How to Maintain Deadlift Strength

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I received an interesting question from a reader the other day on deadlifts, particularly 1RM (1 rep max) deadlifts. And since I get all giddy like a school girl at a One Direction concert whenever someone brings up the topic, I figured I’d share my answer here on my website since I’m sure it’s a question that others have wondered as well.

Q: My lifting consists mostly of deadlifts and chin-up/pull-ups with lots of auxiliary work. I also cycle a lot (100 miles per week in-season). But I am in the field for several months a year and it interrupts my lifting. 

Last year I pulled 305 on my 60th birthday (at 182 pounds body weight). I got a late start this year and was not as systematic with the spin up. I did a 1RM test and only pulled 270 (at 190 pounds) on my 61st.

I plan to start with the Matt Kroc program that I read in your site as soon as I get back from a month in Alaska (field work on the glacier near Juneau; it’s a tough job, but…).

My question is: I would have liked to maintain a 300 pound 1RM but was not systematic enough through the year. What do I do between programs to maintain a higher 1RM? (And continue to cycle and miss the occasional month in the deep field for work?).

A: Who are you?  John Wayne?  I love this!

First off, as a quick side tangent, any guy who uses his age as an excuse to not train hard is lame.  This isn’t to say you shouldn’t tweak some things here and there if need be, but all told, like the late 90s R&B star, Aaliyah, used to say, “Age ain’t nuthin but a number.”

While I should get a pat on the back for referencing both John Wayne and Aaliyah within a single blog post – quite possibly the first time in human history that that’s ever happened – you, sir, should get a pat on the back for kicking ass and taking names.

You hang out on glaciers AND deadlift.  By comparison I drive a Hyundai Elantra and own a cat.

Okay, lets get to the heart of the matter.

To start, lets put things into perspective.  You pulled 305 lbs on your 6oth birthday, and a year later, after admittedly not being as diligent with your training leading up to your 61st, you were still able to pull 270 lbs, which is within striking distance of 90% of your 1RM.

You know what?  That’s not too shabby considering.  Compared to other lifts like the squat or bench press, that’s not a huge drop off at all.

Why is that?

As Tim Henriques notes in his book, All About Powerlifting, “the deadlift is the simplest of the big three exercises (squat, bench press, DL), meaning it requires the least amount of skill. The deadlift is the most natural of the three lifts. Essentially all people, regardless of age, will perform a deadlift during their day, every day. 

Every time you bend down to pick something up off the ground, from your shoes to your laundry basket to a child to your dog to your couch, if you pick something up you are deadlifting it.

In addition your ability to deadlift remains for a relatively long time after you stop deadlifting.  If you stop squatting, even after you have been squatting for a long time, your ability to squat very heavy or perform a max set decreases relatively quickly. You will notice a difference after just one or two weeks.

Your ability to bench press remains at a moderate level; if you stop benching it begins to go away but assuming you stay strong in other exercises you will still be able to bench a decent amount of weight for a while.

The deadlift ability remains the longest.  If you stop deadlifting you can still come in a year later and deadlift a decent amount of weight. This is because the neuromuscular coordination required for the deadlift is the least specific of the three exercises and the basic motor control pattern remains the same even when you stop deadlifting.”

Of course, this isn’t to say that the deadlift is easy to learn or that there isn’t any skill involved – nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, entire books have been written on this one lift alone.   One of may favs includes Off the Floorby David Dellanave.

However, compared to the squat and bench press, which, from a motor pattern standpoint aren’t movements we perform on a daily basis, the deadlift tends to “stick” longer.

Along those same lines, compared to other “qualities” such as anaerobic endurance, strength endurance, or maximal speed, maximal strength tends to have a much longer staying power.

Meaning, regardless of secondary emphasis, you can leave alone and maintain certain qualities of “x” number of days without seeing much of a drop off in performance.  This is something my good friend, Joe Dowdell, highlighted during his Peak Diet and Training seminar.

Here are some numbers to consider:

Aerobic Endurance = 30 +/- 5 days (meaning you can maintain training effect for 25-35 days with minimal exposure to that same stimulus).  Maximum Strength = 30 +/- 5 days, Anaerobic Endurance = 18 +/- 4 days, Strength Endurance = 15 +/- 5 days, Maximum Speed  = 5 +/- 3 days.

To maintain maximum strength all you’d have to do is try to elicit a maximum strength response once every 30 or so days.

I see this phenomenon all the time at Cressey Performance.  Eric’s known to not touch a heavy deadlift for months on end, yet he can almost always approach a 600 lb pull when coaxed or challenged enough by us other coaches or athletes.  While he’s not pulling 600 lbs on a regular basis, he is hovering in the 85-95% (of 1RM) range every so often which has a lot of staying power.

Likewise, with me, I tweaked my back last summer and wasn’t able to deadlift (heavy) consistently for a few months.  Once I was back to normal – or close to it – I was still able to hit a clean 500×3 without much trouble.

Bringing the conversation to YOU (and everyone else reading), if you know you’re going to have a long hiatus from consistent training, with the deadlift, at least you have the odds in your favor.

1.  You’re almost always going to be “deadlifting” to some capacity, even if it’s not a barbell, on a daily basis.  To that end, the motor pattern won’t go away anytime soon. Even if you have to resort to kettlebell work only, you’d be surprised at how much “strength” you’ll be able to retain.

2.  Along those same lines, one of the best strategies of used with myself and other clients is to place a premium on TECHNIQUE work.  I like this term more than “speed” work.

Using a load that’s roughly 60-70% of one’s 1RM, I’ll have him or her perform anywhere from 8-20 SINGLES in a given workout. This won’t be at all taxing on the nervous system, but it will help “glue” solid technique and also help with bar speed (which is an important component of strength).  It may look something like this:

Week 1:  14×1 @ 60% with 60s rest between each rep.
Week 2: 12×1 @ 65% with 60s rest between each rep.
Week 3: 10×1 @ 65% with 45s rest between each rep.
Week 4: 8×1 @ 70% with 45s rest between each rep.

3.  If you’re able, and can muster a way to hit a heavy pull every 4-5 weeks, that will go a LONG WAY in terms of any damage control and help to maintain strength levels.

Barring injury, an extinction level event (think: asteroid, volcanic eruption, Nicolas Cage movie), or jail time, it’s not as difficult as people think to maintain their strength in the deadlift.

Hope the suggestions above help!

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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