Building the Raw Deadlift

TAGS: deadlift program design, muddle back, building the raw deadlift, glute training, hamstring training, adductors, Upper Back, lower back, conventional deadlift, sumo deadlift, needs analysis, Brandon Smitley

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It’s been a long time coming, but here’s the installment on building the raw deadlift. In this article, we’re going to cover everything that it’s going to take to build the raw deadlift. I’m not the greatest deadlifter, and arguably it’s the lift that has seen the least improvement in my training career. But to that note, I also feel like that has helped me in the long run by having to be creative to just add a few pounds to this lift. Some are built to pull (the infamous Lamar Gant comes to mind), while others need to slave away at it. Like the other installments in this series, this will not cover a lot of technical issues regarding the deadlift, as elitefts has ample articles and resources on this matter. I highly suggest you look to Deconstructing the Deadlift if you’re looking for technical help.

The basics that I would like to keep in mind throughout the article though are the following:

  • Pull the slack out of the bar.
  • Keep tension on the hamstrings and glutes.
  • Weight should be on your heels.
  • External rotation is still key on the setup.
  • Big air and a diaphragmatic breath into the belly.
  • Keep mid-back tight.
  • Place shoulders approximately directly over the bar.
  • Pull up and back.

You’ll see some variations and different cueing and options based upon how you pull (sumo or conventional), but these are the basics you certainly need to master to be able to move on to some of the work listed below.

Needs Analysis

When it comes to the needs analysis for raw lifters and the deadlift, there isn’t much difference between the raw and equipped counterparts. When it comes to equipment, the deadlift suit (or squat suit) provides the least amount of support and aid in the lift. I’ve heard of some lifters being able to only get about 25-35 pounds out of equipment, which for some may only be very small percentages compared to the squat and bench press. The primary difference is going to be getting into position (it will be easier raw), and getting a little extra pop from the equipment off the floor. So with that stated, let’s take a look at what needs addressed to build the lift.

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Glutes and Hamstrings

In general, most powerlifting coaches and athletes are going to stress how important the posterior chain is to the deadlift, specifically the glutes and hamstrings, and this still holds true. The leg drive, lockout, and transition from passing the knee are all dependent upon how strong your glutes and hamstrings are. When we speak about the hamstrings, we’re also talking about the strength as a hip extensor, not a knee flexor. That will come in handy when it comes to supplemental and accessory work to help build your pull. I’m not going to say that leg curls won’t help, as it will aid in overall knee health and leg balance, but at no point during the pull are you actively going through knee flexion. So with that said, we can lump these two body parts together. Having strong glutes and hamstrings is going to help you in the setup and prevent the hips from rising first and having that cat-back rounding that we see in so many social media posts. This tends to happen from either poor technique (just not knowing better), or from a true weakness in this area, causing the low back to become the primary mover because it happens to be stronger. Bringing up your glutes and hamstrings can definitely help with this. They are also responsible for a strong and smooth lockout as the hips get closer to the bar towards completion of the lift.

Lower Back

The lower back is a very important aspect of being a strong deadlifter. However, the lower back should not be a prime mover when it comes to the execution of the deadlift. As mentioned above, if the lower back is being an actual prime mover, you’re going to see a lot of missed pulls at lockout, as you’ll be unable to activate the glutes because the pelvis will be in an excessive posterior tilt. This can also lead to long-term problems and injuries if not addressed. The lower back is important because of its ability to maintain the proper position we need to activate those glutes and hamstrings. The low back needs to be strong in an isometric contraction and to help brace the spine with the abdominal and trunk musculature. Training this can be difficult, but there are some ways we can address this, which will be listed below. Just know you do indeed need a strong lower back, but that it’s not doing the actual “moving” of the weight, so to speak.

Adductors

The adductors seem to only really be thought about when it comes to the sumo deadlift, but what many people don’t realize (or forget if you’ve taken some basic anatomy classes) is that the adductor magnus actually performs hip extension as well. So even in your conventional pull, your adductors are helping aid your pull. Perhaps this is why conventional deadlifters see some good carryover from training the opposite stance in which they tend to compete in. Regardless, the adductors are important, and you’ll probably notice if you’re having issues with them if your adductors get sore when you squat or sumo deadlift (more than baseline soreness from general training DOMS). This would explain why we see torn groins with the deadlift, even with conventional deadlifters.

