The Dirty Dozen: 12 Tips for Heavier Pulls

by Tony Gentilcore

Nothing gets you more jacked (mentally and physically) than pulling eight plates or more off the ground. These deadlifting tips will get you there.

“Any healthy male under the age of 50 should be able to deadlift at least 400 pounds within two years of proper training.”

Not surprisingly, my business partner and fellow T Nation contributor Eric Cressey caught a lot of flack in the fitness community a few years ago for making that bold statement. But it’s true. If you’ve been training for a couple of years, you should be able to deadlift at least 400 pounds.

I understand you may be upset if you can’t yet pull the big four-oh-oh. It’s human nature to get mad when someone questions your manhood. But what are you going to do about it? You can stop reading here, go to the discussion thread, and leave a nasty comment, or you can sack up and learn how to pull eight plates (or more) off the ground.

All you need to do is follow the Dirty Dozen.

The Dirty Dozen

1. If you want to improve your deadlift, you should have perfect form.

First, a story of what’s possible: When Cressey Performance business director Pete Dupuis started training last year, he started with 88 pounds on the trap bar. Fast-forward 364 days and Pete deadlifted 400 pounds for an easy personal record. So we’re not bullshitting here.

With that in mind, here are eight steps to the perfect deadlift:

The Set Up

  1. Your feet should be slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart, and the bar should be against your shins.
  2. Keep your chest “tall,” get your air (make yourself fat, brace your abs as if you were going to get punched) and sit back into position, arching your lower back as hard as possible while keeping your shoulder blades retracted. I tell my guys to push their hips back until they can grab the bar. Do not squat down.
  3. Grab the bar and squeeze the hell out of it while pulling your shoulders back and down to engage your lats. This will also activate the thoraco-lumbar fascia and stabilize the spine. You should feel a fair amount of tension in the hamstrings and glutes at this point.
  4. Keep your chin tucked and find a spot roughly 10-15 feet ahead of you on the floor and fixate on it throughout the entire movement.
  5. Drive through your heels, and keep your elbows locked. Pull the bar, making sure that your hips and shoulders move simultaneously. (I’ll often see the hips come up first; this is just asking for trouble.)
  6. As you approach the lock out, make sure to “finish” the movement by firing your glutes and getting those hips through. Many fail to accomplish this last point, and it ends up looking something like the first of the two lockout videos.
  7. This is the part that tends to be a bit tricky for some. Don’t break with your knees, but rather the hips. You want to sit back (think sitting back into the heels), while sliding the bar down your thighs the entire time.
  8. Remember to maintain a hard arch in your lower back, and don’t allow your shoulders to round forward.

The Pull

Also, think of each rep as its’ own set. A lot of guys tend to rush and end up bouncing the bar off the ground. As a result, each rep gets progressively worse, and my spine starts hurting. It’s called a deadlift for a reason. Once you get the bar back to the ground, get your air back (brace those abs), re-adjust your spinal position, get your chest tall, pull those shoulder blades back and down, tuck your chin, repeat, and be awesome.

2. Pull frequently and heavy.

No, I’m not talking every day. But if you want to get good at the deadlift you should probably, you know, deadlift.

I’d suggest pulling at least once per week, usually on a Monday since you’ll be fresher. Moreover, you need to use low(er) rep training. Strength, at least in the very beginning, has more to do with CNS development than anything else, which is why most guys will see drastic increases in strength before they see a six-pack.

I rarely program more than five reps when it comes to deadlifts. Anything above that usually results in abysmal form, particularly for beginners and intermediates. It’s also been well established in the literature that low(er) rep training improves the body’s ability to recruit high threshold motor units, improve rate coding, as well as increase inter/intra muscular coordination.

Three-Month Deadlift Program

When it comes to programming, I feel that individualization is crucial. Still, a simple breakdown would look something like this:

Month One – Trap Bar Deadlift

  • Week 1: 5x5
  • Week 2: 4x5
  • Week 3: 6x5
  • Week 4: 3x5

Month Two – Sumo Deadlift

  • Week 1: 4x3
  • Week 2: 3x3
  • Week 3: 3x3, 2x5
  • Week 4: Pull-Throughs 3x10

Month Three – Conventional Deadlift

  • Week 1: 3RM (or 1RM)
  • Week 2: 4x4
  • Week 3: 4x5
  • Week 4: 3x4

After 12 weeks straight, I’d suggest taking a week or two off from deadlifting altogether. Focus on some single-leg work (more on this below), throw in some biceps curls for the hell of it, and eat lots of dead animal flesh.

