by Eric Broser
Q. I am a natural bodybuilder that needs to improve back thickness. I just started experimenting with deadlifts, but was wondering what you feel is best for back development: full, off the floor deadlifts or partial, rack deadlifts.
A. I get this question rather often, as well as see it all the time on various discussion boards, so I feel compelled to address it here – because we want you to have THE EDGE!
There is no doubt that the deadlift is an awesome movement for building muscle mass, as it not only brings into play so many important muscle groups, but also causes a flood of natural anabolic hormones to be released when worked intensely (creating a more anabolic internal environment). Men like Ronnie Coleman and Johnnie Jackson swear by full deadlifts and have done them from the first day they touched a weight — and each of them have back development that is downright scary! But does that inexplicably prove that full deadlifts are “better than” partial deadlifts when it comes to building a better overall back? In my opinion and experience, the answer is no.
Ronnie and Johnnie were both powerlifters before becoming bodybuilders, so full deadlifts were “what they were brought up on.” To most true powerlifters, anything less than pulling off the floor is considered wimpy and waste of time. But powerlifters are not generally concerned with how big their backs are, but rather how big their lifts are. Bodybuilders’ goals are of course different.
The main problem with full deads is that the first half of the movement is initiated primarily from quad, glute, and hip strength, while the back does not really kick in until the bar reaches approximately knee level — and at this point there is already quite a bit of momentum involved. Because of this I feel that the back is not receiving optimal stimulation, and is simply working in tandem with the lower body to execute the lift from point A to B.
When performing partial deads, however, the lower body is deactivated for the most part, and acts as nothing more than a powerful foundation to lift upon. This allows the erectors, lats and traps to take on the brunt of the weight, better “isolating” the back for more optimal development of the entire musculature.
My advice to you would be to practice partial deadlifts in a power rack from three different positions: 1) Mid-shin height, 2) Just below the knees, 3) Just above the knees. A good way to set up your deadlifting schedule is to master a given weight for a given number of reps at just above knee height, then to attempt to hit the same numbers at your next back workout, but starting at a lower height. For example:
Just above the knees: 135 x 12, 225 x 8, 275 x 6, 315 x 4, 365 x 2
Just below the knees: 135 x 12, 225 x 8, 275 x 6, 315 x 4, 365 x 2
Mid-shin height: 135 x 12, 225 x 8, 275 x 6, 315 x 4, 365 x 2
If you are successful completing the same number of reps using the same weights at each height, begin the cycle again, but this time increase the poundage on the final 3 sets by perhaps 5% and repeat. This is an excellent way to maximize your deadlifting strength, while at the same time building increased muscle mass throughout your entire back!