5 Tips to Improve Your Deadlift

Share This:

It’s no secret that I like to deadlift. Outside of sleep, going to a Sunday matinee, omeletes, Chipotle, and nunchucks, it’s probably my most favoritest thing in the world.

There’s certainly no shortage of quality articles out there breaking down the deadlift and offering suggestions on how to increase your overall sense of badassery.

Likewise, there’s rarely (if ever) anything new to say – as it’s already been said in some fashion elsewhere in magazines, in books, in DVDs, and various blog posts.

Nevertheless, here are five quick and easy-to-implement tips that will definitely help improve your pulling prowess.

1.  Save Your Hardest Workout for Early in the Week, But Not Too Early

It stands to reason that if you have a weak link or are trying to “bring up” one particular lift, you should reserve the hardest training session of the week for Monday when you’re the most fresh and and presumably, the most recovered.

Seemingly most people spend their weekends chillaxing watching sports, eating good food, having a few beers, taking power naps, throwing the frisbee around, playing with the dogs, or maybe, if your’re lucky, spending a few hours at the beach soaking up some vitamin D.

Come Monday you’re recharged and ready to tackle the upcoming week. It makes sense, then, to head to the gym on Monday and absolutely throw yourself to the wolves and make yourself hate life to the point where you can barely walk by the end and you can’t feel the left side of your face.

Mmmmmm, maybe not the best idea.

Raise your hand if Mondays are typically your best day at work? Hahahahaha, yeah that’s what I thought.

Nada.

We’ve all heard the lame statement “looks like (s0 and so) has the case of the Mondays,” and for good reason. Mondays suck! For a reference point, watch the movie Office Space (and thank me later).

 

After two days (or three, for the lucky few who get the extended weekend) of laying low and living the lazy life, effectively placing your body in an extended “hover” mode, you can’t expect it to rebound efficiently and go right into breaking PRs on Monday.

For some it will work, and they can bounce back and feel like a superhero. For many,  however, it won’t be nearly as “superheroish,” and it won’t be a pretty site.

I’m a rare example and use Mondays as my main deadlift day, but that’s because I work at a gym and I’m able to use Saturday (and sometimes Sunday) as an actual training day, mostly as a GPP or movement based day, but training nonetheless. Most people don’t have this luxury and opt to forego the weights for pina coladas instead.  And more power to them!

What I propose is to hold off, and save your main deadlift session for Tuesday or better yet, Wednesday.

Instead go to the gym on Monday and train, but don’t necessarily go balls to the wall. Most of you are going to go and blast your pecs anyways – Monday IS National Bench Press Day – so go right a head and do it.  Or, just think of it as a “medium” intensity day

By the time Tuesday or Wednesday rolls around, your nervous system will be a little more “primed” and less lethargic and I’m willing to bet you’ll find your DL numbers improve.

2. Get More Lifts Above 90%

I’m a bit reticent to openly state that more people should add more lifts at or above 90% (as a percentage of their one rep max) into their repertoire because, well, you need to know what the heck you’re doing!

To that end, I have two prerequisites:

1.  You MUST have technical proficiency in the lift. If my eyes will perpetually start bleeding from watching you lift a weight that’s only 50% of your 1RM, then I certainly don’t want to know what will happen if you go any heavier.

<—– Like this

2. You should already be able to lift at least 2x (I may even lower this to 1.5x) your bodyweight before utilizing 90% lifts. As an example, this would mean that a 175 lb person should be clearing a 350 lb pull. Not too shabby, but certainly not earth shattering.

I understand this is a a blanket statement, and there are plenty of people who incorporate heavier loads into the mix that aren’t that strong (and do so safely), but this is just for my own edification and peace of mind.

Rather than re-invent the wheel, I’m going to cut/paste a portion of an article I wrote for T-Nation a few years ago titled Limiting Factors:

When a more “advanced” trainee approaches me and mentions that he’s stuck on a certain weight with a particular lift, I can almost guarantee his limiting factor is that he hasn’t been incorporating more lifts above 90%.

(Side Note: For beginner trainees, I’d be more inclined to check their food intake and/or overall programming. Most just need to eat more and shy away from the bodybuilding/body-part split routines.)

To recap, lifts above 90%…

1. Increase total muscle fiber recruitment.

2. Increase recruitment of higher threshold motor units (which have a greater propensity for growth).

3. Increase rate coding (rate at which motor units fire).

4. Increase synchronization between muscles (improved inter and intra-muscular coordination).

5. Make girls want to hang out with you.

Maybe even girls who actually deadlift will want to hang out with you, too:

All of the above help to improve one’s neural efficiency. Getting stronger is all about making the central nervous system (CNS) more efficient at allowing the brain and spinal cord to better communicate with motor units/muscle fibers to get the job done. In short, improved neural efficiency allows you to lift more weight, which last time I checked, is a pretty cool thing.