3. Rotate your movements (just not every week).

While I think it’s important to rotate movements, especially movements you suck at, you don’t need to do it every week. I like to use three to four week cycles, rotating movements every month or so.

4. Fix your weaknesses.

Some people (such as myself) are woefully slow off the floor. Others are able to rip the bar from the platform, but have a hard time locking the weight out above the knees. Regardless, it’s important to find where you’re weak and fix it.

A lot of this will depend on your leverages. Those with long limbs tend to have a mechanical advantage towards deadlifting, but they’ll oftentimes have a hard time locking the weight out. If this sounds like you, some dedicated speed work or heavy rack pulls will do you good.

For those with long(er) torsos who have trouble with speed off the floor, try pulling from a deficit (feet elevated 1-4 inches off the ground). As a result, when you revert back to pulling from the floor, it’ll feel better. Also, sumo variations would be a superb alternative as it shortens the distance the bar has to travel.

5. Take off your shoes.

Anyone who’s read Christopher McDougal’s phenomenal book, Born to Run, knows by now that the shoe industry is essentially a 20 billion dollar per year sham. Any deadlift variation done within Cressey Performance is done barefoot.

Without shoes, you’re 1-2 inches closer to the ground, which is 1-2 inches less distance the bar has to travel. Also, by taking your shoes off you’re now able to pull through your heels, which will allow you to recruit your glutes and hamstrings more efficiently.

For those of you who train at lame gyms that frown on people training barefoot, I’d suggest purchasing flat shoes such as Chuck Taylors or Nike Frees and getting rid of the cement blocks you’re wearing.

6. Don’t use straps.

I’m a bit torn on this one. On one hand, I think far too many people use straps as crutches. I mean, lat pull-downs? Really? On the other hand, I realize grip strength is a limiting factor for many, and sometimes it’s beneficial to permit straps if for no other reason than it allows someone to actually use heavier weight. We’ll let guys use straps for snatch grip variations, but that’s about it.

Use a mixed-grip, alternating hand positions with every set, and get some chalk. If your gym doesn’t allow chalk, either find a new gym or sneak it in. Keep it in a plastic container in your gym bag, lightly rub some chalk on your hands, and have at it. Also, don’t be an asshole – clean the bar when you’re done.

7. If you want to get strong you need to train with strong people.

Much like if you want to get better at accounting, you hang out with accountants. Or, if you want to get better at not getting laid, you go to Star Trek conventions.

Now, I don’t have any scientific evidence to back this up, but I’m pretty sure testosterone levels drop by 144.37% every time Miley Cyrus is played over the radio. How do you expect to get fired up for a training session when you have walking bags of douche curling in the squat rack, and you’re surrounded by housewives on the treadmills?

A general rule of thumb: if your gym has more Smith machines than power racks, you have a better shot at winning the lottery than getting super-strong.

8. Do accessory work.

If you want to get better at the deadlift, you need to train the posterior chain hard. Sorry, leg presses, leg extensions, and leg curls won’t cut it. When I hammer my goodmornings, my deadlift always skyrockets. It almost serves as a “marker” so-to-speak – when my goodmornings are going up consistently, it’s a safe bet that my deadlift is going to go up as well.

For you, it may be box squats. For someone else, it may be Romanian deadlifts. The point is, you should have another exercise that you can use to “gauge” where you’re at.

Things like glute ham raises, slideboard leg curls, hip thrusters, and pull-throughs (in my opinion, one of the most under-rated exercise out there) should make up the bulk of your lower body accessory work.

9. Perform single-leg work.

Single-leg work equals bigger lifts. If I get someone better and more proficient with their single-leg training, they see a vast improvement in their deadlift and squat.

As Mike Boyle has stated on numerous occasions, single-leg movements force us to activate the lateral sub-system, which consists of the adductor complex, glute medius, as well as the quadtratus lumborum on the contra-lateral leg.

From low-back and knee health perspectives, this is huge since in a two-legged stance these muscles aren’t necessarily “activated.” However, in a single-leg stance, this same system of muscles is forced to “fire,” which then work to stabilize the hip and knee joint.

In short, if you’re jacked up all the time, you won’t be lifting anything heavy. Do your single-leg work and thank me later.

