There are few things in our meager existence that mimic the feeling of a new deadlift PR. Winning the lottery, getting married to the love of your life, and being able to look in the mirror with deep, inner self-reflection and realize, “Hey, I'm a good person” all pale in comparison to the total capillary annihilating and near death experience of grinding out some inhuman amount of iron. I'm writing this article to share the most important information that I've collected from people smarter than me or from my own journey of going from 225 pounds and being stapled to the floor with my first straight bar deadlift attempt to an 815-pound meet PR last year.

The psychology of the deadlift

On more than one occasion, I've experienced a complete and total “white out.” This is kind of like a black out except everything goes white. You don’t actually pass out, but you still lose a couple minutes of your life. When I come out of the other end of this phenomenon, I'm usually left with the questions, “where did I just go” and, more importantly, “did I get the lift?” This is probably more due to the internal pleural pressure build up of the Valsalva maneuver, but it only happens to me when I'm in an intense state of mental focus.

What exactly is this state? I like to imagine that I'm digging a hole within myself, crawling inside, and then burying myself in it. From here, my only way out is to pull myself to the surface before I suffocate. Seems pretty screwed up, right? Well, psychology tip number two—you need to be a little nuts to deadlift a lot.

Train your grip

Even if you think your meat paws are strong enough, they could always use some extra work. No, not with your grandpa’s rubber band powered Grip-O-Matic. Get yourself some Fat Gripz or, better yet, an elitefts™ Fat Bar and do some serious grip work. With the fat bar, I have a couple different protocols:

  • Load up a weight and hold it with a pronated grip for either a predetermined time (e.g. 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds) or a hold to failure.
  • Find a pronated grip for a 1RM, 3RM, or 5RM. I don't know of any exercise more humbling and emasculating. My best 1RM with this variation is only 410 pounds. I read once that Andy Bolton has done 455 pounds for a set of five.
  • Do timed or rep max power cleans. I tried this once a couple years ago with 165 pounds and my forearms are still throwing up.

Training your pinch grip has some carryover as well. Plate pinches for different timed intervals work very well. If you only have access to some grippers, you can still get some good work done. Just closing and opening the thing forever like you are Sylvester Stallone in Over the Top will have little transfer to your competition pull. However, closes and holds for time can be very beneficial. Odds are you won't have to hold on to a bar longer than six to eight seconds in a meet. So get the heaviest gripper you can close with both hands, release the off hand, and hold closed for sets of six to eight seconds.

Do real abdominal work

I'm a firm believer that butterfly kicks have greatly influenced my pulling strength (said by nobody ever). Crunches, sit-ups, and most floor abdominal exercises aren't helpful for increasing deadlift strength. Now that I think about it, they aren’t really that helpful for life in general. Any other situation in life where you're lying on the ground curled up into a ball usually means some horribly violent meat eating animal is about to make you its dinner or you're deathly ill. Either way, you're bracing for death. The human core musculature is designed to fight movement, rotation, and the pull of gravity. Think about what you midsection is doing during a heavy squat or pull. It's trying desperately not to fold over and completely destroy all your bones and organs.

Here are some examples of ab work that have a carryover to your pull (and squat):

  • Front squat holds: Load up the most weight that you're physically capable of holding on to, unrack it, take a step back, and hold it for time. To add some additional horror to this one, I like to suspend weights and kettlebells from elitefts™ Onyx Bands and try to keep the bar as still as possible. Also, using a 14-inch cambered bar causes the same effect.
  • Suitcase deadlifts: Stand next to a barbell, get into your deadlift position, grab the middle of the barbell, stand up, and then repeat on the other side. Always use wrist straps and always make sure that you're doing perfect, symmetrical deadlifts. Don't let the weight pull you to the side and dictate your body position. If you feel some lean, drop the weight. I like sets of five for these with a weight as heavy as possible.
  • One-arm farmers' walks: Use the same suggestions as above. Stay in a perfectly upright, symmetrical position.
  • Heavy carries: Load something on your anterior (e.g. a bar or dumbbells in a front squat hold position, a 100-pound plate, a heavy sandbag, a cow you plan to slaughter and completely devour after your training session) and just walk for time or distance. Nothing fights movement and the force of gravity like carrying something heavy in front of you while you walk around.

As you can see, all of these exercises use the muscles of the midsection to fight unwanted movement as opposed to using them as a prime mover, which sounds a whole lot like deadlifting if you think about it.

Speed work

Do it. Because the deadlift is a concentric-only exercise in a competition. Training rate of force development from a dead stop is key. Plus, with the high neuromuscular demand of constant heavy pulling, submaximal speed work will give you the opportunity to practice set up and technique without the after effect of feeling like a smashed bag of dog crap.

