by Todd Bumgardner, MS T-Nation
"Do it right or you'll get a boot in your arse!"
That's what grandpa used to say when I'd help him with the yard work. Admittedly, I was quite the lazy ten year-old, but when the threat of the boot came down I'd straighten up and get the raking and mowing done. Instead of a half-ass, I'd become a full-ass.
Partial range of motion deadlifts, unfortunately, often receive a similar half-assed treatment. That's a downright shame as partial pulls can transform anemic deadlifts and skinny hamstrings into impressive full deadlifts and a posterior chain that gets noticed. It's time partial pulls get the respect they deserve.
Educating the Hips
Most of us have stupid hips. Sitting all day kills our hip IQ. It's like the old egg in a skillet as your brain on drugs metaphor. "This is your ass. This is your ass after eight hours in a chair." For normal working stiffs that just hop in the car and head home after work without a thought of deadlifting, that might be okay (although, it probably isn't).
But we're out for pulling dominance, so we need to reeducate our hips to recruit the right muscles at the right times.
Unfortunately, postural issues such as anterior pelvic tilt dominate many of us. This results in short (and usually weak) hip flexors, weak/inhibited glutes, and hamstrings that bail on us like a Kardashian with a pre-nup.
Without strong hamstrings to pick up the slack when our quad drive dies out, we're left incapable of pulling the bar past the knee barrier – too low for our glutes (if they're firing well) and lats to finish off the pull.
Basic partial-range pull variations like the rack pull and deadlift off blocks are great for taking the glutes and hamstrings to deadlift school. Because the bar is set anywhere from low on the shins to just below the knees, the involvement of the quads is limited. This gives the hamstrings a chance to let their true colors shine. Rather than hanging the glutes out to dry, the hamstrings get back to keeping the weight moving through the mid-range of the pull, provided we use weight that keeps us within the confines of good form.
As a bonus, we can also position our hips advantageously (with good hip-hinge mechanics) to recruit the hamstrings and glutes while the bar moves through the mid-range. Some coaches take exception to this notion, arguing that "pulling from an advantageous position doesn't carry over to the full range pull," to which I respectively say, "bull****."
A good coach teaches movements in segments so their clients and athletes learn good form through each portion of a movement before being subjected to the Full Monty. This is referred to as a top-down training progression. The deadlift is no exception.
Teaching the hips to pull from different starting points gives the body a memory to draw on when the going gets tough and form starts to break down. And this lesson isn't just for the newbies – we veterans also need refreshers. Training for longer periods can often lead to subtle bad lifting habits. Breaking down the deadlift helps prevent these habits from becoming major issues.
Check out the video below for a rack pull refresher.
Notice that my hips are positioned where they would be if it were a full range deadlift. The glutes and hams squeeze the weight off the pins and the lats finish it off.
Below is an example of the deadlift off blocks. While they're less convenient than rack pulls, they more closely replicate a deadlift off the floor as the plates are resting on an elevated surface rather than the bar resting on pins. As you initiate the pull, the "slack" will come out of the bar and you'll get an inch before the weight starts moving, much like a full range deadlift.
The hip positioning is similar to a rack pull and deadlifts off of blocks can be loaded intensely. But if you're planning on training with Jim "Smitty' Smith of Diesel Strength, don't make the mistake I did. Start out with a hook grip, not an alternated one.
Smitty recommends the double overhand grip (with or without the thumb hook) because it's safer. Many athletes and gym goers alike stand with excessive internal rotation at the glenohumeral joints and kyphotic upper-back posture. This suboptimal posture puts stress on the biceps of the supinated arm during an alternated deadlift grip, thereby increasing the chance of a tear.
Speed-strength (high velocity low load) and strength-speed (high velocity high load) are both important for maximal strength. There are many technical terms that can be used here: rate coding, motor unit synchronization, and rate of force development are a few. But the important take away is the faster you move – or attempt to move – a weight, the more motor units you'll recruit. It's about hot, nasty speed.
Speed off the floor is necessary for a successful pull, and training for speed-strength can raise a deadlift number steadily, at least for a little while.
But where do we go when speed deads are no longer effective? When we've exhausted dynamic effort deadlifts versus bands and chains? When pulling from a deficit is no longer stoking the flame and heavy pull attempts are again failing at the knees, there has to be another strength catalyst. Thankfully, there is: the rack pull versus bands.
Rack Pulls Versus Bands
With speed deads being an application of speed-strength, rack pulls versus bands work well as an application of strength-speed.
Training speed-strength will take you a long way, but as the weight you're able to move becomes heavier, strength-speed must become a focus. When max effort attempts become slow grinders it's strength-speed that maintains the power you've generated off the floor. Having good levels of strength-speed means you'll be able to keep the weight moving at a constant rate, rather than feeling it slow down as it approaches your knees.
