Originally published: December 13, 2002

Finnish Deadlift Secrets: Throughout the years, the deadlift has been our ”national sport” here in Finland, and world records have been broken since the early '70s. But what makes Finns pull so much? What is their secret ? I wanted to know the answer, and after collecting training information of many new and former greats, here is what I found.

1. Genetics

To be able to lift a lot, you have to be a talented athlete. Most of the guys had long arms and legs. You could see middleweights pulling over 200 kilos the first time they saw a power bar. But that's only a good start. The best deadlifters in the late '70s and early '80s had two things in common:

  1. Most of them had a background of hard labor—like lumberjacks, construction workers, farmers, or something similar. So they carried, lifted, and dragged for their living. That laid a perfect foundation for deadlift training and very often ensured a hard grip, too.
  2. They had an Olympic lifting background—they had pulled a lot before their powerlifting career. Raimo Välineva held Scandinavian records in Olympic lifting and was able to clean 330 pounds with straight legs. He had world records of 688 in 148s and 716 in 165s in early '80s. When weightlifting had the press, it was more of a pure strength sport as opposed to now when speed and technique more critical.

In turn, many of the new lifters have some type of athletic background from other sports. Ismo Lappi, a 338.5-kilo deadlifter in 165s, has thrown a javelin over 75 yards and ran 100 meters in under 11 seconds in his teens. He is fast and explosive enough to deadlift big.

2. Squatting for the deadlift

All of the former record holders, as well as many of today's, squatted with a narrow stance. This had two advantages. First, it served as an excellent special exercise for deadlift. Many trained the squat three times a week—twice back squatting and once front squatting. The other back squat could be a high bar session. Other squat exercises were something like lunges, or step squats, using bar on back. These were sometimes done on a box under the front or back feet, varying how it would hit the glutes and hamstrings. An 8-12 inch box under the back feet hits the upper part of glutes quite hard. Many used different stances. While the narrow stance high bar was the most common, many, like Taito Haara, Reijo Kiviranta and Hannu Saarelainen, squatted with three to four stances. During the last few years, the box squat has become very popular in Finland. Janne Toivanen put it in practice by hauling up 804 in the `96 IPF World's in Austria. Many have followed. Ano Turtiainen started using the box and now pulls over 859 in every meet he enters. Ismo Lappi, the new WR holder in 165s in IPF, does box squats as assistance. Veli Kumpuniemi stated that if he would have known how to use a box in his prime, he would have lifted a lot more. How much more? He tore his hamstring while trying 804 in the 181s back in 1981. He hit 822 ( 373 kilos ) in a national before that weighing just under 190 pounds. All his hamstrings could handle he hauled up. He never really recovered, but he wanted to send his compliments to Louie for this excellent exercise.

3. Deadlift variety

Many still train the deadlift two times a week. In the early days, it was not rare to deadlift three times a week. Veli Kumpuniemi, the only man we call Mr. Deadlift in Finland, trained deadlift sometimes four times a week. Here's some pulls to use:

Deadlift standing on the block. Many used a two- to six-inch block and pulled standing on it. That has been a pull used very often. Many did these for three to five reps using conventional style, even if they pulled sumo in meets.

Straight leg deadlifts. These were done off the floor or using a block under the feet. There were two styles: Some pulled with a bent over style, rounding the lower back. On the other hand, some (like Janne Toivanen, Ismo Lappi, and Ano Turtiainen) pulled in a romanian style, with an arched back and pushing the glutes to rear. With a round back, most used only 40-50% for high reps (like 10). For the romanian style, some go quite heavy. Janne Toivanen hauled up 4x661 from a four-inch box, and Ano Turtiainen has done 5x727 off the floor.

Olympic pulls. These were done many times as a warm-up or as speed work before deadlifting. High pulls, raw cleans, and raw snatches were the most common. The old school lifters did some pulls with straight legs—like Russians.

Pulls with a snatch grip. This has two variations too: Some pulled the weight all the way up, and some just pulled it past knees. These developed technique by forcing you to keep your shoulders in line, and it´s a good one to correct technique.

