The deadlift is tough to beat in terms of getting the most bang for your buck from a single exercise. Quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, traps – the deadlift works all the big muscles and develops a strong grip as well. The deadlift is a great exercise, but it can also be one of the most frustrating, as progress often stalls. How about some solutions?
We’ll be looking at several solutions that are easy to implement. But first we need to know a bit about muscle contractions and how they relate to the deadlift. A strength curve is a mathematical model representing the amount of force a muscle can produce at specific joint angles. There are several types of strength curves, but the one the deadlift is associated with is an “ascending” strength curve. With an ascending strength curve, you can display more force as you extend the joints. Because you are stronger at the finish, this lends itself well to performing eccentric contractions.
During an eccentric contraction a muscle lengthens while producing tension, thus braking or controlling the speed of movement (whereas in a concentric contraction a muscle shortens while producing tension). Because fewer motor units of a muscle contract during an eccentric contraction, a muscle can generate the highest level of muscle tension (up to 1.3 times more tension than in a concentric contraction). Putting all this together, we’re ready for those plateau busters:
1. One way to emphasize eccentric contractions in the deadlift is to simply lower the weight slowly – very slowly – during the last rep of a set. For example, let’s say that after several warm-up sets, you want to perform 3 sets of 3 reps in the deadlift. Perform each rep by lifting the bar as fast as good technique allows; then on the third rep take 10 seconds to lower the bar.
During the last repetition of each set, you want to focus on lowering the weight at an even speed throughout the movement. This takes discipline. You are much stronger with the bar above the knees, so the temptation is to go very slow when starting to lower the weight but then move quickly when the bar goes below the knees. Resist the urge. Again, most people are stronger at the finish of a deadlift, so working harder above the knees will not give you the specific training effect you want.
2. A second way to increase deadlift performance is to increase lifting speed off the floor, making it easier to overcome the weaker leverage points of the lift. Over 30 years ago in Iron Man magazine Carl Miller presented the idea that maximum power was equal to one-half maximum speed and one-half maximum force. Likewise, studies on Olympic-style lifters found that because using maximal weights slows down the speed of the barbell, maximum power outputs are achieved with submaximal weights. In fact, you’ll find that the predominant training intensity in Russian workouts is about 75-85 percent of the 1-repetition maximum.
Miller proposed that because maximum power is equal to exactly one-half maximum force and one-half maximum speed, one way to increase power would be to perform sets using 50 percent of your 1-rep maximum, and of course lifting those weights with maximum speed.
This type of training is related to Dr. Fred Hatfield’s concept of compensatory acceleration, which he wrote about in the NSCA Journal (1982: 4(5): 28-29). With compensatory acceleration, the idea is that to work the more powerful muscle fibers and increase lifting speed, you should always try to move through the concentric contraction as quickly as possible. This is why you see elite Olympic weightlifters going for maximum speed with every rep.
From a practical perspective, this means that one way to lift heavier weights in the deadlift is to focus on moving as fast as good technique allows during the concentric contraction of every rep.
3. In addition to just thinking about moving faster, you can also increase lifting speed in the deadlift by overloading the end range of the movement by using lifting chains.
When you attach lifting chains to a barbell, the resistance increases as you lift the bar off the floor. Yes, this is a good method to help those who have a problem with the locking out portion of a deadlift, but chain training will also force you to pull harder throughout the entire exercise because the resistance increases. One possible explanation why this works is that because you know the resistance will increase as the bar leaves the platform, you instinctively try to move faster at the beginning of the lift to get through to the end.
4. A fourth method to improve deadlift results is contrast training. Contrast training is based upon a strength training principle called post-tetanic potentiation (PTP). PTP is the phenomenon by which your contraction strength potential is increased for five to 10 minutes after a heavy set because of greater neural activation. You could apply contrast training by alternating sets of maximal deadlifts with sets of submaximal deadlifts.
Let’s say you want to get in 4 sets of 5 reps in the deadlift, after warm-up. Rather than using the same weight each set, reduce the resistance 5-10 percent for your second and fourth sets. When you use the lighter weights, the bar will feel especially light and thus your lifting speed off the floor will improve.
The deadlift is an amazing exercise, and if you diligently apply these four training principles you will blast through training plateaus and come closer to reaching your genetic potential of strength, power and muscle mass.