What I learned on the way to deadlifting 500 pounds

This is installment 2 in a (currently) 8 part series.  The first was “What I learned to squat 500 pounds”.  I’m planning on doing one installment for each 100 pound increment for squat and deadlift starting at 500, and each 50 pound increment on bench starting at 350.  Just as a refresher from the first installment:

“There are three types of strong people.

1. Lucky ones

2. Injured ones

3. Smart ones

Unless you’re simply a freak, getting stronger requires a mind that can keep up with your body.  If you’re not constantly growing in your mental pursuits, you’ll run into some serious problems in your training.  You’ll stop getting stronger, start getting hurt, or both.

You would be hard pressed to find an 800 pound raw squatter or deadlifter who get that strong by accident.  Knowledge precedes strength.  When you apply all the knowledge you have and finally hit a wall, it takes more knowledge to know HOW to get around/over/under/through that wall before you can direct your efforts towards doing so.  You may clear a few barriers by accident and luck, but that’s not the best strategy to stake your long-term results on.”

1.  Grease that groove

Deadlift was a very natural movement for me the first time I tried it.  Why?  Prior to deadlifting, I spent my whole childhood figuring out the heaviest things I could pick up:  rocks, logs, people, etc.  On top of that, my family burned a wood fire all winter, so I’d spend a fair amount of time hauling logs, picking 18″ segments of trees up to load them in a trailer, and pushing a loaded wheelbarrow.  When I first got a weight set, bending over and ripping something off the ground was pretty second nature to me.  What’s more, I found that having the weight on a bar that I could wrap my hands around made the whole process significantly easier.  As such, when I got my first little weight set (I was 11 or so.  It was a Christmas present in 6th grade), I could load 200 pounds on the bar (as much as it came with.  As a note, the largest plates were 25s, so it was a 2-3 inch deficit) and pull it that Christmas morning.  In about 3 months I could do 5×10 with 200, and would do that 2-3 times per week on top of all of the other various things I did that required picking stuff up.

The first time I actually pulled a max deadlift with a real bar and and 45 pound plates I was 14, and got 405 clean and 425 with some hitching.  For most people, when they hear that they assume I’m just a freak.  They ignore the fact that I’d been effectively training for deadlifts since I was 5 years old.  During childhood, neural development is hugely important.  You’re not going to get jacked, but you can improve muscle activation in patterns you practice.  You see youtube videos of 9 year olds in China clean and jerking 135 and wonder how they’re so strong.  Actually they probably aren’t much stronger than your typical 9 year old.  They’ve just had enough practice to get their tiny little muscles incredibly efficient at Olympic lifting.  That’s basically what I did for deadlifts.

If you didn’t have the same type of childhood I did, you can still benefit from greasing the groove; it’ll just take longer for your brain to adapt.  However, neural plasticity is a wonderful thing, and if you put in the reps, really substantial neural improvements will occur.  This means using less weight for fewer reps, but picking heavy stuff up every single day (if possible), or even multiple times per day.  The more often your nervous system is exposed to a stimulus, the faster it will adapt to it.

When you’re a brand new lifter, you’re not gaining strength because you’re getting so much hyoojer.  You’re gaining strength primarily because of neural adaptations, with hypertrophy coming in a distant second in terms of importance.  Hypertrophy is important on down the road, obviously, but isn’t of primary importance early on.  Doing more reps, more often steepens the learning curve.  It’ll feel boring and counter-productive, but you’ll thank me for it in the long run.  You’ll be stronger, and since you’ll get more perfect reps in (remember, lighter weight), you’ll have a lower long-term chance of injury and you won’t have to unlearn and relearn form (which can be quite frustrating, and is a product of not taking the time to learn it correctly the first time)

This stands in stark contrast to a few sets of 5, once a week that most beginner programs recommend.  I’d say you’re better off with 15 singles, 3-4 times per week at minimum until you can deadlift at least 1.5x your bodyweight for all the singles with perfect form and relative ease.  The amount of reps your need decreases as you increase in training age, but at first you need to grease the groove.

2.  Commit to the pull

This is crucial no matter who you are or how long you’ve been lifting.  Deadlifts are hard freaking work.  No two ways about it.  On top of that, you don’t actually get to feel the weight before you’re expected to do something with it.  You don’t walk it out like a squat, or press it out of the pins like a bench press.  It’s just sitting there lifeless on the ground, taunting you.  This is especially true for a new 1rm attempt.  You may have pulled that weight for a partial, but you have no idea what it feels like when it breaks the ground.

