So there I was... 8 weeks out from Nationals and strapped into 455--a weight I had just missed for the third time that week.
Seeing as this was 84% of my max (aka a weight I should crush with relative ease), frustration was mounting and I began panicking:
"Why isn't this weight moving the way it should? What am I doing wrong?"
Like all good athletes do, I turned to film and began analyzing my lifts--hunting and searching for where I was going wrong. Low and behold, I found a problem: my positioning was off. In particular, my thoracic and cervical spine weren’t stabile, and I wasn’t generating enough force through my posterior chain.
Being the perfectionist I am, I made the necessary adjustments and focused on hitting perfect reps for volume. Well six weeks later, in the middle of a harsh weight cut, I was smoking 545 for an easy single. All because I made a slight tweak in my form.
Moral of the story: lifting heavy weights is all about positioning.
Often times people miss lifts not because they weren’t producing enough force, but because they were producing said force in a sub-optimal position.
It's just basic physics: it's harder to hit a lift with bad form than good form because the levers get thrown off.
And the deadlift is an executer of these culprits because if you pull with bad levers consistently you will plateau or get injured.
It is a beautiful double edged sword though because through mastery of the deadlift there is some serious reward.
The key to really improving the deadlift is understanding why it's so different. Almost every other lift has a period of sensory feedback to the brain of the actual load of the exercise, and believe me when I say this feedback is incredibly important.
If the load is heavy, the brain will recruit more muscle fibers to fire during contraction than if it were lighter.
This is the double edged sword in the deadlift. Although it is amongst the most easily loadable levers the body can produce, it is missing this crucial recruitment period.
Everyone has experienced this: you go to pull a weight you should crush, you break the ground, it feels like your one rep max, and you grind out an ugly 80% lift for a single.
If you can capitalize on the positioning of the deadlift and produce force properly you can maximize your pull. Like this single at 555.
Now that you understand how I look at the deadlift, here are my 7 tips to improve yours:
Odds are, your feet are probably too far apart, your shoulders are way over the bar, and the barbell is not your center of gravity. For this tip, approach the bar with your feet at hip width and put your weight on your heels. Do a moderate load deadlift session in this position, then next week move your stance in a quarter inch more. Do this every week. If you move in too close you will notice a drop in speed, and when you find your wheelhouse, you will know.
*This is the only tip that does not apply to sumo deadlifts, the stance and positioning for sumo is different
There are two major points of tension that actively need to be applied in the deadlift: intra-abdominal and full spinal tension . To do this, push your entire core outwards like your going to explode. If you are wearing a belt push against it.
Your next cue is to find length: you have to reach with the crown of your head and push down through your pelvic floor. Imagine trying to be as tall as possible, this should really create tension.
Every barbell has some degree of slack to it, which is why you can hear the weights bang around when you smoke a rep.
To free yourself of terrible barbell whiplash and to add speed to your pull, use your hands and hamstrings to pull the slack out.
You should be squeezing the bar as hard as you can and, while keeping your arms locked out, pull the bar to your belly button like a low row. Then, similar to a hamstring curl, while keeping this tension in your hands, use your hamstrings to pull your butt down about an inch. This should create even more tension.
Glute Ham Raises
Do these. Glute-ham raises get their own category for improvement of the conventional deadlift. Although there is an argument for transfer due to it not being a hip extension based movement, that does not mean knee flexion is not a major force producer in creating positioning and potential energy off the floor, because it is. Vary these any way you want, just consistently accumulate about 40-60 reps per week.
When it comes to extremely heavy loads, accessory muscles matter for a multitude of reasons. The main one being positioning. You will be able to maintain better positioning with heavy loads if the synergistic stabilizing muscles are strong enough to handle them. The best bang for your buck moves will be:
supine band pull aparts
kettle bell swings.
Volume and Intensity
In your formula for gains, these variants will always play the biggest role. I have found this especially true with deadlifts. Volume with 73-83% loads should be the majority of your work with the rest laying in the 60’s and 90’s. I have found the most efficient deadlift increases come with 4-6 weeks of volume in that 73-83% range and 3-4 weeks in the 60/90% range. The amount of time spent in each depends on deadlift frequency AKA how often you pull.
Commit to Your Pull
If you aren’t mentally prepared to lift or confident when you approach the bar I promise 10/10 times its going to suck. Approach the bar with confidence, intent, and explosiveness every single time. Nothing will drain your energy and bar speed more than sitting there and waiting unsure of yourself.
about the author
Andrew Triana “The Leucine Frog” is a promising young coach who has an intense passion for his clients success and writing. It is evident in his work that he is relentless in his pursuit of excellence. At 20 years old Andrew has produced National champions, World champions, Pro strongmen, and has helped many others reach their goals. Follow him on Twitter (@AndrewTriana) and Instagram (@andtriana).