For the advanced lifter, each session is an opportunity to maybe hit a new PR (personal record), but really it’s just about lifting heavy things off the ground.

Using the DL as an example, lets assume one’s original PR is 400 pounds, the goal for this training session is to get FIVE lifts at 90% and above:

135×5
225×3
275×1
315×1
365×1
405×1 (PR!!!  But it was a grinder and you’re pretty sure you blacked out for like three seconds and saw pink unicorns as you locked it out)

At this point the trainee has already gotten two lifts above 90% (365, 405), which would mean he needs to get three more lifts in to get to the goal of five. The objective now is to stay at or slightly above 90% (usually in the 90-92% range) and focus on bar speed and actually not miss any lifts.

360×1,1,1

From there, the trainee will continue on with his accessory work depending on his needs and goals.

3.  Oh Yeah, Hammer Your Accessory Work

For me I like to use what I call “marker” exercises, which are those exercises I know have a a huge carry over to the deadlift, and also allow me to gauge progress.  In short, I know that if I improve on a particular marker exercise, chances are my DL is going to improve as well.

One such example are goodmornings.

Everyone is different, and I’m not saying you should go start playing around with goodmornings today. But it stands to reason that if you want to improve your deadlift, you need to hammer your posterior chain and place a premium on those exercises which strengthen the glutes and hamstrings.

Another exercise to consider would be something like Deadstart/Andeson Squats.

What I love about these is that they emulate the exact hip/torso positioning I use when I setup to deadlift.  I’m woefully slow off the floor when I pull (and I have weak quads), so this is an exercise I try to incorporate a lot when I’m trying to ramp up my deadlift numbers.

Again, that’s just me.  What works for me may not work for you, but if I had to make a short list of exercises that people should focus on in terms of accessory work:

– RDLs
– Goodmornings
– Partial ROM squats
– Pull-Throughs
– GHR
– KB Swings
– Barbell Hip Thrusters
– Leg Press**

4. Focus on the 70-80% (But More Around 70%).

Admittedly this is something that I’ve pretty much ignored up until recently, and it wasn’t until diving into the phenomenal book Easy Strength by Dan John and Pavel (as well as taking the advice of other coaches like Bret Contreras and Todd Bumgardner) that I began to see the error of my ways.

This sorta flies in the face of what I was saying above with regards to utilizing lifts above 90%, but I really feel that this is a woefully under-utilized method of improving one’s deadlift.

I understand that many strength coaches are adamantly opposed to anything that isn’t either “speed” work (40-60%) or max effort work (90%+), and that anything in the middle is a complete waste of time.

But I feel there’s something to be said about honing technique, solidifying one’s exercise proficiency (and being able to repeat it), and seeing how that parlays into bigger pulling numbers.

In looking at my training past, whenever I’d make a run for 600 lbs, I’d inevitably approach the 550ish mark, attempt to get my 90% lifts in week in and week out, for weeks on end, and eventually my spine would be like “that’s it Gentilcore.  I’m done!”

My back would end up feeling like shredded up salami, my CNS would be fried, and I’d have to take a hiatus from pulling heavy.

I think once you start approaching 2.75-3x bodyweight pulls, the body can only take so much on a repeated basis.  Lately, I’ve been focusing more on getting fast, QUALITY reps at a lower percentage and I feel amazing.

I’m still doing my speed work on separate days, but instead of hitting multiple lifts at 90% or above, I’ve been taking it down a notch and performing repeated lifts at 70% (with limited rest) and then hitting a “sorta” max every other week.

So, for example:

6×2 @ 315 lbs (with 20-30s rest between sets)

Then I’ll work up to a 500+ pull.  Last week I ended up working up to 520 lbs, and felt great.

You’re always going to have ebbs and flows with training, but I really feel that this approach is going keep me fresh longer and not beat me to a pulp.

5.  Use Straps

No, seriously, I’m not kidding….use them!

Listen, most commercial gyms have really crappy bars with no knurling and you’re relegated to wearing a Scarlet letter if you have the audacity to bring chalk onto the gym floor.

It’s almost impossible to lift any appreciable weight when the bar keeps slipping out of your hands.

Back in the day I totally used wrist straps to help bring up my deadlift.  Granted, I tried to sneak in chalk whenever I could (even going so far as to make sure I wiped down the bars when I was done), but I didn’t think any less of myself.

