Dave Tate, founder of EliteFTS and a legend in the powerlifting community, likes to say that any struggle in a barbell lift can be traced back to one of three weaknesses:
- Technical (your form needs to get better)
- Physical (the muscles that move the bar need to get stronger)
- Mental (that organ between your ears needs to toughen up)
The Deadlift requires a bold blend of technical mastery, strong muscles and mental fortitude. If any of these areas are lacking, you’ll struggle to move big weights.
If you’re a beginner, the solution is simple: Just keep practicing your Deadlifts. You still need to master the basic skills of the movement. But for intermediate or advanced lifters, more deadlifting isn’t always the answer. Different exercises that attack various aspects of the Deadlift can be just what you need to keep getting stronger.
Eventually, you can’t just deadlift to keep getting better at Deadlifts. Spend some time getting stronger at these four movements and you’ll see your Deadlift numbers keep climbing.
Aspects trained: Technical, Physical
Sets and Reps: 3-5 sets x 5-10 reps at 50-80 percent of Deadlift max
Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs) start from the lockout position. You lower the bar down to below the knees using far less knee-bend than a normal Deadlift, which loads up the hamstrings significantly. You then return to lockout without ever putting the bar on the floor.
The RDL engrains proper Deadlift technique because it’s a pure hip hinge. It teaches you to load the glutes and hamstrings without rounding your back or bending your knees too much. If you learn to create similar upper back tightness and hamstring tension during regular Deadlifts, you’ll be in business.
RDLs also strengthen all the relevant muscle groups even more effectively than Deadlifts because you never put the bar down until the set is over. Your upper back, hamstrings, glutes and forearms are under tension the whole time, which builds more muscle than putting the bar down between reps.
Barbell Bent-Over Rows
Aspects trained: Technical, Physical
Sets and Reps: 3-5 sets x 5-12 reps at 30-70 percent of Deadlift max
Barbell Bent-Over Rows are unmatched when it comes to building size and strength in the upper back muscles. The upper back—particularly the lats, rhomboids, rear deltoids and spinal erectors—is largely responsible for preventing your spine from rounding and keeping the bar close to the body while deadlifting. If you can do heavy Barbell Bent-Over Rows with pristine technique, chances are you will be a very good deadlifter.
The key words here are “pristine technique.” Many lifters will let their egos get in the way and do Rows with sloppy form and lots of momentum. For Barbell Bent-Over Rows to have maximum carryover to your DL, you need to maintain an RDL position and use your muscles, not momentum, to move the bar. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top of every rep, and lower the bar down slowly.
Aspects trained: Physical, Technical, Mental
Sets and Reps: 3-5 sets x 3-10 reps at 30-60 percent of Squat max
Have you ever heard someone say, “The Deadlift is just a Squat that starts on the floor”? Well, they’re wrong. Couldn’t be more wrong actually, and they’re probably not very strong. Squats and Deadlifts train similar muscle groups but in very different patterns. However, Front Squats have tremendous carryover to DLs for several reasons.
Front Squats are more strenuous on the upper back muscles than Back Squats. Sounds counterintuitive, right? I mean Back Squats have “back” in the name, and the barbell is right on your upper back. But because the bar sits anterior (i.e., in front of) the upper back muscles during Front Squats, those muscles have to work overtime to prevent the torso from falling forward. The same thing happens during the Deadlift; the upper back muscles have to work really hard to keep the spine from rounding. Learning to keep the torso tall during Front Squats will strengthen the muscles that prevent back rounding during the DL.
Next, Front Squats teach you to push down through the floor with your feet, leading to better recruitment of all your lower-body muscles. You’ve probably seen someone turn their Squats into Good Mornings (i.e., their hips shoot up and chest falls forward as they stand up), and that’s often because they focus too much on arching their back as they stand up, rather than pushing down into the floor. You simply can’t get away with this during Front Squats or you’ll drop the bar. Similarly, if you don’t focus on driving the feet into the floor while deadlifting, your hips will shoot up early, and your lower back will take over. So to increase your DL strength off the floor, imagine pushing the floor down rather than standing up, just like a Front Squat.
Lastly, Front Squats are terribly uncomfortable. It’s hard to breathe, and holding a heavy weight across your collarbones makes you feel like you’re getting crushed in a trash compactor. Front Squats teach you to get comfortable being uncomfortable, which builds mental fortitude. Deadlifts require a similar mindset and you must commit to lifting heavy weight off the floor if you want to succeed.
Aspects trained: Physical, Mental
Sets and Reps: 4-8 sets x 15-30 yards at 60-100 percent of Deadlift max
Ever watch The World’s Strongest Man Competition on TV? All the competitors are monstrously strong, but what’s a common physical trait? They all have humongous traps. Often called the “yoke,” big traps build up the upper back, neck and tops of the shoulders to create a look that demands respect. The two best movements to build big traps: Deadlifts (of course) and Farmer’s Walks.
Farmer’s Walks are one of the most popular strongman events, and involves picking up a heavy object in each hand and speed-walking a certain distance. Dedicated Farmer’s Walk handles work best, but you can just as easily use a Trap Bar, dumbbells or kettlebells. Just remember to use proper deadlift technique to lift the weights off the floor before you start walking.
Holding onto heavy objects for an extended period of time will add size and strength to your traps, back and forearms to help build the Deadlift. But the greatest benefit of all is the mental toughness you’ll gain by hanging on for dear life. Even when your traps are burning and your fingers are aching, you must hold on to the weights and keep moving. With an iron grip comes an iron will.
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