Partials. Hannu Saarelainen did partials at knee level, just moving the bar from below to above the knee. The bar traveled 8-10 inches in the area where the leverages were the poorest. He did high reps with rather light weight, and he tried to get speed in order to overcome the sticking point as fast as possible. By concentrating on his weakness, Hannu was able to pull 765 in 242s with quite poor leverages for deadlift. Rack pulls and pulls where the bar is on blocks are common, although they do not benefit as many as you could imagine.

Hack deadlifts. Many long-armed lifters were able to pull with the bar behind their back. This form of deadlift developed the leg drive and helped to get the bar off the floor.

4. Technique

Veli Kumpuniemi stated that if his foot stance was half an inch off, the bar stayed on floor, and Veli was ranked as more of a power puller rather than a technique expert (which he was too). The conventional deadlift was always mostly back work. But the sumo pullers were sort of split into two categories.

People like Raimo Välineva and Hannu Malinen, the 1988 IPF World champion, used their hips a lot. Raimo Välineva was the developer of the style that maximized hip drive in the sumo deadlift. Lifters with extreme technique had quite a differing sumo and conventional deadlift. Ari Virtanen, the little brother of Jarmo, is one of the best technicians I have ever seen. Every weight he tried he got off the floor and finished. Ari´s best conventional was around 570 to 580, and he pulled 677 with sumo in the `91 World's. Pirjo Savola, the European Record holder in 123s with 446, said she has a best conventional within the 360 to 370 range.

Sumo lifters with a strong back, like Veli Kumpuniemi, Janne Toivanen, and Aarre Käpylä, locked out their legs way before extending their torso. Aarre Käpylä, who pulled 10x661 via conventional too, got the most out of his hips by keeping his legs almost straight. Jarmo Virtanen, an eight-time IPF World champ, used the technique. People used to think that Jarmo Virtanen was just very talented and had good leverages; however, they couldn't have been more wrong. He did many things to perfect the technique. Once, he demonstrated the difference between relaxed and flexed shoulders. By dropping shoulders and using sumo, the distance was 12 inches shorter than using conventional with a flexed upper body. He stressed the importance of being relaxed while deadlifting.

"You should climb the tree from bottom." To learn the deadlift, most advised to pull conventional first and then switch to sumo. Reijo Kiviranta, Kullervo Lampela, and other conventional style-greats stressed two key points:

  1. To push your knees over the bar in the start position. This brings the hips closer to the bar and makes the leverages better.
  2. To turn the feet out. This helped the lockout and enabled especially bigger lifters to use their hip muscles.

5. Basic strength and GPP

As I mentioned in the beginning, many early day deadlifters did physical labor which laid a good background for training heavy and often. Olympic lifting was an aid, too. Many of today's lifters don´t do any other physical work than train with weights. So the GPP has to come from somewhere else. Janne Toivanen did an extra workout six times a week, early in the morning. He did abs, side work, and sometimes lower back work together with some aerobic training and streching. His training program would kill most people, but he found a way to back it up. Ismo Lappi does the same type of workouts, too. It keeps the bodyfat low and aids in recovery.

At the moment, five or six of our strongmen pull 800 pounds or more. They have long competitive seasons when their weight training is mostly for conditioning and recovery. Their training is one form of conjugate method. They carry, drag, lift stones, and flip tires and cars using the same muscles that are important in deadlifting. Jukka Laine did 804 in September 1998 and had deadlifted twice during the summer. All he did was the event training and many meets. Jouko Aholas's deadlift stayed in the same range with no deadlift training at all. He used a short cycle to peak and succeeded with 853 in meet. Janne Virtanen and Juha Räsänen both pull over 800 as well, and 837 is their best in training. Yet, neither have attempted it in any meets so far.

6. Assistance work

Most supplemented their training with a wide variety of assistance exercises, with the two key muscle groups being the upper back and lats and the abs. As you noticed, I ranked Mr. Deadlift, Veli Kumpuniemi, as a strenght puller. Here's why: What do you think about chins with up to 200 pounds for five to six reps, bent over rows using 400+ pounds, or doing one-arm rows with an 185-pound dumbbell for 8 to 10 reps? It was usual stuff for him, and it was assistance work—not something he shot for.
Weighted chins are quite common still, but the variety is wide. Ano Turtiainen likes to do lat pulls with different handles and low pulley rows as well as chest supported and bent over rows. Many also do shrugs every now and then.

