Whatever happened to the deadlift? Once a key exercise in strength training and also bodybuilding, the exercise has all but been buried six feet under and covered with dirt. And with so few commercial gyms having platforms, it’s often not even physically possible to perform the exercise – and don’t get me started on this “no chalk” rule common in gyms. Let’s get nostalgic for a bit.
In the ’70s, there were many classic battles among the top super heavyweight powerlifters that were extensively covered in newsstand magazines such as Muscular Development and Iron Man. Most of these mountain men had great deadlifts, and among the most notable were John Kuc, John Cole and Don Reinhoudt. All these men had personal bests just shy of 900 pounds – in fact, Kuc was known to have performed a stiff-leg deadlift with 820 pounds! And then there were the powerlifters from Finland, a country that perceived the deadlift as the ultimate test of strength – as a result their athletes became obsessed with being the best among the best deadlifters. Those were the days, with competitions often coming down to whose erectors could grind out the championship with a winning deadlift. Not so today.
Many modern-day powerlifters prefer to compete in bench-press-only competitions, eliminating both the squat and the deadlift. And for those who still compete in the three lifts, the assistance provided by equipment – with many lifters now bench pressing over 1,000 pounds – has decreased the importance of the deadlift to winning competitions since the gear didn’t do much to aid the deadlift. And because assisted equipment can add hundreds of pounds to the bench press and squat, it made more sense to focus on these two lifts. Seriously, whereas a 600-pound bench press was really special three decades ago, and people still talk about Pat Casey’s breaking that benchmark in the ’60s, today it’s not such a big deal – in fact, the women’s world record is now 600.8 pounds by Becca Swanson!
Following the lead of the powerlifting community, many strength coaches at the college and professional levels prefer to focus on the power clean and the squat. High schools have all but forgotten the lift, most using the excuse that it is dangerous for the spine. Others have preferred to go to the Hex bar deadlift, which makes a good variation, but it’s still not a deadlift. Likewise, as strongman competitions have become more standardized, deadlift variations (with tires, stones – even boxes filled with silver dollars) have been seen less frequently – guess a strapless, gut-busting pull just doesn’t make it in the ratings as compared to events such as the tire flip or log press.
Raising the Deadlift
A strong deadlift is a product of plenty of hard work. What muscle groups does it work? A better question is what muscle does the deadlift NOT work! Glutes, hamstrings, quads – anything that produces overall body power – is worked with the deadlift. And opposed to the squat, the deadlift also strengthens many upper back muscles, especially the traps, and as a bonus it will help improve your grip. The bottom line: I’m a fan.
At my PICP seminars, I am surprised at how many trainers who go through the program don’t prescribe the exercise or even know how to design effective deadlift training programs. OK, that’s the past. Let’s look toward the future and get you started with a great deadlift program.
What I’d like to share with you is an effective training cycle to improve the deadlift that involves rotating three different workouts. It plays with variations in ranges of motion, using the brutally hard snatch-grip deadlift while standing on a podium, and also variations in tempos for a synergistic effect that elicits maximum strength gains. Here it goes:
A. Snatch-Grip Deadlift on Podium,10 x 3, 50X0, rest 180 seconds
Keep the weight constant until you can perform 10 sets of 5 reps; then add 5 to 10 kilos (11 to 22 pounds) to the bar so you are back to 10 sets of 3.
B1. Leg Curl, Feet Inward, Dorsi-Flexed,?5 x 4-6, 40X0, rest 100 seconds
B2. Drop Lunge,?5 x 4-6 (per leg), 20X0, rest 100 seconds
A. Mid-Grip Deadlift from Floor, 5 x 6, 32X0, 180 seconds.
Only the last set should be a killer. Make sure to follow the tempo; the pause at the bottom position is crucial.
B1. Eccentric Leg Curl, Feet Neutral, Plantar-Flexed, 6 x 3-4, 80X0, rest 120 seconds
Have a partner help you lift the weight for the concentric range, or do negative-accentuated reps.
B2. Back Lunge?5 x 6-8, 30X0, rest 90 seconds
A. Clean Deadlift from Floor, 3 x 5 reps; then add 5 percent and then do 3 sets of 3 reps on at 20X0, rest 180 seconds. Only increase the weight if you can complete all sets of 5 and all sets of 3.
B1. Leg Curl, Feet Outward, Plantar-Flexed, 5 x 3-5, 30X0, rest 90 seconds
B2. Front Split Squat,?5 x 3-5, 30X0, rest 90 seconds
This cycle is excellent to increase lower body mass and jolt your deadlift poundages. It’s not easy, but after performing it you’ll know why the deadlift is an awesome exercise that should not be forgotten.