Grip strength is going to be a limiting factor for a lot of peeps, and I posit that so long as you go out of your way to NOT be the dork who uses straps for everything from seated lat pulldowns to bicep curls, your grip strength will automatically improve given you’re using various dumbbells and barbells in your training.

I won’t judge you for using straps.  If it allows you to use more weight and overload the exercise, great!  That’s the point.  If you use gloves on the other hand………

Got any tips of your own to share?  I’d love to hear them below

 

** Come on.  You didn’t think I was serious did you?

  • Barath

    Thanks for the article Tony! I’d have to say the single best thing that helped me was deficit pulls – surprised to see you didn’t include it in there (though you have mentioned it before).

    I have a general question: how do you generally gauge what’s working for you and what’s not? For example, do you stick with some assistance protocol for a specified length of time, and then check your PR in the main lift? I’d assume most people (like me) would  have less problem locking out, and would need to strengthen the initial movement off the floor. In this regard, do things like RDL really help? I’d love to hear what you have for people like me who are terrible off the floor? I’ve tried speed pulls, RDLs, and rack pulls and they did nothing. Only deficit DLs helped.

    Oh, and that leg press suggestion totally got me :)

    • TonyGentilcore

      Yeah, this was more of a “general” tips article, but deficit pulls are definitely something that works well.

      To answer your question (concerning accessory work), I like to think of it in terms of where I’m weakest in the deadlift. For me, lockout is not an issue. Once I get the bar to my knees, that shit is locking out. I’m woefully weak off the floor. Others may be woefully weak in mid-range, or at lockout. It all depends. They key is to figure out where you’re weakest at and use accessory exercises that hammer that weakness.

      As far as how to gauge them: testing. If your numbers go up. Something is working….;o)

  • http://www.pitootsky.com/ Seth

    This was great to read mainly because it confirmed for me what I’m already doing regarding all my heavy lifts. Right now I’m using 90%+ every other week and in between am utilizing the 70-80% range. I just started doing this so we’ll see how it goes.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Nice! Sounds like you’re on the right track. Good luck!

  • RS

    Tony,

    Three takaways:

    1. I’ve kept a training log for every training session for the last three years, and one thing sticks out: The vast majority of my PRs have come on Saturdays. (I typically follow Cressey’s Mo-Wed-Thur-Sa model). For whatever reason, I feel strongest on this day, and I can only attribute it to Friday being the night where I get the most consistent sleep.

    2. The further I get from taking lifts over 90%, the weaker I get.

    3. Lifts in the 75% range have become invaluable tools for greasing the skids on “problem” lifts.

    RS

    • TonyGentilcore

      You, sir, are on top of it! I wish I was at meticulous as you in keeping a journal!

  • Dshimm52

    Tony in your example in section 2 about the fellow who hit a 405# PR on his second lift and needed 3 more lifts at or >90%, he should do 3 singles at 360#, not 260#.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks! Fixed.

  • Steven Musacchio

    Tony, Great point about the Anderson squats….its funny, for as much as I know, or think I know… I never really even took into consideration quad strength when at the bottom of the deadligt (duh, i know).  And as my squat, AKA quad strength has improved a great deal, I have noticed probably a 30-40 lb jump in my 1RM in the deadlift over the past 6 months, and I am 30 years old with about 12 years lifting under my belt….so for me, the quads were something to get me over the latest hurdle.  Great post!

    • TonyGentilcore

      Sweet! Glad it helped set off a lightbulb. It’s something I never thought of up until recently as well, so don’t feel bad……haha.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthewbernal31 Matthew Bernal

    woohoo gotta love the straps :D

    • TonyGentilcore

      hahahahahhaa. Well, lets not get too overboard with them, Matt.

      At some point, they DO serve no other purpose than as a band aid. If grip strength is a weakness, then at some point, you need to address it.

  • Pingback: Brahj | Cannon Crossfit

  • Michael Ward

    Okay, who are you and what have you done with Tony??!!! Straps & the leg press??

    But seriously, thanks for the tips.

    In your experience, is it easier to lift heavy in a sumo stance? I ask because I did them yesterday and was surprised how easily my old PR (conventional stance) went up (3 months old though). I’m wondering if the reduced ROM is why?

    • TonyGentilcore

      Dude….did you not see the asterisk joke at the end of the post about the leg press???????? Go back and check…..;o)

      SUMO stance decreases the ROM, so it definitely makes sense that you’re able to pull more weight. For me, though, SUMO stance shreds my hips, so I can only do them for so long before my hips hate me.