As such, you can’t be a mental midget when you’re deadlifting.  You have to be 100% sure about your intention to destroy the lift, as well as the lift’s parents, children, and extended family.  Compared to the other lifts, not being able to get your head into deadlifting makes a much larger difference.  A 635 top squat (705 max) or a 405 top bench (445 max) is a bad day for me; about 90% of my max.  For deadlift, there are days I’m simply unmotivated to deadlift and 545 looks up at me and says “lolz nope,” doesn’t budge, and that’s just how it is.

For this, it helps to have a ritual.  It could be Magnusson’s mini charge, it could be Hatfield’s jump, or it could be as simple as “I’m taking 3 breaths, and on the third, I’m pulling this sucker” (that’s mine).  Little things like that take your mind back to the place it was when you’ve done the ritual before (hopefully that place is “ready to destroy worlds”).  Sometimes it doesn’t work, but it’s better than just approaching the bar all willy-nilly each time.  It also gets you in the same starting position each time you pull to reinforce your groove.

I’m a pretty chill guy, but if there’s a lift I’m going to yell, put on loud music, and generally make a fool of myself for, it’s the deadlift.  Most people say a generally slow burning rage is the most helpful.  That’s the approach I like to take.  Once the bar’s loaded, I’ll stare at it like it’s prey that’s about to get it’s throat ripped out.  I’ll find a deep, dark place to go to (people who know me may find that one hard to believe), put on either “Lose Yourself” by Eminem or “Calm like a bomb” by Rage Against the Machine, take about 30 seconds to develop a brief but intense hatred for pretty much all of existence, and then pull.  Find something that works best for you, but more than anything, whether you make yourself angry, cocky, or zen, just be ready to pull.

3. A chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link

And by chain, I’m referring to the posterior chain, of course.  When I started, my back was fine, my glutes fired okay, but I had some weak hamstrings.  Hypers and leg curls every training day fixed that in a hurry.  I found this weakness out via a grade two hamstring strain (sprinting) that bled enough for blood to pool all the way up to mid-calf, so it took extra hamstring work to just get back to where I was previously, much less build from there.  Your weakness may be different, but odds are it’s something on the back side of your body (unless it’s grip).  Just to point you in the right direction:

If your back rounds instantly (lumbar), it may just be your back is weak, or it may be weak hips (making you need to start the lift with your back instead of your hips)

If your lockout is weak because you can’t get your shoulders back, your lats and traps are weak.

If your lockout is weak because you can’t get your hips through, your glutes are weak

If you miss around knee height, either your hamstrings are weak or your hips are too far from the bar

If you just can’t break the weight off the ground, you are just too weak in general

That’s all for this installment.  Questions or comments?  Hit me up in the comments or via any of my contact info/social media in the *about me* section.

And because this is a deadlift post:

34 comments

  1. Can you expand a bit on the breaking it off the floor part? “Too weak in general” is amusing but not very helpful. I’m running into an issue where if I can break it off the floor at all, I can do 5+, but any more weight and suddenly it doesn’t budge at all.

    1. It’s actually more helpful than you may realize. If you keep good form but the bar just won’t break, that means you don’t have any glaring weaknesses – the weight is just too heavy. It’s the least mechanically advantageous position in a deadlift (akin to just above parallel for a squat or just off the chest in bench), so it’s a pretty good thing for your “sticking point” to be on the floor.

      You could try pulling with the bar raised/lowered slightly (just a couple inches) to work on strength off the floor, but basically, it sounds like you’re doing it right.

  2. Would it be a terribly bad idea to start around 50% 1RM and do 5×10 squat, bench, and deadlift 3 days a week and add maybe 2.5-5 pounds a session to each?

    I know you weren’t recommending that, that you were just making do with what you had available. It just seems like it’d be a great way to get a lot of practice with the lifts and get volume for hypertrophy & work capacity.

    I’ve pretty much avoided high reps like the plague, doing stuff like Starting Strength. My form’s gradually getting worse, my work capacity & endurance are gone, I look like I’m putting on more fat than muscle, and I’m stalling at really low weight (225 3×5, 175 3×5, 300×5, 5’11″ 180).

