Deadlifts are an interesting animal.
There are only a select few lifters who decide to make them a regular part of their routine.
An overwhelming majority still avoid them because they’re difficult, or because they heard some rumblings from a tertiary source that they’re “bad for your back”.
On the flip side, the group of folks who embrace deadlifts can often take things too far, and get caught up in stopping at nothing to ensure their deadlift is being trained and developed.
This is the guy who may be unaware of certain realities when it comes to his lift.
And I’m here to bring them to light.
1. You Don’t Need To Go any Heavier
Everyone’s focused on getting to 2x their bodyweight for a deadlift, or maybe even beyond. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this goal, and it’s definitely a testimony of someone’s true strength, but it’s also good to put things in perspective.
Having a really strong deadlift is great – if you know it’ll be sustainable. The “shelf life” of a 700 pound deadlifter compared to that of a guy who focuses on quality reps with, say 3 to 400 pounds is significantly different.
Related: Deadlift Domination - 5 Tips for 5 Plates
Most people with extremely elite levels of strength had to make sacrifices to other avenues of their fitness (like mobility, flexibility, body composition, or muscular conditioning) to get there.
Once you’re strong, stay strong. Instead of constantly trying to push your PR, try finding different ways to make the weight you can lift, feel even heavier.
One way is through paused rep deadlifts, seen here:
2. You Might Not be Good enough to Pull from the Floor
In the time I’ve spent as a trainer, I can’t begin to tally up the amount of poor deadlift starting positions I’ve seen due to immobility and inflexibility. There’s something about deadlifts that makes people think you’re not “really doing it” if you don’t start with the bar on the ground, rather than mount it to an appropriate position to ensure your safety if you have issues achieving full ROM.
It’s wise to check your ego at the door, and chase a safe result before you get hurt. Use your camera phone to film a decently loaded work set from the floor. If the form you’ve been using isn’t good and can’t be corrected, raise the bar as high as you need to off the ground for it to fix the problem.
That could mean a mere 2 inch elevation, or it could mean 8 to 12 inches. You’re still getting all of the benefits and removing any risk.
3. Your Mixed Grip is Killing you Softly
Listen – I’ll be the first to say it. If you’re a raw lifter lifting really heavy, then sure. Mix it up. For a heavy set of under 5 repetitions it may be the only way to hold on to the bar.
But doing every warm up set, every 10 rep set, and all your other deadlift variations with a mixed grip simply because it’s what you’ve become accustomed to, it’s bad news.
Having one arm internally rotated with the other externally rotated is a way to give muscle imbalances a huge platform to take over and affect the body.
Give the mixed grip its place for your heaviest sets, but otherwise, practice a double overhand grip.
4. The Conventional Deadlift is Probably the Variation that YOU Need the Least
This sounds backwards. But don’t be misled. I’m not saying the most primal form of deadlifting – the conventional style with a hip-width foot placement, hands outside shins, and double overhand grip –isn’t worth practicing.
Related: Deadlifts Hurt Your Back? Here Are 4 Pain Free Alternatives
It’s the most important variation, and I’m putting money on it that it’s the style most people reading this use the most often. And that’s why I’m stressing the importance of changing it up more than you currently do.
You’ve learned the conventional deadlift. Modifying your hand or foot position can create a world of difference for your body’s geometry. Switching to a medium sumo stance immediately engages more quads, glutes, and inner thighs than conventional deadlifts, and often doubles as a form fixer for lifters who struggle to find a neutral back position.
Also, there’s nothing wrong with subbing the barbell out for a trap bar to take advantage of a different shin angle and neutral grip handles.
5. Your 1 Rep Max should be the Last Thing you Worry About
Here’s the way I see it: If you’re a new lifter, then your 1-3 rep max is pretty important as a gauge for your strength and progress. If you’re not a new lifter, then you should be more concerned with what you can lift 5 or even 10 times. Here’s why. It’s already been established that you’re strong and carry an appreciable amount of muscle.
If you’re in this game for health purposes and not to compete in lifting, then it’s important to realize that basically anything physically extolling that you do outside of the gym will likely rely on muscular endurance, at the very least equally as much as it relies on your strength foundation.
Related: The Hybrid Approach: Auto-Regulation & Percentage-Based Training
From a conditioning and functional perspective, I maintain that lifting 600 pounds once isn’t as important for your everyday health as lifting 400 pounds 10 times is.
In both cases we’re dealing with a heavy implement, and though one is heavier and relies more on absolute power, it doesn’t write the other off as not having any strength training benefits by lifting. If you want long term health, balance your pure strength training with some rep work.
Did I crush your manhood?
Truth be told, it takes a bigger man to admit where he’s going wrong and right that path through making changes. If your goal is to be big and strong for a long time, it would behoove you to take these changes in perspective into consideration and apply them to your programming.
The deadlift is a liberating exercise that allows you to move the most weight of any barbell movement in the gym.
But you have to play it smart.
Great read. Makes a lot of sense. I have built a 554-lb deadlift in 5 years of lifting, and I have made my best progress with submaximal lifting. I only do heavy singles (85-90% allow me to do more practice lifts) when I am close to a competition or a test day. Otherwise, I just focus on quality reps and doing a little bit more when I feel weights are getting easier. The only difference is I do all my reps with a dead stop at bottom, because I aim mostly to improve my strength off the floor.
At any rate, I can't lift 100% of my capabilities during regular training sessions because there is always some fatigue. I once did 10 reps at 455 during a max-rep event with a regular bar, and this was in competition, after a full week of active rest; I was capable of a near-600 pull on that day! During the lead-up to that competition, I only used 455 once and that was for just one set of 4; my training weights were more in the 365-405 range. I couldn't believe how stronger I was when it mattered most!!