There are many different ways to do speed work. Personally, I like to keep the bar weight around the same weight (45–55 percent of a contest best) and rotate the band tensions and foot placement. My two band tensions are 'quaded' mini bands and 'quaded' monster minis. I tried 'quaded' light bands once…once. You only need about 8–12 singles if your technique is perfect on every rep and the speed stays constant.

Train the opposite stance

If you're awesome at conventional deadlifts but can barely move the bar or can’t even reach the bar from a sumo stance, something is weak somewhere. Training the stance you don’t use in a meet helps accomplish one of the golden rules of getting stronger—getting better at stuff you suck at.

Perfect your set up

I saved the most important one for last. One would assume that this is common sense to any activity that requires technique mastery and intense mental focus. Alas, this isn't the case. Go to any meet, watch any lifting video, and look around the gym. You'll see a wide array of arbitrary pre-lift rituals that make the actual act of lifting the weight look like totally different exercises between sets, reps, or attempts.

Consistency is one of the most under-emphasized concepts in training for any sport. For strength sports, there really isn't any way to judge progress without years of consistency in technique. Without actively going through a mental checklist before every single rep, no two reps will ever be alike. As cool as it is to scream “grip it and rip it!” into someone’s face before a big weight attempt, a more appropriate holler should be something equivalent to “set your feet, get your air, grip it, set your hamstrings/back/hips, pull the slack out, and, OK, now rip it!”

Here's a bottoms-up approach to making sure that your set up is exactly the same for every rep:

  • Feet: Get off your computer, stand up, and pretend like you're about to jump as high as you possibly can. Before you actually lift off the ground, look down at your foot spacing. This should be right around where you want your feet for a conventional deadlift. This is the position where you will create the most force and develop the most power. Obviously, this is a little different for sumo deadlifters. Finding a strong foot position for sumo just takes a lot of time and practice. Personally, I don’t think I've ever seen any two lifters with exactly the same foot spacing and angle when lining up for a sumo style pull. Here is where people will start to disagree with me. In relation to the bar, I suggest lining the bar up with the very last lace of the shoes you're wearing. This should put the bar right on top of where the big toe knuckle forms at the body of the foot. Yes, this is very far away from your shin. This will make a lot more sense in just a minute. Also, keep your toes pointed straight ahead.
  • Speed of setting the bottom position: With your feet set, pull in as much as you can while you're still standing up. Brace your abs as hard as you can and get your hands into position as quickly as possible. Your goal should be to go from breath to pull as fast as you can humanly move. The deadlift doesn't have an eccentric phase (like the bench and squat do) so that means there isn't any kinetic energy developed and there isn't any stretch reflex to take advantage of. Moving quickly to the bar and into position will help store energy that more mimics the counter-movement of a vertical jump rather than the slow eccentric of something like a max squat. Even if this is a slight increase in the weight you're able to move, it could make the difference between a PR for the win or not even placing.
  • Getting the slack out: This is literally the most important piece of advice that I have ever received. As soon as this clicked, my weights skyrocketed. I don’t mean a couple of pounds in a year, I mean almost 50 to 60 pounds in a couple months, and I was already pulling in the 700s. As soon as your hands are set on the bar, a couple movements need to happen quickly to set the bottom position. First, squeeze the bar like you're trying to rip the head off a pissed off grizzly bear. Then, in an almost “see sawing” motion, pull up on the bar while your hips drop into place. If you did this correctly, you will literally be able to feel and hear the slack being ripped out of the bar. Also, the gap between your shins and the bar will slightly close (see, I told you this would make sense). The exact position you're looking for is as follows:
  • Cervical spine/neck: Held static and ready to be thrown back (not up) once the bar breaks the knees.
  • Thoracic spine: Relaxed, and scapulae lined up over the bar. You want this area relaxed because it will decrease the distance the bar has to travel. Also, a major factor in locking out a heavy pull is upper back strength. You want this area relaxed so that you can apply tension closer to the end range of the lift if you have to.
  • Lats: Spread your wings and fly. Seriously, if your shirt doesn’t explode off your back, your lats aren’t tight enough.
  • Lumbar spine: Held neutral. This doesn't mean arched. This also doesn't mean getting into a position of a sick cat taking its last dying crap. If you can somehow go through the entire range of motion with a perfectly arched, textbook portrait of deadlifting technique, the weight isn't heavy enough.
  • Hamstrings: If you adequately pulled the slack out of the bar and have achieved the above described positions, your hamstrings will be screaming. It takes time to develop maximal tension. Getting your hamstrings to fire before you begin the actual pull from the floor will make you feel like you're being shot out of a cannon once the bar starts moving.

Below is a video showing good position and bad position, as well as how to know the slack is out of the bar:


Believe it or not, this is only a small morsel of the information that I've read, have been told, and have come to on my own in a chalky cloud of metal and experience. I hope this helps someone somewhere alleviate some of the frustrations that go along with the countless hours of trial and error that go hand-in-hand with training for a strength sport.