Need to pack on mass fast? Then it’s time to start using one of the most basic and challenging exercises in existence, the deadlift. This lift has stood the test of time as one of the best strength- and mass-building exercises around. Very few movements are as tough or as rewarding. It just doesn’t get any harder than pulling a heavy weight from a dead stop off the floor. Working diligently on deadlifts will enable you to tap into all your available strength reserves, giving your body an incredible stimulus for muscle growth.
This exercise is not easy, fun or flashy. In fact, one word I would never use to describe a deadlift workout is enjoyable. That’s the very reason trainees largely avoid the movement. Many times I’ve been on the receiving end of funny looks from other gym members while I was grinding out one of my own-special-blend deadlift workouts. Because the deadlift is tough, people usually choose alternative exercises. Some of them may be good, but very rarely do they pack the same punch.
The simple fact is, it takes intense focus and determination to get through a deadlift workout. Any veteran of the iron game will tell you the same thing: It’s not for the faint of heart. Anyone who seriously takes on the challenge, however, will be fully rewarded. The deadlift works every muscle from your rectus capitis posterior major down to your extensor digitorum brevis’from head to toe.
Everyone who performs heavy deadlifts on a regular basis displays a physique that stands out. It’s a build that has strength, thickness and proportion. Very few exercises work as many muscles or have the same positive impact on strength and muscle growth as the deadlift.
At this point you’re either planning on never attempting a deadlift workout due to the sheer physical intensity involved, or you’re foaming at the mouth in anticipation of trying deadlifts at your next workout. For those of you who are ready to take the next step, I’m about to make things more interesting. As if the exercise isn’t difficult enough, I’m going to show you how to make it even harder with a few unique workouts. (You can thank me later.)
Before I get into the workouts, though, some comments on deadlift technique are in order. For this discussion we’ll focus on the conventional deadlift as well as two popular variations, the sumo-style deadlift and the snatch-grip deadlift.
Conventional Deadlift Technique
This is the most popular method of performing the movement. It’s very important to focus on proper form because this is one exercise where there’s little room for error. From personal experience I know that neglecting optimal exercise technique will dramatically increase your chances of injury. A few years ago I sustained a lower-back injury by performing it completely incorrectly: too fast, with too much weight and without keeping a proper arch in my lower back. To help keep your chance of incurring this injury low, take to heart the following discussion of proper deadlift setup and execution.
The first aspect of proper deadlifting is grip selection. It’s amazing how often lifters overlook it’and how such a small detail can have a major effect on training Nothing will tweak your lower back faster than having your hands placed at unequal distances from the center of the bar. Most bars have at least one ring on each side equally spaced from the center; use them as markers to judge your grip width.
The next question that usually comes up is whether to use a mixed or standard grip. A mixed grip’on which you grip the bar palm down with your right hand and palm up with your left hand (or vice versa if you’re left-handed)’is normally reserved for powerlifters. Unless you’re a powerlifter or looking to get into the sport, I don’t recommend it. A mixed grip lets you lift heavier weights, which is a must in a sport in which the sole factor for success is poundage lifted; however, the extra weight comes with a cost.
Because the mixed grip is asymmetrical, the right and left sides of the body experience irregular stresses. That results in uneven muscle development and eventually poor posture. Unfortunately, the imbalance is unavoidable when you use a mixed grip, which is why I highly recommend the standard grip for bodybuilders, football players and all other athletes. The standard grip style disperses the load equally through the upper and lower body, bringing uniform back and shoulder development. ALL An added benefit of the standard grip is the extra grip-strength development it provides. A weak grip is a weak link, and it will keep you from using a true maximum weight’which brings me to straps. Although it’s okay to use straps once in a while, it’s easy to let them become a crutch. It’s better to use them more for high-rep sets than heavy-weight sets. Decrease the poundage you use on the lift, and take your time so your grip strength can develop. You’ll be pleased at how improving grip strength improves overall body strength.
Once you have the grip out of the way, the rest of your body falls easily into place. Your feet should be set at roughly shoulder width apart. Keep your head and eyes straight, your chest up, your hips low and a slight arch in your lower back. As you lift the weight, push evenly with both legs while your lower back and upper back contract statically to maintain an upright posture. When you perform the lift correctly, the stress is distributed throughout your body naturally.
A common and dangerous mistake trainees make on deadlifts is straightening their legs without keeping their torso upright. When you do that, your hips rise too soon and your back rounds. Straightening your legs too quickly makes it impossible to keep your chest up and your torso up’right’it’s a major cause of injury that you should avoid at all costs! You may have to reduce the weight and slow down the rep speed if you find yourself doing it. Once you get the form down, the heavy weight will follow’just don’t rush it.
Deadlift Form and Function
Over time variations in exercise technique have developed to suit lifters’ individual needs. That’s how it works with most lifts. People make little changes. It could be a different grip spacing or angle of movement or a change in the range of motion. The conventional deadlift has two popular alternatives, sumo style and snatch grip.
Both variations may seem very similar to the original, but they are actually different enough to be two totally separate exercises. They seem similar because the only distinction is grip width, but the change in grip has a major impact on which muscles are stressed. Sumo-Style Deadlifts
This exercise comes from powerlifting. Many competitors began using this style because it gave them favorable leverages, enabling them to lift more weight. To perform the sumo-style deadlift, take a very wide stance and use a narrow, mixed grip, with your hands toward the center of the bar. Basically, the sumo-style deadlifts is a specialty lift for powerlifting. The conventional deadlift does a better job of building symmetrical back thickness and overall body strength.
