Build A Bigger Deadlift With These 5 Tips

I didn't attempt a deadlift until the age of 40. Now it is my favorite lift. In this article I present some of the keys that have helped me draw close to an 800 pound raw pull.

4 months ago my deadlift power peaked. I was able to pull 675 pounds with chains off 3 inch blocks for 4 reps. With the added chains, the lockout was somewhere around 735 to 745 pounds.

While this was certainly no record, it was my greatest iron accomplishment. I was drawing close to an 800 pound raw deadlift at the age of 45, and was pretty darn excited about it. It should also be mentioned that while I have been lifting for 28 years, my first deadlift attempt came at the age of 40.

Many people assume I was born with amazing raw pulling strength. Nothing could be further from the truth. Deadlifts for me are a lift of love. I am obsessed with improvement, and have dedicated the last 6 years of my life to evolving my deadlift programming and form.

Way Back in 2007

For 21 years I lived and loved muscle building. Though my training was centered around heavy compound movements, I had no idea the deadlift was an important lift.

The muscle magazines in the late 80s were all about body part splits and the Weider principles. Back workouts rarely, if ever, featured the deadlift. This sounds impossible, but for over two decades I had no idea that the pull was second only to barbell squats as far as potency.

Then 2007 hit. One of my co-workers was a powerlifter. We started talking about lifting and he introduced me to this obscure back exercise call the "dead lift." So, on a whim I decided to try it.

My home gym was bare bones. I could do barbell and dumbbell rows for the back, but not much else. For this reason alone I decided to give deadlifts a shot.

I had to intention at that time of becoming a powerlifter, nor did I have any drive whatsoever to see if I could pull amazing amounts of weight off the floor. I was still a musclehead at heart, and just wanted a bigger back.

So, I began pulling. And pulling. And pulling. After 3 months I made my first one rep max attempt.

365 pounds! But...I threw out my lower back and couldn't walk for a month. Poor form I had, young Jedi.

The Next 5 Years

It was a long road from pulling that first deadlift max to pulling over 700 pounds for reps. I learned a lot about deadlift training and made plenty of mistakes. 

I want to share some of my deadlifting "secrets" with you in this article. Not everything works the same for everyone, but I consider the advice in this article to be worthy of your consideration.

Deadlifts

5 Deadlift Tips

Tip #1 - Train at 90% or below

I used to pull over 90% quite a bit. Over time I learned that it wasn't really helping my one rep max very much. My progress improved more by training at 90% and under than by going super heavy every week. Using weights typically around 85 to 90% of my max, I would do what I could on any given day, listening to what my body was telling me.

When I was training frequently above 90% I noticed two major issues:

Issue #1 - Lat Fatigue/Weakness. I experienced semi-regular lat fatigue. This resulted in the occasional sub-par pulling session. When the fatigue was there, everything felt heavy. My workouts usually ended with a spotty 85% single. I knew that if I went any heavier on that day, my form was likely to go off the rails due to this weakness.

So basically, I had a greater number of sub-par deadlift workouts when I was training with a greater intensity.

Issue #2 - Lower Back Strains. In the last 6 years I have picked up exactly 6 lower back strains. Each of these occurred when I was training the deadlift above 90%. Granted, on two of these occasions I was competing and going for big deadlift PRs, but over 90% is still over 90%.

I have never picked up a lower back strain, nor experienced lat weakness when training below 90%. While I understand that logically and scientifically my experiences may not apply to everyone, they should at least be taken into consideration.

Here is a quote from Dave Tate on heavy deadlifting:

I learned from Louie a long time ago that to get a good deadlift you don't need to train the deadlift heavy all the time. At first I thought he was full of shit, but in time I put 40 pounds on my deadlift and became a believer.

My take home advice for readers is that if you want to "kill it" on deadlift day, work up to 85% to 90% and either do a few quality singles, or try it for a double, triple or even a quad. Remember to never perform sloppy deadlift reps. This can't be emphasized enough. Stop a set or deadlift workout before your form starts to deteriorate.

For the deadlift, a focus on progress is much better than a focus on heavy punishment. Save the heavy one rep max attempts for the platform, or for the occasional one rep max test.

Tip #2 - Low rack pulls improve recovery and lockout strength

It was much easier for me to recover from low rack pulls, say from 3 to 5" blocks, than it was to recover from floor deadlifts.

During my first year of high frequency training I deadlifted 3 times a week, using an assortment of deadlift variations. I found that it was much easier to bounce back after a pulling workout when the lift variations were performed off the floor. The day or two after these movements I experienced little to no noticeable lat fatigue, and my lower back felt great...if the daily volume was kept in check.

