There is no better feeling in the gym, than picking some heavy weight off the floor and being able to display your strength. The deadlift is known as a compound exercise because it loads the body's posterior muscles (glutes, hamstrings, lats, spinal erectors).
The deadlift is an exercise I would recommend to include in everybody's training programme, no matter what their goals, after they have mastered bodyweight movements and built up a good base through GPP (general physical preparedness).
Before I let any of my clients deadlift, I want to ensure that they can safely perform bodyweight movements such as the squat and the Romanian deadlift, as it mimics the patterns that are going to be used during the lift. Why would you let someone perform a resistance exercise before they can even handle their own bodyweight safely and correctly?
Before too long, you can find your progress with the deadlift has hit a brick wall and you're no longer able to make the kind of progress you were initially making. Therefore, I have put together five tips to improve your deadlift and get your progress back on track.
1. Warm up
Every exercise carries a degree of injury risk with it and therefore before every workout, you should be performing a suitable warm up to prepare your body for what is to come. Performing a warm up before the deadlift should focus on improving restrictions in the ankles, hips and back. By improving movement in these areas, the athlete will be able to perform better quality repetitions.
A general template can be followed to ensure a good quality warm up:
• Soft-tissue massage • Mobility exercises • Muscle activation
So for example, you could foam roll the calves, hamstrings, quads, lower and upper back for self-myofasical release. Mobilise the ankles (band resisted plantar flexion), hips (hip flexor stretch), back (kneeling lat stretch) and shoulders (blackburns). Then finally, activating the muscle groups that will be used in the session with exercises such as kettle bell swings, band pullaparts, planks and light sled drags.
Kneeling lat stretch
Hip flexor Stretch
2. Strong grip
I have seen a lot of people over the years gripping the bar with a lack of fire and anger. If there is one thing I have learnt with exercises such as the deadlift, you have to abandon that nice person at the gym door and be ready to attack it with some aggression!
I think people can overlook something as simple as gripping the bar as tight as possible. But, the tighter you grip that bar, the more force you can produce on the bar! It can also help engage more muscle groups such as the forearms, triceps, shoulders and lats.
Another slight change that can build a better grip is persisting with the double over hand position on the bar, rather than having one hand over and one hand under the bar. The double over hand position will build a stronger grip, but whilst the over and under approach will help lift the heavier weights, it will not provide you with a long-term strong grip. Ditch the straps and the weightlifting gloves, chalk up and let your hands become acquainted with the bar!
Next time you approach the deadlift, make sure you strangle that bar into submission and rip it off the ground. Remember, control the iron, don't let the iron control you!
3. Work with lower percentages, don’t always lift close to your 1RM (1 rep max)
Back when I first started using the deadlift in my training programmes, I thought that the best way to improve and get stronger was to consistently use heavy loads for low reps, I am sure many people still train this way as well. However, for me personally, I found that months later I was still lifting the same amount of load for the same amount of repetitions.
When I changed to a new gym and started being coached, I finally began to understand that using sub-max percentages could help build a bigger 1RM. These days, it's very rare that I will train above 90% of my estimated 1RM. I will aim to get more repetitions and sets at the lighter weights which along with my accessory work helps increase my numbers.
So recently I have been using a new training programme that has three week cycles. Every three weeks, the number of repetitions decreases by two, with the weight percentages slightly increasing. The last session of every cycle will feature a set where I will aim to achieve as many reps as possible. So if your deadlift has hit a brick wall, don’t be afraid to drop the weight and achieve more repetitions at the lower weights and build from there.
Earn the right to use the big weights!
4. Train weak areas
There are two types of weak areas involved in the deadlift; weak muscle groups and weak sections of the lift.
As I have already mentioned, the deadlift has a big posterior muscle group engagement. Therefore, if one of those muscle groups isn't up to scratch, it's going to affect the amount of weight you can lift. So look at hitting some GHR (Glute hamstring raises), Romanian deadlifts, hip thrusts or rack pulls as options for strengthening your posterior chain.
If you have trouble keeping your abs tight throughout the lift, you can utilise core strengthening exercises such as rollouts, planks or band resisted crunches to improve your ability to brace the torso.
A weak upper back is going to affect you a lot in each of the three big lifts, so if you feel like you want to improve your back strength, try hitting sets of chin ups, any type of row, face pulls or pull ups to give yourself a back to be proud of.
The other type of weak area involved in the deadlift is the section of the lift which you feel you struggle with. This can be off the floor, just past the knees or at lockout. A client of mine has recently struggled with their ability to powerfully pull the bar off the ground. So along with their accessory work, we have utilised exercises such as band-resisted deadlifts, deficit deadlifts and box jumps to improve their speed and power. This has seen a much improved start of the pull section of the deadlift!
5. Engage the lats
The lats play a key role in the deadlift, but it can be hard for people to engage this muscle group and use them to their full potential. By using your lats, you keep the bar close to the midline of the body and pull up in a straight line, ensuring that none of your tension is lost from the bar falling forwards.
A lot of people will need to improve their lat strength through back exercises such as those mentioned in tip four. If like me you still struggle with engaging the lats, then I have found a great, simple way of engaging your lats and being able to “feel” them working during the lift.
All you need to do is loop the band around the bar and have a friend add some resistance to the band by pulling the band away from you, which forces you to keep the bar close to your body and engage the lats. You can increase the difficulty of this by having your partner provide more resistance on the band. I have used this recently in my warm up and it's been a great way of engaging my lats!
So there you have it, my five tips to help improve your deadlift. If anyone has any particular questions that they feel I haven't answered during this article, drop a comment below and I will get back to you ASAP.
But for now, get in the gym and attack that deadlift today!
Thanks for reading, Belief. Passion. Strength.
Jake Hartley (Barbell Hart)