Big squats are cool. When you get to a certain level of being jacked, it’s your bench that every Joe Blow wants to ask you about. However, among real iron enthusiasts, it’s big deadlifts that grab the attention—now more than ever.
But I’ll be honest: The deadlift didn’t come easily to me. I was not blessed with unusually long arms or python thick erectors. It took me a long time to develop my technique and figure out what movements and techniques translated into a bigger deadlift. I had to experiment with just about every conceivable program and assistance under the sun to get my deadlift to move.
And all of this is good news for you, because eventually I pulled 700 in competition and 705 for a double from a deficit in the gym. So I know a thing or two about how to work with a disadvantaged deadlifter.
This program is one that I used to run my deadlift from the high 500s into the mid 600s. And if you’re smart with it, you should benefit tremendously from it as well, no matter what your starting point is.
The Problem With the Standard Approach
If there’s one thing that drives me nuts about some guys in strength sports it’s the inability to understand base building. Overzealous programming is the single biggest factor in holding back lifters from success.
Here’s what I’m talking about: “Just pulled 500! On the road to 600!”
Sorry, my man, there are some numbers in between 500 and 600 that probably need to fall first. Like 505, 515, 525, 545, and so on. Pulling five plates definitely doesn’t mean that pulling six plates is an inevitability! In fact, 600 could be two years away. It could take longer if you aren’t smart about your training.
Here’s a modest, attainable goal: a 10-pound increase on your deadlift every three months. That’s 40 pounds on your deadlift in a year, 80 pounds in two years, and 120 pounds in three years—assuming minimal setbacks along the way.
Of course, no one wants to do this, because you need a hundred extra pounds on our deadlift like, yesterday. Who has three years to develop a lift?
So, for this cycle, choose a modest goal that feels very doable for your deadlifts from the floor. A 10-15-pound PR increase is a huge success. Twenty or more? That’s a miracle. The really big pulls will come in time if you stack up one productive training cycle after another. Be smart in each and every training cycle, and one day you’ll find yourself dancin’ and romancin’ weights you used to dream about.
Rack Pulls: The Right Way
Rack pulls, or heavy partial deadlifts, are my preferred way to build a heavy deadlift. But they are also chronically misused when heavy full deads are the goal.
If you can use a metric ass-load of weight on your rack pulls…you’re doing them wrong. You shouldn’t be able to pull any more than about 10 percent your deadlift max on a rack pull.
If you’re setting up in a position that isn’t very, very similar to your deadlift position, you’re doing them wrong.
Lots of times when guys do rack pulls, they get into a position with the bar where they can either slide the weight up their legs, or they find a leverage advantage over the bar that doesn’t exist when they perform the regular deadlift. When this happens, the carry-over to the deadlift is going to be minimal.
With this program, it’s imperative to find the same position when you perform the various rack pulls as you are in when you perform your normal deadlift. A telltale sign that you’re wedging yourself into a position that is too dissimilar from your normal pull is the ability to move anything more than around 10 percent of your deadlift max with the rack pull variation.
Don’t Skip the Full ROM Work!
Another mistake in partial-focused programs is, well, focusing on the partials—or just overloading from the same point over and over. With this program, you’re going to use varying rack heights each week to shore up any weak links and build the entire range of motion in the deadlift. You’ll work up to a top single each week from the rack, then do some faster speed work from the floor afterward.
Why pull from the floor? A common mistake by lifters looking to build their deadlift is eliminating the pull from the floor while chasing progressive overload in the rack pulls. You still need to pull from the floor to keep the neural drive for that lift intact.
Important Program Notes
- Notice on the rack pulls you work up to a “top” single. This is not a “max” single. My suggestion here is to stop at a weight that feels “heavy” but that is not an all-out max. The next time that rack height rolls around, try to beat what you hit on the previous session at that height.
- The barbell rows can be performed in any fashion, and with any grip variation you prefer. What I suggest weight-wise is something you can handle for both sets of 6 with good form.
- The good mornings should be light. When my deadlift was in the 700s I never used more than 185 pounds for sets of 10 on good mornings. Focus here on getting a good stretch in the hamstrings and being deliberate in execution. You’re trying to build hamstrings here, not do a half-good morning, half-squat motion.
- Speaking of the squat, I would put your squat progress on the back burner during these eight weeks. Ideally, you’d start each session with light squats as part of your warm-up. Squats function as an excellent warm-up to deadlifts. Start each session by working up to a fairly light set of 5 reps, then go into your rack pulls.
- Before you start boohooing about how your squat is going to nose dive, I never found this to be the case so long as I kept squats in the program—even if they just served as a warm-up. Remember, this program is about making the deadlift a priority.
- In Week 7, unless you’re having an unusually bad day or programmed incorrectly, you should smoke the 90 percent for a double. If not, I suggest a two-week deload, then testing. Why? Because a lack of power output in the deadlift is feedback that your posterior chain may still be in recovery debt. Often, more recovery time is the prescription for hitting a PR. Lifters freak out about recovery and think their lifts are going to tank if they take a little time off, despite the fact that this really never happens.
- If you hit your double in Week 7, then in Week 8 you’ll deload by just doing some light barbell rows and pull-downs. Then, test for your new max the following week and let me know the results in the comments!
Deload week: No deadlifts. Perform light barbell rows and pull-downs. Next week, test your max from the floor.