Bands provide accommodating resistance by overloading the lockout, forcing bar acceleration throughout the entire pull. When training for speed, a standard rack pull won't cut it because deceleration will take precedence over acceleration as the bar approaches lockout.
The bands also keep us honest. Rather than slapping plates on the bar with typical meathead disregard, we have to account for the tension of the bands. Add too much bar weight and you'll be left doing the involuntary shakes when the bar hits mid-thigh.
To generate the most speed off the pins you must concentrate on tension and breathing. Make sure you're belly breathing, setting your grip as hard as possible and bracing your core hard (lats pulled tight, abs contracted). Also, reset between each rep. This will make the exercise safer and give you a chance to produce more power. If you're doing a set of eight, treat it like eight sets of one.
Like regular rack pulls, rack pulls versus bands can be done with the bar set anywhere from low on the shins to just below the knees. Just remember that the higher up your shins the bar is, the more band tension required.
Here are two examples of rack pulls versus bands; one mid-shins and one just below the knees.
Serious Back Mass
What if your goal isn't to pull as much iron as possible? Maybe you just want bigger, thicker lats and traps; perhaps an upper-back that makes shirt collars scream uncle? Partial range deadlifts can help build a yoke that would turn an ox green with envy.
The "how-to" is relatively simple and follows the normal rules of muscle hypertrophy. More weight plus more time under tension equals bigger muscles.
Rack pulls, along with other partial range deadlifts, can be loaded at a higher intensity than a full-range deadlift can be, creating greater amounts of muscular tension. Since the range of motion is decreased, we can also work with higher loads for a greater amount of reps, increasing the total time under tension.
So rather than being able to pull 400 pounds for 1-2 reps with a rack pull, you can rip it for a set of 6-8. It's a perfect equation for fantastic lats and traps, with the bonus being that the weight is moving mainly through the top half of the deadlift motion, where the lats are increasingly active.
Strong guys know that burning out your nervous system and diminishing your ability to recover by hitting high rep, full deadlifts isn't necessary. Keep the full range deadlift sets heavy and for low reps (1-5) and then add in partial range pulls during your assistance work for higher reps (6-8). If you want to get your back big in a hurry, high-rep rack pulls are a tool you can count on.
Pulling into a Partial Range Cycle
A little while back I went through some deadlifting woes. Although it was a long, frustrating ordeal, it did allow me to experiment with my training. I eventually came up with a partial pull progression that had a great deal of carry-over to my conventional deadlift. If your deadlift is in a bad way, this cycle could be your guide back to the right track.
Check it out:
Week Exercise Sets Reps
1 Reverse band deadlift 7 1*
2 Mid-shin rack pull 5 2-3
3 High Bartley pull 4/2 2/1
4 Reverse band deadlift 4 1*
* working up to a max
So how the hell did reverse band deadlifts sneak into this cycle? It's supposed to be a partial range of motion cycle, right? Well, I count reverse band deadlifts as a partial range deadlift movement because the full effect of the weight isn't felt until the bar travels to your mid-shins, or beyond.
Not familiar with the reverse band deadlift? Here's a video demo:
Notice the bands going slack as the bar approaches lockout? Take another look at the video. Right before the bar gets to the knees the band tension dies, so does the assistance provided by the bands. I'm left by my lonesome to lock out the weight – but this is a good thing.
Again, the concentration has to be on bar speed. As the plates break the floor, the goal is to "race" the bands to the top. If you win the race you'll generate enough bar speed to keep heavy weights moving when the band tension dies, thus training you to pull fast during the top half of your deadlift. Lose the race and you'll be a hunched, frustrated man with iron in his hands that's dangling in rubber bands.
This cycle is great for training the lockout because it progresses from an assisted movement (reverse band deadlifts) to a movement that uses accommodating resistance (high Bartley pulls), then allows for the realization of the training adaptation during the fourth week.
You get faster while moving heavy weights because the focus is always on bar speed. The reverse band deadlift during week four can be replaced with conventional deads if you want to take advantage of the bar speed you gained during the previous three weeks. When I used this cycle, however, I waited until week six to test my deadlift, using week five as a down week and stepping away from the bar.
Pulling it all Together
I've got a little too much of my grandpa in me, so I'll never pardon a half-assed effort, be it in the weight-room or out in the real world. And considering partial range pulls can save your deadlift and kick-start some serious posterior chain development, you're only shooting your skinny self in the foot by not doing them.
So roll up your sleeves and hit those pulls with focus and intensity, and free yourself from deadlifting mediocrity. But before you do, finish your yard work – those leaves aren't going to rake themselves!