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.
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
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.