10 Week Deadlift Domination
The deadlift, undoubtedly the king of all exercises, will either be your favorite thing to do or the bane of your existence. For many people who get stuck at plateaus or just generally don’t like deadlifting, most issues come down to one of three problems:
- You don’t know how to hinge properly
- You have an imbalance in strength between thoracic erectors and hamstrings
- You just aren’t very strong
While there can be other issues which are going on, it will usually be a combination of the above three that cause most people grief.
Issues around deadlifting are something I discuss with members and people often, and this article is an attempt to put all my thoughts around them down on paper. While it’s nowhere an exhaustive list or a complete how to do everything, I hope it can give you a bit more of an understanding about common issues that may impact you, and some strategies you might try to help you get past them.
Part 1 – The Hip Hinge
The hip hinge is one of the five basic movement patterns – squat, hinge, upper body push, upper body pull and carry. Forming the basis for the deadlift (and anything related to it), the hip hinge consists of two phases – hip flexion with a posterior weight shift while retaining a completely neutral lumbar spine, followed by complete hip extension via the hamstrings/glutes and ending up in a neutral but ‘stacked’ position – neutral pelvis, slight extension in the lumbar spine, rib cage tucked down and shoulders directly over the middle of the foot. This movement pattern performed correctly ensures that the abdominal muscles are being used to stabilise and brace the lumbar spine, and the hamstrings are being used for the majority of hip extension, finished off with the glutes.
The large majority of people I see with issues deadlifting comes down not being able to hinge properly. It will lead to poor lockout from underuse of the hip extensors (glutes, hamstrings), can lead to overactivity of the spinal erectors as well as unintentional movement through the lumbar spine, which can contribute to lower back issues.
To resolve this, I like to include calf-supported RDL’s as an activation exercise prior to training, but these can also be done any time you go into the gym. 3-5 sets of 10-20 reps should do the trick – quality over quantity.
- ensure you feel your weight shifting slightly backwards before your torso hinges over – this will ensure your body is moving in the correct manner
- get to know the sensation of reaching your end of ROM at the point where your lumbar spine starts to flex – avoid this happening with pattering worn.
- always picture tucking your hips slightly forward to engage your glutes, especially at the locked position
- maintain your knees being slightly unlocked, but try to reduce just flexing the knees
Part 2 – Imbalance of Strength Between Thoracic Erectors and Hamstrings
The thoracic erectors and hamstrings play a huge role in the success of your deadlift. As most people will know, the hamstrings role is to extend the hips when you pull, allowing your torso to move towards a vertical position. While your hamstrings are applying torque to extend the hips, all of this effort has to be transferred through the torso, down the arms and into the bar. It’s the job of the thoracic erectors (along with a few others) to help maintain a neutral or slightly flexed thoracic spine, which allows you to move properly all the way through to lockout without your upper back excessively rounding.
Note – some slight rounding is absolutely normal, and actually preferable and this is not what I am talking about. What I am talking about is those people who start to pull, and immediately look like a fish hook.
What’s happening is this – as your upper back rounds, you effectively shorten the lever arm from your hips to the shoulders. What this does is ‘artificially’ increase the amount of torque your hamstrings can apply to the hips, which may or may not allow you to get the weight from the ground. If this does arbitrarily make you ‘strong’ enough to get the bar from the ground, then when you get to just before lockout you may not have the upper back strength to extend your thoracic erectors – meaning you get stuck, and miss your lifts.
A helpful analogy is thinking of trying to turn a bolt with a spanner. If the bolt is really tight, you’ll want to get a much longer handled spanner to be able to push down on the end of to turn the nut. In this situation however, your hamstrings are the bolt, which is trying to turn the spanner with a weight hanging off the end. The shorter the spanner (your back) gets, the less force it needs to be able to turn.
Ideally, your thoracic erectors will as strong, or stronger, than the amount of effort required by your hamstrings to be able to get the bar through to lockout. Where this is the situation and you can move well, some intentional thoracic rounding can be used to make your hamstrings ‘stronger’, and allows for a little bit more speed off the ground while being able to extend the thoracic spine at the top for a proper lockout.
This is a better situation to be in than weak thoracic erectors and strong hamstrings as there is a higher likelihood you’ll be able to lock deadlifts out regardless of how ‘bad’ they look, so I like to include some extra thoracic erector work for everybody – most people will (or should) be putting some real work in on their hamstrings already, so no extra focus is needed.
Seated SSB Thoracic Extensions are a great way of getting your thoracic erectors fired up, which can help you use these muscles in many different movements and get them much stronger. 3-5 sets of 10-20 reps is a good start – quality over quantity.