Middle and Upper Back

Just like the lower back, the middle and upper back also play a crucial role in deadlifting, but more so in an isometric fashion. It could be argued that having a weak middle and upper back will lead to lower back rounding, presenting itself as having weak glutes and hamstrings (since a lot of misses will occur towards lockout). However, if the middle and upper back can maintain the proper position at the knee or as the bar passed the knees, it will be easier for the lower back to hold it’s position and then we can activate our glutes and hamstrings for an efficient lockout. The mid erectors will help hold the spine in a strong position, and the rhomboids and other scapular retractors can help keep the scapulae in place, making it easier to keep our lats tight and the bar close. If the bar begins to get forward on you, this could be a sign that the mid and upper back are weak and need some work. Strong deadifters usually have a massive back to go along with their pull.

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Quads

I know you’re thinking, “Whoa, why are quads in a deadlift article?”

Quite simply, this is covering both stances, and I’d be a fool to not talk about the quads for the sumo deadlift. With the sumo deadlift, the knee goes into more flexion, meaning we will have more knee extension to get to a full locked-out position. The demands aren’t nearly as high as a squat, but you do see some people have issues with soft knees, or have issues such as their knees locking out drastically before the glutes do. Just know that your quads are somewhat important if you pull with a sumo stance, and if you have any of the issues I’ve mentioned above, look to your quads. The lower the lifter sets the hips, the more important the quads become. This is why it’s important to keep the hips as high as possible during the setup. You’ll more than likely have the quads doing their role naturally without even having to think or address them specifically (for the deadlift anyways).

Grip

There are ample resources on elitefts talking about grip training, but this is an often-neglected aspect of deadlift training. Some people are blessed with huge hands and can use hook grip or just never really have much of an issue in this department. Then there are people like myself with tiny, fat hands that struggle to hold onto nearly anything. Grip training for the deadlift is rather specific, and is not the same as someone who competes in grip, namely the Captain Crushers. When it comes to grip for your deadlift, make sure you’re training it for isometric holds, ideally with bars and implements that are of similar diameter. A fat bar is going to train the fingers in an open position — a place where we don’t want our fingers to ever get. Working specifically the thumb and pinky fingers is where you’re going to see the most carryover for your pull. With that in mind, the holds and training should be for strength, not endurance. A max deadlift will last probably at most five to six seconds, and therefore we need our hands to be strong. So when working with implements and bars, keep the timed holds for similar durations and implement work to lower, max effort based reps (one to three rep maxes, for example).

Which stance should you choose? Sumo or conventional?

This might be one of the most debated aspects when it comes to the deadlift. Generally speaking, if we’re looking at trends and what is the “norm”, the lighter a lifter is (in terms of bodyweight) the more likely they are to pull sumo, and vice versa.

The real tricky area seems to be in the 180-210 pound area, where it can really go either way. I’m not saying that a lightweight can’t pull conventional (again, look at someone like Lamar Gant), or that a heavy weight can’t pull sumo, but rather, when it comes to body types, these are what tend to work best.

I would say that if you’re got longer arms, and a shorter torso (i.e. Lamar Gant) you’ll probably favor conventional. And if you’ve got longer legs or torso (proportionally speaking) and shorter arms, sumo would probably be a better choice.

At the end of the day, though, you’ll need to experiment with each stance to see what works best for you, but this should be enough to help you make an informed guess at what would work best.

Programming Considerations

The deadlift has some unique ways to set up programming, and I believe that it should be trained differently than the other two competitive lifts (squat and bench press). The deadlift is a rather taxing lift. Think about it: you have to pick up a weight that isn’t moving, and get it to move to a final end point (lockout). The demands placed on the CNS are much higher because we actually have to break some inertia to the get bar moving fast enough to finish the lift. So for example, if you need to deadlift 500 pounds, you have to be much stronger than 500 pounds to actually deadlift it. But with the squat and bench press, there is an eccentric motion, letting us benefit from the stretch-shortening cycle. For this reason, I think the deadlift needs to be trained a tad bit differently.