    1. Try this instead:

      Day 1: Start with 50% of your squat and do max reps. Each week add 10 pounds and try not to lose reps as you go up in weight.

      Same thing with your bench

      Day 2:
      5×10 for each lift (squat, bench, deadlift, OHP) with just 30% of your max. Perfect form is a must, and should be doable since the weight is really light.

      Day 3:
      Deadlift 75% for 10 flawless singles. Add 10 pounds each week.
      OHP same as bench and squat

      Day 4 (if you train 4 days, if not just forget about it) same as day 2

      Also, get at least 15 minutes of day of stretching, myofascial release and glute activation (bodyweight hip thrusts focusing on posterior pelvic tilt). For the mobility work, really focus on your hip flexors and rolling your piriformis and glute medius.

      1. Alright, thank you!

        One question about that… With 50% of my squat for max reps, if I sat there long enough between reps I could probably get 30+. Would it be better to do the 30+ or stop when I’m pausing more than a couple breaths between reps?

      2. Just finished week 3. So far I’m at the same reps for bench, gained 3 on squat, lost one on OHP, and day 2 and 4 went from killing me and taking an hour to easy and taking 40 minutes despite adding 10 pounds each week to those as well. The only problem so far is I’m not sure I could call the deadlift singles “flawless”.

        If I have the time and motivation, would it be worth it to do anything on any of the other 3 days in a week, or would it be detrimental? What about additional work after the main lifts for the day?

        Thank you again for all of your advice.

  3. Won’t let me reply directly to your last comment
    > it wouldn’t necessarily be detrimental, but my question is why you’d want to do extra when what you’re doing is working?

    Mostly my “If some is good, more is better” mentality, mixed with a lot of experience of getting fat on low volume programs. I’ve wasted a lot of time cutting because I put on fat a lot easier than muscle. I guess I just kind of figured more volume would keep me more insulin/leptin sensitive and keep me from getting fat as easily. Also thought perhaps I should do some other kind of back work besides deadlifting.

    I guess I really shouldn’t be messing with the program while it’s still working, though. Thank you for the words of wisdom, don’t fix what isn’t broken.

    1. Honestly, if you’re worried about gaining fat, just find a friend to go on leisurely walks with you. Exercise is a notoriously bad way to lose weight. Just being generally active will help more than anything with avoiding fat gain.

      1. Yeah, fear of gaining fat is pretty much the biggest factor. I’ve done dirty bulks, I’ve done 1lb/week bulks, I’ve done a .5lb/week bulk, and every time it seems I put on 1-2 pounds of muscle, 10-15 pounds of fat, and only 10-30 pounds on my total. It’s…frustrating to say the least.

        Thank you again for all the advice you’ve given me. I really appreciate all the information you put out there for free.

  4. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I
    get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove people
    from that service? Bless you!

  5. Hey Greg, great article. I’d like to try the higher frequency 4 day split. I’m a little unclear on the instructions. For example, would day 1 be only squat and bench? Day 2, each lift is performed. Would you increase the weight weekly monthly or never? Finally, day 3 deadlifts 10 reps at 75 percent. Same for the other 3 lifts? Thanks a lot

  6. Some good stuff here! Really helping me think through some ideas.

    I’m looking to start coaching/training people myself this summer, and while I really like a lot about the Starting Strength model, there are a few of things that I will definitely be doing differently:

    1-Starting people with 5 sets of 3, rather than 3 sets of 5, so that they get more practice at doing/attempting perfect reps without fatigue being such a concern.

    2-Squatting twice a week, rather than three times, and having the Deadlift in it’s place on a third day (probably the middle day like GSLP),

    3-Upping the volume to 3 sets of 3 for deadlifts and aiming to keep it much closer to a squat sessions volume.

    It would be ideal to be able to have people do a something like this 5 days a week to really etch good form into them, but unfortunately there isn’t a format in real life that would work for that other than maybe a camp, but then again a week of daily practice might have less effect than a month of 3 days per week practice.

    I would switch eventually to sets of five for most people after the initial learning phase, but I am working on simple ways to implement autoregulation into the rate of weight increase and the daily volume simply because most people have pretty big changes in what they can handle from day to day. Plus I think there is a positive mental and emotional boost to be gained from never really having some arbitrary goal to reach each session.

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