- ensure you’re tucking your hips forward slightly preventing the movement from originating in your lumbar spine
- think about ‘crumpling’ forward through your upper back, keeping your neck neutral
- once all the way flexed, imagine driving through the backs of your shoulders, lifting your elbows slightly and trying to flare the bottom of your ribcage out
- once you’ve reached as much extension as you have, hold for a second and repeat
Part 3 – You’re Just Not Very Strong
Assuming that you can hinge properly, and you have a relative balance between your hamstring and thoracic erector strength, there’s a final issue which many people struggle with – they’re just not that strong.
Deadlifts require a lot of time, effort, and preferably winning the genetic lottery to quickly get very good at them. They require the coordination of many muscle groups and systems through the body and a large degree of CNS excitation. You cannot ‘fake’ being strong at deadlifts – you just have to be strong.
Many people I see asking why they aren’t very good at deadlifting don’t need to change their stance, add in straps or belts, do any ridiculous programs or anything of the sort – they just need to continue to train sensibly over a long period of time, and deal with any issues they face as they occur.
The Ideal Deadlift Setup
Once you know how to hinge and activate your thoracic erectors, setting up for a deadlift correctly is very easy. Keep in mind this is an ‘ideal’ setup – it’s meant as a good starting point for the majority of people, but may need some changes to best apply to you.
- Stand under the middle of the bar, with your feet roughly shoulder width apart and turned out slightly, and the bar over your mid foot
- Rotate your pelvis slightly forward to a more neutral position, and engage your thoracic erectors to ‘lock’ your upper body in.
- Take a big breath in, and brace your abs (a topic which needs a whole article on itself).
- Hinge by pushing your hips backwards, which should bring your center of gravity backwards slightly.
- Once you reach the point where you’ve hinged as far as you can without rounding your lumbar, bend your knees until you’re at a point where you can grab onto the bar but still feel the tightness in your hamstrings.
- Using your thoracic erectors, ‘take the slack’ out of the barbell by lifting up on it slightly. This should shift your center of gravity right into the middle of your foot again, and get you into a pretty good start position.
- Holding the position you’re in, you’re trying to do three things at the same time – driving through your feet to activate your quads, use the hamstrings to start extending the hips with the hinge movement, and using your glutes to maintain external rotation, prevent knee valgus and help finish off the hinge.
- Finish by standing ‘tall’, and focus on squeezing the quads to prevent soft knees and glutes to prevent soft hips.
- Do the exact opposite series of events to get the bar back to the ground – hinge backwards until you feel tension on the hamstrings, then bend the knees to lower the bar. You don’t have to ‘undeadlift’ it, but you do want to be practicing both the eccentric and concentric portion of the movement.
As this will be very different to how most people commonly set up, I prefer to treat each rep like a single, fully standing up and resetting between each rep. This will definitely make your sets take much longer, but you’ll have more chances to practice good quality movement.
There are a whole bunch of myths around progressing your deadlift, and a whole bunch of (often conflicting) information out there from various sources. While most of the information has a chance of being applicable except for the absolute worst of it, I do get frustrated at what gets repeated ad nauseam without the advisee thinking critically about what they’re saying. Let’s talk about some of the most common pieces of deadlift advice:
“You should try to get your hips lower when you deadlift to protect your back”
The absolute bane of any good coach’s existence. 99% of people who repeat this don’t understand the simple mechanics of how deadlifts work.
As most people try to arbitrarily drop their hips lower, they’re going to round through their lumbar. This directly impacts the ability of the glutes and hamstrings to do their job and move properly. This occurs simultaneously with the knees ending right up over the toes and in front of the shoulders. This combination of events finished with the fact most people aren’t going to be strong enough to front raise their max deadlift means the hips are going to shoot up first. As the hips shoot up, they’re going to turn what should be a smooth movement from the start position to lockout into a two or three stage movement, which leads to a lot of inefficiencies and wasted energy trying to get back into position.
If you’re deadlifting and your hips fire up before the bar moves, a good rule of thumb is to try and start with your hips around that point. It should be ballpark of the ‘ideal’ position for you to be in.
Here’s something I see repeated ad nauseum, generally by people who have no idea what they’re saying – regardless of the…Posted by Valhalla Strength – South Brisbane on Monday, April 3, 2017
“Weak at lockout? Just do lots of rack pulls”
Knowing the deadlift is a hinge movement, and that many lockout issues are occurring because the athlete is bad at hinging, wrecking your body and CNS on movements which don’t actually emphasize a full ROM hinge makes absolutely no sense! As well as contributing to poor motor learning, the fact many people just throw on a tonne of weight and aim to shift it fast means they’re more likely to be using valuable training time and effort on something which isn’t going to solve their problems whatsoever
Rack pulls most certainly have their place – they are a great tool used for hypertrophy in the off-season, and vital for anybody training strongman who has an event from a raised height coming up.
If you suck at locking your deadlift out, the first step should be teaching yourself how to hinge properly, and assessing whether weak hamstrings or weak glutes are causing your issues. Once you’ve got that solved, working your way down to a 1-3” deficit and focusing on movement quality is a great way to work towards improving your lockout and overall strength – not only do deficits put more of an emphasis on hamstring strength, but done properly they are great for reinforcing a good hinge movement with a necessary reduction in load.
