by Todd Bumgardner, MS T-Nation
When I was a little kid, my parents once had to call 911 for me. It wasn't for anything serious, though. I was going about my normal routine of being awesome running like a maniac and jumping over stuff when disaster struck. I fell into a hole.
My leg was wedged. My knee was pinned against the front wall and my foot against the back. It took two firemen to get me out.
I watched Rescue 911 for months waiting for my segment to air but it never did. I realize now, 20 years later, that a six-year-old stuck in a culvert isn't exactly television worthy. But man, at the time, I was pissed at William Shatner.
A lot of deadlifts suffer the same fate they get stuck in a hole. Sometimes the hole is deep and the entire movement needs an overhaul. But more often than not, a deadlift that needs saving is pinned in a shallow hole, not all that different from the one I was in. All that's needed is attention to a weakness that's pulling the movement out of balance.
This article will examine the pitfalls that can betray each phase, along with the best movements to save your deadlift. If you've felt your deadlift sinking slowly into a hole, here's the answer to your 911 call.
Speed Off the Floor
The first question you should ask yourself when you're having issues early in the pull is, "Am I tight enough?"
Check your grip, make sure you have the slack out of the bar, and secure a tight back you can now confidently say that you're tight enough. If you're still slow off the floor, you need to develop speed and power.
Here are the best deadlift speed exercises.
Most jump training includes a full cycle of muscle contraction eccentric on the down phase and concentric on the up phase. But the deadlift start is in the bottom position with limited stretch reflex, so we can't count greatly on the elasticity of the myofascia.
Instead, we have to start jump training in the bottom position, using only the concentric phase to replicate speed off the floor. Remember that the stretch reflex can linger in the myofascia for close to a second, so when you prepare to do the following jumps make sure you're holding in the bottom position for 2-3 seconds.
As you sink into the bottom position to start concentric-only box jumps, run your hands down your legs and set up in your starting deadlift form. Hold this position for 2-3 seconds and jump.
The videos below show the body weight version and the loaded version that includes holding two dumbbells.
Starting in a seated position limits the stretch reflex and has the added bonus of a strong glute and hamstring contraction as you start to jump.
Here are the box jump and broad jump versions of the seated jump.
Swings, Hang Cleans, and Dynamic Effort Deadlifts
Though they aren't concentric-only movements, swings and hang cleans improve pulling speed due to the violent hip extension involved in both exercises.
Performing both exercises, however, can be frustrating. If the O-lifts cause you performance anxiety, forget about it. Extend your hips violently from the hang position and drop under the bar. Unless you're planning on mastering the movement to compete as an Oly lifter, it's no big deal.
Swings, though, shouldn't be butchered, as they are the simplest exercise in the world. Start with the kettlebell in front of you and then, while keeping your back flat, pull the kettlebell between your legs and extend your hips violently to swing it.
Tighten up as the kettlebell levels out at the top and don't break at the hips until your arms hit your torso on the way back down. At no point should it look like a squat/front raise hybrid. The video below shows a great looking swing.
Dynamic effort pulls must be in your training if you're slow off the floor. Jumping, swings, and hang cleans are great, but if you aren't specifically applying speed to the deadlift, you're a few shovels short of a digging party.
Unless you can pull over two times your body weight easily, don't worry about accommodating resistance using bands and chains. Work on being fast with good form and bar weight.
Drive off the Floor
Remember back in college there was that skinny wide receiver that could jump through the ceiling but collapsed like a pile of laundry as soon as a bar was on his back? We want to avoid being the deadlift version of this guy.
If you've got hops and can pull a lightly loaded barbell with speed but still struggle off the floor with heavier weights, you need drive, which is where speed and strength meet to create power.
Great drive off the floor requires strong legs (especially quads) and powerful glutes. Squatting develops quads of strength and fury while building glutes that could crush walnuts, but when it comes to driving your deadlift off the floor, we can get more specific.
Paul Anderson was a behemoth and his 'bottoms up' squat method is the most devastating strategy to overcome inertia ever invented. Lifters have been using Anderson squats to get out of the hole of the squat for a long time, but they're also killer for deadlift drive off the floor.
Both the regular and front versions of the Anderson squat are great for building deadlift power. That is, if your hips and knees move in unison and you don't shift your hips forward to put the stress of the movement entirely on your quads. Check out the videos below for solid performance visuals.