  • Bret Contreras

    Great article Tony!

    • TonyGentilcore

      Right on dude. You inspired a lot of it. So, thank YOU!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/alexander.j.cortes Alexander Juan Antonio Cortes

    This is just all out practical and real world tips that any lifter can use. The technical approach articles are great but not always realistic, I can definitely put these ideas to use. Love the Easy Strength shout out, and now I feel a lot better about using straps, haha

    • TonyGentilcore

      hahahaha. Straps aren’t THAT bad. Glad you liked the article.

  • http://twitter.com/NickEfthimiou Nick Efthimiou

    I have found high bar back squats to be one of the best assistance exercises for the deadlift for me. When these go up and my chins/rows are strong, my deadlift is strong.

    • TonyGentilcore

      No diggidy, no doubt!

  • Max Shank

    Awesome Stuff, Tony. I would add to keep the rep speed as fast/fresh as possible.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks Max, glad you liked it!

  • Kujo

    I pulled 500lbs for the first time yesterday. A new PR (I weigh 192 lbs, 6 ft tall). I just came off a deload week. I deload every 4 weeks. I think this has been important in my progress. I’ve also been doing zercher squats, GHRs, RDLs, and pull-throughs. Moving DLs to Weds is interesting. I’ve always picked Mondays as well.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Nice pull Kujo – internet high five! Feels good to pull five bills, right?

      Play around with the Wednesday scenario. As I noted, Mondays are typically after two (sometimes) three complete days off for some people, which means the CNS is pretty lethargic. I’d recommend trying to use Monday as a “primer” day. Maybe perform some LIGHT pulls (at 70%) to work on technique and then toss in some rows, push-ups, core work, etc. Nothing too fancy or advanced, but enough to give you a training effect.

      Then, on Wednesday, have at it!

  • Sean Norwood

    Thanks for the great article Tony!

    Do you have any thoughts about using the trap bar deadlift for people who are weak off the floor? Quad drive off the floor is my main problem, so I was thinking the trap bar would be similar to the Anderson squat.

    • TonyGentilcore

      You know, we generally start EVERYONE off with the trap bar at CP since it’s a little more “user friendly.”

      And, yes, you will automatically get a little more quad recruitment with it as well (although, that’s not necessarily the reason why we use it with beginners).

      Good idea nonetheless!

  • Jack

    Always love your deadlift stuff! Great work as always!
    Thanks
    J
    ps – Old GI joe commericals rule!

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks Jack, always appreciate it when people learn a thing or two from something I write. Thanks for reading. Gooooooo Joe…..;o)

  • Pingback: Friday, 8/17/12 « CrossFit Center City

  • Pingback: Five Fitness Tips: August 2012 - Angus Certified

  • Pingback: Top Good Reads of the Week: Edition 11 | LaVack Fitness

  • kaden

    i am 13 90 pound i can dead lift 220 is that sucky?

  • Melo

    Kaden, youre a fucking attention whore that needs to stop talking big behind a screen and play with your fucking action figures

  • Carl

    Even better than your latest bench pressing article! Nice article design too. Got an article on the deadlift myself actually! http://theliftingbay.com/deadlift-the-guide/

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christoffer-Asplund/681196781 Christoffer Asplund

    I am definitely going to try some of this. Right now I my max is 240kg (507 lbs) and the problem I am having is locking the lift. from the ground up to my knees is not a problem and I could probably go up to 260 kg. but it stops after I get it up to my knees.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Glad you liked the post Christoffer. That’s a very impressive pull you have. I’d venture a guess that more “rep” work on the 70-80% range (singles, for speed) would be in high order.

  • mike

    Hey Tony, great article, can i ask your advise on something, im pulling 2.35 times my body weight but feel its all back, my squat sucks, its currently 1.60 times my body weight, is this where im falling down?
    cheers

    • mike

      hmmm the answer to my question was in the comments below, catalina wine mixer POW!!!!!!
      Great article, im all over those anderson squats.

      • TonyGentilcore

        Oh, good. Glad you found it! And thanks for reading.

  • Pingback: Top Good Reads of the Week: Edition 11

  • Pingback: Nerd Sesh’ : Good Reads

  • Finlay

    Great tips man. Thank alot

    I have been kinda playing with the 70%-90% range. i currently do 3×3 tsratng at 70 and ending at 90. Each time i feel i havea little more gas left in the tank,

    Retesting my 1RM in a couple of weeks, feeling confident :)

    • TonyGentilcore

      Awesome. Hope it goes well!