Low rack pulls have also dramatically improved my lockout strength. I was once very weak at low rack pulls. Now I can tug 725+ at will from 3 inches. It took several years of dedication at this low rack height to improve my pulling strength, but it paid off in spades.

In fact, over the last 12 months I used nothing but low rack pulls. I was able to pull heavy without penalty during each session, and my deadlift max kept moving up.

When it comes to heavy max attempts, most lifters can get the bar off the floor but start to lose momentum quickly. Because this is a natural sticking point for most of you, I see little downside to hard, heavy and frequent low rack pulls. Just a caveat...low rack pulls should not be done as an 8 week test, but rather as a 1-3 year commitment. 

If low rack pulls interest you, I recommend using them in a format similar to this:

  • Week 1 - Floor deadlifts using your existing protocol, but no heavier than 90% of your one rep map.
  • Week 2 - Low rack pulls from 3 to 5". Go heavy, but not high volume.

I also would typically alternate between 3 and 5" pulls every other low rack pull day.

Tip #3 - Build a strong back. A STRONG back

Many intermediate lifters think they have a strong back, but they don't. They just have low strength standards. 120 pound dumbbells rows might help you build muscle, but they are simply not strong enough to impact your deadlift pulling power to any substantial degree.

When I first started training for powerlifting my one arm rows were around 120 pounds for 10 reps. I thought this was impressive. It wasn't. As soon as I added straps (Versa Gripps) to the mix, and got hungry for more strength, my rowing power skyrocketed.

At my peak I hit a one arm dumbbell row of 265 pound for 10 reps. Here is a video of me along that journey, performing reps with a 215 pound dumbbell. I also hit a 160 pound one arm row for 50 reps on multiple occasions.

Here's the thing...if you are able to one arm row 160 to 240 pounds for reps, and you are able to barbell row 315-365+ for reps, you will be much stronger and your deadlift will improve. The more back strength you have, the better.

Think of it like this. If you are currently deadlifting 315 to 400 pounds, imagine what your deadlift max would be like when you are able to row an insane amount of weight.

And for the love of Crom, don't shy away from straps or Versa Gripps. Never let poor grip strength impact your back strength training. If your grip is weak, go do some grip training.

I recommend you set the following minimum goals, and don't quit until you reach them.

  • One arm dumbbell rows - 160 pounds x 10 reps.
  • Barbell rows - 315 pounds x 5 reps

Tip #4 - Stand up!

Stop trying to pull or tug the weight off the ground. Instead, attempt to stand up with power. Too many lifters baby the deadlift, gently trying to pull the bar up instead of attempting to stand up with speed and power. This action creates a lot of high hip, bad leverage deadlifts.

Why? You are not leading with the head, driving it upwards.

You know how to stand up. There is no form mastery required for this action. When you focus on standing up, along with driving your head upwards, your body tends to maintain better leverages.

9 times out of 10 when I see a deadlift video from a first year lifter, their hips start to fly up when they initiate the pull. While there are numerous reasons that can contribute to high hip deadlifting, learning to stand up instead of "pulling on the bar" is one of the best things you can do to stop this from happening. (or at least reduces the degree to which the hips fly up)

If you hesitate even for a moment, and don't lead with the head, it will remain out and over the bar. The only real adjustment your body can make at this point to protect itself against this heavy load is to raise the hips. 

The head must be driven up, and back, to complete the deadlift. The body always follows the head. Head position and drive is one of the most critical aspects of deadlifting and squatting.

Barbell Rows

Tip #5 - Drive your hips forward when locking out

Ever seen someone hitch when trying to lockout a deadlift?

One of the major reasons this occurs has to do with the hips. When they are left back, and not driven forward during lockouts, the only way for a lifter to get the bar further up the legs is by slinking the knees down and forward. 

The bar is not actually moving up during a hitch like this. Instead, the lifter is subconsciously trying to get under the bar by lowering his body. Once the bar is higher up the thighs, the hitching deadlifter will then make another attempt to stand more upright.

Your hips are your source of power. To lockout the deadlift with efficiency and speed, you must concentrate on driving them forward while continuing to move your head up and back.

The head and the hips act as two opposing planes that must work in concert with each other to maximize a deadlift lockout. When a lifter is not focusing on hip drive, they are in essence trying to stiff leg deadlift the bar from a higher position. This only reduces their ability to finish the lift.

Stop trying to pull the bar up. Instead, try to explode your hips forward.