Barbell Glute Bridges and Hip Thrusts
Bret Contreras hit the nail on the head with barbell glute bridges and hip thrusts. Not only do both exercises mold a derriere into something magnificent, but also they train for immense amounts of glute drive.
Get your glutes involved early in the lift to compliment quad drive and your deadlift will climb, and effective glutes are strong glutes. Do your bridges and hip thrusts, and do them heavy. See the video below.
Pulling Through the Mid-Range
The mid-range is the deadliest phase of the deadlift, the area most likely to send you back into the hole.
The good, and the bad, news is that most mid-range emergencies can be narrowed down to three problems: inability to maintain power off the floor, weak hamstrings, and loss of back tightness with the former sometimes becoming the product of the latter two issues.
If it's mid-range power you seek, check my article Half Pulls Not Half Assed for ideas on adding accommodating resistance to partial range of motion deadlifts.
Weak hamstrings and a tight back need direct assistance work. There's no complicated schematic; just picking targeted assistance work and using rep ranges that work for your body.
Hamstrings are best hit with glute ham raises and RDLs. I keep the reps around 6-10 for each movement, but you have to do what works for you. If you don't have a glute ham raise at your gym, substitute lying leg curls or Russian leg curls on a lat or seated calf machine like in the video below.
Training for a tight back is accomplished by doing good mornings, both heavy and for reps. Focus on keeping your lats pulled tight and maintaining neutral spine. If you feel your back round you've either gone too low for your mobility level or didn't keep your back tight.
Finishing the Pull
When I think about training to finish the deadlift, I think of Matt Kroczaleski. It's been that way ever since I watched the video of him explaining how he developed Kroc rows. He couldn't find anything that worked until he trained the balls out of his lats using high rep one-arm rows and, like magic, he finished his pulls stronger. Finishing is all about the lats. Check out the video below.
Train your lats heavy and train your lats with high reps and you'll get better at finishing your pulls. Also, don't count out heavy barbell rows and other rowing variations done in the bent position. Rowing while bent builds strength through the entire posterior chain, which carries over to deadlifting. Keep the barbell rows heavy and use one-arm rows to train for reps.
Discounting our old friend the pull-up would be a travesty. Outside of the rowing variations mentioned, no other exercises are as effective for building thick and strong lats. Do them heavy, do them fast, and do them for reps.
Core and Grip
The deadlift is a core and grip exercise. But as you add wheels to the bar each can become a limiting factor if not up to snuff. Like any other weak point, you must address it during your assistance work.
The deadlift is all about extension, yet one of the best core assistance exercises for the lift is based on anti-extension, the rollout. Being able to resist over-extension creates stability in the lumbo-pelvic complex, allowing you to recruit your glutes and pull like crazy. See the video below.
The front squat is a great exercise for building leg drive, but if you're failing to hold extension as you pull, front squats also train you to stay tall by coordinating a hard abdominal brace with a contraction of the lats and upper-back musculature. Training for better T-spine extension while strengthening your abs will improve your deadlift.
Reverse crunches don't meet the badass quotient of rollouts or front squats, but they're useful for creating lumbo-pelvic stability. Excessive lordosis of the lumbar spine caused by repeated extension limits stability and hinders recruitment patterns. Reverse crunches correct hyperextension and create balance.
Barbell Suitcase Holds
I labeled them as a grip exercise, but suitcase holds combine grip and core training. They present a serious grip challenge, training crushing strength and forearm leverage strength. At the same time you're presented with a strong stimulus to avoid lateral flexion. Your obliques, lats, and glutes work like crazy to keep you from bending like a willow tree.
Fat Bar Cleans
I won't piss on your leg and tell you that it's raining fat bar cleans are rough. Any barbell exercise done with a fat bar requires a grip commitment, but adding the wrist extension of the clean marries you to the exercise. A few sets of five at the end of your training session and you'll be steering with your elbows on the drive home.
Kroc rows train you to finish the pull out of the deadlift hole while training your grip for endurance, provided you don't use straps. Grab a heavy dumbbell and rep it for 30. It could be the shovel that digs you out of the hole.
Make the Call
There's no hole that's too deep to pull your deadlift out of, and it's never too late to call for help. But for the best assistance, you have to know why you got stuck. Give your deadlift an honest assessment and then come back to this article and make the call.