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Advanced Strength and Power

Learning proper deadlift form is critical for maximizing strength and avoiding injury. A top-down approach can help.

There it was: 600 pounds. All I had to do was deadlift it once. I set up and pulled, but nothing happened. Lucky for me my coach saw the problem. 'You're not setting up right,' he said. But how was I supposed to figure out exactly what 'right' is? Well, I did, and now 600 pounds is a joke. The strategy outlined in this article not only worked for me, but it also worked for my training partners and my fianc'e. If you follow it, I'll have to add your name to the list.

Deadlifts vs. the other powerlifts. In recent years the top deadlift poundages have improved very little in weightlifting competitions, while the squat and bench press weights have improved at a much faster pace. The main reason so many guys can now squat and bench more than ever is that squat suits and bench shirts are better. I've seen guys get buried by weights only to put on a bench shirt and make 50 pounds or more easily. For me lifting has never been about buying the latest equipment, so I'm not a big fan of high-tech squat suits and denim bench shirts. I'd rather see everyone lift wearing only gym shorts and T-shirts. Fancy shirts and suits don't have the same effect on deadlifts. As a result, the deadlift is a better indication of overall body strength because it isn't tainted by the effects of other equipment.

Unfortunately, the deadlift is a movement on which you see some of the worst techniques. Most guys set up too fast and pull right away'and as a result their backs round and hips kick up. They then have to perform a straight-legged deadlift. If you have very weak legs, that may be the best strategy. On the other hand, why not get your legs strong and learn how to use them? The guys who know how to use their legs on the deadlift usually maintain better mechanical position and lift heavier weights. The right position uses the legs, hips and back to their fullest potential.

Finding the right position. I picked up this strategy from Patrick Jacobs, Ph.D., who used it to train lifters to deadlift more than 800 pounds. Set up the bar on the outside pins of the rack at a position just short of lockout. Unrack the weight, take two small steps back and lower the bar to the floor using proper mechanics. At first you simply flex at the hips with an arched back. Then as the bar passes your knees, you simply squat down the rest of the way with the bar in front of you. Once the bar touches the floor, pause for a second and push with flat feet against the ground.

When you do it correctly, you'll notice that the movement feels very comfortable and that you won't feel yourself rocking forward or backward on your feet. Make sure to keep the bar close to you. This technique can help teach the starting position to novice lifters and help advanced lifters reestablish their starting position. After four weeks of deadlifting in that fashion, you'll know where your body has to be in order to set up properly. You should be able to bring the bar all the way to the ground with your back flat or arched. If your back rounds before you hit the floor, you need to increase your flexibility. Don't keep going to the gym and doing deadlifts to the floor, as that will only reinforce your inflexibility. Instead, try stretching out the areas that limit your range of motion, perhaps your glutes and/or hamstrings. Warm up carefully and stretch between sets if necessary to achieve a full range of motion. Perform the deadlift as described above but come down only as far as you can while maintaining proper mechanical position. For example, if you find that your back rounds when the weight is three inches off the floor (measured from the bottom edge of the plates), set up some blocks so that you come down only to 3.5 inches off the floor. The plates will rest on the block at the bottom position. With each workout decrease the block height by about a half inch. With time you'll be able to go all the way to the floor.

Training cycle. For lifters with appropriate deadlift flexibility who have trouble finding their starting position, I set up a 12-week cycle that has them deadlifting from the top down every week for the first four weeks, then switching to deadlifting from the ground up during weeks six, eight and 10. For the first four weeks the weights start at 70 percent of the previous max for two sets of eight reps. Increase intensity and volume until week four. The volume decreases and the intensity increases for the remainder of the cycle. To maintain conditioning, take two minutes' rest between sets. Warm up with an easy set of five reps and two sets of three reps before lifting the top weight. The accompanying table lists the percentages of your max deadlift to use for each set. Use the max weight you lifted recently, not a weight you did years ago or hope to do in the future.

For lifters who have inappropriate deadlift flexibility and have trouble finding their starting position, I would set up a cycle that has them deadlifting from the top down every week until they can reach the floor and then switching to deadlifting from the ground up every other week until they perform a new max.

Top-Down Deadlift Cycle

Week WU 1 WU2 WU3 Top Weight Sets Reps Rest
1 30 50 60 70 3 8 2 minutes
2 30 50 65 75 4 8 2 minutes
3 30 50 70 80 6 6 2 minutes
4 30 55 75 82.5 5 5 2 minutes
6 35 55 75 85 4 4 2 minutes
8 35 60 80 90 3 3 2 minutes
10 35 60 85 95 2 2 2 minutes
12 40 70 90 New max! 1 2  

*No deadlifting
Note: Do top deadlifts once per week for the first four weeks, and then switch to deadlifting from the floor once every two weeks'weeks six, eight, 10 and 12.

Editor's note: Tom Incledon, Ph.D., is the president of Human Performance Specialists Inc. and a consultant to the dietary-supplement industry. He's also the CEO of the Incledon Wellness Institute, a nonprofit research center dedicated to improving the quality of life for disadvantaged populations. Current research projects include the development of preworkout formulations and nutritional strategies for spinal-cord-injury patients. You can contact him at IM

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