“Strongmen and strongwomen should never sumo deadlift as it’s pointless”
I’ve covered this before in my ‘5 Reasons Strongmen Should Sumo Deadlift’ article, so I’ll just gloss over the points again here. Some variant of sumo deads are an incredibly useful training tool, and can do a lot to improve your conventional pull; which most of us are interested in.
Common reasons people use against sumo deadlifting in training, and why they’re wrong:
- “It’s cheating” – cheating is breaking the rules. There are no rules that say you can’t pull sumo in training
- “It’s easier” – while this may be true of doing some variants of pulls from a non-standard height, I’m yet to see anybody making this claim who is better at pulling sumo off the ground than pulling conventional
- “It’s only for women” – weird flex, but ok. Tell that to all of the ridiculous male sumo pullers who can pull more than most of the people making these claims can total.
5 reasons you should sumo deadlift:
- Increased hip strength – you want to be good at events like stones, you’re going to need strong hips. Sumo deads are a great way to get you there.
- Increased upper back training volume – taking the leverage advantage from pulling from raised heights, you can overload sumo block pulls considerably for extra upper back volume, without contributing to poor hinge patterning (which are more pronounced with block or rack pulls)
- Decreased lumbar shear forces – it’s no mystery that many events are particularly tough on the lower back. Being able to reduce these forces can contribute to being able to do a larger volume of training and gain more muscle/strength with a reduced chance of lower back issues.
- Teaches patience – a good sumo deadlift will always be slow off the ground, then speed up considerably when it gets moving. Teaching you to be patient instead of sacrificing positioning speed is a great skill to learn which directly applies to conventional deadlifting.
If you don’t have the required mobility to be able to pull proper sumo (not just wide stance conventional), then starting off high blocks and working your way down to the floor is what I would recommend most lifters do.
The program is structured to cover all areas – explosiveness (broad jumps and CAT deadlifts), posterior chain strength (deficit SLDL and sumo block pulls) and upper back/torso strength (paused front squats and power shrugs). These are done at a relatively low percentage, but for high volume. This is combined with a big volume of upper body pulling and posterior chain accessory work (to be done in a superset manner), which should ensure all of these weak points are taken care of. Finally, the last cycle is a highly specific, highly intensive block of competition deadlifts, focusing on honing your technique (Monday), ensuring explosiveness (Wednesday) and ensuring good positioning throughout the lift (Friday). If at any point you find yourself struggling with reps, drop 5% off your deadlift max and continue running.
A bit more specific information on the movements involved:
- CAT deadlifts – using the Compensatory Acceleration Training principles, these are done as explosively as possible WITHOUT SACRIFICING FORM. This is your ‘skills’ practice for the deadlift.
- Sumo block pulls – lots of lifters, strongmen in particular, avoid the sumo deadlift but it is a great way to bring your posterior chain up to scratch. Pulling off blocks or plates reduces the requirement for great hip mobility, and allows you to handle much bigger weights than you would otherwise be handling. If you’re already used to sumo deadlifting, feel free to increase the load by 10% from the beginning.
- Paused front squats – one of my favourite deadlift accessory exercises. It will quickly show up any weaknesses in anterior core musculature or upper back, and teach you to stay tight while in the deadlift starting position. Depth isn’t as important as being really solid in your pause, and driving up as fast as you can.
- Power shrug – let’s face it; who doesn’t want massive traps?! These are a great exercise for developing a strong upper back and explosiveness through the hips.
Now, the program. Fill out your deadlift and front squat maxes up the top right, and then it will auto-calculate everything for you.
Notes on the Program
- Week 5 should be a legitimate deload week – no main lifts, no high volume of accessory work. Light conditioning, general cardio and patterning work is perfectly fine. You want your body as fresh as possible going into the peaking block as it will be a LOT of work.
- Week 10 should also be a legitimate deload week, as you want to be as fresh as possible coming in to retest your max.
- DO NOT start the program if you haven’t already been lifting for a few years, as you won’t get the benefits out of it that people with a solid training history will already get.
- DO NOT do any other lower body work on the days where you are training. You’re here to focus on your deadlift and nothing else. Upper body work is fine. Your squat should come close to maintaining if not improve from the large amount of posterior chain work you’ll be doing.
- DO NOT start the program if you have any lower back issues. While the program isn’t dangerous (and I have even used the program myself while recovering from a double lumbar bulge), there will be a lot asked of the lumbar spine and the risk of further injuring yourself isn’t worth it if you don’t know EXACTLY what you are doing.
Drew Spriggs is the owner of Valhalla Strength – South Brisbane, as well as one of the founders of the Australian Strongman Alliance, Australia’s first strongman federation. You can sign up for Online Coaching with Drew HERE
You can also pick up his UPPER BODY MOBILITY MANUAL E-BOOK here