by Mike Robertson T-Nation
I remember the first time I deadlifted "heavy."
Granted, I'd pulled what I thought was heavy before, but I'm talking about my first legit grinding, eyeball-popping, "I'm glad I didn't wear those white shorts Grandma got me for Christmas" kind of a pull.
It was October of 2000, and I was gearing up for my first powerlifting meet. It was also the first semester in my Masters program, so we had to train at six in the morning. Needless to say, this isn't the optimal time for neurally demanding lifting.
Powerlifting seemed like a great fit since I was no longer active in any organized sports and I needed an outlet for my competitive juices. Although I had no clue what I was getting into, I knew I wanted to get stronger and learn more about lifting technique.
On this particular day, the goal was to determine what a good opening weight would be in our meet. I'd done a set of five at either 275 or 285, so I figured 335 would come up lightning fast.
It didn't. Sure, I grinded it out, but "easy" wasn't the word that first came to mind.
I learned a powerful lesson that day: deadlifting heavy is hard friggin' work. It separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, and the serious lifters from the cable curl kids.
If you're serious about your training and your physique, then the deadlift is an animal you need to tame. This article will help you do just that.
Here are five tips to help you take your pull to all-new levels.
1. Get Your Lats Tight!
Possibly the most common mistake I see when deadlifts get heavy is the bar drifting away from the body.
Many lifters assume that a deadlift is just picking the bar straight up, but this isn't effective! As you pile on the plates, you need to think about actively engaging the lats and pulling the bar back into your body so that your weight shifts backward slightly.
If you find your lats are too weak, start performing some heavy upper back work, specifically vertical pulls (chinning/pulling) and horizontal pulls (rowing). Doing so will not only improve your pulls but also increase the thickness of your back, and probably bump up your bench press to boot.
This tip alone is worth the price of admission. Keeping the bar in tight helps ensure every pull is smooth and efficient.
2. Get Your Hips Down
Lifters often miss deadlifts because their lift is 100% lower back dominated.
We walk a fine line here. You don't want the hips down too low – this isn't a squat – but if there's virtually no knee bend and the lift looks like two distinct motions (hips shoot up, lower back finishes), you need to get your hips down more.
The best deadlifters in the world make it look smooth. Their torso angle starts in a certain position and they get enough leg drive to keep their hips underneath them. It's much easier to finish the weight this way than if you're totally hunched over and reliant on your lower back.
The down side? Your weights are going to go down, at least for the time being.
However, in the long run, getting your hips down will not only give you more leg drive, it will also keep your back healthier. This is a true win-win.
3. Strengthen Those Hamstrings!
There's no way you're going to pull a ridiculously heavy weight if your hamstrings resemble over-stretched dental floss. The question is, what kind of hamstring assistance work is going to drive up your deadlift to newfound heights?
If you miss at the top, you're probably weak in the hip extensor function of the hamstrings. To bring this up, focus on big-bang assistance lifts like good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, safety bar good mornings, and the like.
If you miss in the bottom, focus on developing the knee flexor function of the hamstrings. Start with ball leg curls to develop the pattern of maintaining hip extension while simultaneously flexing the knee, but eventually glute-ham raises should be a big part of your program. There's simply so substitute for them.
4. Mix it Up
Specificity is critical if you want to move maximal weights in any lift.
For instance, if you want to squat a lot, you need to squat a lot. If you want to bench a lot, you need to bench a lot.
In other words, you need to practice how you play!
The deadlift is a slightly different animal. Even if you never have aspirations of lifting in powerlifting gear, employing chains and/or bands into your training can pay dividends and help you set some PR's along the way.
When using chains or bands, you've got two options:
Lifting against the bands or chains
Lifting with the bands.
I'm sure some of you are wondering, "I've never used these before. How can I work them into my training?"
I've found two types of mesocycles with bands and chains to be effective:
The first option is a two-week rotation. This is a good choice if you're already an experienced deadlifter, or if you need to rotate your exercises a bit more frequently.
In this case, pick one exercise and use it for two weeks. It looks something like this:
Exercise: Deadlifts against bands
Week 1: Work up to 75 or 80%, and then perform 3-5 singles.
Week 2: Work up to 90 or 95% for one single. No big psych-up or extra arousal here – save the ammonia snorting routine for another day. Use a belt if you typically use one.
In this variation you'll simply swap exercises every two weeks. So for two weeks you'll perform deadlifts against bands, and then the next two-week cycle you'll pull against chains, or with bands, etc.
The key with this option is to not max out every other week. It will be tempting, but I suggest only going for a legitimate PR every 2-3 months.
For those less experienced with bands/chains or who need a bit more time to "learn" an exercise, here's a better option. We'll stick with our example of deadlifting against bands.
Week 1: Light technique work. Work up to 50-60%, hit this for 8-10 singles.
Week 2: Moderate technique work. Work up to 75 or 80%, then perform 3-5 singles.
Week 3: Bordering on Max Effort. Work up to 90 or 95% for one single. No psych up or extra arousal. Belt-up if needed.
Week 4: Deload.
Using this method you'll simply rotate from month-to-month, or mesocycle to mesocycle.
Your months might look like this:
Month #1: Standard deadlifts
Month #2: Deadlifts against chains
Month #3: Deadlifts against bands
Month #4: Deadlifts with bands
Finish month #4 with a taper, and then test your pull. Chances are if your technique is on point and you've picked good assistance exercises, you're going to set a serious PR!
5. Don't be Afraid to Grind!
One of my biggest pet peeves is when new or young lifters fail to stick with a lift.
Look, there are times when you need to know when to bail. If the bar gets out in front of you, you're horribly rounded over, or the weight is just too damn heavy, fine.
But what irritates me to no end is when someone hits the sticking point, holds the weight there for .23 seconds, and then drops the weight.
Look, if deadlifting heavy were easy, everyone would do it. Instead, you've got to learn how to grind.
Want to know what a grinder really looks like? Here's my training partner Lil' Stevie. He'll teach ya how to grind!
This weight was just too much. Sometimes it happens. But he can walk away from that attempt knowing he gave it everything he had, and next time around, that weight will be his.
Hopefully you can say the same thing.
In no way was this list meant to be all-inclusive – I could probably come up with another 10, 15, even 25 tips to improve your deadlift without breaking a sweat. But these five are my all-time favorite tricks for adding pounds to your pull today!
Take a moment to review these tips and see where your tugging game may be lacking. Then, leave your own favorite deadlifting tip in the "Comments" section below. I look forward to seeing what's worked for you!