make sure the arms are locked in tight to the body and that thoracic posture and strength is optimal. Isometric lat strength would be my primary focus though. I see a ton of people prescribing Pull Up’s or Lat Pulldowns etc to strengthen the lats. But the best thing I could suggest is Front Lever progressions/holds because the lats are switched on in an isometric hold the spine is straight and the core is rock tight. All these things are critical for a strong deadlift.
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The other thing I want to add in here is that the shoulder girdle (scapula etc) is generally pulled downward during a heavy deadlift. The shoulder girdle and arms act like a mini shock absorber or elastic band that actually takes a little bit of load away from the back and core during the lift. This can be a good thing for a competition or a 1 RM, but when it comes to trying to train your deadlift, having this shock absorber take load away from your back just reinforces the weakness in your back. Imagine a 1 RM deadlift and the position you are in, now imagine if the weight of the bar was moved from the hands and into the middle of the shoulders, or even on the top of the back. Most peoples spines would snap under that load. Knowing this will become an important part of the strengthening process.
Now to address point number four. I honestly think it is rarely the case that the hip extensors are not strong enough, but if they aren’t then doing more deadlift’s and Rack Pulls will work just fine to build that strength.
In theory this all seems to make good sense, but does it work in the real world?
Case Study #1:
A few years ago one of the affiliates I was doing the programming for did a four week cycle aimed to increase 1 RM deadlift. I thought it would be an ideal time to test my theory. We tested 1 RM deadlift, trained for four weeks and then retested 1 RM deadlift. But during that period of training we did NO deadlifting. What we did do was Low Bar Box Squats (LBBS) and accessory core work three times a week, then regular CrossFit the rest of the time. What happened? Everyone that was present for both tests increased their 1 RM deadlift.
And before you say the ‘regular CrossFit’ could have been what did it, bare this in mind. No heavy squatting or deadlifting for four weeks was done, only LBBS and some Olympic lifting filled the strength side of things, and no, the metcons didn’t increase the 1 RM’s.
Case Study #2:
I was working with a late 30’s athlete who’s deadlift was lagging way behind the rest of his CrossFit ability. Stripper style pull and rounding back, no good. The more deadlifting he did the more it reinforced his weakness so we moved the bar from his hands onto his back and spent a month LBBS’ing. No deadlifting was done for four weeks, we just LBBS’d, did accessory work, did Olympic lifting and metcons. We retested his deadlift and he made a nice big jump from 195kg to 205kg IN FOUR WEEKS!!!
I’m no scientist but the theory makes sense and works in the real world!!
Low Bar Box Squatting is my goto tool for people with a shite deadlift. It mimics the movement beautifully, it removes the shock absorber arms, it places the load right through the back and core (strengthening the weakest link), and it punishes you if you try and raise your hips and shoulders at a different rate on the first portion of the pull.
Also don’t confuse this for a Low Bar Back Squat or a Box Squat. The Low Bar Box Squat’s aim is to get as close to deadlift position as possible and lightly kiss the box with your ass. You need to keep tension and not de-load like you might if you were training concentric power. The box height should be the same as if you were setting up for a deadlift, and your shins should be near vertical, kind of like a good morning but with more knee flexion letting the hips ride backwards (not the knees forwards).
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But the LBBS is just one exercise, and although you get the most bang for you buck with it there is much more suff that goes into building it into a training program. It still needs to be periodised, the accessory work has to complement it, things like levers and specific isometric bracing core work, banded deadlifts (speed pulls) to maintain muscle activation without taxing the CNS, and I would always monitor HRV to ensure the load isn’t too much and the athlete isn’t going backward.
If you know me you know I hate people that bombard their athletes with workload and just ‘hope’ that it is enough to get them better. More is NOT better, optimal is better. If you don’t monitor HRV then you are missing out on an amazing piece of kit and I have seen WAY to many people get injured or not improve that could have avoided either if they had used HRV.