T Nation

Deadlift: Friend or Foe?


#1

The deadlift is a double-edged sword; it can be a very powerful mass and strength builder, but it can also run down the nervous system and actually decrease your gains. So is it a movement you should focus on? And if so, how should you train it?

I'll confess that I used to HATE the deadlift. First of all because I have the absolute worst body type for it (t-rex arms and long torso) because of that I never was able to perform to my standards on that exercise and it always hurt more than it built muscle. Another thing is that I didn't really understand how to train it. I'm a heavy weight guy.... meaning that I like to focus mostly on loads at 90% or more of my max when training the big lifts. I also like to train a movement fairly often to better be able to become technically efficient. The problem is that doing that on the deadlift ran me down bad... even decreasing my training load to 80% was very hard on me and negatively affected my other sessions.

FRIEND

1) The deadlift is potentially a good overall mass and strength builder. When done properly it hits the whole back structure as well as the glutes and hamstrings hard. However in reality it rarely provide the gains it should (see point no. in the "foe" category)

2) Because of the large amount of muscle involved it can positively affect body composition by increasing energy expenditure both during the workout and the recovery period

3) The deadlift puts the whole body under load which is highly transferable to sporting activities

FOE

1) To be a good mass builder, the deadlift has to be done in the best way to overload the muscles. Sadly by using a technique that doesn't load the muscles optimally you can often lift more weight on that lift (e.g. the fishing rod pulling style). As a result the lower back does most of the work and the movement turns into a very poor mass builder. In fact, the deadlift is the movement where you have the most "people who don't even look like they lift" turn out big numbers... Rarely will you see a guy bench pressing 315 while being below average looking, but I've seen my fair share of "coat racks" deadlifting 500lbs.

2) When done with poor technique, few movements are as traumatic as the deadlift. It can both cause injuries and overuse issues.

3) It's the lift with the greatest "CNS cost" when done with near-maximal weights. It can take 10-14 days for the CNS to fully recover from a truly max effort pull. As such it is easy to overdo it and hurt several sessions afterwards.

SO WHAT TO DO?

In the past I went long periods without deadlifting, I was just bad at it, it never felt good, it hurt my other sessions and I never got much gains from it.

However recently I began using it again, and the style of lifting I use it with has led to good progressing in my look and capacity.

What did I do?

1) I lowered the load significantly

2) I increased frequency (to maximize technical efficiency)

3) I turned it into a strength-capacity challenge

4) Because of the light load, I was able to focus on the technique that gives me the best muscle loading (low hips start, arched back)

Here is the cycle I use... it is a 4 days cycle (so 4 days per week):

DAY 1. 60% of your max for 10 sets of 2 done as fast as possible
DAY 2. 60% of your max for 13 sets of 2 done as fast as possible
DAY 3: 60% of your max for 15 sets of 2 done as fast as possible
DAY 4. 60% + 40lbs for 10 sets of 1 done as fast as possible

Then restart the cycle with 20lbs more... so it would look like:

DAY 1. 60% of your max + 20lbs for 10 sets of 2 done as fast as possible
DAY 2. 60% of your max + 20lbs for 13 sets of 2 done as fast as possible
DAY 3: 60% of your max + 20lbs for 15 sets of 2 done as fast as possible
DAY 4. 60% + 60lbs for 10 sets of 1 done as fast as possible

You keep going until you start to have a form breakdown, this is normally after 3-4 cycles (some will extend it to 5-6) after that you stop deadlifting for a week, retest your max and start a new cycle.

The goal is to go as fast as possible (not during the set, but taking short rest periods between sets).

Good time targets are:

DAY 1. Under 3 minutes
DAY 2.Under 4 minutes
DAY 3. Under 6 minutes
Day 4: Under 2 minutes

Now, don't panic if you don't get these times right off the bat, the important thing is that you try to improve it from cycle to cycle. But NEVER sacrifice technique for a faster time.


#2

CT - very interesting approach. I like it alot.

I'm in the same boat as you - short arms, longer torso - and I generally suck at the deadlift especially in comparison to squats and bench press. I've always found that I burned out quickly whenever I programmed frequent heavy deadlifts and that I usually only manage to hit a PR on deadlift after having not trained the movement heavy for a while.

I'll definitely look at integrating this approach at some point down the line.


#3

Solid post.... and on a Sunday no less haha

I'm the opposite body type.... long arms and medium torso length. My issue is usually scraping the shit out of my legs on the way up. Deadlifts used to burn me out but now they are a pretty good staple of my back day workout (taking 2-4 week breaks every so often), I'll do some snatch-grip deads for 5x3 and then some band resisted RLD's for 5x8 with about 60% max weight on it. I had to come up with some kind of variation because I got bored after I hit 585 for 3. I really prefer trap-bar deads but the bar my gym has sucks, saving money now for a dead-squat bar for my home gym project.


#4

CT I couldn't agree more on the fact that you need to have perfect technique to make the deadlift a good back builder. Whenever I relax my upper back when deadlifting I can do a good amount more weight than when I contract my lats and squeeze my shoulder blades together during the movement, but the latter really do light up my back like no other.

This style of 4-day-a-week deadlifting..you would do it after almost every session? Be it upper body or lower body?


#5

I agree with the speed aspect. I got my absolute best Deadlift gains from your Train like an Athlete Look Like A Bodybuilder program. What I took away is if the bar speed slows you're making a bad training investment (it's costing you more than your return on investment). The Deadlift is definitely it's own lift & has to be treated different if you want to make progress on it. I know a powerlifter too that wasn't happy with a previous session so 5 days before the meet you went heavy with rack pulls & had the worst meet he ever had...I think he missed his opener & he thought it was too light.