Many times, the lifters in the early '80s or late '70s trained abs with flat or incline sit-ups using weight. Side work was done using a short bar or dumbbell. One other thing they did was one arm deadlifts. They stressed the stabilizing muscles a lot, too. Today, a variety of leg raises, pull downs, ab work in lat machines, and abs done in an ab machine add to the number of exercises. One thing that has also become popular is the ab wheel. Most lifters do it on their knees using a plate on their back, as it targets the abs more instead of hip flexors.

As you can see, the low back was trained pretty much along with the main exercises, squats, and pulls. The older school lifters also did good mornings, mostly after squatting for 5 to 10 rep sets. However, they became a forgotten exercise until the last few years. Ano Turtiainen went way over 700 pounds using bands and two sets of chains as an extra resistance during his preparation for WPO semis. The other thing many did, and still do, are back extensions. These are usually done with a bar on the back. Rauno Rinne used these regularly and pulled 799 in 220s.

7. Jarmo Virtanen´s deadlift secrets

Jarmo Virtanen, who many consider to be the best powerlifter ever in Europe, was great in the deadlift. He was an excellent squatter, too. Here's some things behind his success:

  • In his youth he trained in both powerlifting and weightlifting at the same time. He also trained in other sports like football and has always done some sort of physical labor. His GPP has always been high, and a lot of different squats and deadlifts insured a high SPP level. As a nine-time IPF World Champ, he did lifts like high bar, front squats, and squats with different stances. He deadlifted with both conventional and sumo (he estimated that he may have done a little more conventional work than sumo), and sometimes he used the snatch grip too. One of his deadlift variations was sumo off a one-inch block. He sometimes went quite high on these, with 694 being his best.
  • He pulled conventional sets where he stopped the bar before it hit the floor in order to develop static strength and tightness in the start position. When using sumo, he always did every rep as the first one. Jarmo said that bouncing the bar off is a waste, especially in the sumo style. He developed speed by high pulls, and he did not extend his hips in the weightlifting style. He continued the pull with the upper back and traps to the navel level.
  • He had picture-perfect technique, especially in the ´80s when he didn't have injured hips and thighs. He developed that by squatting with an ultra-wide stance, sometimes he used a Smith-machine to be able to squat as upright as possible. He practiced technique with no weights and in front of a mirror. It was his routine every day for six months. As far as assistance goes, he did a lot of ab work but never did good mornings. He felt that they make you too stiff. He stressed the importance of being relaxed, especially in the upper body area, and felt that it was crucial for getting better leverages in the deadlift and squat.
  • Jarmo never really maxed out in the gym and usually stayed under 300 kilos in training. He was great competitor. In 1988, during our national record breakers held in the biggest ice hockey venue at the time, he hauled up 358 kilos twice, but dropped it just before the down signal. With a torn hand, he came back and pulled it again, just to lose the grip again before the ”down” command. A year before, when lifting in the 75-kilo class, he was on a roll. In the World's in Norway, he opened with 677 and went to WR 333 and pulled it nicely. Then he attacked 340.5 kilos ( 750 pounds ) twice, but the grip was his nemesis. Before he got the grip problem fixed, he hurt his outer thigh. There was, and still is, some scar tissue that is pressing into nerves. With the grip he had in the`90s and the better technique and flexibility of `80s, he would have gone a lot more. Many times I have wondered why his squat went up 20 kilos but the deadlift stayed the same. Believe it or not, he never got the best out of him in the deadlift. A 815 to 826 deadlift and 900 kilo ( 1984 pound ) total where something he was capable of but never achieved.

We have had many great pullers and powerlifters, and we had Jarmo Virtanen. He is one of a kind. One sign of his true sportsmanship was this interview. He has always been willing to help anyone, whether it is training, coaching or giving seminars.

Being a no class deadlifter myself, I have given this a lot of thought. Reijo Kiviranta, the 1981 World Champ in 242s, put it together nicely by saying that the one who lifts the most has trained the most. After reading this article, you picture what he meant. There are no secrets—just pure hard work. It's the cold hard truth. If you want to finish on top, you have to be a good deadllifter. So it's time for some deadlift labor, good luck!