Specificity

As I’ve mentioned in the other installments, you’ve got to train the lift to actually become better at it. But with the deadlift, I firmly believe that there is a point of diminishing returns. With the higher demands of the CNS required for the deadlift, actually deadlifting for higher volume or heavier sets week in and week out might accumulate a lot more fatigue than the squat and bench press. There might be a point in your career where you only deadlift truly heavy (the competitive movement) every two to four weeks. If you get to this point in your powerlifting career, you might find that supplemental and accessory work and lighter technique work (or dynamic effort work) helps your deadlift just as much when you have to weigh your overall recovery vs. time invested. I’ll expand on this a bit further as we go.

Frequency

With the programming consideration mentioned above, this is going to tend to have us training the deadlift less frequently than the squat and bench press counterparts of powerlifting. Most powerlifters are going to be seen deadifting anywhere from once to twice a week, and that’s about it. Very rarely will you see someone actually deadlifting three or more times per week. Based upon how you opt to set up your programming and manage your loading, you’ll either see once a week training heavy or twice a week training with one moderate to heavy day and then one assistance-based day. I’ve personally trained with both and have seen results with both, so you’ll need to experiment with this yourself. More than likely, the less experience you have or the lighter you are, the more likely it is you will tend to lean towards twice a week, and vice versa with heavier and stronger lifters drifting towards once a week.


MORE: Bodybuilding Exercises for Powerlifters — Widen Your Grip to Beef Up Your Back and Deadlift


Something you might want to keep in mind, though, is how you can get more from less. I know this has been beaten into the ground when it comes to training in general, but with the deadlift being more CNS taxing, you might be better off with training it specifically once a week so that you can put that extra (recovery) time and effort to the other two lifts. In my personal experience, I’ve found that deadlifting heavier less frequently lets me bench and squat heavier more frequently.

Bodybuilding

This has been a growing area for powerlifting in general, but I think this holds specifically true for the deadlift. One beneficial thing is that similar muscles are used to squat and deadlift, so we can somewhat hit two birds with one stone. Yet, they are different movement patterns and require the muscles to operate under different demands. When it comes to having a strong deadlift, your hypertrophy work should be emphasized towards the glutes, hamstrings, upper back, and lower back. Strong glutes and hamstrings don’t really exist, as they can’t really be too strong for the deadlift. So if you’re seeing a lack in progress of your deadlift, increasing your posterior chain work is a good recommendation (Matt Ladewski has touched on this quite a bit).

Needs Analysis Weak Point Index

Here are some tables that might assist you with ideas on how to train and build your deadlift:

Low Back Rounding

floor pure miss

lock out pure miss

Now, I know some of you might be thinking, “What do I do if I miss at the knee?”

There can be a few factors at play here:

  1. You’re more than likely missing this due to not being in the correct positioning when you start the pull. So look at the first table for back weaknesses and see if that helps.
  2. This is technically the hardest part of the lift if you pull conventional, so understand that missing here is pretty normal. Just keep doing what you’re doing and look at your position when you miss. Then see the appropriate table.
  3. Increase your back work. I didn’t give much in terms of back accessory work, but you should be doing is in general with your training. An overall stronger back from lat pulldowns, rows, straight-arm lat pulldowns, trap work, etc., will help you maintain the proper position.
  4. If you pull sumo, there could be some quad weakness at play if you’re in the right position, but again, more than likely if you’re squatting regularly this isn’t your problem. Just keep hammering your hip extensors.

Carryover

As you’ll see in the tables above, a lot of the movements and exercises listed have a lot of carryover. You really need to be aware that training the deadlift is going to hit a lot of the same stuff as you need it to. There will be specific areas you need to hit, based upon what is going on with your deadlift, but positioning and technique can fix a lot of the issues seen. Don’t be afraid to load up on the accessory work to bring up your backside and let your actual deadlift training take a bit of a back seat with less frequent heavy pulling. The options are limitless for how you can address your deadlift, but if I’ve learned anything it’s that pulling heavy frequently doesn’t usually pan out for the best, and this can be seen from the best deadlifts around the world. So look at why you missed the lift and go from there.

Pulling Your Weight

The deadlift is often seen as the manliest lift on the platform, and for good reason. It takes a ton of balls to chalk up and hoist more than 500, 600, or 700 pounds. But nothing looks more badass than pulling a PR deadlift to end the meet. Get technically proficient, hammer your posterior chain, and trust the process. The deadlift is either your favorite or least favorite lift, but regardless, give it the respect it deserves. The meet doesn’t end until the bar hits the floor.

Building the Raw Squat

Building the Raw Bench Press

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