It’s generally agreed that the idea for this variation came from Olympic weightlifting’specifically, from the competitive lift called the snatch. The setup for the snatch-grip deadlift is identical to the conventional style except you use a very wide grip. If you’ve never used that grip spacing before, it will feel awkward and uncomfortable. It takes a little getting used to, so keep the weight light and spend a few weeks just getting familiar with the movement and how the grip feels.
I’ve seen large lifters with broad shoulders grip all the way to the end of the bar with their hands bumped up next to the collars. I wouldn’t recommend anything quite that wide, but a snatch grip should be considerably wider than a conventional grip. The wide grip forces more of a lean in your torso, which makes your lower back, glutes and hamstrings work harder.
The snatch-grip deadlift is an underutilized movement that goes largely unappreciated. Use it occasionally for the benefits it provides in extra lower-back and hamstring stimulation. I like to prescribe it for athletes who have weak hip extensors or need to increase running speed.
Workouts When should you do your deadlifts? In a split routine do them on a leg day. If you use a total-body routine, do them at least once a week. If you plan on using max weights on this exercise, make sure to schedule an off day afterward for recovery. I remember reviewing the program of one athlete who couldn’t figure out why his bench press strength had stalled. I analyzed his training program, and it turned out that he was doing his bench press workout on the day after his deadlift workout. While his chest was rested, his whole body was experiencing a degree of systemic, or total-body, fatigue. What’s more, since the lower back and hamstrings are worked heavily during deadlifts, they couldn’t support the heavy benching he was doing.
Following are three workouts that use the deadlift as their core exercise. In other words, your main focus is making progress on the deadlift. All other lifts take a backseat. Sometimes, however, you have little choice in the matter because, depending on how hard you work the deadlift, you may not have much energy for anything else. The deadlift drains the body of its strength reserves by working so many muscles. It provides plenty of mass stimulation on its own.
You can start incorporating the workouts into your program immediately. Perform each one for roughly two to four weeks, and then move on to the next. Here’s a typical weekly split that incorporates the deadlift session. Due to the difficulty of these workouts you may need to add an extra day off.
Monday: Chest, back
Friday: Shoulders, arms
Saturday: Additional abs, extra cardio
Deadlift Workout 1
This is based on an ascending-descending schematic: The reps ascend, or increase, on each successive set, while the weight descends, or decreases. The workout is very deceptive because it looks easy, but it tricks your body into working with heavy weight for a greater volume of reps than a straight set of low reps would do.
The rep and weight progressions change just enough with each new set to provide a new stimulus while still being slight enough to keep the intensity high. Also called a modified pyramid, this workout keeps you in a low rep range instead of moving you into higher rep ranges the way a traditional pyramid would.
Deadlifts 1 x 1, 2 x 2, 3 x 3, 1 x 5
Rest two to three minutes between sets.
Leg extensions 2 x 10
Seated calf raises 4 x 8
Weighted situps (or ab
exercise of your choice) 2 x 8
Deadlift Workout 2
I originally designed this workout to increase the explosive leg and back strength of offensive linemen. It worked very well in that regard and brought another, unintended bonus’it also increased muscle size in the legs dramatically.
You need a sturdy box for this workout. To perform the on-box jumps, jump explosively onto the box, step off and repeat. It does take some coordination, so if you feel unsafe or don’t have access to a box, substitute jumping in place or light jump squats instead.
In this routine and the one that follows, perform the letter-coordinated exercises like supersets, one right after the other, taking no rest between the two exercises and resting only between supersets.
A1: Deadlifts 5 x 3
A2: On-box jumps 5 x 5
(Take three to five minutes’ rest between supersets.)
B1: Barbell calf raises 3 x 6
B2: Crunches 3 x max
(Take one to two minutes’ rest between supersets.)
C: Back squats 1 x 15
Deadlift Workout 3
This is a bread-and-butter routine for those looking to increase strength and size. It’s a workout I come back to time and time again to stimulate mass gains. You’ll need a power rack or at the very least a set of safety racks to complete it. The strategy is to contrast high reps and moderate weight with low reps and heavy weight on the same exercise in the same workout. Variations in weight are done by using partial-range deadlift lockouts and full-range deadlifts. You perform deadlift lockouts by setting the pins in a power rack at the point from which you will pull the bar up. These enable you to use a much heavier weight than you could use on a full-range deadlift.
You do deadlift lockouts, which are heavy load, alternated with conventional deadlifts with a moderate load. You change the pin level on the lockouts after two sets at each height. Why is this workout so good? Many variables come into play’the body is forced to adapt to all of the competing demands. On each set the rep range changes, the range of motion changes, and the weight on the bar changes from heavy to light. It’s a surefire way to shake things up.
A1: Deadlift rack lockouts
(pins set below knees) 2 x 2
A2: Deadlifts 2 x 6
B1: Deadlift rack lockouts
(pins set at midthigh) 2 x 2
B2: Deadlifts 2 x 6
After those eight sets your legs and back should be fatigued, so it’s normally not advisable to do anything further for the lower body. What you can do afterward is extra work for an upper-body muscle that may be lagging, such as the biceps or side delts.
Remember to keep good deadlift form and increase the load slowly. The deadlift is a tough exercise on its own. Try some of the suggested workout variations, and you should see dead-on gains in strength and mass. IM