#6

Its a funny coincidence you just posted this mini-article CT. After not deadlifting for well over a year, the only form of deadlifts ive been doing were snatch grip deadlifts with perfect form. 4 days ago for some reason I got the urge to test my clean grip deadlift max and lifted 50 pounds more than i ever have in my life on the deadlift after a 1 year break from it!

Im writing this because It basically caused all of the points you listed under "Foe" to happen to me. Im now feeling incredibly flat and run down after what I thought was an amazing workout. Goes to show that the deadlift can feel good and make you think your getting an awesome workout, but if it think about it relative to your other lifts proceeding that intense deadlifting day, its not good at all!

after the deadlift day I felt alot more muscular and powerful, 4 days later right now I feel super flat, my muscles almost have no definition!


#7

@CT:

Thank you for this post and usage suggestion. You know how much I love the deadlift...

Since you helped me make my last personal best, I have gotten away from steady deadlifting as I have recently fallen in love with the high pull. This seems like a great way to reintegrate this into my weekly schedule.

With the loading mentioned in your post, I can place this after each high pull day and after each power clean and push press day.
So, it would look like this:

Is the following optimal? Does it really matter? Should I just not worry and get the work in?

DAY 1: High pull, DL Day 1
DAY 2: Power Clean Push Press, DL Day 2
DAY 3: Rest
DAY 4: Bench press pattern
DAY 5: High pull, DL Day 3
DAY 6: Rest
DAY 7: DL Day 4, back/biceps 3-4 sets each, 6-8 reps.
REST
REPEAT

I know, that's a lot of rest - but remember, I'm old! And, my power clean isn't high enough in weight to detract from my high pull day. My power clean is almost 100lbs under my best high pull - technique issues... :-/ (I'm working on it...)

Also, I'm doing 6-10 short sprints on my off days after mobility and warm-up, stretching...

Thanks again!
Muts


#8

Just have to chirp in and say CT is literally a training god. Like no exaggeration - I don't even know who else shoots this straight/practical on "peformance" training for aesthetics. I scour the web in my ADD and I see other "coaches"/gurus touting unique combinations - oly lifting + gymnastics, pure barbell work, bodypart emphasis, etc. - but aside from the bodybuilding realm (PED's cloud the picture) - the vast majoity of them don't look that impressive. So it's like, cool concepts but how come you don't sport the power look/shredded?

Granted, taining wise what's been done has been done and lot of themes are "rehashes" but the way CT introduces novelty, repackages stuff, stuctures workouts that consistently deliver gains. Another plus is his training style is damn fun.

Per rant, somewhat selfishly, I ask if there's ANYWAY to structure ring work (gymnastics) into your program CT? From BC2, you said, paraphrased, "I've tried powerlifting, olympic lifting, stongman, bodybuilding, and NOTHING came close to developing my entire back as gymnastic progessions". Could you share some of these holds/movements and maybe some insight on how to integrate this into your barbell system? I'm liking the combined "stimulation" of, say, explosive, powerful SGHP then proceeding with controlled tension/pump on ring work. It feels right/fun/effective but I don't want to be driving blind long term..


#9

If you scrape your shins it's either that your starting position is not correct (shins too far away from being perpendicular to the floor) or that you are not starting the ''first pull'' properly (the knees should move back as you lift the bar off of the floor).


#10

You do it after 4 of your weekly sessions (and respect the order)... doesn't matter if the rest of the session is more upper or lower body since when done properly the deadlift involves both.


#11

I wasn't talking about bar speed. I was talking about resting as little as possible to complete the 10-15 sets in as little time as possible.


#12

Hi CT,

I am currently following your 3,3,3,6,6,6 program consisting of 2 main strength lifts then 2 lifts alternated in a strength capacity fashion. Would it be best to drop the strength capacity section in favour of deadlifts with possibly the addition of another strength move for 4x8?. For example:

Pull Day:

  1. Muscle Snatch- 3,3,3,6,6,6
  2. High Pulls- 3,3,3,6,6,6
    (3. Dead-start rows 4x8)
  3. Deadlift Strength Capacity

Many Thanks


#13

Don't forger that the plan I mentionned above calls for using the deadlift 4 days a week, not only on the pull day(s)


#14

CT. 2 questions.
1. this is regular deads, not Dead-Squat bar deads? correct?
2. ive been doing some light front and back squats almost every day to pick up my leg strength. can i replace the squats with this deadlift program?


#15

You cannot ''replace'' the squat by the deadlift, they are two different things. You can do this deadlift program with basically any routine.

It is regular deads yes. The Dead-Squat tend not to have the same issues as the regular deadlift and can thus be trained like the squat or bench (heavier).


#16

Hi CT,

Very interesting to see a high frequency approach to deadlifts.

Lately I haven't had access to a squat rack so instead of squats I've been doing snatch grip deadlifts. Usually I do conventional DL on monday and SGDL on thursday, working up to heavy triples or doubles on both most of the time with a deload about every 4 weeks. Would you suggest modifying this? I like the way SGDL hit my upper back and legs. Would you recommend lighter work sets at higher volume for both movements? More SGDL sessions?


#17

got it. thank you.
im going to start out with it in the beginning of my session. maybe i can use it as an "activator"


#18

Hi CT! I would like to know your toughts on wearing a belt when doing deadlifts.


#19

This makes lots of sense and I've actually experience some great gains while training the deadlift (heavy) less frequently and focusing on more explosive work.

Thanks for the tip, I'll be implementing this in my routine and keep you posted on the results.


#20

I'm not against it at all. In fact I'm not against using a belt an any major lift requiring trunk stability. I do not use it on anything under 70-80% but I see no reason why not use it for a slight added safety and performance with heavier weights, especially since I do recommend loaded abdominal work anyway.