10. Get those glutes firing!

We all know (or at least we should) the importance of the warm-up prior to training. Furthermore, I’ve written in the past how I’m a big fan of fillers – low grade stretches or activation work done in between sets. So, instead of watching Sports Center highlights, or hitting on the hot chick you don’t have a shot in hell with, you might as well do something productive while you rest between sets.

For most of us, one area that undoubtedly needs a lot of work is the glutes. Because we sit on them for 8 to 12 hours per day, the glutes tend to be weak and inhibited. Given that they’re the body’s strongest hip extensor, it stands to reason that they may affect how much weight you’ll be able to deadlift. Put another way, many of you are short changing yourself by not paying closer attention to glute activation.

I recommend you do some simple glute activation between sets of deadlifts. You’ll see a big change in how much weight you can add to the bar.

Here, you lean against a wall and flex one leg up (without hyper-extending the lumbar spine) and drive the heel of the standing leg into the ground. Hold for a 2-second count, and squeeze the glute of the standing leg. Alternate legs and repeat for a total of five repetitions per leg.

Lie supine on the floor, drive both heels into the floor and raise your hips slightly off the ground. Squeeze your glutes. From there, simply elevate the heel of one foot 1 to 2 inches, and keep your pelvis square (it shouldn’t dip). Hold for a one-second count, bring back to the floor, and repeat the same sequence on the opposite side for a total of five repetitions for each leg.

11. Don’t make a habit of missing lifts.

One of my biggest pet peeves as a strength coach is guys missing lifts. Granted, I understand it happens, but it shouldn’t be a weekly thing.

I think there’s a lot to be said about grinding out a set here and there, but missing lifts on a regular basis will do nothing except fry your nervous system and lead to a world of frustration.

12. Do speed work (but not that kind!)

Most guys are familiar with the conjugate approach to training, as popularized by Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell. This is where you take multiple strength qualities (max strength, speed strength, etc.) and train them simultaneously in an effort to improve performance in the “big three” (squat, bench press, and deadlift). One day is dedicated to the max-effort method (lifting heavy shit), and one day is dedicated to the dynamic-effort method (lifting less heavy shit quickly).

I’ve already touched on the former (see Tip # 2), but I’d like to talk about the dynamic-effort method. Research shows that guys can see significant strength gains using 40 percent of their one-rep max, which is why it’s often recommended that you use anywhere from 40-65 percent of your 1RM when using this method.

That said, I have a hard time programming speed work for an un-trained 35-year-old – let alone any of the high school or college kids I train – when they’re barely deadlifting 225 for reps. Still, we do need to find some way to get guys more explosive.

Enter the Kettlebell Swing

I’ll admit that up to a few months ago, I was a bit reluctant about the whole kettlebell thing. To me, it just seemed like the latest fitness fad that everyone was doing, and thought it would fizzle out sooner or later. However, after spending some time with Mike Robertson last year, and more recently, listening to Dan John speak, I quickly changed my mind.

Without getting into all the details, Dan described a continuum where on one end, you have a squat pattern, and at the other, you have a hip snap. With respect to the deadlift (a hip dominant movement), the kettlebell swing is a fantastic way to learn how to get more explosive, not to mention improving technique!

Thing is, most people end up butchering the movement to the point where it looks more like a squat swing.

It’s not uncommon for many to experience significant lower back pain when performing it this way. Go figure! As such, when coaching the swing, you’ll often see the same mistakes made time and time again. Rather than re-invent the wheel, I’ll just steal a few pointers courtesy of Mike Robertson.

Six Ways You’re Screwing Up the Kettlebell Swing

  1. You pick the kettlebell up, instead of sitting back in the “hike” position.
  2. You don’t pull the kettlebell back aggressively toward the groin between reps. Dan John calls this “attacking the zipper.”
  3. You don’t keep your chest up or your back flat.
  4. You don’t finish “tall”. At the finish position, you must think about extending the hips and knees simultaneously.
  5. You have too much tension throughout the movement. Think about staying tight at the top and bottom, and focus on relaxing in between.
  6. You don’t “tame the arc.” Many beginners are way too “loose” with the arc of the kettlebell. Instead, focus on shortening the arc and keeping it tight to your body both at the top and bottom positions.

What Will the Dirty Dozen Do For You?

Isn’t it about time you hit a new PR on the deadlift? Use the Dirty Dozen above, check your form, and work hard, and I bet you’ll be surprised with how much progress you make in a matter of months.