Do you own the deadlift or does it own you? Here are the tactics you gotta use to kill your next PR.
- The deadlift is the least predictable of all the big lifts.
- Deads are exceptionally harsh on the CNS. They take a toll psychologically and even emotionally.
- Successful pulling requires that you proactively create a positive emotional climate.
- Rotating 3-5 different deadlift variants from week to week promotes faster recovery rates.
- The trap bar is a fantastic tool for successful deadlift training.
- Trap bar pulls resemble a cross between a squat and a deadlift. You can pull in a hip-dominant way or you can stay upright and make it like a front squat.
Chalk your hands. Walk up to a heavily loaded barbell. Now take a deep breath and try to pull it off the ground.
A few seconds later, one of you – either you or the barbell – is going to be the other one’s little bitch.
Compared to most other big lifts, the deadlift can be an unpredictable, cold-hearted monster. You just never know what the deadlift has in store for you. Let’s look at some tips and tactics we can use to kill this uncooperative beast.
Experienced lifters know that nothing can fry your nervous system like heavy deads. That’s why, in powerlifting, lifters tend to train the bench 2-3 times a week, the squat 1-2 times per week, and the deadlift 3-4 times per month.
Part of this recovery demand can be chalked up to the simple fact that the deadlift allows you to lift heavier weights than any other exercise, but there are other potential factors as well. Aside from the simple axial compression on the spine, your recovery times increase commensurately if you also round your back during heavy pulls (not recommended).
A big key in keeping your CNS happy is the appropriate use of variety, but first you need to get your mind right.
The deadlift has a unique psychological profile compared to other lifts. Take the squat for example. When you put a big weight on your back and step back from the rack, you’re intrinsically motivated to succeed by the possibly disastrous consequences of not succeeding.
In other words, the simple fear of getting stapled to the pavement pretty much takes care of the motivation department.
Not so with the deadlift. After all, when things get tough, you can just let go of the bar any time you want, right?
The default position of your brain when it comes to pulling on 500 pounds of iron is that there’s always a big part of you that wants no part of it. Honestly, you’re fighting every built-in survival mechanism you were born with.
So when it comes down to it, you’ve gotta find some way to make the part of you that wants it bigger than the part of you that doesn’t want it. Put another way, the deadlift is a highly emotional lift.
That being the case, it’s especially critical that you optimize your training environment, and even more specifically, your emotional climate, prior to a serious pulling session.
A few years ago, Dr. Allen Fox made some useful observations about tennis and emotional control. His advice has a lot of carryover to deadlift workouts:
"In a match, it’s very necessary to maintain emotional control. By ‘emotional control’ I mean two things:
"One is, you don’t have anger or discouragement or these emotions that hurt you. And number two, you create emotions that are helpful to you, like aggression, and excitement, and optimism. Now with most people, their emotions tend to follow what’s happening on the court. If they’re playing badly, their emotions go down, and their game tends to follow.
“The great players don’t let their emotions be determined by what’s happening on the court – they use it, but they’re trying to create the emotions themselves. Maintaining emotional control is one of the keys to winning tennis matches.”
Optimizing your emotional climate can mean recruiting savage training partners, watching inspiring training videos online, and/or taking a pre-workout such as Spike. We’re all different in terms of what fires us up, but the point is, get fired up.
At a certain point in your lifting career, your technique becomes “stable,” which doesn’t necessarily mean perfect, but maybe as perfect as it’s likely to get. At that point, the rules of the game need to change.
While you still need to pull, the role of variety becomes more and more critical to continued success, and by variety I mean identifying 3-5 deadlift variations that you’re going to use in a weekly rotation.
Variety is important on a number of levels, including the prevention of overuse injuries, psychological and emotional staleness, and CNS recovery. But there’s another benefit in using a lot of deadlift modifications and it applies especially to seasoned lifters.
Let’s say your program calls for a certain number for the deficit pull on a given day, and let’s say for whatever reason, you can’t hit that number. When that happens to me, it doesn’t freak me out because I think, “Well, it’s only a deficit pull. I’m sure I’ll be fine from the floor next week.”
On the other hand (and yes, I’m fully aware of the inconsistency of this), if I do manage great numbers on that deficit pull workout, I’ll take it as a sign that I’ll do even better from the floor the following week.
In other words, since you’re not doing your “actual” deadlift, you can allow yourself to relax a bit when it doesn’t go well, and when you do have a great day you can also use it for inspiration and encouragement.
Here are four examples of weekly training rotations. The key foundational principle here is that contrast promotes recovery.
- Week 1: Conventional Pull
- Week 2: Deficit Pull
- Week 3: Block Pull
- Week 1: Conventional Pull
- Week 2: Band-Resisted Pull
- Week 3: Trap-Bar Pull
- Week 1: Sumo Pull
- Week 2: Speed Pull
- Week 3: Snatch-Grip Pull
- Week 1: Clean Pull
- Week 2: Trap-Bar Paused Pull
- Week 3: Thick-Bar Pull
Use your creativity when it comes to structuring your rotations and try to select drills that challenge your weaknesses.
Not only is the trap bar an excellent deadlift variant in a general sense, it also has very specific advantages for almost anyone:
- The most obvious advantage is that the trap bar requires less skill than a straight bar. The average beginner will instinctively adopt a safer position on this tool than he would with a straight bar.
- The trap bar is easier on the knees than squats, and easier on the back than conventional deadlifts – the best of both worlds, the worst of none.
- Since trap bar deads involve a more upright posture than conventional pulls, you can recover from them a bit faster. They don’t seem to wreak the same havoc on the spine as compared to conventional deads. This means that, among other things, they’re a good pulling option for higher-rep sets for building volume. In my own training, I’ll often work up to a heavy 1-3 rep set on conventional pulls or deficits and then switch to the trap bar for back-off sets of 6-10 reps.
- The trap bar seems to hit the traps (imagine that) really hard, and perhaps even harder than straight-bar pulls. It likely has to do with the grip width and neutral hand orientation.
- Although trap bar pulls typically resemble a cross between a squat and a deadlift, in reality, you can make it whatever you want it to be. You can pull in a very hip-dominant way with significant torso inclination, or you can stay upright and make it like a front squat. Further, you can actually start a set in a knee-dominant way, and then, as fatigue ensues, start using more hip flexion and less knee flexion. In other words, you can make it a mechanical advantage drop-set.
- The trap bar is a superb tool for farmer’s walks since there’s little to no chance that you’ll drop the weight on your foot. Also, unlike farmer’s walks with dumbbells, trap bar walks don’t impede your gait by allowing the weights to hit the outside of your thighs.
Try this: Perform a 10-rep set of trap bar pulls and then start walking.
Since heavy deadlifting is arguably the most stressful movement you can perform, it should come as no surprise that successful pulling is primarily about stress-management – not only physical stress, but psychological and emotional stress as well.
You may be able to cut corners with other exercises, but for the king of the lifts, attention to detail spells the difference between frustration and exhilaration.